Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pros and Cons of Bullhorns for the Dahon Boardwalk

Can a folding bike be a road bike at the same time? The answer is YES! What usually distinguishes a road bike from other bikes are the dropbars used on the bike. These dropbars will have road shifters installed, which is a combination of a gear shifter and a brake lever combined. Some people call them "brifters", which means brake+shifters. Shimano, which invented these shifters 20 years ago, call them Dual Control Levers (DCL), or Shimano Total Integration (STI) Levers. In any case, all modern road bikes nowadays are equipped with dropbars with road shifters installed, be it Shimano, SRAM, Campagnolo or even Microshift. Pretty pictures below!

Dura-Ace 7900 Road Shifters

SRAM Red Road Shifters

Campagnolo Super Record Road Shifters. 11 speeds!

Microshift Arsis Road Shifters

However, hardly any folding bike comes stock with road shifters! One main reason is because if dropbars are used with road shifters, it will definitely make the folding awkward, and the folded package will not be compact. Also, a folding bike is usually not designed to be a road bike, which excludes the need for a dropbar. Some folding bikes that do come with dropbars are certain models of Airnimal, Alex Moulton, iF Reach, and Bike Friday bikes. There may still be other brands of folding bikes that come with dropbars.

As for Dahon, their bikes don't come with dropbars! The Dahon Dash X20 comes with dropbars and road shifters, and is the only Dahon folding bike to come stock with these kind of shifters. Almost all their bikes use a flat handlebar, for a compact fold. The only exception is the Speed Pro TT or Vector X27, which comes with a bullhorn bar. That was the bike which I modelled my Dahon Boardwalk after, you can read all about the upgrade to bullhorns here!


The bullhorns were great, as it allowed many different hand positions, which totally solved the problem of having numb hands on long rides. However, one thing which kept bugging me was the cable routing of the road shifters on the bullhorns. Because road shifters were not fully designed for bullhorn mounting, it is not easy to mount road shifters on bullhorns, and some of the shifters are also incompatible. If I changed to normal dropbars, there would not be cable routing issues with the road shifters.

On the Speed Pro TT bullhorns, the brake cable can be routed internally through the bullhorn bars, or routed externally. I could not route it internally as I wanted to install cyclocross brake levers. However, the external routing was not ideal either.

Black flexible v-brake noodle used to help guide the brake cable.

I needed to use the flexible v-brake noodle to guide the brake cable coming out of the shifter as the brake cable housing I was using (Goodridge, from CRC) was just too stiff! Cannot get it to bend properly at the area shown in the picture above. On hindsight I should have just used a more flexible brake cable housing at that area. In any case, the sharp bends are bad for cable efficiency, adding lots of friction when using the brake lever.

 Anatomic dropbars. Note the flat portion at the drops!

Strong and lightweight aluminium dropbar, at a reasonable price!

I came across these very nice dropbars at MyBikeShop, and it was inexpensive too. Which was why I decided to get those dropbars and eventually convert from bullhorns to dropbars. That was around 3 months ago, and during all these time I was happily using my bullhorns. No hurry!

There are many positive aspects to using bullhorns when compared to flat handlebars, with a major benefit being greater comfort. However, I must also state that there are some downsides, which were not immediately apparent when I had only used the bullhorns for a short while. But now, after 3 months, I can give a more complete picture of the pros and cons of the bullhorns.

Comfortable primary hand position
Multiple hand positions
Better reach

Less stable compared to wider flat handlebars
Tricky when going down steep slopes
TT position not possible (not really a disadvantage, just disappointed that this aerodynamic position which I like is not possible)
Large folded package

I don't need to explain the advantages, but I shall elaborate on some of the disadvantages which I experienced with the bullhorns.

Bullhorns usually come with a handlebar width of around 42 to 48cm wide. Whereas the previous flat handlebar I was using is 560mm wide. This lack of width means that using the bullhorns makes the ride less stable, especially when you use only one hand to ride. Not a serious problem, but not recommended for less experienced cyclists.

When going downslope, the only position at which you can brake effectively is to hold the bullhorns on the side, as shown below. This is also the primary bullhorn hand position. Holding at the cyclocross brake lever position is too dangerous as it is too narrow for you to control the bike properly at high speeds.

Primary hand position for bullhorns

Hand position during braking. However, the grip on the handlebar is less secure.

When coasting downhill, you will need to brace your hand against the hoods, or grip the handlebar tightly. In the primary hand position for the bullhorn, it is not possible to brace the hands against the hoods. Therefore it is essential to maintain a firm grip on the bullhorns. However, there is a need to open up the fingers of the hand to grip the brake levers when braking for the corners, as shown above. This means that during braking, the hand is kept in that position only by friction between the bar tape and the palm!

I found myself constantly switching between gripping firmly and braking, but it is not possible to maintain a firm grip and also brake at the same time. 

Another one of the major reasons why I got bullhorns is so that I can use the time trial position, where I can rest my elbows on the handlebars, go low and aerodynamic.

TT position, with the hand gripping the "horns" and the forearm resting on the handlebar. However, the elbow is too far back, and it is very tiring to maintain this position.

Alternative TT position, with optimum elbow position for comfort. However, there is nothing to grip, and this makes the ride unstable.

Eventually, I found that there is no suitable TT position for these bullhorns, as the positions are either too tiring for the arms or too unstable to use safely.

Overall, changing to bullhorns has more advantages than disadvantages. I know that there are other Dahon folding bikes which have also been converted to bullhorns. This makes the bike really fun to ride, and can also seem faster!

I will soon be posting the next part of Journey of the Boardwalk, where I will document the conversion of my Dahon Boardwalk TT to a Boardwalk X20-R!


  1. For your "Alternative TT position", have you considered installing clip-on aero bars? This give you a stable set of pads to rest your elbows, allowing you to get into a more aerodynamic position.

    The downsides however are that it could perhaps adversely affect folding and the aero position (with limited access to brakes) are a dangerous position to be in when maneuvering in traffic.

    However if you are planning on doing long touring rides to M'sia perhaps, they would be a great investment for both speed and comfort esp on those long deserted stretches of road!


  2. Thanks Julian for your suggestions!

    I have in fact considered aerobars, but then they stick out waayyy too much! Much more than dropbars or bullhorns. This will not be acceptable for folding bikes I'm afraid.

    Also, the steering for folding bikes are usually more sensitive than full sized bikes, and are less stable. So it will be quite dangerous to use on folding bikes unless you are very skilled.

    Anyway, I have discovered a similar TT position on my new dropbars (blog post not yet published). Will be updating it soon!

  3. How do you find the Pro-lite Trieste Bullhorn bar? Max width is 440mm, is there others that are even wider?

    1. Bullhorn bars that are too wide will not be comfortable, as you will find your arms spreading too wide. Measure your shoulder width, the bars should be at a width where your arms can be extended straight instead of inwards or outwards.

  4. Hi, what are the things i needed to change if i want install a bullhorn bar to my dahon speed P8?

    1. there are quite a few things you need to change your bike to bullhorn bars.

      First you should change to 9 or 10 speeds, as it will make finding suitable components much easier.

      Do read through the articles as there are some upgrades that were made later on, that replaced previous components. Such as using caliper brakes instead of V brakes with Travel Agents.

      Most of the info you need are on this blog, you should be able to find it.

    2. Wanna ask also that the Shimano Ultegra 6700 crank. There is like 170mm - 53.39t, 165mm - 53.39t etc..
      And those 105 cassette with 11-28, 12-27 etc.
      How would we know that which is the specific ones that is require to use.
      Anyway, nice blog! Learnt quite a lot from here.

  5. those are your choices. usually taller people will go for longer cranks, standard is 170mm. the cassette you use will determine the gears you have. a smaller gear such as 11T will give you high gears for speed, a large sprocket such as 30T will give you a low gear for climbing.