Bike Repair – Replacing Handlebar Tape

Cyclist putting bar tape on his bike.

With the new season comes the desire to spruce up your beloved bike. Our expert mechanics reveals some simple steps for freshening up your bars.

Retaping your bars is one of the easier and more rewarding jobs you can do to prepare your bike for the next road season. Dark colors wear longer, but as you’re staring down at your handlebars all day it might be nice to try a bright, vivid hue. You never know, it could make you go faster! But before you get started, consider buying a new set of bars. Always play it safe: replace them after a maximum of five years of ‘normal’ use, or every three years or less under heavy racing and training use. If you’re sticking with retaping your bars for now, here are our tips. Ask a bike shop professional to tackle any steps that are beyond your abilities.

Prep and inspect

Begin by removing all the old tape and any padding, then check your bars for scratches, nicks or other damage. In particular, look out for deep cuts or grooves, especially under clamp areas for computers, lights, stem clamps and brake/shifter clamps; it’s a good idea to remove these and have a look underneath in ample light. Replace the bars if necessary. Now reapply a light coating of grease to alloy bar/alloy clamp combos to prevent creaking, or assembly paste to any carbon bar or stem combination. Clean the bars with a suitable product (WD-40 on carbon and alloy, or white spirit on alloy bars) followed by soap and water, but nothing caustic. The old adhesive will come away with a rough cloth and a little insistence.

Sort out cables

While you’re at it, inspect your gear and brake cable housing for cracks, kinks and corrosion. SIS outers will often fracture near the entry to the frame barrel adjusters, while the nylon covering will wear away through chafing, allowing moisture into the cables. It’s a good time to put this right, as well as adjusting and trimming the lengths in order to get the best and smoothest cable run possible. You can use the Shimano shrouds pictured above to tidy things up (these were included with aero brake lever kits, but well established bike shops should have some squirrelled away that they can sell you). When you’ve settled on the correct position, tape up the outers tightly against the bars: this will prevent squirming under load.

Filling groovy

Fill in any empty grooves with suitable material, in this case a stretch of Teflon lining tucked into the slot. Another option is to trim a suitable strip or two of used handlebar tape, secured into place with electrical tape. Or simply to fit a piece of brake or SIS outer to keep the shape of the bar round. If you’re looking for more comfort or experience sore palms, different types of padding are available and can be added as desired. Specialized’s Body Geometry Bar Phat gel inserts are excellent, while Marsas makes a lightweight type of foam. Or there’s Bontrager’s Gel Cork tape with integral gel padding, which is also excellent and is a lot simpler to install as there are no separate strips to fit into place.

Begin taping

Some tape brands print their logos evenly spaced and designed to show at every turn; if you start winding with the logos visible you might get them to line up along the top of the bar with a little practice. You can start the wrap by simply overlapping the first winding once, then proceeding diagonally upwards, overlapping by about a third of the tape width. This will leave a small bump at the start of the bar. If you prefer a smooth, flat appearance then start winding with the tape already positioned diagonally. Once the entire stretch has been completely wrapped, carefully trim the overhanging edge with a sharp blade, using the edge of the bar as a guide. This will give you a smooth, flat start.

Looping the loop

Looping around the brake levers can be another tricky job, since you’ll be trying to create a tidy transition from the bottom of the bar, around the hood and upwards while maintaining an even overlap of about a third of the width. The shape and position of the brake lever hood and clamp will determine the method required. Both Shimano and SRAM have about the same clamp location, and have a small gap between the bar and the bottom end of the resin body. This allows the tape to be slipped sideways into the gap, meaning the clamp can be concealed with a horizontal strip placed across it. Ensure the looped tape doesn’t cover any of the locator tab holes. If it does, reposition or snip the tape as necessary.

Campag hoods

Campagnolo levers require a slightly different technique. The resin body occupies more space on the bar and comes into direct contact with it all the way around, so the tape can’t be tucked between the lower edge of the body and bar. This creates a larger gap that needs to be concealed if you want a tidy appearance. Cut two strips about two inches long and place them vertically on either side of the metal clamp, lined up against the resin body. These will help conceal the clamp in those areas left exposed when criss-crossing the Ergo body. Once you’ve finished wrapping, ensure the tape doesn’t interfere with the hood anchor tabs, which need to nestle in their respective slots. Use a sharp blade to trim a notch in the tape if required.

Finishing school

Once you’re satisfied with the spacing of your turns and the overall look of the tape job you can proceed with finishing the wrap in one of two ways: either with a bump (less elegant) or without. For the former option simply wrap the tape so that it ends square, then finish and hold in place with a few loops of black electrical tape, leaving a little lump. Otherwise, continue taping the bar diagonally over the center bulge a bit. Hold the final stretch suspended over the transition line and use scissors for an angled cut across the tape but in line with thebar bulge or sleeve edge. Finish with a narrow strip of electrical tape wrapped three or four times around the bar, cut diagonally. The finishing tape strips provided never work, so don’t use them.

Pick and choose

Cotton tape feels good and gives that perfect retro look. Still popular on the velodrome and brilliant for fashionable fixies, the coarse weave texture and lack of padding give an unmatched grip while enhancing the direct feel and sense of control over the bike. When it gets faded you can simply double it up by adding a second layer. Work from the bottom up, which will create an overlap pattern that prevents the tape curling away at the top bend due to prolonged palm pressure. For a different look, why not stretch some leather across your bars? The warm, natural feel has just the right amount of grip, gets better with age and adds an extra touch of class to any bike. Install at room temperature in clean conditions.

Extra credit

Improve your grip or add a splash of color by replacing your hoods. When the rubber gets old and perished, these can drift from their correct positions and interfere with your shifting. Campag hoods are more prone to this, as their rubber formula is a little gummier and seems more susceptible to caustic hand sweat and pressure, causing them to soften and distort over time. Use some slightly soapy warm water as a lube and pry the hoods off with a bamboo chopstick, tyre lever or ball-ended Allen key, as above. Place the new hoods in warm water to make them more malleable and minimize the risk of tearing. Roll the rubber back halfway, loop over the brake levers and pry over the Ergo bump; stretch out, then insert locator tabs.

Plug and play

Finish off with a really good set of handlebar plugs. Play it safe and make sure you never go riding without them. The traditional threaded expander models, such as the Specialized ones pictured above, are excellent. When screwed in firmly they don’t fall out again easily, and if you do hit the deck they shouldn’t get yanked out on the first bounce, so you won’t be impaled on the second. These are particularly useful on track bikes. If the plugs provided in your tape packaging are too loose for your bar diameter, just bulk them up with a few wraps of electrical tape until they’re wedged in tightly. Or, proceeding straight on from step four, simply tuck in and plug the tape surplus rather than trimming it. Job done!

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