2 Wheel Fetish

Drop Bar MTBs: Reflections on Design and Flexibility

Tomac racing an MTB with drops

Above: John Tomac in about 1990, on his drop bar Raleigh MTB proving that you can go fast cross country with drop bars.

I've been riding drop bars on mountain bikes now for over twenty years, and now find it hard to ride anything but. This is partly because of my kind of riding and the kind of terrain I ride, just as these dictate my choice of no suspension except, well, myself.  If you are more interested in stealth riding or finesse riding--both of which tend to emphasise the rider skills over the bike's ability to take big hits--drops might make sense for you. But if your definition of offroad or dirt riding valorizes big hits and high speed technical descents, they're a bad choice.

I remember distinctly two different bikes that introduced me to the idea of drops on MTBs. First, in the mid 1980s, I saw an old Scot Nicol Ibis on top of the quintessential hippy air cooled VW camper van in Santa Fe. It featured WTB dirt drops attached to an Ibis LD stem, a Specialites TA wide range double, and bar end shifters, and it was indescribably cool. Second was more up close and personal: in the late 1980s, while touring from Anacortes, WA to SF, I ran across Jacquie Phelan on a road ride. She kindly showed  the way to the Golden Gate Bridge from more rural, inland Marin county and was riding a Cunningham with WTB drops and skinny road tires. She was friendly and helpful and looked so very natural on her mountain bike, even though we were on pavement.

In addition to these were a few others: Grant Petersen's Bridgestone MB-1 of 1987 (of which there's a review by John Kukoda from the old Bicycle Guide at the end of this article) plus various Nor Cal small builders. In fact, there was a mini-vogue a little later than the drop bar MB-1: Specialized came out with a bike called the Rock Combo in 1989 that had a steeper head tube angle and more bottom bracket drop which featured 26" MTB wheels as well as the bend-prone flared Specialized BB-1 drop bar, and Novara, the REI house brand, also put out a 559mm wheeled all rounder bike, maybe called the XR; and then starting in 1992 Bridgestone had the XO-1 with the Moustache bar, and with the XO-2, both of which split the difference between a road and MTB; the 1993 XO-2 featured the flared Nitto dirt drop handlebar and bar end shifters. But behind all of these lie Charlie Cunningham, who apparently mounted drops on one of his aluminum framesets as early as 1979. Maybe there's someone somewhere who rode a 559 wheeled drop bar bike earlier; but Cunningham is the earliest documented user that I've heard of. From Cunningham we can draw a direct line to WTB (Wilderness Trail Bikes), who made the classic WTB--Specialized Dirt Drop bar, to Scot Nicol of Ibis who made the LD (which stands for "limp dick" because of the shape) stem, and of course to Charlie Cunningham's wife, Jacquie Phelan, who understandably rode her partner's bicycles. But this essay is not an exhaustive history of drop bars on 559 wheeled bikes; I hope to write that another time.

To refer back to my encounter with Jacquie Phelan, her choice of ride in Marin that day showed one huge advantage of using drop bars on your MTB: with a simple wheel change, your bike changes its character from offroad capable mount to smooth pavement steed. Long ago when I owned only one bike, (a first generation Merlin MTB from Massachusetts with WTB dirt drops and WTB thumbshifter adapters), I had three wheelsets, featuring identical rims and hubs, but different tires and cassettes. For fast road riding, a 26x1 inch tired set with a 12x21 cassette; for commuting, a 26x1.25 inch set with a 13x23 cassette, and a knobby set with a 12x28. I ran 24 38 50 chainrings (nearly the same as Grant Petersen put on the 1987 MB-1), and found that for everything from fast road rides with road bike equipped friends to moderately technical single track, the bike's drops were not a real obstacle to either speed or fun. You could even shift all this with the short caged version of the Deore XT rear derailleur. With these three wheelsets, I proved to my satisfaction that a drop bar equipped MTB gives you a lot more options than one with straight bars, and was to my judgment superior. Of course I then drank the Kool Aid and ended up with a plethora of bikes in a variety of wheel sizes; but just as middle aged folks fondly look back on when, just after college, they could move using only their subcompact car, so I look back with nostalgia on when, two wheelsets stashed in an apartment closet, I could do anything I wanted with a single bicycle frame, all because the superiority of drop bars on MTBs.

That last claim deserves clarification. In many miles of offroad riding, I've found that for all but steep dropoffs and technical single track I prefer drop bars. Why? Because the weight distribution between the front and rear wheels makes the front tire track better on fast downhills and in corners. Also, I think that drops put your body in a better position to make use of all your muscles in the pedaling effort, since there's more weight on the front of the bike. Drop bars put the body's center of gravity in a more central place compared to almost all straight bars; and this makes the pedaling effort feel more efficient, whether offroad or on road compared to straight bars. Combine these advantages with the multiple hand positions that drops offer beyond any other bar type, and I'm even more convinced: drop bar mountain bikes represent a kind of design perfection.

Perfection of what kind, though? There are disadvantages to drop bars offroad, as I've indicated above. The greater weight on the bars makes it harder to unweigh the front wheel when necessary. Related to this drawback but more specific, when bunny hopping a mtb with drops, I get fewer inches of lift, which sometimes makes the difference between bending a rear rim and clearing an obstacle, as I've found the hard way. But these drawbacks are related to a general truth about design: all design (and I mean design in a technical, and not in a fashion sense) is based upon a series of trade-offs. Contrary to the lies Cosmopolitan magazine has been telling women since the 1970s (and that Men's Health has been telling men since at least the 1990s), you cannot have it all, anywhere. The more a design--whether a bicycle, a car, or a building--can do one thing really, really well, to the same degree it fulfills other needs really badly. Hence today's hyperspecialized mountain bikes: can you imagine taking one onto the opposite terrain it was intended for? For example, think of riding a dual suspension freeride or all mountain bike on a road century with only a tire change: in any scenario is this a recipe for aught but pain? In contrast, I've ridden a drop bar "classic geometry" mountain bike on a fastish century at high altitude, with absolutely no sense that I was riding significantly slower than I would have been on a road bike with equal width tires. But there is no such thing as a bike that can do all things wonderfully; instead, there are bikes that are more flexible and others less flexible; and the perfection I mentioned above is in terms of overall flexibility.

To develop an illustrative metaphor, consider kitchen gadgets. You can buy little slicing holders for bagels that allow you to halve your sesame seed spotted breakfast treat while not worrying about your hands; or you can use almost any paring knife and a little care and accomplish the same goal. But imagine you had to take your bagel slicer of whatever sort and use it while camping: the bagel slicer is utterly useless, while the knife shows its superiority in terms of flexible design. The same applies with bike designs.

The fun of deciding how to build up a multipurpose and flexible bike lies in accepting the intrinsic limitation of all design while also pushing the specific limits. And this is why I love drop bars on mountain bikes: they are the most flexible design of any bike I can think of (though I've yet to ride either a Rivendell Atlantis or a 650 B bike like a Rawland 650B all rounder). With that parenthetical qualification in mind, let me be more accurate: a 559 or 26 inch MTB set up with drop bars gives you the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to flexible bikes capable of multi terrain riding. Steel "classic geometry" mountain bikes and frames are available for cheap; they haven't been considered sexy for a decade or more except among a small subset of riders. But if you can find the right frame size that does not have too long a top tube, you can build yourself up a bargain all terrain bike for a low, low price.

As I've gotten older, the bars have gotten higher on my drop bar mtbs. Not Grant Petersen high, mind you; just higher. And I still, in my juvenile way, delight in overtaking riders on dual suspension bikes on long climbs, cheerily saying "hi" as I go by and look at the surprised faces. Sometimes less is more, especially on fire roads with long climbs.

___________Photo Gallery of drop bar mountain bikes below. Please send yours in for inclusion! __________

Below is my most recent example, with a frame that's actually received some customization before its powder coating. I've written up a more complete account of this particular build here. It  began life as a very late 1980s or very early 1990s Diamond Back Apex, an upper-mid level mountain bike.

Diamond Back Apex drop bar allrounder

Below is a version of the classic mountain bike without any frame customization: a Trek 930 lugged steel from about 1993 or a little later. Lugged steel, 1 1/8 inch threaded steerer tube; US made of True Temper steel; nice and lightweight. With dual purpose Continental Top Touring inverted tread tires and a Bruce Gordon rear rack. An unfortunate design feature of this bike lies in the self-consciously beefy fork legs, which I can only guess were made to cosmetically duplicate the dimensions of suspension forks. They're ugly; they also make installing racks more difficult because of the discrepancy between the plane of the fork blade and that of he dropout.

Blue Trek circa 1993

And below, my first drop bar mountain bike, a Massachusetts made 1990 Merlin mountain bike of which I am the original and only owner. This one's sporting roadish tires and hand stitched oiled leather brake hoods with Spenco insole padding under the leather. It's a joy onroad and off. If only it didn't have that proprietary press in bottom bracket! Misleading Schwinn decals on the down tube; over it's life (I took of the Merlin decals soon after buying it as it was a commuter as well as an offroad bike during graduate school) it's also been--according to decals-- an Alan, a WTB, and it's also been "Made in China" and made of Ritchey Logic tubing. In fact it's even been a Chiquita banana at times, at least if you read the stickers!

1990 Merlin drop bar MTB

Below: a Japanese made Bianchi Incline in celeste green with Nitto Dirt Drop bars and stem. The frame, 21.5 inch, just sold to a Bikerowave volunteer. This frame has slightly quicker geometry than many mid to late 1980s MTB framesets.

Bianchi Incline

John Kukoda's Bicycle Guide review of the 1987 Bridgestone MB-1, the best known production bike to feature drops. Page 1  2  4
Note: JPEGs open in a new window.  If anyone has a 57cm Bridgestone MB-1 frameset you want to get rid of, please let me know. It would be good company for my RB-1.

Photographs from the history of drop bar mountain bikes here.

To come:  Specific advice on setup for drop bar mountain bikes, lifted from John Kukoda, Charlie Cunningham, and myself.

Plus: how to get the same advantage of a drop bar mtb without actually installing drops: photos and instructons to follow.