Welcome to class! You're here today because, presumably, you just walked in from a 100-mile ride and your wrists hurt, or you went to the bar with your buds and everyone ignored your cool motorcycle. This brings us to the existential question that is at the core of Cruiser Bars 101:
Why do I want aftermarket motorcycle handlebars?
Simply, there are really two answers to this: comfort and style. Stock handlebars are often “good enough.” They’ll get you down the road and they’ll point the forks where you want them to go, but to maintain conservative looks and fit a wide spectrum of riders with different sizes, they are ultimately a compromise. A very small minority may consider bars for performance reasons (these are typically folks looking for clip-ons), but in most cases it's about looking good and feeling good.
Wrist angle is critical in making bars feel great, and the shape of the handlebar is critical to looking great. Aftermarket bars offer a wide array of styles and positions that can make your bike look killer, and your arms feel grand.
What bars should I get?
What do you want? With the plethora of super-dope Harley handlebars available, the only limitation seems to be imagination. Bars come in a pretty wide array of styles including, but not limited to:
- Conventional buckhorns: Very close to most stock handlebars on cruiser motorcycles. They feel pretty good to most riders.
- Apehangers: Also known as monkey bars or apes, these are the high-rise staple of American choppers, from 12 inches to 22 inches of rise, typically. Mini-apes are also available in less severe heights, usually eight inches or 10 inches. If you’re putting together a traditional chop, these are almost required.
- Window/box/attack bars: Just that: a bar with a “box” or “window” in it, the bottom of which is clamped to the triple tree. A unique 1970s-era design, the bars look cool and provide a handy spot to lash gear to if you ride a stripped-down scooter.
- BMX bars: Just what you think they are. Replete with the cross-piece to strengthen the bar, they look just like the bike you had when you were 13.
- Drag bars: Just a straight stick (which is why they are also known as “broomstick” bars). Basic to the max.
- Z-bars: These are like stock buckhorns, but have miter cuts instead of bends (more on this later).
- Swept drags: A drag bar with a bit of pullback. A little more comfortable for some folks, and a lot less aggressive looking than a true drag bar.
- Rabbit ear bars: A very popular look recently, these bars are ultra-narrow, and curve back gracefully to the rider. If you’re looking to make a skinny bike or something bratstyle, these are the bars for you.
- Clip-ons: Not a true handlebar, but an important option for a racy look. These bolt to your fork tubes rather than your top triple tree, which typically bends the rider over further. With mid controls, one can achieve almost a sportbike-like riding position. Paired with forward controls, this gives the hunched-over “fists-in-the-wind” look that was popularized on more contemporary choppers. If you run a Harley-Davidson, there are special H-D clip-ons that fit fork tubes but have a one-inch bar surface for mounting your stock control boxes.
Aside from styling, construction is important to consider. With the exception of drag bars, bars all are contoured in some form or fashion. There are two main ways of producing that contour: bending, or miter-cutting and welding. Bending bars is the first way of achieving a radius, and happens much like you would expect. The bar is filled with material to prevent cracking and bent with hydraulic machinery, and then the material is removed.
Miter cutting is the other way of constructing a bend. Much like in woodworking, two pieces of pipe are cut and fitted to each other at a precise angle, and then welded in place.
Bending bars is the stronger method of construction, and leads to flowing, curvy bars. Miter cuts allow for actual corners to be produced. Their strength can be increased by bumping up the thickness of the wall tubing. Some bar manufacturers use the same thickness for both bars, meaning the difference in strength is strictly academic, and we mere mortals won’t be breaking them. Other manufacturers will use a thicker tube only for the mitered bars. Some bar builders will try to use too-thin material for their mitered bars. Cost sometimes reflects the construction. It pays to do your homework here.
Miter-cut and welded bars will show their welds. How they look depends on the manufacturer’s finish work. If you see two handlebars that look exactly alike, but one brand is far more expensive, you can bet that the clean-up work on the welds is most likely better on the more expensive bar. However, for a fellow looking to make a raw, in-yo-face scooter, that exposed weld may be the hot ticket for a home-brewed look, and may free up funds for some other cool hot-rod part.
Bars can also be swaged or slugged. The handlebar can either be extruded through a hydraulic machine to “step down” the size (swaging) or can be cut, with a solid piece of pipe inserted into both pieces and welded up (slugging). Slugged bars usually look a bit less graceful at the weld point, because the step is not smooth and flowing. They also have more exposed welding, which can be aesthetically unpleasing to some eyes. Additionally, points of weld are often potential points of failure. Water can seep in and cause rust, and these areas are typically harder and more costly to finish. However, they also provide a homegrown feel, and if you are a guy who rides and rides hard, paying for fancy fit and finish work may not be the best use of your coin. Furthermore, because they do not require an expensive swaging tool, they are often a little more affordable.
Finish type has a lot to do with your selection, too. Many motorcycle handlebars come chromed, and the quality of the chroming can vary. Bars often will be available in black. The way the manufacturer makes a set of bars black can range from el-cheapo spray paint to thick lacquer paint jobs, or even super-durable powdercoat. Keep in mind that you probably want your bars to look shiny and new for years, and you can see that the up-front cost of a better finish can sometimes be the better value.
Finally, keep in mind the country of origin. Typically, U.S.-built bars are more pricey and feature nicer fit and finish techniques. Depending on your budget and the beauty you require for your bike, off-shore-built bars could represent a great value or a terrible waste of money.
Great! I feel like I need some bars now! What do I need to know?
Good question! First, almost all bar swaps require a little knowledge of both the motorcycle market, and the aftermarket handlebar market! To get you up to speed on some things you’ll need to know to buy the right stuff (and talk shop with your buds!), here are some things worth considering.
First, you are going to want to measure your existing bar diameter to determine which bars will be compatible with your machine. The best way to do this is to take a measurement of the outside diameter (OD) of the bars in several places along the bar with a dial caliper. If your bike has a springer front end, that’s important to note. The knurled section that the bar clamp grabs on to is a different width than most bars set up for use on hydraulically suspended Harley-Davidson models. If you have a bagger, you will need much wider uprights than standard models. Additionally, 2008-2013 Harley Touring bikes need bars that have been notched in the right grip area for fly-by-wire and cannot be dimpled too near the end of the bar, or the longer fly-by-wire throttle tube might not enter the bar. Internally wired bars need to be drilled, so if you want to hide your wires, you want drilled bars. Finally, dimples in a bar allow the cables to enter the control “clamshells” on Harley models.
What about risers? Do I need them?
Maybe. From a comfort standpoint, rise can be had from bars or risers. Some bars require different risers. Say you want to run 1.25-inch bars on a Harley that had no “step-down” in the center for one-inch risers, new risers would be required. However, if you bought a bar that had a step-down in it, you could use your factory risers.
Risers come in one-piece and two-piece styles. With taller bars, RevZilla always recommends a one-piece clamp. They grip more positively and are generally safer. With that said, two-piece clamps leave the triples looking less cluttered, and show off more bar if you’ve chosen to run a 1.25-inch or 1.5-inch continuous-diameter bar. One-piece top clamps also will cover up any step in a multi-diameter bar.
Let's do this thing! What else do I need in the shop?
Beer. We do recommend having a celebratory beer after a successful install and shake-down run here at RevZilla. Besides that, though, you might want to consider that because you’re going to move controls, extended cables and wiring is often necessary. You can either order your own cables individually (helpful if you run a jockey-shift, no front brake, or both), or get a pre-made set that is model-specific, which takes the guesswork out of an install. Wiring kits offer a plug-and-play way to make your wires safe to use with your new bars. Of course, if you are an experienced mechanic, there is no reason you can’t solder in your own extensions that you fabricate. While not an actual item, you should also know that creative cable routing can be necessary to either re-use stock cables or aftermarket ones that are not quite the perfect length.
Can I do this or do I need to go to a shop?
It depends, really. If wiring, brake bleeding and cable replacement are beyond you, maybe contact your local shop. The install likely will just be frustrating for you. Internal wiring can take a little patience. Soldering and extending cables can be tricky. On some bikes, you need to remove tanks and fairings to get to the harness. If you’re not comfortable with ripping that stuff apart, maybe a few buddies would be of assistance. A factory service manual is always recommended by the ZLA staff for these little “departures from stock” that we’re so fond of making!
If you want a truly easy install, buy a handlebar that is similar in height to your stock one, but looks different. Many Z-bars meet that requirement swimmingly. You can have a totally non-stock look, but an install that’s a piece of cake. Drags or swept drags with a taller riser can also yield a similar result — crazy looks, easy install.
What do you guys think looks cool?
Our bikes look cool. And hopefully you’ll say the same about yours with a sweet new set of bars atop it. Here’s what we think looks hotter than two mice in a woolen sock:
- Skinny bars usually look good on skinny bikes.
- Bars with a wide distance between the uprights look better on forks with wider spreads between the tubes (looking at you, Wide Glide guys!) and bikes with fatter front tires (think 130/90-16 or so).
- Bars that have more distance between the uprights than exists between the tubes usually look funny (the reason you rarely see beach bars on a Narrowglide Sporty).
- Taller risers usually look better with flatter bars. Bars that get significant rise from both places look “off.” Conversely, bars with a lot of rise look good with small risers. A 16-inch apehanger rarely needs much rise.
- “Fat” bars (1.25 inches or greater in diameter) look best on bikes with large diameter fork tubes (1.5-inch bars on a 39 mm FX bike will look weird). Oddly, narrow bars on fat fork tubes don’t look that bad at all.
Give me the secret tips so I won't be throwing tools in the garage
Ask and ye shall receive! Here’s what works for us. And some of what doesn’t.
- If you have a bike that breaks down and needs pushing often, skinny and tall bars suck.
- Larger diameter bars are easier to fish cable through if you’re internally wiring your bars.
- Bent bars are easier to internally wire than miter-cut bars. The wire slides through the bends easier than corners.
- If you are going to internally wire your bars, stagger your wire cuts so the solders/butt connectors are not all in the same place, which can make “fishing” the wires difficult.
- If you can extend your cables closer to the battery along the spine, do it. You’ll have more room to work, and you won’t be stuck trying to solder in a weird position.
- Speaking of fishing, we use bicycle brake cables or guitar strings.
- Bolt everything up loosely, then have a buddy hold the bike while you take a seat. Roll the bars back and forth in the clamp until they feel right, then rotate the switch housings and lever perches until those feel good, too. Generally, the farther your hands are above your head, the farther back the lever perches will need to be rotated.
- If you are replacing risers, consider hard-mounting (a necessity with apehangers) or switching to a polyurethane bushing.
Good luck. A new handlebar is a relatively inexpensive way to give yourself a more comfortable ride or give your Harley a new look. Got more questions? Call us at (877) 792-9455 and talk to a Gear Geek.