Everyone has their own way of taping handlebars. Here’s ours.
As with everything in cycling there are several ways to wrap bar tape and, of course, someone will always tell you that the method you use could be improved upon. That’s their prerogative, of course, but I’m very happy with the method I use. It allows for the fact that when in the drops you will be applying ‘outward’ twisting force on the bars but when on the tops the twisting force will be towards you – in the opposite direction. Wrapping the tape ‘with’ the direction of the twisting force means you won’t be trying to unravel the tape while you ride.
If you are re-wrapping your bars remove the old bar tape and clean the bars to remove any residue and old adhesive. On steel or aluminium bars you could use a solvent such as nail varnish remover but be careful what you use on carbon bars, I recommend just using washing up liquid and water if you’re concerned about using a solvent.
Wash and dry your hands, especially if the tape is a light colour.
You will need a good pair of scissors, and I always hang the tape finishing strips (or electrical tape), with any backing removed, from the edge of a convenient worksurface or shelf so I can reach them easily without having to unroll them and cut them to size while holding the tension on the tape with my other hand!
Roll the rubber brake hoods forward as far as they will go. Also, if the position of your levers has been bothering you – a lot of people have them too low – now is the time to adjust them. Rotate the bars in the stem if you need to and if you are also moving the levers on the bars use a tape measure to get the position of both of them the same.
I always start at the ends of the bars and wind toward the stem.
The reason for this is the direction of the overlap. If you wrap this way the layers overlap like tiles on a roof, with the upper edge of the tape protected by the next winding of tape. Water can’t get under the edge and hand pressure will not roll the edges open either.
If the cables are going to run under the tape it is important to tape the cables tightly to the handlebar before wrapping your new bar tape so that they don’t move around, both when fitting the tape and when the brakes are applied.
I wind a continuous spiral of tape along the top of the bar and around the cable. Obviously you need to judge where your bar tape will end and not go beyond that point with your securing tape.
If the bars don’t have a cable channel I position the cable toward the front underside of the bars if I can. I find this to be the most comfortable position as the cable doesn’t apply any unwanted pressure across the ‘heel’ of your hand or under your palms or fingers. If you are running both brake and gear cables under the tape you will probably position them with one cable to the front of the bars and one to the back. In both cases, again I position them towards the bottom of the bars for comfort.
Make sure any curves in the cables are smooth and in a wide arc with no kinks.
The key to good application of handlebar tape is tension.
As you wind the tape onto the bars, you should pull it quite tight at all times, never letting it go slack. You should pull the tape hard enough that it feels like the tape is stretching a little. Don’t go too mad though, particularly if you are reusing old tape which might have some nicks along the edges.
Good tension keeps the tape from slipping, and also reduces the tendency of the tape to wrinkle where it goes around the curves of the handlebar.
Applying the tape
Your new tape should come with two extra strips of tape, these are to hide the gap that is often left at the back of the lever when you wrap the tape around it. If not you’ll need to cut some off the end of the reel of tape for each side of the handlebars. I actually find most manufacturers supply a piece which is too long, 3″ is enough.
Peel the tape off the back of these and position them where you can reach them with one hand while you are wrapping the tape. You could put them in position over the back of the levers but modern thick, padded tapes will not stay in place in my experience.
Starting with the right side, if the tape has adhesive backing unpeel about a foot of the protective cover from it. Start by placing the end of the tape under the end of the bars with about two thirds of the width of the tape hanging over the edge, which we’ll tuck into the bar end later. If the tape has adhesive it should just be grabbing the end of the bar.
You will be wrapping clockwise on the right side and counter-clockwise on the left so make sure the tape is facing the correct way.
Now you can start wrappping diagonally up the bar. Make sure each rotation overlaps the previous by about 1/2 to 1/3 and make sure the adhesive on the back of the tape is always contacting the bars.
Don’t forget to keep constant tension on the tape.
Pull off the adhesive backing as you go, as this will keep it from getting dirty until you’re ready to apply it.
Be very careful as the bars curve up towards the levers. This is where most errors are made as it’s easy to get the inside of the curve looking good and forget that the radius is much greater on the outside. It’s annoying to finish wrapping and then find a huge gap in the tape on the outside of the curved part of the bars meaning you have to unravel two-thirds of the tape and do it again. With some tapes the adhesive is so aggressive you may even have to ditch the tape and buy some more.
To avoid this, concentrate on the outside of the curve, making sure to maintain the same overlap. This will mean that on the inside of the curve you’l be overlapping the tape much more, possibly even completely on bars with a very tight curve, but that’s fine.
When you get to the brake lever, make sure the top edge of the tape touches the bottom edge of the brake lever housing in order to avoid leaving a gap.
Now, grab one of the short strips of tape I mentioned earlier and place it over the back of the lever. Pull the tape around the back end of the brake clamp and diagonally upwards over the top of the short strip, gripping it in place.
Reverse the rotation direction
To be perfectly honest, with modern adhesive backed tapes this is perhaps not really necessary but I’m ‘old school’ and come from a time before adhesive backed tapes existed. I still think it makes sense to do this but it’s up to you.
To do this, instead of continuing with the wrap in the same direction, bring the tape over the top and back down and under the lever body at the front of the bars.
You will then be able to wrap diagonally back up and over the short piece of tape on the back of the lever again, but this time it will be the opposite diagonal from the first time.
That probably makes no sense so the pictures with white bar tape should explain it better.
Tension is very important at this stage, and make sure the first wrap above the lever overlaps the top of the lever body a little. Try to work out where the brake hood will sit when you roll it back to help avoid gaps. You can even flick the hood back to check what it will cover.
Now pull the tape around and continue wrapping the top section of handlebar. You should be taping it toward the bike if the direction change has been successful.
Stop wrapping when you get to about two inches from the stem. If you have handlebar accessories you may want to leave some extra room for them to clamp on.
Before you finish, it’s a good idea to go back and check that there are no gaps in the tape.
Cut and finish
Holding the tape in place, unwrap the last few inches of tape and cut diagonally with a pair of scissors so that you are left with a clean cut which is parallel with the stem. If you don’t do this you will have a fat last rotation or will need to use more tape to hide the end.
Grab a tape finishing strip and wrap it in the same direction as the bar tape as tightly as you can to hold the tape tight. Make sure to pull the tape so that it stretches nice and evenly.
I like to wrap this finishing strip so it runs exactly along the edge of the bar tape and not onto the bars as I think it looks neatest. Some people overlap the end of the handlebar tape and completely seal it with the electrical tape. Your call. I try to get the end of the finishing strip at the bottom of the bars so it can’t be seen.
If you’ve used electrical insulating tape here you will find that the end doesn’t stick very well and you’ll be constantly pressing it back down. If you have a soldering iron you can heat it up and lightly run it along the end of the insulating tape to seal it.
Once the wrapping is done, go back to the bar end and tuck the extra tape into the handlebar using the bar plug. This will make it hard to fit the plug in, but if you push it hard enough with the heel of your hand or use a rubber mallet to tap it in gently it should fit and leave your handlebar ends tidy.
If, like me, you are fussy about aesthetics make sure any logos on the bar end plugs are the right way up.
To wrap the left side, repeat the same procedure but remember to start wrapping the tape counter-clockwise instead. The left side should end up being an exact mirror image of the right. I like to measure the distance from the end of the last wrap to the stem and make a small mark on the opposite bar at the same distance to show where to finish.
The last step is to flip your brake hoods back to where they were. They should nicely cover the tape you wrapped around the levers.