Photos by John Watson | The Radavist
You leave your house and navigate busy city streets to the edge of town. Then, you leave the pavement behind to climb 2,000 feet of glorious champagne gravel. At the summit, you duck off into the woods to descend a secret singletrack back to town. When you get home, you have a huge smile on your face and not a hint of soreness in your hands or back. What are you riding?
For some, the right answer is a drop-bar gravel bike. For others, it’s a hardtail mountain bike. But what if you could have the best of both worlds? Here’s a crazy idea: Put flat bars on a gravel bike. Oh, not that crazy? I guess if we go back to the tired old adage that gravel bikes are rehashed ‘90s mountain bikes, then yeah, putting flat bars on a gravel bike isn’t wild or innovative. But we talk to lots of riders who stress about choosing between a gravel bike and a hardtail MTB. If that sounds like you, then maybe a flat-bar gravel bike conversion is the right move for you.
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The pros and cons of a flat-bar gravel bike
Cyclists have been riding unpaved roads for as long as bicycles have existed. But as its own genre, gravel is fairly new. That means the “rules” that define gravel bikes aren’t well established. This has given riders and bike designers a lot of freedom to set up bikes to suit different terrain and riding styles. A gravel bike already splits the difference between road and mountain bikes, but replacing traditional drop handlebars with flat handlebars will nudge a gravel bike a bit closer to the mountain bike side of the spectrum.
Flat-bar gravel bike advantages:
- More control
- More confidence
- More comfort
- Cool and unique
There’s a good reason mountain bikes come with flat (or riser) handlebars. A wide and flat handlebar maximizes your leverage over the front wheel. When riding technical or rough off-road terrain, this improves your control and confidence. On gnarly gravel or singletrack, flat bars can help you ride faster, stay safer, and explore farther. For some riders, flat handlebars are simply more comfortable than drop handlebars. It might feel more natural to sit more upright and hold your bars in an overhand position, especially if you have lower back issues, hand pain, or numbness. Finally, flat-bar gravel bikes are just different, and sometimes different is cool. Not everyone wants their gravel bike to conform.
Flat-bar gravel bike disadvantages:
- Fewer hand positions
- Less aerodynamic
- Conversions can be tricky
With traditional drop handlebars, you have the standard hand position on the shifter/brake hoods, as well as a more upright position on the bar tops, and a lower position in the drops. This is beneficial on long rides and varied terrain because it gives you more options to adjust and stay comfortable. Also, since drop handlebars are narrower and provide a lower riding position, they make you more aerodynamic, which helps you go faster. You won’t see any pro gravel racers on flat bars. Finally, most gravel bikes come standard with drop bars, so converting to a flat-bar set-up is a bit more complicated than just swapping handlebars. You’ll have to buy some new components (more on that in a bit).
Should you ride a flat-bar gravel bike?
TPC just released its latest gravel bike collaboration with Mosaic Cycles. These bikes are all traditional drop-bar gravel bikes, but we set aside eight frames for The Radavist’s founder John Watson to build to his own specs. In true Radavist fashion, Watson chose flat bars for his Radavist Edition gravel bikes. So I had to get his take on why flat bars are a good idea for gravel.
“Swapping curly for flat bars will change the intent of your gravel bike,” Watson explained. “You'll naturally be more upright. No more bending over to reach the drops. Expect a completely different ride quality. With flat bars, you'll have better control on the downhills, particularly when riding singletrack, and better leverage on steep climbs.”
Watson took his custom gravel bikes on an epic bikepacking trip through the Rainbow Rim Trail. Loaded up with gear on rough Arizona trails, flat bars made a lot of sense. Not only did they provide more control, but since the bikes were also built with mountain bike drivetrains, the easy gearing was better for crawling up tough climbs.
"With flat bars, it’s easy to add a mountain bike rear derailleur and cassette to gain an even bigger gear range,” Watson explained.
If you want to go on adventures that mix pavement with plenty of singletrack and rough off-road terrain, or you plan on hauling lots of bikepacking gear over multiple days, maybe you should consider putting flat bars on your gravel bike.
How to convert to a flat-bar gravel bike
Any drop-bar gravel bike can be converted into a flat-bar bike. Here’s what you need:
- Flat (or riser) handlebars
- Mountain bike brake levers
- Mountain bike shifter
- Mountain bike rear derailleur
- Mountain bike cassette
- Mountain bike chain
- New cables and housing (if necessary)
As you can see, converting a drop-bar gravel bike to run flat bars isn’t as simple as swapping the bars. Shifters and brake levers are designed either for drop or flat handlebars, so switching bars means switching shifters and brake levers too. Modern hydraulic disc brakes get tricky since most gravel bikes use road-style flat mount calipers and mountain bikes use post mount calipers. Unless you get a MTB brakeset with flat mount calipers (Shimano currently makes some flat mount options), you will need to install new MTB levers on your existing road/gravel calipers. With modern 10, 11, and 12-speed drivetrains, you’ll likely need a matching mountain bike derailleur, cassette, and chain to work with your new shifter.
Switching to flat bars often means switching to a MTB drivetrain too.
This isn’t always the case, and there are a lot of variables out there, so be sure to study the compatibility between different components if you want to try and save money. But if you want fewer headaches, it’s often easier to just swap to a full mountain bike drivetrain.
If you’re lucky enough to have an electronic drivetrain, however, you may need fewer components. SRAM AXS MTB shifters are compatible with AXS road and gravel derailleurs so you’ll just need the shifter and brakes. Shimano Di2 compatibility can be a bit more complicated so it’s best to check with Shimano about combining specific shifters and derailleurs.
Also, don’t forget that flat bars will change your position on the bike, which may require a new stem to compensate.
“One thing to consider when swapping out your drop bars for a flat bar is to accommodate for the loss of reach with a longer stem,” Watson explained. “Usually, an additional 2-3cm is enough. Or if you're looking at buying another bike to make into a flat-bar bike, consider sizing up one size."
The best flat-bar gravel bikes for sale now
Don’t want to fuss around with converting a drop-bar gravel bike? Here are some great flat-bar gravel bikes available at TPC that are ready to shred right out of the box.
Specialized Diverge E5 EVO
Specialized’s EVO line is about pushing boundaries and with the Diverge EVO, Specialized dramatically increased the frame reach to match the flat-bar set-up. The Future Shock headset absorbs bumps and the dropper post gets the saddle out of the way when it’s time to get sendy.
Radavist x Mosaic GT-2X
This is the aforementioned John Watson special. It’s got a handmade titanium frame, custom steel fork, custom paint, fat 650b x 2.1” tires, and a 12-speed MTB drivetrain. As for handlebars, Wason went all out with custom 880mm wide DOOM titanium bars. Read more about it here.
Evil Chamois Hagar
The Evil Chamois Hagar brought mountain bike geometry to gravel with an impressively slack 66.67-degree headtube angle and super long reach. If you want options, it can easily flip between flat and drop-bar set-ups thanks to SRAM’s wireless Eagle AXS drivetrain.
Bombtrack has a reputation for building tough and dependable bikes that can take a beating. This steel-framed Arise is perfect for everything from commuting to epic multi-day adventures. And just look at the front rack. Tents, pizzas, beers, it’ll carry anything you want.
All-City Gorilla Monsoon
All-City’s Gorilla Monsoon adventure rig is made even more adventurous with flat bars and a Shimano MTB drivetrain. It’s tricked out too with Santa Cruz Reserve 25 carbon wheels, a Garbaruk derailleur cage, and American-made Paul Klamper brakes.
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