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By Zack Vestal
The cobbled classics in Europe are just around the corner, and ProTour team mechanics are likely to be prepping bikes in the coming weeks. In addition to fitting sturdy wheels, wider tires, and other heavy-duty parts, a common practice involves wrapping the handlebars with two or more layers of bar tape to soften the blows from rough roads.
While this is an effective method, several companies have attempted to improve on tradition by offering kits that combine foam or gel padding with bar tape to wrap over the top. In the May issue of VeloNews, I rounded up several products of this sort, to describe the different approaches. The Specialized Super Phat Bar Gel includes one of the more substantial pad sets in the group and I’ve been riding with it on my cyclocross bike for the last six weeks. It works well on the graveled and washboard-rippled dirt roads that I ride in late winter, and could make your local Roubaix-style race a little more comfortable.
The kit comes packaged with four foam pads with embedded gel inserts. Each pad is labeled, “left top,” “left drop,” etc., which is helpful because they are specifically sized and molded to fit these sections of a road drop bar. The pads are about 6-8mm thick and tapered at the edges for a smooth transition. The gel inserts at pressure points on the tops and drops are softer than the surrounding foam. Also included are two rolls of black synthetic cork bar tape, end plugs, and finishing tape.
Installing the Super Phat Bar Gel kit is not difficult. Just as you would imagine, it’s like wrapping a road bar normally, except with relatively thick foam padding underneath. The pads are not self-adhesive, so I had to tape them down to the bar to prevent them migrating before wrapping them under the bar tape. The included bar tape has an adhesive backing, so that helps keep everything together once wrapped.
While wrapping, the extra thickness is quite noticeable and makes the process a little more awkward, but it’s not hard to master. I like to pull the tape tightly so it will not migrate, and with pads underneath, this requires care. The extra thickness also necessitates careful metering of the bar tape as it’s wrapped. Wrapping with too much overlap I ran out of tape and had to start over.
I’m generally a minimalist and prefer traditional setups. Looking at the substantially thicker handlebar wrap, I was initially put off by the look. However after riding some rough roads, I can say that the padding really does improve comfort in several ways.
The padding isn’t quite as soft and spongy as I had expected, but it does work well. I found that vibration from washboard roads and gravel was reduced and the ride was more comfortable. Another benefit of the padding is simply the added thickness to the handlebar. Because the diameter of the bar is increased, palm pressure is distributed across more surface area and therefore reduced.
One downside that I found is that the thick padding tapers down to the brake hood, and depending how the hood and pad are positioned, it can create kind of an uncomfortable trough just behind the brake hood. I could have been more careful about positioning both, so as to alleviate this issue.
Another consideration: those with small hands will not like how thick this product winds up, once installed. I have big hands and found it very comfortable, but someone with smaller hands should look for a product with thinner pads.
Check out the May issue of VeloNews for a range of similar products.