Carbon vs alloy handlebars — have you ever wondered which material is better for MTB handlebars? We were curious, so we hit the trails with both types of bars and a whole bunch of tape. Why tape? We had to completely cover the handlebars so we could do a true blind test. So which ones did we prefer — Carbon or alloy? Guess you’d better watch to find out. No really, this one just doesn’t work very well without the video. Go watch it.
carbon vs alloy handlebars: The Test
So here’s how this test is going to work out. First, we’re going to need some handlebars. Lucky for us, I have a matching set of Renthal Fatbars — one carbon and one aluminum. They both have identical specifications minus the material they’re made out of. They are 800mm wide, have a 7° backsweep, 5° upsweep, and 40mm of rise. I threw them both on a scale and the carbon version came in at 219g. while the alloy bars weighed 304g.
The idea is to do a lap with one set of bars, swap them out, and go for a second lap. I want to compare and contrast ride feel and performance. I’m not immune to good marketing. I mean I buy the expensive toothpaste because someone tells me it’s “better.” So I’m certainly not able to overlook that carbon bars are supposed to be “better.” Here’s where things get a little tricky with this test. In order to remove any potential bias, we are going to completely cover the handlebars in tape. That way I won’t be able to see which ones I’m on. It will purely come down to ride feel.
When it’s all said and done, I’m going to guess which handlebars were which and do a big, dramatic reveal.
Carbon vs Alloy Handlebars in Theory
Let’s talk about what the MTB industry says about carbon vs alloy handlebars. First of all, carbon weighs less. So, if you’re really going hard with the weight weenie thing, there are some benefits to carbon — roughly 100g of benefits. Compound that with your wallet getting roughly $100 lighter, and we’re talking about nearly a quarter pound of gains. Where the true benefit lies is in the ride feel. Unlike alloy, carbon can be tuned to provide more or less flex based on the layup. To prove this point, some bikes rely completely on strategic flex rather than pivot points and bearings. Bikes like the Transition Spur, Orbea Oiz, and Cannondale Scalpel forgo the rearmost pivot in favor of flexy seat stays. They work really well too. We can apply that same idea to handlebars. A carbon bar, in theory, should offer more vertical flex. Why would you want that? It takes a bit of the sting out of the small bumps and trail chatter. Remember when you were a kid and you’d hit the ball a little too low on the bat — a bat made out of aluminum. Yeah… I still have nightmares about that feeling. Doesn’t help that my dad would just yell at me to toughen up and stop crying. That’s a story for another day, though. A carbon handlebar should be able to minimize those vibrations and make life a little easier for your hands and arms. At least, that’s the idea.
carbon vs alloy handlebars: Ride Impressions
If you haven’t done it by now, stop reading and go watch the video. It will be 1000% more exciting than reading right now. If you’re stubborn and don’t like people telling you what to do, then I guess I’ll put a few thoughts on paper about how each handlebar felt in the blind test.
Lap 1 – Green Tape
On the climb to the top of the trail, I couldn’t feel anything different than what I was used to with my normal handlebars. It took about a minute or two of descending to start to feel any difference. I really had to pay attention as the result wasn’t super apparent. I noticed I was feeling a bit more hand and forearm fatigue than normal. The trail I tested on was very rocky and bumpy. It’s also steep, putting a lot of weight through your arms. Basically, it’s ideal for maximizing hand and arm fatigue. I couldn’t tell if I was riding alloy or carbon, all I knew is these bars were causing more fatigue than normal. It doesn’t help that I have the upper body strength of an earthworm.
Lap 2 – Orange tape
Again, with these handlebars, I couldn’t tell if I was riding carbon or aluminum at first. I was getting concerned that my guess at the end was going to be a complete shot in the dark and I’d end up looking like an idiot on the internet. After dropping in on the same descent as Lap 1, I started to feel some differences. I can think of two ways to describe the feeling. First, it felt like I had dropped a few PSI in my front tire — which I had not. Second, it felt like I had just done a lower fork service and those seals were feeling buttery — which again, I had not. The front of the bike just felt a little softer and less rattly. My hands and arms felt significantly better at the bottom of the descent. This was my second lap of the afternoon, so keep in mind that my actual fatigue levels would have been higher at this point.
The big, dramatic, survivor-style reveal
Back at the car, I made my guess and cemented it in history via video proof. I guessed that the green tape bars were aluminum and the orange tape ones were carbon. With our test bars, the carbon ones were black and the alloy, gold. I peeled a corner of tape back and was pleased to see black handlebars and find that I’m not a complete idiot. The orange bars were in fact carbon.
So, the marketing hype around carbon bars isn’t just marketing hype. They actually made quite a bit of difference in the ride quality of my bike. They reduced hand and arms fatigue considerably. There’s the added benefit that they’re a bit lighter too. To answer the big question “Are carbon handlebars worth it?” I’d have to say yes.