This article is aimed at people who are having pain in their hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, and upper back due to having too much weight on their hands. This may be the result of having a top tube that's a bit longer than it should be, or you may suffer from medical conditions like back problems or RSI that are exacerbated by being stretched too far forward or having too much weight on the hands. Or you may simply want a riding position that puts you more upright and puts less pressure on your hands and arms.
Your first place to look should be your saddle. It should be very close to level. If it's pointed down at the nose, you'll be supporting the weight of your torso on your hands. Also, check the fore-aft position of your saddle. Don't assume that pushing the saddle forward will put necessarily put less pressure on your hands by shortening the distance to the handlebar. It may very well leave you unbalanced. See Peter White's article on bike fit for an explanation of this.
If your saddle is already set up all right, then you'll need your handlebars much higher and much closer. Perhaps the best route is to buy a new bike with a shorter top tube or with a higher front end (given by a longer head tube or longer forks on a MTB). However, if you're short on money this may not be an option, and if the change you need isn't drastic, it's probably not even the best solution. The article is basically in two parts, how to bodge your mountain bike, and how to bodge your road bike.
Most mid to high-end mountain bikes come with stems that are long and low. Even the riser bars that come with many mountain bikes don't lift the hand position up all that much. If you don't have a riser bar and like the idea of them, you could get one and see if it helps. Watch the width of them though. Some riser bars are very wide, and the width of the handlebar should relate to the width of the shoulders. If you're a woman or small man, the wider bars may leave you feeling that your hands are spread much too far apart. I have used 24" riser bars and like them, but wouldn't want to go wider. One product that can be very useful here is the Juliana riser bar. It's a 23" bar with a fair bit of rise. For a full review see GoFar magazine.
If you don't have a threadless headset (like an Aheadset) you can raise your stem a bit, but since the quills (the part that goes into the head tube) are usually pretty short, you can't raise them by much. If you have a threadless headset there are sometimes spacers that you can rearrange to bring the bars up. This is not likely to have much of an effect, though, as most bikes come with the stem above the spacers anyway. Thus the best option is to buy a new stem. Luckily you can get stems that have quite a bit of rise in them. If you need your bars lifted up a moderate amount, look for a stem with a rise of 20° to 25°. If you need your bars lifted up higher, try a 40° stem.
Most better bikes are now sold with threadless headsets. Thus if you have a threaded (traditional) headset you may find it more difficult to find such stems. However some companies still make them. I've bought a Profile Boa quill stem from a mail order shop, and a KF one from the local shop in the past few months.
Note that stem angle (S) is measured with respect to a right angle to the steerer tube, as in the above diagram, left picture. When the stem is installed in the bike, it will be oriented like the stem on the right. The stem will be angled up by another D degrees, where D = 90 - H (H is the head angle). Your total angle will be A, which is S + D. For the stem in the picture, H = 71°, D = 19°, S = 20°, so A = 39°.
The larger the angle of your stem, the more the length of the stem contributes to the height of the handlebars rather than the distance of the handlebar from the saddle. You can compute this exactly. Compute the angle of your stem when it's installed, call it A. This angle is the given stem angle plus (90° minus head angle). Then your amount of rise is length * sin(A) and the forward distance it gives is length * cos(A). For example, if you have a 20° 100mm stem on a bike with a 71° head tube, A is 39°. The rise is then 63mm and the forward distance is 78mm. With a 40° 100mm stem on a bike with a 71° head tube, A is 59°. The rise is then 86mm and the forward distance is 52mm.
By road bike I mean any bike with dropped bars, from racing bikes to touring bikes. You have several options to get the weight off your hands.
Swapping to MTB bars. Your first decision you have to make is, do you want to keep dropped bars on your bike? If you don't use the drop parts of the bars, swapping over to MTB bars is an option. This offers an improvement since the position in which your hands are next to the brakes and shifters is close to you, near the stem, while with dropped bars you have to be out on the brake lever hoods (far away) or down on the drops to get at the brakes (and shifters if you have integrated shifters). The picture on the right shows my old touring bike made ridable by putting on an MTB stem and bars.
It used to be the case that this could only sensibly be done with bikes that had MTB-style brakes, like cantilevers and V-brakes, because until recently there were no brake levers that worked with road-style (dual pivot) brakes. Also, there were problems with the shifters, because road front derailleurs needed a slightly different amount of cable pull than MTB front derailleurs. But this is a problem no more, as Shimano has come out with shifters and brake levers for straight bars that are compatible with road brakes and derailleurs. These components are in the Tiagra and Sora ranges.
If you want to make this move, see the discussion above about MTB stems to help you pick the right stem. You'll most likely need a quill stem for a 1" headset to make this move. The one I have is a Profile 105mm 40° stem. Then you only need to find shifters and brake levers. Brake levers won't be hard, as levers for both cantilever and V-brakes are easy to find, although there's now more choice in V-brake levers. For shifters it shouldn't be too bad a problem if you have Shimano components and a 7, 8, or 9-speed rear block. Seven speed Shimano shifters are a bit difficult to find, but if you phone up enough shops you should be able to dig up some nice Deore thumbshifters. SRAM make Shimano-compatible Centera and Neos twist-shifters in 7-speed versions, and the Centera is available in 5 and 6 speed versions as well!
Turning your drop bars upside down. If you don't use the drops, you can cut them off and turn the handlebars upside down. Then you install the brakes so the levers line up with the forward pointing arms. This will reduce the reach to get to the part of the bars you can brake from. Note that if you have aero brake levers, installing the brakes in the obvious place (with the clamps near the end of the bars with the levers pointing back to you) leaves the cable for the brakes coming out the of the levers in the direction of the ends of the bars, not the direction of the stem. With care, you can bend them back so they head towards the stem. I have seen this done, although I haven't done it myself. You can also get brake levers that are intended to go into the ends of aero bars like the Profile Air Wing, and these would do the trick if nothing else works.
Sticking with normal drops. OK, you've decided that you like the general idea of drop bars, but just want them higher and closer. Let's first look at stems. There's one stem that will make a big change, and quickly. It's the Nitto Technomic stem, shown on the left on my touring bike. I haven't found any source of them in the UK, but Lickton's and Harris Cyclery in the States sell them. Personally, I found them just too tall for me: the head tubes on my bikes are so short that even when I'd inserted the stem as far as I could, there was still a huge mast sticking out of my headset. I also felt that they look awkward, with a very long tall quill, and just a little bit going forward. I think I'm enough of a mountain biker to find a forward sloping stem more attractive.
Thus I again recommend MTB stems such as the Profile Boa. Make sure you get one meant for a 1" diameter headset. The only potential problem here is that road bars come in a variety of different diameters. Older ones were usually 25.4mm, the same as MTB bars, but newer ones are usually between 26.0mm and 26.4mm. Happily, Cinelli, the makers of the 26.4mm diameter bars, have now decided to adopt the 26.0mm size, so there's less of a variation than there used to be. If you buy a front loading stem, like the Profile Boa or KF ones that I have, the handlebar clamps will deform slightly, enough to hold 26.0mm bars securely. See above, in the MTB section, for a discussion of stem angles and lengths.
If you have a threadless headset on your road bike, one option is to install a threadless stem upside down. This still won't give you much of a rise, so one possibility is to get a MTB threadless stem and a shim to allow you to fit the MTB stem to the road steerer.
Now for the handlebar itself. One of my main problems with drop bars is that although the position on the flat part of the bars near the stem is pretty comfy, it's a long reach to the hoods where I do my braking. However, not all handlebars are created equal. The 3T Morphe handlebar has a shorter forward pointing section than most other handlebars I've seen. In fact I've only seen one other bar (an old racers bar found in the back room of my local bike shop) that had as short a reach.
The 3T Morphe handlebar back to back with the Cinelli Touch (which are fairly typical of modern anatomic handlebars). The bars in the photo are aligned at the stem area, and the part where the bars are together is vertical. The Morphe (on the left) is lower at the bottom center of the picture because it curves back toward the saddle slightly before turning forward. You can see that the Morphe offers a shorter reach to the brake levers than the Touch, and the drops aren't as low. Also, the drops are more close to being parallel with the tops of the bars than on the Touch, meaning that if you set the tops of the bars parallel to the ground, the ends of the Morphe bars will be angled down less than on the Touch. All of these features make the Morphe a better choice for putting less weight on your hands.