On drop bars, baskets, and randonneur bags

The Bantam at Tanner Springs Park, 31 Dec 2021. Minolta SR-T 101/MC Rokkor PG 50mm f/1.4/ Fuji Superia 400.

There was a recent blog post over on Velo Orange, titled “Drop Your Drop Bars.” In it, VO head-honcho Igor extols the virtues of changing your handlebars.

Changing from drop bars to flat or upright bars changes your riding position, the bike’s handling, and the fun factor to turn a stagnant bike into a brand new one – all without spending a ton of dough. 

It’s interesting that a company like Velo Orange has gone so into upright/flat bars. Ten or so years ago, when they were the down-market Frenchified bike company, they were all about drop bars for roadish bikes, only offering up upright bars for “city” bikes. It’s the same way with Rivendell. Many of their newer bikes are designed around upright bars, even if they are “road” or “touring” bikes. Mustache bars, the “weird” handlebar that got denigrated in reviews when Grant Petersen introduced it thirty years ago on the XO-1 and 2 (while still at Bridgestone), are now downplayed.

And I get why these two companies are pushing upright bars more and more–more and more people are using them. A lot of my fellow bike riding nerds that I see at Coffee Outside and the like have upright bars. Drops are less and less common. The rigid bike handlebar compartmentalizations that defined things ten years ago–drops for road/touring, flats for MTB, uprights for city/cruisers–have been blurred.

Every time I read something like this VO blog post, I think about my only drop-bar bike, my Bantam, and my relationship with drop bar bikes. I’ve only owned six bars with drop bars. My first was around 1985 or so, when I graduated from a junky no-name BMX to a Huffy with 24 inch wheels and ten speeds! Then around 1988 I got an “adult” no-name ten speed with most likely 27″ wheels. 1 I’m pretty sure that I mostly used the tops and the suicide levers, never actually getting into the drops. I didn’t get drop bars again until 2007, when I had them installed on my Centurion Accordo. I don’t even know what type of drops, I just told the shop “put drops on”. It was weird at first, but I got used to them. The “whatever” bars transferred to the Long Haul Trucker when it was built up in spring of 2008 and carried me across the continent during the Big Tour in 2011.

I didn’t get “nerdy” about drops until after the tour. In a 2012 “rebuild” of the LHT, I ordered some Nitto Noodles, which seemed to be the “go-to” drop amongst a lot of people. The order got messed up by someone, and I ended up with a pair of Nitto Randonneur bars instead. I gave it a go, and actually liked them, so they stayed on the bike for the rest of the time I had it. There was a two-year gap of no drops, though I had the XO-3 with mustache bars, so does that count? When I got the Bantam, I wanted it to be the “rough and ready” bike, so I went with dirt drops, bars with a lot of flare in the drops. The Origin 8 bars I first had were OK, but a couple years later I got Nitto Dirt Drops and they were a lot better. 2

But even now, I’m still not truly in love with drop bars. The idea of converting the Bantam to upright bars crosses my mind from time to time. Would I like it? Would it be a good idea? The Bantam’s geometry was designed for drops, and since it’s a custom bike, that means I made that decision. Wouldn’t it just be better to find another “sporty” bike and add upright bars?

This is when I look back to my Raleigh Crested Butte with wistful eyes. It was a great bike, a good looking steed that had a great frame and components. But after almost nine years of fooling around and trying all sorts of configurations, it was never going to fit me right. I don’t want to get another bike right now. And aren’t all of my other bikes upright bar bikes?

So back to the Bantam. While that tempting VO article postulates switching bars for a different feeling bike is cheaper than getting a new bike, it still isn’t cheap. There’s the bars themselves, and that can cost up to $100 or more. Switching from drops to upright will usually mean new brake levers at the very least, and most likely you’ll have to get different shifters and new cables. (Oh yeah, and grips, too.) And there’s labor–if you’re going to have a shop do it, expect an hour or two on that. I could do it myself, but as I’ve mentioned here a bunch, I’m sick of working on bikes and switching up things. I was happy to do that up to five years or so ago, now I’d rather just go ride and take photos.

Changing the bars on the Bantam isn’t going to happen any time soon, if it does. In the meantime, I should freshen things up. I’m in the need of new bar tape. Bar tape is my least favorite part of drop bars, and one big reason to drive me to uprights with easy(ish) to install grips. I’ve been doing the whole cork-or-cloth tape with twine and shellac that Riv/Grant got me on about twelve years ago. The days of enjoying that process are long gone, but my tape is starting to unravel. I’m thinking of switching to leather tape. It’s more expensive, but leather tape will last a lot longer and won’t require shellac or other nonsense. And it’ll look classy! Over the past few years most of the bikes I own now have leather grips, so it’ll just match.

And I’ve been thinking about going back to a front basket on the Bantam. I’ve gone off-and-on on that over the years. Lately I’ve used the North Street randonneur bag that I had custom built by Curtis in 2012. I used to really like this bag, as it was the culmination of everything I wanted in a handlebar bag. But the bike nerd me of now is not the same bike nerd me of ten years ago. This bag was built with the idea that I’d get into randonneuring, the long-distance riding sport that many of my friends were into at the time. But the local randonneuring community was not that welcoming, especially when those friends stopped participating. Deep down, I’m still into the idea of randonneuring, and hope to do something again someday, well, after I get my long-distance stamina up again. So a bag built around the idea of something I don’t do isn’t a priority anymore, even though it’s proven itself for touring.

And that North St. bag is getting long in the tooth. The stiffeners are coming unstiff, there’s a few rips and tears, and the waterproofing is not what it used to be–a ride this summer in good rain is where I learned that the hard way. I could send it back to Curtis for a rebuild, as he’s done a couple rebuilds over the years. But things like making it waterproof again may call for new fabric, and that can get expensive. It might be cheaper to build a new bag, or get something different. I’m hoping for a good basket bag with a roll-top to it to replace it. It’d be better for commuting/around-town and still useful for touring. And since I have another bike with a front basket (the Heavy Duti), it’ll be more useful than a bag that can only work on one bike.

The beauty of bicycles is there’s seemingly infinite ways of configuring and changing them. But the days of me being excited about that process are long gone. Let me do a few things to the Bantam to make it work better, and see how I feel.

Like my stuff? Go to my Ko-fi page to buy me a coffee!

1 This bike also came with a bottle dynamo, my introduction to dynamo lighting, and my only bike with lights at all until 2000.

2 If you are keeping count, the sixth drop bar bike I had was the Robin Hood with Lauterwasser bars.

4 thoughts on “On drop bars, baskets, and randonneur bags

Add yours

  1. This is funny coincidence. I have never had the bike with the drop bars (except the Moulton AM7 I have got recently) and at the moment I am considering to convert one to drop bars…

  2. I’m just getting into audax riding and quite like the idea of a rando bag to save getting off the bike too rummage in my saddle bag, but there’s not much in the way of options this side of the pond. Gilles Berthoud is the most likely suspect. There’s a guy on Instagram that makes beautiful ones (cbrenn I think is his handle).

    Those dirt drops look great on the bantam, do you predominantly ride in the drops? Can you ride on the hoods with that downward angle?

I love to hear from you! Please note that all comments are manually moderated. I usually approve comments within 48 hours.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: