Monkeying around: The straight dope on ape hanger handlebars

May 17, 2017

Ape hanger handlebars are a lot like black licorice.

Most people love ‘em or hate ‘em, and there are precious few folks who are ambivalent. I’ve written about handlebars for Harleys before, but I didn’t concentrate on what is arguably the most recognizable form of aftermarket handlebar: the ape hanger, aka monkey bar. Being a dirtbag chopper guy, I get lots of looks and plenty of attention when I ride one of my machines that sports a set, so I thought an article explaining them might be helpful for the uninitiated.

Are they comfortable?

Yes. No. It depends. There are a few factors that matter here. The first is the bars. Are they reeeeeally high? Like most things in life, moderation goes a long way. Twelve-inch apes are a lot less extreme than 20-inch apes, which is why you see shorter ape hangers "in the wild" way more often. Similarly, not all apes have the same width or sweep, so something extreme-looking could actually be more comfortable than a handlebar that appears way more conventional.

Chainlink fence
As this cute kid is demonstrating, having your hands elevated a little bit can be comfy when something is helping support their weight. Pixabay photo.

I usually tell people to think about how they’d watch a basketball game taking place at an outdoor court that is surrounded by a chain-link fence. Most people naturally “hang” their hands on the fence somewhere around shoulder height. I think most people would agree that ape hangers can get uncomfortable if your hands are way higher than your heart. If your heart is working hard to pump blood uphill, coldness and numbness are a distinct possibility. High bars can be comfortable — as long as your hands are in the right place.

Whaddya mean?

Like our basketball fan, I like my hands to be a somewhere around the height of my shoulders for relaxed cruising. The handlebar height I use to get my hands there could vary quite a bit, depending on the bike. A motorcycle with a sprung rear suspension generally seats the rider much higher, so relatively speaking, taller ape hangers are needed to get the same position.

Apes
All-organic antiperspirant. Photo by Peter Sterken.
On the flip side, many choppers and customs are built on rigid chassis, which place the rider’s rear end a lot closer to the pavement — but the height of the front end doesn’t change, effectively “raising” the rider’s hands. This differential is the reason you’ll often see fairly short, rational handlebars on motorcycles that are otherwise pretty wild.

So I think it helps to think about ape hangers in terms of hand height relative to another body part, not just in terms of the height of the handlebars themselves. Handlebars that place one’s hands appropriately on one bike may be a disastrous combo for a different bike and rider. All things being equal, taller riders (longer arms) usually want taller bars.

How does the bike handle?

I feel like I’m wearing this answer out, but it depends. Many ape hangers are pretty wide, which can add to a rider’s control. The rider’s leverage on the bars is decreased with a very tall set of apes, but the difference is often regained through mechanical leverage gained from having a handlebar that is wider. The height of the bars plays into handling as well, but I think the issue is the position of the rider’s hands. Remember that raising one’s arms moves them in an arc. Thus, ape hangers move hands not just higher, but also closer. If the hands become too close to the chest, it can be hard to control a bike. Some will mitigate this by flipping tall handlebars forward, but this has the unintended effect of moving the hands so that they’re far from the steering axis (the stem), so steering response can feel strange. Again, this potentially makes controlling the bike more difficult. Ultimately, the bike handles exactly the same as it did with different bars — but if the handlebars aren’t right for a rider-and-bike combination, the handling may feel awful.

Tall bars.
These 24-inch ape hangers definitely fall into the "pretty dang tall" category. Photo by chopperkingguy.

What are some of the pros and cons?

Radically different monkey bars can have some unintended consequences. On the positive side, ape hangers can often move mirrors upwards and outwards, to the point that they can become much more usable. One potential downside is that the rider’s hands are suddenly moved far from the bike. This becomes extremely noticeable on a hand-shifted bike because the left hand is traveling very far to upshift and downshift. Because ape hangers allow a rider to exert far more force on the handlebars, it’s more or less mandatory to use a firmer riser bushing than factory rubber. (I have used urethane with a high durometer on shorter combos, but I really feel safer using steel.) Those firm bushings do help lock the handlebars into place, but they also transmit a lot more vibration. If you have a paintshaker engine, you may notice buzzing mirrors and your hands may go numb, especially if you’ve selected really high bars. (Just while we’re on the topic of setup, a one-piece top clamp should be used to tie the risers to one another and add strength.)

Fairing
On a touring bike, an ape hanger handlebar usually comes with some compromises. Photo by Stevan Popovich.
And if you’re considering a set of these for a faired touring bike, recognize that your apes will raise your paws up out of the protective “pocket” of clean air the fairing is designed to create.

Are you sure these are safe? Legal?

I’m not aware of any studies that delve into handlebar heights, but like all modifications, I think there’s a potential for increased danger due to incorrect installation or misuse, and I also think there’s a potential for safer riding due to better control and comfort. Or, to go back to the answer I keep trotting out: It depends.

With respect to the handlebar height laws, since I can’t find much in the way of empirical research on handlebar heights, I have to assume that this law is like some of the others written in America. The restrictions were originally designed to give law enforcement assistance in stopping and detaining those suspected of being outlaw motorcyclists for more serious crimes.

On an anecdotal level, I don’t run handlebars that feel unsafe. I have told a story a few times of welding up a set of bars, installing them, and realizing 15 feet from the shop door that they didn’t feel safe. I rolled the bike right back in, and built something else.

Can I install them myself?

Sure. The range of difficulty, though, is pretty varied. If you have a hand-shift chopper with no front brake and a long throttle cable, a bar swap takes about 10 minutes. Most folks have at least some other items to contend with, though, like some electrical wiring and cables and lines. Those require a bit more work to replace. The most labor-intensive bar swaps are ones that are internally wired, and ones on faired touring bikes, so if you’re not an A-level wrench, you might want to think about leaving that job to a pro.

Ape hangers have their proponents and detractors. If you’ve never tried a bike with some installed, it might be worth giving them a whirl — you might like ‘em!