Handlebar Death Grip

We all have our quirks while cycling. Some come from inexperience, while others are just bad habits. One of my quirkier quirks is the infamous handlebar death grip, where I tend to twist and wrench my grip on the bars, while hammering down the road at high speeds. In fact I grip and twist the bars so much that my handlebar tape tends to slip and unravel.

My Shar Pei-like bar tape.

Take last Saturday’s Brotherhood Ride as an example. My original riding plan was to relax and enjoy the ride while maintaining a conversational pace with my cycling friends. As usual, the plan quickly backfired as my happy feet couldn’t resist the opportunity to bridge a gap and join the the speedy leading group.

We maintained a tight, fast, well organized pace line, often hitting and maintaining speeds above 30 MPH! Exhilarating fun right? But, it’s situations like these that bring my quirk out from the shadows. You see the more intense and faster the ride, the more I tend to grip and twist on my handlebars, especially while in the drops. I could not only feel the tape slipping in my grip, but also see it unraveling. In fact it had unraveled so much that it was actually catching air!

This vice grip-like death grip of mine is not only bad form, but also a waste of energy, particularly on a long ride. Keeping that white knuckled death grip on the handlebars is a constant drain of energy that does not improve riding or help the bike move forward. Your body has to constantly exert more effort to keep your grip, wasting valuable energy that could be used elsewhere…like your legs. Often times, you can not feel how much energy you are wasting while on the bike because your mind is focused on other things…like maintaing a tight pace line, doing a hard pull, avoiding road debris…so for a quick test, do the following. Hop on your bike and grip your bars as hard as you can for 30 seconds. By isolating this situation without any outside influences, you’ll see exactly how hard it really is to keep that kind of grip at all times. Is that really what you want to be doing while you ride?

Unraveling bar ends, drops and bend…well at least it’s consistent 

I know my death grip is a mechanical overcompensation on my part to maintain proper arm positon and avoid locking my elbows while staying in an aerodynamic tuck. My brush with lateral epicondylitis (AKA “cyclist elbow”….I will not call it tennis elbow) last year taught me a hard lesson about keeping my elbows flexed while cycling, but ironically, this constant wrenching can also cause the cyclist elbow to flare up.

I need to work on relaxing my upper body an rely more on my core for support as I normally do when not going full tilt on the bike. The famous French cyclist Bernard Hinault used to say, “You should still be able to play the piano when riding.” One of the most basic cycling skills pertains to hand placement on the handlebars. Not everyone likes to have their hands in exactly the same position, but the key component, which is the same wherever you place your hands, is that they need to be locked in some way to the handlebars.

Placing your hands on top of the handlebars without locking them in place with your thumbs is just asking for trouble. One small bump in the road could cause your hands to come flying off the bars, and a crash is almost 100% guaranteed. We have opposing thumbs; use them to keep your hands securely fastened to the handlebars.

Locking on to the bars does not mean you need to have a death grip mentality. Besides the fatigue, wasted energy, and increased road shock transmission, you also degrade your handling abilities. When you’re tight and stiff your front wheel will go wherever your head turns. Look right and your bike will go right. But if you’re relaxed you can look right and still hold a straight line…very important within the context of a group as each member is reliant upon the other members to maintain safety.

Wrapping bars and talking on the phone…now that’s multitasking!

Relaxing my death grip will also save the hassels of having to rewrap my handlebar bar tape, which has become pretty much de rigueur after every fast ride. Although rewrapping the bar tape is not hard per se, it is an art that takes quite a while to master. Poorly wrapped tape unravels easily with normal use…again, something I know all too well as my wrap jobs are far from professional. In fact when I stopped at the Trek store today on my ride, Doug mentioned that whoever wrapped my bars last, should never be allowed to wrap bars again! He also mentioned that I try a polymer based tape like Lizard Skins DSP line instead of the cork based tape I have always used. The DSP tape is more durable, provides a better feel and clings better to the bars…a good defense against my death grip. We’ll see how it holds up once it comes in.

Thanks for the rewrap Doug!

Route: Coconut-40
Ride Time: 2:09:50
Stopped Time: 1:01:31
Distance: 38.83 miles
Average: 17.95 mph
Fastest Speed: 24.95 mph
Ascent: 251 feet
Descent: 235 feet
Calories: 2027


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