New Handlebar Install | How To

Under normal circumstances riders have three points of contact with their motorcycle; the seat, the pegs, and most importantly, the handlebars. What puts the bars in the Number One spot? At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it’s because every interaction between the road and the motorcycle is transmitted to the rider through the handlebars, and by the same token, every action the rider makes in response to those communications passes through the handlebars to the motorcycle. Consequently, the bars affect everything from comfort to how well the bike steers and handles.

Handlebar 101
During the design stage, the manufacturer selects the handlebar design, or "bend," based on a number of criteria. Obviously the bike's basic architecture, weight and size are a big consideration; the larger the bike, the more leverage you'll need to turn it, and just as obviously, a cruiser is going to require a much different bar than a sport bike or adventure tourer. Other factors include cost—a biggie if you're making or buying 10,000 bars—and how well the guys doing the test riding like a particular handlebar.

Unfortunately, rarely do the factories ask you or me for our opinions, so it’s always a crap shoot as to whether or not the bars are going to suit us as well as we’d like. Sometimes the OEM handlebar just doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t, you have two choices; live with it, which isn’t really much of a choice, or change it for something you like better.

Handlebar nomenclature
Ideally, the best way to select a new set of handlebars—which, like pants and scissors, are rarely sold singularly—would be to try something (or its identical twin) bolted onto your bike. Occasionally this works out, but more often than not, you'll be picking your new handlebars directly from a catalog, so it pays to know something about the way they're described. Typically the item will start with a basic description, which probably won't mean much to you. However if you dig a little deeper, you find that the manufacturer has thoughtfully provided the handlebar's dimensions using the following format:

Height or rise = X;
Pull back = X;
Center width = X, and
Width = X.

All you have to do now is interpret what those dimensions mean and you’re in business.

The height or rise is the distance from the bottom of the handlebar to the top, with the bar held in a level plane; it indicates how high the handle bar is.

The pull back is the distance from the most forward edge of the handlebar to the most rear, it indicates how far back the bars come, and is sometimes called “sweep.”

The center width is the width of the flat section that locates the handlebar in the clamp; it may be knurled or smooth, and will be so indicated.

The width represents the total distance between the tips of the bar, without grips or bar weights in place.

Along with dimensions, you’ll also find other pertinent information such as whether the bars are drilled or dimpled to conceal the wires, what kind of finish they have, and of course the price, all of which, “is handy information to have.”

Armed with the dimensions, you can get a very accurate idea of whether the bars are what you want, and how much effort it’ll take to install them. For the sake of example let’s assume your stock bars are 7⁄8 inch in diameter, 4.25 inches high, have a 10 inch pull back and a center width of 4.5 inches, with an overall width of 29.5 inches, which is information you can figure out with a $2.00 tape measure if you have to. (Some catalogs also supply OEM handlebar dimensions, but don’t count on it.) You’ve decided that you’d like something slightly wider and higher, that doesn’t make you reach as far forward. The catalog lists a 7⁄8 in. bar with dimensions of H = 5 in., PB = 11 in., CW = 5.5 in. and W = 30 in.

What that means is that the new bars are 3⁄4 of an inch higher, and a 1⁄2 inch wider than the ones you’re currently using, and they place the ends of the bars 1 inch closer to you. The center width is an inch wider, but a wider center is rarely a problem; a narrower one may not fit between the clamps, but as long as the bars don’t foul on something, like a fork tube cap, they’ll fit. Because the changes are so slight, I’d be surprised if you had to install new cables. Generally you have about two inches of cable slack to play with, though some rerouting might be required. In short, it looks like we have a winner, but if you’re still not sure you can compare them to every other bar in the catalog without getting up from the TV.

If you want to make a more radical change and aren’t sure what shape or dimension bars will work, enlist the help of a friend who can read a tape measure. With the bike in an upright position, sit in the saddle and place your hands where you’d like them to be while riding. Using the stock bar as a reference point, have him measure the difference between where your hands normally are and where you’d like them to be, and then select a bar with the appropriate dimensions.

Raising the Bar (removal)
Normally a bar swap is fairly straightforward, but there are a few things that'll trip you up. If the new bars are dimensionally similar to the old ones, and by that I mean within an inch or two in each direction, you should be able to get by without replacing the cables, although they may need to be rerouted. However, if you're making a radical change you'll need to replace the cables, and possibly extend the switch wiring as well, which adds another dimension to the project, especially if no one lists alternative cables for your bike.

You should also know beforehand whether the stock bars are drilled or notched to accommodate things like switches, wiring—or, most importantly—a fly-by-wire throttle. Drilling a handlebar to locate a switch pin or install through the bar wiring isn’t particularly hard, but it does require patience, a drill and some stable place to work. Lacking the foregoing may mean having to farm the job out.

To prevent any inadvertent damage, start by covering the tank and front fender with an old towel or other padding, then remove the mirrors, along with any doo-dads, gizmos or farkles that you’ve hung from the bars. Slacken the clutch cable and remove it from the lever, followed by its perch, and place them out of harm’s way*—or if you’d rather, you can unbolt the perch and lever as an assembly and allow the whole shebang to stay attached to the bike. (If you do, I’d suggest wrapping it in a rag and tie-wrapping it to the frame somewhere out the way.) Separate the switch halves and likewise protect and secure them. Back off the throttle cable adjuster(s) and separate the throttle housing, remove the cables, making a note of which goes where if it’s a twin cable system, then slide the throttle tube off the bar. (NOTE: In some instances, depending on how much throttle cable slack is present, or how dexterous you may be, you can simply loosen the throttle without taking anything apart and slide it off the bars, or remove it as you take the bars off the bike.)

If you want to reuse the old grips, slip a thin-bladed screwdriver under the left grip (no need to remove the throttle side), pry it up slightly and squirt some WD-40 into the gap. Let it sit for a moment and you should be able to twist the grip off without too much effort. If it resists, repeat the treatment until it gives up. If you’re installing new grips, a razor blade works just fine. Finally remove the brake master cylinder and secure it; if the hose is going to be changed, drain it beforehand.

(*If the bike uses a hydraulic clutch leave it on the bars until you reach this stage as well.)

With everything removed, hold the bars firmly, then slowly loosen the clamp bolts. Be careful here, as the bars will come down with a vengeance once those bolts are loose, with predictable results if they whack the tank.

Give everything a good cleaning, and lightly grease or oil the clamping bolts. Center the new bars in the clamps, then install the clamps and bolts. Some clamps are stepped, and if so, they'll be marked, so make sure to orient them in the proper direction. Snug the bolts down to where the bars will stay put, but don't fully tighten them yet. Adjust the bars to your liking (this may change after you ride the bike). Then, following the shop manual's instructions tighten the bolts to the correct torque. If no instructions are provided, you can safely assume that an equal gap should exist between the clamp and its mating surfaces when properly torqued.

If the bars have to be drilled, I prefer to do it with them secured to the bike, in part because I can see how everything will line up when I’m done, but mainly because it’s easier and less likely to cause damage than clamping them in a large vise. Patience and accurate measurement are the key here, so measure twice and drill once, as the saying goes. At this stage you should also install any new cables or wiring that the new bars require.

Reinstall the master cylinder, followed by the clutch lever and throttle, and don’t forget to apply a little light grease to the inside of the tube and switches. Install the grips using the appropriate grip cement, than adjust the cable free play. Lastly, work the fork from lock to lock, making certain that cables don’t bind or pinch. If they do, don’t ride the bike until the problem is resolved, and be sure to pump the brake a few times before you ride off, proudly gripping your new handlebars, into the sunset.

::Tech Tip::
** As this issue's How To section suggests, when it comes to handlebars, one size doesn't fit all. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to replace your handlebars to get them to fit you. Very often the bend is fine but the bars are simply too low or too far forward to be entirely comfortable, and when that's the case the easiest solution (lengthening your arms being somewhat impractical) is to fit handlebar risers.

Risers are small aluminum handlebar clamps that can be installed between the bars and their OEM mounts to add a small amount—typically an inch or two—of height, and rearward, or in some instances forward, inclination to the bars. Some are also machined to allow the use of different diameter bars without the expense of replacing the top clamp. Risers are the perfect solution for those times when the bend of the bar is just right, but either the height or sweep is slightly off, and in most cases they can be installed without replacing or rerouting any cables or hoses.

Mounting details vary according to type and manufacturer, but in broad strokes, you’ll unbolt the OEM clamps, lay the bars to one side, position the risers in the clamp, and secure them according to the instructions, then reinstall and adjust your stock handlebars. If it sounds simple that’s because it is.

A quality set of risers hover in the $90.00 range, which puts them on par with the cost of a set of bars (in some instances, over par in fact), but balanced against that is the ease of installation and overall convenience factor, especially when compared to swapping the bars. It’s a particularly attractive option when you just want to make a small adjustment in your riding position and can’t find a bar that’ll accommodate you.

Handlebar Diameter
For the most part, handlebars come in two diameters; 7⁄8 inch and 1 inch, and although there are others (22mm and 11⁄8 being the next most common), there's no hard and fast rule as to what bikes come with what diameters. For example, T100, America and Speedmaster versions of the Triumph Bonneville come with 1 inch bars, while Scramblers and SVs use 7⁄8 inch. Furthermore, some motorcycles use stepped bars, where the portion of the handlebar that holds the controls is of a different diameter than the part that sits in the handlebar clamps. So make sure you know what your bike uses before ordering replacements.