Friday, December 16, 2011

BIKE REPAIR: Not Gift Wrapping - Bar Wrapping

Happy weekend pedalers,
Lately I've been thinking about wrapping handlebars (much easier than wrapping gifts I think), and it's among the most frequent and fun maintenance tasks on road bikes - so it's a good skill to work on and get good at. I taught myself how to do it and then learned the "proper" method working at a Schwinn shop in 1973. We sold 1,000 Varsity 10-speeds a year and taped every one the same way: top of the bars to the bottom of the bars.

Top-to-bottom or vise versa
To explain, when wrapping drop handlebars you have a choice. You can start at the top of the handlebars or you can start at the bottoms - the ends of the bars. Today, it's almost an absolute that you wrap bottom-to-top. Because this overlaps the tape like roof shingles.

And just like a proper shingle job keeps rain from getting under the shingles, wrapping handlebars bottom to top prevents the natural downward pressure of your hands from rolling and peeling your tape.

This photo is borrowed from the awesome BikeCult site
What's funny is that we didn't see many problems wrapping all those Schwinns the wrong way back in the day (the Varsity tape was a sticky vinyl unlike most tapes today and that helped).

Plus, taping that way results in a super-clean look since there's nothing on the bars except bar tape. The ends of the tape get neatly tucked into the handlebar end caps that press in when you finish the job (also called plugs).

Speaking of handlebar plugs, here are some cool ones in Speedplay's Museum. It's too bad that you don't find stylish ones like these anymore.

Electrical tape is for electricians not bicycles
When you wrap the "right" way, bottom to top, you have to do something to secure the ends of the tape at the top. Tape comes with finishing strips, two adhesive pieces designed to be used for this purpose. But, it doesn't usually work very well. So most mechanics finish a tape job with plain old, rather boring electrical tape, albeit sometimes in a fancy fashion wrapping several different colors to provide a custom look.

A quick aside: In the BikeCult fancy tape photo above, the master taper avoids the issue of peeling, unraveling tape, and also the issue of having to finish the tape at the top by criss-crossing/weaving the tape on. This creates that wonderfully whimsical tape job but it takes some patience and skill to pull off. Note that they used cloth tape (great-feeling stuff if you've never ridden with it). You can also do it with non-padded thin plastic tape. We used to do it with Benotto.

Another trick to avoid finishing at the top is to wrap from the bottom to the brake lever and from the top to the brake lever and then hide the tape ends at the brake lever beneath the hoods. But that one's hard to do too and I've never mastered it.

Make it stand out or hide it
The white finishing tape almost disappears
Like most mechanics I finish my bar taping jobs with electrical tape. To me it's important to finish with a single-width wrapped twice around the bar with the end hidden on the bottom.

Sometimes I will use a narrow strip on top of the first full strip in a contrasting color to add style points. But only if the tape job and bike call out for it. Often it looks best if the electrical tape is the same color as the handlebar tape and blends in when you're done.

Still, finishing with electrical tape bothers me. It's made for wiring, not bicycles, after all. You buy it in a hardware store not a bike shop. Now, you can alternatively glue the end of the tape to itself to finish a tape job, but it's hard to do it and have it look nice. And if the glue lets go, the tape comes loose and unravels when you're riding, which is a pain. That's the same issue when you use the provided finishing strips.

I should also note that some people like having the electrical tape as finishing tape because they feel it gives them something to fix things with if they have a mechanical while out riding. It could be used to patch a tire cut or to tape a broken spoke so it doesn't thrash your bike as you wobble home and so on.

The Rivendell way
But I am still thinking about a better way. Along that vein, watch this nice video to check out how Rivendell's wrenches finish the cloth tape jobs on their sweet rides. (The video won't display if you're reading this in your email, so please click the link to my blog to watch it.)

I might experiment with this technique on my bar tape with a colored nylon or plastic thread/string. Another thought is to make small carbon (?) collars that you would slip over the bars and tighten. Maybe I'll pitch that idea to a bar tape maker someday - a nice logo'd clamp like that would be a touch of class and they could make nicer bar ends to go with it while they're at it!

In closing, if any of you are using Lizard Skins DSP tape in a light color and have figured out how to clean it, I would love to know your secret. I have tried everything from water to acetone, from degreaser to bleach, and I can't clean mine. It's nice tape with a unique sticky grip and decent cushioning but not being able to clean it is a problem when you have a thing for yellow and white tape like I do. To see a pro mechanic wrap Lizard Skins tape really fast, watch this video.

Have fun with your bike this weekend,


Steve Wilson said...

I too enjoy bar tape and bar wrapping. I dont think Ive had tape ever last a year on any bike. I tried some cloth tape on my old bike and left it on there for one day. Didnt like it. Never used the twine to finish, but probably will one day when I try cloth tape again, next time in black.

Jim Langley said...

Thanks for the comment Steve, and the link to your fun blog. If you want to give cloth tape another chance you might try double-wrapping it - just two layers, one on top of the other. It's important to use good tape, too. Some is too thin. But the thicker stuff feels nice in a single layer but even nicer with a double layer and it should last a long time unless you ride tons and just wear it out from the weather and miles. I now use synthetic tapes as I mentioned but I rode cross country with cloth tape and kept that wrap job going for a couple of years. You can actually keep putting new tape on top instead of re-wrapping. Have fun and happy holidays!

Anonymous said...

Electrical tape isn't the only bike part that comes from the hardware store. So does linseed oil - the official spoke prep of retro-grouch wheel builders everywhere. Fausto Coppi would be OK with it.

Alex Pline said...

Interesting use of "end whipping". This is de rigueur in the marine world as the way to finish the end of a line so it won't unravel, but I had never thought of using in this context.

Dr Z said...

Interesting technique from Rivendell. However, I recommend using fiber-reinforced packing tape, rather than electrical tape, to secure the cable liners onto the handlebar. This is true for all techniques. Why? Electrical tape is flimsy and stretches easily. Fiber packing tape is nearly as light and thin, but does a much better job of securing the liner and preventing liner migration and flex.

Jim Langley said...

Actually, Dr. Z, I was going to comment in my piece that you don't need any tape for the cable housings that run under the bar wrap. That's the way a lot of people do it, but you don't need it at all. All you have to do is hold the cable housing where you want it as you wrap the handlebar tape and it will hold them just fine. I always trained my mechanics not to use it and save the tape for when it's needed. You might give it a try sometime. You might even find that your shifting and braking improves.

Jim Langley said...

Ha! That's a good point anonymous. Lots of lubes, etc. people use come from hardware stores too. You just don't see them so prominently like you do the finishing tape up there on top of the bars.

anonymous said...

Jim, did you ever interact with Frank The Welder when you were in Vermont? He made a pair of copper collars from copper pipe that just snug themselves over the end of the bar tape on top on one of his road bikes. Looks amazing, but I think he said it took him the best part of a day to make them!

Jim Langley said...

No, I never met Frank the Welder. I believe he came on the VT scene after I had moved on to CA. But that's a great idea to use copper from pipe. I still have some contacts in VT like Captain Dondo. I might reach out to him to learn more. Thanks for the lead!

Frank the Welder said...

Here is a pic of the copper tape ferrules mentioned by Camp6ell. They are made of copper tubes drawn over progressive arbors to the final size. The tape is double cloth.

Jim Langley said...

Thanks for the photo, Frank!! I love how the copper finishing collars look. Can you share the secret for installation? Are they slipped over the bars, tape wrapped and then slipped sideways over the tape to finish the job? Or is there a way to install the collars after the taping is done and then tighten them - maybe small screws hidden from view? However you did it, it's super cool. If it's okay I'm going to put your photo on the blog post so people can see it. Thanks a lot! Jim

Anonymous said...

Can't abide the wee bits of tape that come with the cork wrap. Never really got them to work properly. Learned to tie the Turks Head Knot in 2mm cord, AKA the boys scout woggle, finished the tape that way and have had no further problem. Also never really happy with the plastic bar end plugs. Found it much better to use the (plastic) corks from two bottles of cheapo champers. Works for me. Also gives the old hog a nautical touch.

Jim Langley said...

Those are great suggestions. Thank you! Here's a link to an animation showing how to tie the Turk's head knot: