What is Handlebar Tape

handlebar tape

Your handlebars become tattered, worn, and downright difficult to use (not to mention sticky/melty depending on what grips you have).

The bicycle in question has been put through its paces, and the wear and tear is beginning to outshine the rest of it.

What do you do?

You add handlebar tape. It’s not perfect, it’s not the most aesthetic thing in the world, but it’s a quick and inexpensive way to restore your handlebars in little to no time at all so you don’t have to worry about your hands slipping on your morning commute.

For Consistent Cyclists

If you cycle consistently, or have just about any bicycle that’s designed for adult use, then you’re probably using drop handles.

Just like what you’d expect, they extend out from the handlebars and then drop down to appear vertical by the sides of your bike.

This is more common in street bikes than mountain bikes. These drop handles give you an excellent grip over your bicycle handlebar while still having handling over everything in front of you. While they can take a while to get used to compared to straight handlebars, such as on mountain bikes, they definitely have their advantages.

Consistent cyclists, whether you use drop handles or not, will be able to benefit from handlebar tape. This is a tactile grip tape that covers your handlebars to increase your grip, whether you wear cycling gloves or not.

If you use your bicycle all the time, you’re going to wear down those handlebar grips that came with it. That’s where tape comes into play.

Why Should I Use Handlebar Tape?

handlebar tape

Handlebar tape can be used on a variety of bikes, but it’s not about compatibility, it’s about how it comes in handy and why you should bother with it in the first place.

By all means, let the stock handlebar coverings run their course, but when they wear down these are the reasons you should use handlebar tape to replace it.

  • It’s thinner than plush handlebar covers (either foam, faux leather, or rubber ones) so you’re getting more direct, immediate contact with the handlebars. You’re not pushing on a thick grip and then focusing on that kinetic energy to be transferred to the handlebars; you just feel it more often than not and have that direct action that you can take.
  • Oftentimes, it will outlast thicker handlebar coverings. Handlebar tape is designed to be as heat resistant as possible, meaning that even on those ultra hot summer days where you’re riding for 90+ minutes, it’s going to resist as much heat as possible and keep the tape bounding to your handlebars.
  • These grips are designed to stay tactile, so you can avoid your hands slipping on the handles even when you’re feeling a bit sweaty that day. However, these also run out the same way that handlebars do, which is why I want to discuss some of the cons of handlebar tape before we talk about replacement times.
  • It’s inexpensive. Handlebar tape is going to cost you half or less than the price of a new set of handlebar grips, whether that’s rubber or faux leather. You’re not going to spend a lot on this, and one roll of handlebar tape can last for absolute ages.
  • It’s not a perfect solution, but nine out of ten cyclists would rather have it than stock handlebars (that’s a humorous made-up figure, but out of personal experiences, most of the riders I talk to prefer handlebar tape).
  • Your hands may hurt more often. If you’re a hard gripper of the handlebars, you’re not going to have that plushness that you’re probably used to by now. Even so, give it a shot for a while before you decide whether or not it’s too hard of a surface to hold onto. This is all about personal preference.
  • The tactile feeling, depending on the type of tape you choose, can be kind of sandpaper-ey. It’s actually preferred that you wear gloves while cycling with handlebar tape. Different brands and features need to be taken into account here. There are smooth variants of handlebar tape, but then you have an issue with hand sweat making it slick and losing that tactile feeling.
  • If you get a handlebar tape that doesn’t work for you… well, it’s a waste of money. Just about every grip can be used until it runs its course, but handlebar tape is something people tend to get specific over. That being said, you aren’t spending nearly as much, so it’s a low-risk investment since most big name handlebar tapes tend to be widely used and revered.

How Often do I Need to Replace it?

replace handlebar tape

It wouldn’t really be sufficient to just say “As needed” or something vague like that, but it’s kind of true.

The best way to gauge whether or not you need to replace your handlebar tape is by looking at our list of questions that you should ask yourself, right below here.

Is it beginning to tear?

Handlebar tape is, well, tape. It’s not a permanent fixture, which is kind of the idea behind it. You can peel it off and swap it out as necessary and provided that you’re not being ridiculously hard on your bike all the time, that should be about once per year.

Do you leave it outside when not in use?

This one is important, because constant humidity is going to wear down the handlebar tape bonding agent more than anything else. If you live in a humid area, you might need to replace this every three months if you have no choice but to store it outside.

It’s also important to note that heat is going to decay that binding agent as well, so you will run into some issues with keeping this outdoors no matter what. That is unless you have a temperature controlled shed, but… who has one of those?

How often do you use it?

An avid cyclist will go through handlebar tape faster than a casual biker. Bicycle commuters will go through this at an even pace, especially since you’re usually not going off of sick jumps in the dirt or trying to hit ridiculous speeds to work up a sweat, so there’s less intense wear and tear on the handlebar tape. I mean, if you want to punch 35 MPH on a bicycle just to get to work, be my guest.

Are you using gloves?

Glove materials are meant to be grippy, which can be abrasive to your handlebar tape. Don’t get me wrong; it’s good because it leaves you less vulnerable to damaging your hands, and keeps excellent traction against just about anything. But since the handlebar tape is slightly textured, you’re going to grind that finish off whether you intend to or not.

You get a whole roll of tape, and while it’s not enough to cover a dozen handlebars, it could be enough for three or four uses.

If it lasts you for one year each time you tape it up, and that roll cost you about half of the cost of cheapo depot rubber handlebar grips, then you have about eight years of tactile handlebars for the same cost. I’d say that any day, especially since that rubber would last 18 months to maybe two years at most anyway.

I’ve Read That Handlebar Tape Lasts 20 Years, Is That True?

tape duration

Is it supposed to? Sure: in laboratory-controlled conditions. These companies that say their tape lasts longer than the other guy may have some stock to their claims.

Their bonding agents might be better, the starting materials might be stronger and last longer, but at the end of the day any handlebar tape is going to succumb to wear and tear.

Brand A might last you for twenty years on the package, but put that through real-life conditions. Lasting and being up-to-snuff are two different claims, mind you.

That tape is going to degrade, just like we mentioned, so you’re going to get a slick feeling that isn’t as grippy or tactile as how the tape was when you bought it. It happens to every tape from every brand, some may just take more time to reach this point.

Remember that marketing is designed to get you to like brand A over brand B, and they are a business. They want your money, so if they can legally claim they’re better than the other guy, then they will do so. Go for something inexpensive with decent durability to save your money, and still get excellent utility out of your handlebar tape.

A Worthwhile Investment for Serious Riders

Handlebar tape isn’t for everyone. I don’t see a lot of mountain bike users applying handlebar tape, but street bike users will definitely see a lot of use here.

If you use a bicycle for commuting, you fall in the targeted range of 10-15 hours of weekly use that you typically need to have before you wear down those handlebars in the first place.

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