Flat Bar vs Drop Bar, What's The Difference?

Scratching your head about the difference between drop handlebar and flat handlebar bikes? Here's everything you need to know when choosing your next bike or considering a conversion.


Flat Bars or Drop Bars? Let's Start At The Start.

Here at Marin Bikes we might be best known as a mountain bike brand, but it’s no secret that we love bikes of all shapes and sizes, with plenty of options for drop handlebars and flat handlebars to choose from.

The Marin Bikes drop-bar bike family now covers six different model ranges, for everything from rugged city commutes to heading over the horizon with your life packed into your panniers. We also offer a range of Marin bikes with flat handlebars, including some that are very much designed to do the same types of riding as a drop-bar bike.

You might be wondering why we do this, and whether we just build up the same frame with different components, depending on whether we want to end up with a drop bar or flat bar bike.

First, let’s start with the basics of the difference between drop handlebars and flat handlebars and then discuss which is better.

Marin Bikes Headlands

Drop Bars (The Curly Ones)

‘Drop’ handlebars have that classic ‘road bike’ look. They’re generally narrower than flat bars, they’re curly and they let you place your hands on the drops (the curly bit), the hoods (on top of the brakes) or the tops (the top bit, natch!).

Drop handlebars bring your head lower down towards your stem, lowering your centre of gravity and making you more aerodynamic.

They demand a little more flexibility than a flat bar but are fast, look sporty and you may like the comfort of being able to move your hands around.

Flat Bars (The Not Curly Ones)

‘Flat’ handlebars have that classic ‘mountain bike’ look. They’re wider and straighter than drop-bars and you place your hands on the grips at either end. Obvious, right?

Flat handlebars offer a more upright position on your bike, lifting your head up and straightening out your back.

They don’t need as much flexibility to use, they can help keep your eyes ‘up’ making it easier to see what’s coming up and they can make riding with a backpack easier.
Julliet Elliot Marin DSX Flat Bar

So Which Is Better, Drop-Bar or Flat-Bar?

So should you choose a flat handlebar bike or a drop handlebar bike?

It’s rarely as simple as ‘drops for the road, flats for the trails’. In fact, much of the appeal of the modern, drop bar bike is how different they look and feel to a flat bar bike - providing a unique experience to what many riders have grown up with.

Our advice would be to try both at your local Marin dealer and feel for yourself which you prefer.

A random and very scientific test sample of Marin stuff (the folks that were in the office on the day we wrote this!) confirmed that most people prefer drop-bars for riding longer distances but prefer flat bars for off-road, around town, commuting or more relaxed rides.

Marin Bikes DSX Flat Bar Gravel Bike

Can I Convert Drop To Flat Handlebars?

You might be asking ‘can I convert my drop-bar handlebars to flat bars?’ or 'how do I fit a drop handlebar to my flat-bar bike?'.

We’re not here to tell you that you can’t but it’s a slightly trickier procedure than it seems.

First of all, flat bar and drop bar bikes have very different controls. On flat bar bikes, your gear shifters and brake levers are separate units, although they might share a mount to take up less space. On a drop-bar bike, gear shifters and brakes are usually integrated into one unit (some people even call them “brifters”).

The design of drop-bar brakes and shifters is completely different to the gears and brakes on a flat bar bike, as they’re designed to be mounted more or less vertically. So if you want to swap you’ll need to budget for more than just a new set of bars. You’ll need flat bar-compatible brakes and shifters if you’re going to flat bars. If you’re swapping to drops, you’ll need drop-bar compatible brakes and shifters - either an integrated unit or separate brakes and one or more bar-end shifters.

That’s not all though. Your bike’s brake calipers and derailleurs may be designed to work with one particular type of handlebar control, but not another. On cable-operated brakes and gears, road and mountain bike systems are often designed around different leverage ratios and cable pull. If you mix and match one to another, you’ll have problems. Different disk brake levers and calipers may not work with each other, or even use the same type of hydraulic fluid.

Assuming you’ve got your hands on a compatible set of controls, you’ll also need to factor in the cost of new cables, and new grips or handlebar tape. It can add up to quite an expensive exercise.

Marin Headlands Drop Bar

Converting Drop Bar to Flat Bar

If you’re going to fit a drop-bar to your flat bar bike, you’ll need:
  • Flat handlebars.
  • Flat bar-specific shifters.
  • Flat bar-specific brake levers.
  • Grips.
  • Brake cables, or hydraulic brake hose fitting kit.
  • Brake outer cables.
  • Gear inner cables.
  • Possibly new shifters or brake calipers.

Converting Flat Bar to Drop Bar

If you’re going to convert your flat bar bike to drop bar, you’ll need
  • Drop handlebars.
  • Drop bar-specific brakes and shifters.
  • Bar tape.
  • Brake inner and outer cables, or hydraulic brake hose, plus fitting kit.
  • Gear inner and outer cables.
  • Possibly new shifters or brake calipers.
Marin Bikes DSX Brown Dropbar 2

But That's Not All...

There’s another reason to be wary of swapping bars: drop handlebar and flat handlebar frames are often constructed with very different geometry. In general, drop-bar frames are shorter, because the handlebars effectively add length to the bike.

To pick an example from Marin’s gravel bike range, a medium Marin DSX with flat handlebars has a 425mm reach, while a 54cm Marin Headlands with drop handlebars has a 373mm reach - that means the drop bar frame is almost two inches shorter. The DSX also has a slacker head angle compared to the Headlands, which helps with ride stability. Even though the two frames look similar, the geometry differences are big enough to be noticeable.

In short - no pun intended - if you put flat bars on a drop bar frame with modern geometry, it’s very likely to end up feeling unstable and twitchy. If you fit drop bars to your flat bar bike, it’ll probably feel long and unwieldy - unless it was too small in the first place.

Marin Bikes Pine Mountain Flat Bar Gravel Bike

So What's The Alternative?

If you’re not getting on with your bike, there are other things you can do before taking a drastic step like swapping your handlebars.

On a drop-bar bike, you can flip your stem so it’s angled upwards, or add spacers underneath it. This will raise the bars a little, which will give a more relaxed riding position and put less pressure on your hands. You could also fit a shorter stem - even 5mm or so will make a noticeable difference. Swapping to some flared bars (if your bike doesn’t come with them) can also help increase your riding comfort and control, particularly if you’re venturing off-road.

If you’re not feeling the love for your flat bars, a set of stubby bar-ends can give you an extra hand position for longer rides. There are also flat bars out there that sweep back to put your hands in a more relaxed position. Fitting larger volume tires, or just dropping their pressure slightly, can also help with comfort issues.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether you want a drop-bar or a flat bar bike, most models in the Marin range have a drop bar or flat bar equivalent.

Looking for a dependable workhorse with classic steel looks? The Marin Nicasio or the Marin Muirwoods will tick those boxes, and they’re even available with fat 650B tires for a really cushy ride.

Fancy tackling the same sort of trails you’d ride on your mountain bike? The Marin Gestalt X or the Marin DSX have you covered. The Marin DSX FS adds front suspension while the Gestalt X11 has a dropper post for extra descending confidence.

Want to get around town quickly and efficiently? The Marin Presidio range of flat bar urban bikes have reliable disk brakes and maintenance-free-belt drives, while the Marin Lombard drop bar commuter has a light alloy frame, plenty of room for big tires, and a reflective paint job to keep you safe and seen.

Take Me To Your Dealer

If you’re still not sure, you can ask for advice in person at your local Marin dealer.

We’re all about finding the perfect bike for you, and that applies equally whether you’re a devotee of the drops or a fanatic of the flats!

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