On-One Midge Bar
by Matt Chester
OK, I have to admit it. I'm biased. I am a huge proponent of flared drop bars and I probably build more truly offroad bicycle frames (read: mountain bikes) with drop-bar specific setups than anyone. Why? Because I've experienced the benefits firsthand for many, many years.
Of course, I had to learn to set them up properly first. Setting up drop bars on an offroad bike (I don't mean just fireroading or cyclocross) is quite different from putting drops on a road bike.
Take a trip back 80 years or so. Riders back then were turning over single gears and riding on bad roads and dirt for incredibly long distances. In photos of the time you'll see handlebars up around saddle height, and liberal usage of flared drop bars. The high bars and flared hooks allowed a relaxed position in the drops, both while descending and during standing climbs. The flare gave a degree of wrist clearance not available from most modern drop bars. Those old pictures also show that riders chose larger frames than today, to the point where a 5'9" rider might be riding a 60cm frame.
There is lucid reasoning behind this. Saddle height is fixed. Bar height isn't. As you raise your bars, your cockpit effectively becomes shorter, because head tube angles are slacker than 90 degrees. So, how do you achieve a position that allows you to have the bars at an adequate height for comfort and primary usage of the hooks while still leaving you stretched out enough to devlop some power? Simple. A longer effective top tube.
Since bicycle design was a little more staid back in the early 20th century, with no real concern about standover clearance, you'd see riders on huge frames, barely three fingers of seatpost showing from their frames and longish quilled stems. This was the preferred kit for 400km+ dirt road stages in the Tour de France.
Post-WWII, things got more complex. Flared drops went out of favour as roads got better and aerodynamic concerns came to the fore. But the older designs never died out, and they made a strong comeback during the early days of mountainbiking here in the States. Highly flared drop bars were popular in the 80s thanks to riders/builders such as Charlie Cunningham, Steve Potts, Scot Nicol, Wes Williams, and others.
Now, mountainbikers never really had much use for those huge-triangled road frames I mentioned earlier. Standover clearance has always been a concern for offroaders. So, because so many riders were looking for a way to fit drop bars to their stock mountain bikes, the 80s saw an explosion of unusual quill stem designs. These included the LD (short for 'Limp D**k' -- it rose straight from the headset and then 'drooped' forward... use your imagination), the Salsa P10, the Nitto Dirt Drop, plus custom designs from various small builders. The key features of these stems were lots of rise and very little reach.
While the LD was a good, elegant solution, some folks found the abrupt positive rise of the other designs a little off-putting. Besides, hard riding on a rigid bike with an aluminum stem quill up at its minimum insertion line would often create undue stress on the steerer. Not surprisingly, quills gave way to the more offroadable threadless headsets and stems. Mechanically, this was doubtless a good thing. But stock threadless setups tend to put the bars well below saddle height -- OK for a flat bar, but unworkable with a drop.
If you want to combine drop bars with a threadless headset, you may have some difficulty achieving the position favoured both by the racers/randonneurs of yore and the mountain bikers of the 80s and early 90s. It can be done, tho'.
Shorter riders have it easy. It is possible for a short rider to achieve a really good position with a stock frame, especially if their legs are short for their height.
Taller riders might experiment with a stock frame and a huge spacer stack, but there's some discussion about the effects of such setups on headset longevity. A better solution would be to buy a custom frame with a longer-than-usual headtube and a stem with a marked positive rise. As long as you're under 6', it is not difficult for a maker like me to put together a drop bar-specific frame that gives appropriate fit using off-the-shelf forks and stems. The situation becomes a little more complicated with a taller, longer-legged rider... but, like many makers, I like a challenge!
And, if you want to experiment with drop bars in the dirt, you're not alone. Flared drops have made a huge comeback in the last couple of years. The WTB Dirt Drops designed by Charlie Cunningham back in the 80s have become instant eBay sellouts. Last year, Brant at On-One in the UK took a hint from this marketplace frenzy and introduced the Midge bar, basically a WTB dirt drop but with a few refinements. These drew on input from my friend and customer Don Person, a drop bar rider since the mid-80s.
The most important change is the shallow drop. As noted before, drop bar setups need to get the bars up around saddle height while maintaining a reasonable cockpit length for power. A bar design with shallow drop and long reach can help. The original WTB was shallower than a road drop, and the Midge bar takes this a step further. Smart! The Midge is great for anyone trying to retrofit a stock MTB frame (read: short head tube) and for taller riders as well.
Another improvement is the wider tops, great for seated climbing à la Lemond, and yielding a less pronounced flare where the brake levers bolt up. WTBs were quite narrow up top and the rakish brake position freaked a few folks out... at least, those using STI shifters. Levers fitted to the Midge still wind up canted, but less noticeably than on the WTB. As an aside: you'll spend more time on the hooks and less time on the tops and hoods when you ride a properly set-up flared drop, although the latter still come in handy for non-aggressive riding and seated climbing.
One unusual aspect of the Midge design is the short area behind the hooks, that is, the distance between the forward bends and the bar ends. My XXL hands are long and slender ('Banana hands!') so I have no issues with this. Others with wider hands may not care for it. I recommend a rubber bar plug such as a Velox. Some folks have come up with little 'extenders' ranging from corks to 7/8" chair tips from the hardware store. Weirdness indeed.
So what about setup? How do you place drop bars properly on an existing bike? That's an article on its own, but here are some basic guidelines:
1. Bar height
If you are 6' tall or less, aim to have the tops of your bars a bit over your saddle height... up to a few inches. Exactly how much depends on a range of factors: your flexibility, the length of your arms, the terrain you ride, etc. If you are 6' or over, you can get by with tops about level with the saddle. A little above isn't bad and if you are particularly tall or have long arms, you can get away with having them slightly below. I'm 6'2" and I run my bars about level with the saddle.
2. Cockpit length
Dialing this in tandem with (1) is the tricky part. Often times with a stock frame, you'll get the bars up to height only to find that your cockpit is bunched up like that of an 8+ hour finisher at the Flattown All Tailwind All the Time Memorial Century. Get your cockpit dialled lengthwise, and your bars will be too low for comfort on steep, technical descents. (This is crucial when riding fixed as you cannot unweight your hands by getting back off the saddle.)
If you find yourself wondering whether some inline top mount brake levers might be the ticket, your bars are too low. Period.
3. Bar angle
These are not road drop bars. Do NOT level the bottom of the hooks with the ground. The whole beauty of a flared drop bar is that it allows your hand to stay very close to its natural position, the way it would fall if you were standing relaxed with your hands by your sides. Try it! Stand relaxed and then bend your elbows 90 degrees so your hands are in front of you. The position your hand is in is quite close to what it is riding in the hooks of a Midge bar. So, how much angle? It is best to have the tips of the bars pointing downward towards the rear dropouts. This will mean that the bars are rotated forward somewhat. Depending on how upright/stretched out you ride, the bottoms of your bars should be 10--25° from level.
Why? The whole point of this is to give your hand the broadest possible platform to ride on. If the bars aren't rotated far enough forward, you'll develop pressure points on your hands that will make you hate drop bars forever. If you have them rotated too far forward, it's an indication that maybe your cockpit is a little long.
4. Brake lever positioning
Even though the Midge has a 25.4mm clamp diameter (MTB standard), it uses road brake levers. Any quality road lever is great if you are using sidepulls, centerpulls, or cantilevers. The DiaCompe 287-V is the choice for V-brakes and will also work with disc brakes like the Avid road mechanicals. When mounting the levers, bear in mind that you won't be using the tops and hoods as your dominant position. Set the levers as low as you feel comfortable. Remmber, you want optimal braking from the drops. Everything else is secondary.
The happy medium that you can achieve by optimizing (1),(2),(3), and (4) will allow you to ride light and relaxed. You'll have multiple usable hand positions -- wonderful on longer rides -- and your natural hand position will allow you to keep a light grip in descending without the risk of having your hand knocked off the bar. The analogy I think of is a wooden spoon rattling around in a lemonade pitcher.
This lack of tension pays huge dividends on all-day excursions. That's why I have ridden drop bars exclusively off-road for the last five+ years, as well during my 'explore all the fireroads in North Georgia' days on an old lugged steel road bike.
The Midge bar is a fantastic component if you're serious about comfort over long distances. It works well for for cyclocross, brevets, general road duty, etc as well as the off-road duties mentioned here. I wouldn't hesitate to put it on any bike I could make it work on. To those who feel drop bars are inherently uncomfortable:
1) You most likely haven't had them dialed in right.
2) You haven't ridden flared drops like the Midge bars.
3) You don't know what you're missing!