Are Carbon Mountain Bike Handlebars Worth It?

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While talking to a friend last weekend after a ride I mentioned that my arms were getting really pumped up during rides and he asked if I’d considered upgrading my mountain bike’s handlebars to carbon fiber.

I had always assumed that the primary benefit of carbon fiber was its lower weight, and was definitely worried about how much they might cost!

Are carbon mountain bike handlebars worth it?

Many people incorrectly assume that the primary benefit of carbon mountain bike handlebars is their lighter weight. While their lighter weight is a benefit, the more important improvements are its enhanced vibration damping and added stiffness that makes them worth the increased cost over aluminum handlebars.

Naturally, the cost will play a factor in any gear-related upgrade decision. Let’s take a look at the entire list of the pros and cons of carbon mountain bike handlebars.

If you’re already decided that it’s time to upgrade your handlebars and are just looking for a new pair, I’d recommend taking a look at the highly-rated ones below.

  1. Renthal Fatbar Lite Carbon
  2. Renthal Fatbar Lite Carbon

    Constructed from ultralight unidirectional carbon fiber, the Renthal Fatbar Lite Carbon weighs a minuscule 180 grams! Best suited for enduro, trail, and XC disciplines, the Fatbar Lite Carbon bar is the trail-tuned version of Renthal's downhill-crushing Fatbar.

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  3. RaceFace Next 20mm Riser Handlebar
  4. RaceFace Next 20mm Riser Handlebar

    Increasing the bar diameter to 35mm allows Race Face to shave material from the bar resulting in a dramatic reduction in overall weight while retaining the proven stiffness, strength, and performance Race Face bars are known for. The next 35 bar expands to a 760mm Width for increased control without sacrificing its lightweight characteristics.

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  5. Enve M6 Handlebar 780mm
  6. Enve M6 Handlebar 780mm

    The M6 bar is the modern trail rider’s dream. Available in a traditional 25mm rise or a low 7.5mm rise, it sweeps back at 9˚ and up 5˚, providing excellent support and a classic fit. Designed around a 31.8mm clamping diameter, the carbon laminate is tuned to deliver the ideal flex profile for trail use. This bar provides excellent vibration damping and response, making it the perfect choice for long days on epic terrain.

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Pros and cons of carbon mountain bike handlebars vs. aluminum

Pros of carbon mountain bike handlebars

Pro #1 – Better vibration damping

Aside from your feet, your hands are the only part of your body that’s always attached to the bike. On long rides or rough terrain, your hands and arms can quite literally take a beating from the handlebars.

One of the most underappreciated benefits of carbon fiber handlebars is their improved vibration dampening qualities.

With aluminum handlebars, the shock waves from hitting bumps on the trail are translated from the handlebars directly into your hands and arms.

Instead of transferring all of that energy straight to you, carbon handlebars help by instead absorbing and dissipating some of that energy. This quality is known as vibration damping.

While this doesn’t sound like a big deal, consider how your arms feel after long or rough rides. Pretty beat up sometimes, huh? Well, carbon fiber absorbs a lot of that energy to help save you from hand fatigue or the dreaded arm pump.

While “arm pump” may sound like bro-science, it’s actually a legitimate medical condition. The medical term for arm pump is Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrom (CECS).

According to the Mayo Clinic, it is common in young athletes who participate in activities that involve repetitive impact. Symptoms include aching, burning, or cramping pain, numbness or tingling, and weakness in the limb.

The most effective treatment for those who chronically suffer from CECS involves an operation where a surgeon has to physically cut through the fascia encasing your muscles. If that doesn’t make you take arm pump seriously, then I’m not sure what will!

Not only does avoiding hand fatigue and arm pump allow you to ride longer and more aggressively, but it can also help prevent additional injuries down the road. The likelihood of issues such as cyclist’s palsy or elbow tendonitis decreases when the joints are required to absorb less force.

No matter the ride length or difficulty, added comfort is going to improve your overall mountain biking experience.

Pro #2 – Carbon handlebars are warmer in cold weather

One benefit of carbon handlebars that I rarely hear mentioned is the fact they keep your hands warmer in cold weather. Thanks to their low thermal conductivity, carbon fiber handlebars are able to outperform aluminum and any other metal set of handlebars when it comes to warmth.

Thermal conductivity refers to the ability of a material to draw heat in. Since your body is the only source of heat on a mountain bike, this means that heat is drawn away from your hands and into the handlebars. As heat leaves your hands they become cold, making it more difficult to steer and ride.

For exact numbers – aluminum has a thermal conductivity of 210 W/m*K (that’s Watts per meter-Kelvin), while carbon fiber in epoxy is 5-7 W/m*K. Using the high end of the range for carbon, that means that Aluminum is 30 times more conductive! That’s a huge difference in how much heat is drawn away from your hands.

Now, some of you will rightly point out that the bike’s handlebars are not made of pure aluminum but instead employ an alloy. While that is most certainly accurate, I didn’t think it was worthwhile to find the thermal conductivity for each alloy used by manufacturers so I’m just sticking with the measurement for pure aluminum.

In either case, the other metals used in the alloy will also be good conductors of heat so it’s not worth the extra precision.

If your handlebars are metal, then it’s probably a safe assumption you have an aluminum alloy stem and frame as well. This effectively means that your entire bike can act as one giant heat sink to draw heat away from your hands, so it’s not just the fault of your handlebars! They just so happen to be the main points of contact.

I don’t know about you, but riding with cold or numb hands has to be one of the most unpleasant ways to mountain bike. Sure, you could try to wear thicker gloves, but that’s not going to make navigating easy!

Pro #3 – Increased stiffness

While some amount of flex may seem helpful to absorb trail forces, it’s definitely not a reassuring feeling when cornering or steering through rough patches.

Carbon handlebars are stiffer compared to their aluminum-alloy counterparts and can provide an enhanced feel when steering through these types of sections.

While aluminum bars can also be quite stiff, it usually comes with the downside of added weight. To achieve a stiffer build, the bars have to add more material which leads to the handlebars becoming heavier.

When loading a pair of lightweight aluminum alloy handlebars, the flex becomes very pronounced compared to a similarly weighted carbon set.

While carbon as a material is stiffer, it should also be noted that the diameter of the handlebars at the clamp also makes a big difference in the handlebar’s stiffness.

For example, a 31.8 mm handlebar is ~4 times stiffer than a 22.2 mm one. And a 35 mm handlebar is ~6 times stiffer than a 22.2 mm handlebar set.

That’s a lot of added stiffness just through increasing the clamp diameter!

Regardless of their clamp diameter, remember that all of these bars need to taper down to 22.2 mm at the ends to accommodate shift and brake lever clamps as well as grips. So there’s a limit to how much stiffness you can gain just through picking mountain bike handlebars with wider clamp diameters.

Pro #4 – Weight savings

It’s not an accident that I waited until the end to bring up weight savings. Yes, carbon fiber mountain bike handlebars are lighter.

How much lighter though you ask?

Well, probably only a few hundred grams at most. Instead of an estimate, let’s take a look at some actual numbers.

Using JensonUSA as my data source, I pulled up the details for the ten most popular carbon and aluminum mountain bike handlebars to compare weights.

To help standardize the comparison, each of the ten handlebars was 780 mm wide to ensure that variances in widths was not a contributing factor in weight differences.

From my selected samples, the average weight of aluminum handlebars was 331 grams, while the average carbon handlebar was 210 grams.

From a percentage standpoint, that’s a 36% reduction in weight. But we’re still talking about a measly 121 grams here! In the grand scheme of your overall bike weight, that’s barely going to be noticeable (if at all).

For competitive cross-country racers, this may be important. However, for the average rider, I truly do not believe that weight makes a big difference. You’re better off trying to save weight in other areas if it comes down to it.

However, for the sake of a pro and con list you’ve got to hand it to carbon. It wins in the lightweight department 😉

carbon mountain bike handlebars

Cons of carbon mountain bike handlebars

Con #1 – Increased cost

As with almost every upgrade, the benefits of carbon mountain bike handlebars come with one major downside – added cost.

The manufacturing process for carbon handlebars is more complex than aluminum alloys and thus drives up the cost. As always, the magic question then becomes “well, how much?”

Leveraging the same data set from my previous weight testing, I compared the prices between 10 of the most popular carbon and aluminum mountain bike handlebars.

A subset of this data can be seen in the table below.

ModelMaterialPrice
RACE FACE CHESTER 35 10MM RISE HANDLEBARAluminum$46.99
CHROMAG FUBARS OSX HANDLEBARAluminum$76.99
AZONIC AGILE 780MM 1″ RISE HANDLEBARAluminum$43.99
SPANK SPIKE 800 VIBROCORE HANDLEBAR 2018Aluminum$62.99
RENTHAL FATBAR LITE V2 31.8MM HANDLEBARAluminum$84.95
ENVE M6 MTB HANDLEBARCarbon$170.00
YETI TURQ 35 CARBON HANDLEBARCarbon$159.99
RENTHAL FATBAR CARBON HANDLEBARCarbon$149.99
BOX ONE CARBON DH 35MM HANDLEBARCarbon$152.99
CHROMAG FUBARS CUTLASS HANDLEBARCarbon$135.00

Before even running any calculations, it’s obvious that carbon handlebars are more expensive than aluminum alloy ones.

In this data set, the average price of aluminum handlebars was $68.99, while carbon ones came in at $157.99. That’s a little more than two times the cost to upgrade your handlebars to carbon.

Compared to the overall cost of a mountain bike, which very quickly jumps into the thousands of dollars, an $89 increase isn’t too bad. However, just on the comparison of price alone, aluminum handlebars are definitely the cheaper of the options.

Con #2 – Damage is hard to detect

In general, metal is a ductile material. Meaning that it’s able to bend before breaking. In the event of a crash, it’s pretty obvious that your handlebars are damaged if they have been bent or deformed. This makes it a pretty easy call to know that it’s time to replace them before they completely fail and break.

By comparison, carbon’s extreme stiffness means that instead of bending it simply breaks during failure. While hairline cracks can form, they can be very tough to find. If you were to unknowingly keep riding on a pair with damaged handlebars they could break at a moment’s notice.

In an interview with the manufacturer Renthal, they indicate that recommend replacing their handlebars (carbon or aluminum) in the event of an accident.

Surface level damage is not always a clear indicator of structural damage. Damage can reside amongst the interior layers of carbon, and not be visible on the surface.

Con #3 – Installation requires a special tool

Unlike an aluminum alloy handlebar which you can lock into the stem using any tool, carbon handlebars require the use of a torque wrench for proper installation. Due to their brittle nature, over-tightening of the handlebars can result in stress cracks and broken bars.

Using a torque wrench, you’ll need to tighten the handlebars down to the torque exact settings specified by the manufacturer. This is usually listed as something like “4 Nm”, which refers to applying 4 Newton-meters of torque.

Be sure to also check the torque settings for your clamp as well as it may differ from the handlebars. If one states 4 Nm while the other indicates 5 Nm, use the lower of the two values.

If you’re still unsure or don’t have or want to purchase a torque wrench, you can always take your bike into a local bike shop to have them assist with the installation.

Whether or not you feel comfortable installing your own handlebars, I’d highly recommend investing in a good torque wrench. It’s an essential tool for your mountain biking toolkit.

Not only will it last a lifetime, but it will quickly pay for itself. I’d recommend taking a look at the Shimano model linked below. It’s made for servicing bikes and is the same model used in many bike shops.

PRO Adjustable Torque Wrench
  • High-quality precision tool
  • Adjustability from 3 to 15Nm; For all stems / handlebars / seatposts etc.
  • Incl. M3, M4, M5, M6, T25 and T30 chrome vanadium sockets and extension
  • Small and easy to use incl. storage box
Buy from Amazon.com

Are carbon fiber handlebars safe?

Much of the negative stigma around the safety of carbon fiber handlebars stems from when the technology was first introduced. A simple impact on a rock or other sharp surface was all it took to break the handlebars.

Lucky for us, manufacturers have greatly improved their methods over the last 10+ years to produce excellent quality, safe mountain bike handlebars using carbon fiber.

Through the use of bonding agents, cross-linking catalysts, and resin and fiber improvements the carbon of today has a much higher impact resistance than its earlier versions.

The carbon bars of today are on par with their aluminum counterparts when it comes to durability. Due to their differences in failure modes, one should still be careful about using ultra-light XC carbon bars in more aggressive riding situations such as downhillers.

Having a bar completely snap instead of simply bending could lead to a very bad outcome!

As a side note, it’s somewhat comical to consider the viewpoint through which these failures are looked at today. If an aluminum handlebar breaks during an epic crash, it’s simply written off as a result of the crash.

So why during a similar crash would we question the safety of carbon handlebars breaking?!

The comparison is not only unfair but outdated when looking at the advances of modern carbon fiber technology.

Another key thing to point out is that not every manufacturer is going to be leveraging the latest technologies when it comes to building carbon handlebars. Some manufacturers will simply forego these processes because it allows them to bring a cheaper product to market.

For this reason, I’d recommend sticking with the big name brands if you choose to go with carbon handlebars. While you’ll pay more up front, the bars are bound to last longer and serve you more safely.

3 awesome carbon fiber handlebars to consider

When looking to upgrade to carbon fiber handlebars, the general advice is to stick to the big, well-known manufacturers.

As previously covered, they spend the most time investing in research and development and applying the latest in material science to their manufacturing to produce the highest quality carbon handlebars.

While you may pay a little more for them, you’re getting a far superior product.

Below is a table showing some of the best carbon handlebars for mountain biking on the market.

While I’ve listed some of their key details in the notes below the table, clicking any of the links will also take you over to Amazon for more information on them.

ModelWidthClamp Diameter
Renthal Fatbar Lite Carbon Handlebar740 mm31.8 mm
Enve M6 MTB Handlebar780 or 800 mm31.8 or 35 mm
Race Face Next 35 Handlebar760 mm35 mm
  • Renthal Fatbar Lite Carbon Handlebar – This particular model from Renthal is designed for Trail, Enduro, and XC use. They also make a more robust version of downhillers.

    One of the things that I love about this model is the sheer amount of rise options that they provide to ensure that the handlebar meets your personal preferences. Rise options are offered in 10, 20, 30, and 40 mm to suit your style. It comes with 7 degrees of backsweep, and 5 degrees of upsweep.
  • Enve M6 MTB Handlebar – The Enve is one solid Trail and All-Mountain bar. If you like wide bars, it may be the one for you! Widths come in 780 or 800 mm.

    The 780 comes with a 31.8 mm clamp diameter and 10 mm of rise, while the 800 uses a 35 mm clamp and 25 mm of rise. Backsweep for both is 9 degrees, with 5 degrees of upsweep.
  • Race Face Next 35 Low Rise Handlebar – Built primarily for both Trail and XC use, these bars from Race Face offer a truly lightweight and resilient set of handlebars.

    It’s 35 mm clamp diameter helps to add stiffness, and has 20 mm of rise for added comfort. It also has a 5 degrees of upward sweep, and 8 degrees of backsweep. They’re also offered in multiple color options to suit your taste!

Conclusion: Are carbon mountain bike handlebars worth it?

In my personal opinion, carbon handlebars are one of the best upgrades you can make on a mountain bike. The vibration damping alone makes them worthwhile to me because it allows me to enjoy my time on the trail and incur less fatigue.

Add in the enhanced stiffness and better cold performance and it’s a no brainer to me.

While there are a few downsides, the one that will give most people pause will likely be price. However, compared to the overall cost of the bike and other potential upgrades, this seems like a non-factor to me.

Of course, your personal situation may be very different, so it really comes down to a personal decision for you to make.

Thanks to the massive improvements in manufacturing techniques and material science over the last decade, I think that the “safety” issue can be put to rest.