How to Put on Bar Tape
So a new shiny bar tape has caught your eye but you're a bit worried about fitting it yourself? Fear not, for doing your own bar tape is easily achievable: bar taping is a skill which is relatively quick to learn and requires no specialist equipment.
In my former life as a bike mechanic in a busy cycle workshop, fitting new handlebar tape offered a nice respite from the day-to-day jobs of speedy while-you-wait puncture repairs, hardcore services and fiddly tasks like setting up tiny balance-bike brakes. It brought a touch of creativity into the workshop realm, which added to the sense of satisfaction gained from doing a good job well. Unlike many other workshop jobs, the finished product would not only work better or feel better but would also look better.
Wrapping handlebar tape is up there among my favourite bike maintenance jobs (in fact it is my favourite). To me, standing back and admiring well-fitted new bar tape is as rewarding as feeling the bite of new brake pads or the glide and click of a well set-up drivetrain with shiny new componentry. However, fitting new bar tape can have some downsides. Having to remove bar tape which you know is saturated with the build-up of somebody else’s congealed sweat is not particularly fun. Arundel have got it down to a tee in their bar taping instructions: “Remove stinky old tape and scrub sweat residue off bars”. The problem of dealing with someone else’s sweat is, of course, not a problem if you are applying bar tape to your own bike.
The following sections will give you some tips and tricks on how to bar tape your bicycle which I picked up during my time as a bike mechanic.
Around one hour to do a good job.
What you need
Bar tape and bar plugs (finishing tape optional)
Disc brake cleaner/degreaser (optional, to clean bars if necessary)
A hex key to remove expandable elastomer bar ends (if applicable)
Your wits about you, and a good dose of patience!
1. Picking the bar tape
Of course there are other (more important) considerations such as comfort, grippiness and (most important of all?) appearance. For ease of wrapping the bar tape alone, a cork, gel or other stretchy bar tape will make it much easier to get the perfect finish because you can vary the tension of the tape to get a consistent bar-hugging finish. What I’m basically saying is, if you want to adorn your handsome vintage steed with some dead-classy leather bar tape (as we wanted to with our 1980s tandem), please be prepared for a bit of a struggle for a good finish.
*In this example we used the Cinelli Mike Giant Tape, which isn't the easiest tape to put on because it doesn't stretch or flex very much, but does look amazing when it is finished!
I prefer to bar tape with the bike on the ground rather than in a workstand because I think for this particular job the bike is more stable and naturally at around the right height for working on. It is also easier to brace against the bike to get the tension of the bar tape right while you are applying it if the bike is on the ground.
Sometimes it feels like you need three arms when you’re doing a particularly complex bit of bar taping. To make it easier, it helps to have everything you need within easy grabbing reach. The key things you are likely to wish you had got out and ready at the start are scissors and electrical tape – keep these on a handy nearby ledge or in an apron pocket. You may also need disc brake cleaner or degreaser for cleaning the bars before putting the new tape on.
If you are feeling a bit squeamish at the thought of touching sweaty bar tape you could put some gloves on for the tape removal. Wearing old clothes will mean that getting slightly grimy (e.g. when bracing the front of the bike) won't be an issue.
3. Removing the old bar tape
Before undoing the tape, it makes sense to pull the brake hood lever back so that you can get the tape out from under it.
Hint: I like to take one side of bar tape off at a time so the old tape provides a ‘reference point’ for when I’m redoing the tape on the other side in case I get a mental block on something.
Start removing the bar tape by undoing the eletrical tape or finishing tape at the top end of the bars by finding the end of the tape and unravelling it like a roll of sticky tape). If this is proving to be a bit of a struggle you could also carefully use a utility knife or scissors to slice through the end (avoiding cables or scratching your bars).
Once you have unrolled the tape to the end, the bar plug will either pop out (if it is a ‘push in’ plug) or, if it is an ‘expandable elastomer plug’ you will need to undo the hex key in the centre of the bar end plug to compress the elastomer holding the plug in place to be able to pull the bar end out. You can feel the bolt getting looser and giving way as you undo it, it will be a few turns until it is loose enough to take out.
4. Cleaning the handlebars
Once the tape is off, if necessary scrape any old tape off using a fingernail (or a small flathead screwdriver if it is particularly stubborn and you aren’t too precious about the finish of your bars under the tape – and if they aren’t carbon). To get any stubborn glue off, disc brake cleaner or degreaser will work a treat (it will evaporate quickly and won’t damage the bars).
5. Checking the brake lever position and cable alignment
Replacing the bar tape can be a good opportunity for moving your brake levers if you have felt that they are in the wrong place (tips on handlebar position would justify a whole other blog post so I won’t go into detail here), because there is more scope to move them more significantly than when the bar tape is already on. If you have brake cables which go under the bar tape, it is also worth checking the alignment of the cables if they run underneath the bar tape (they should be held in place on the handlebar in two or three places with electrical tape). Some bars have a groove for the cables, others you can usually tell where will be most comfortable/functional to have them.
Now for the exciting bit!
Deciding on the direction of the tape
I always get both pieces of bar tape out and have a good look at them first to work out which way up I want them to be on each side – I have not yet come across bar tape which is specific to a certain side of the handlebars. With some designs, there may be a way to get each side to look similar, with other it will be inevitable that they don’t match or mirror each other because the writing or design will be reversed on one side compared with the other. Also, some designs are laid out to be wrapped a certain way - for example, the Cinelli Mike Giant tape (the tape used in this example) has the design offset so it isn’t covered by the overlapping tape.
Starting to wrap the tape
Your pack of bar tape may have included extra strips of bar tape around 7cm long; these are to go around the inside of your brake levers. If separate strips of bar tape weren't included in the pack you can cut a strip off the end of each roll for each side.
If you are using a bar tape with strong adhesive you will be able to add the strip at the start and it will stay in place while you bar tape up to the brake lever.
If when you try to stick the strip over the brake lever it pings straight off again you will need to put it to one side until you have reached the lever and can hold it in place whilst bar taping over it.
Once you’ve decided which way up you want the bar tape, you start from the bottom of the bars and wrap from the inside of the bars to the outside (i.e. clockwise from the rider’s position for the right hand side and anti-clockwise from the left hand side). Don’t forget to remove the strip over the adhesive in the centre of the tape if the tape you are using has this.
The first few wrapping movements are important: first the tape should be wrapped around with some overlap ‘overhanging’ the end of the bars. I normally aim for around half the width of the tape and, starting from the underside of the bars, go round once before beginning to tape up the bar.
Each layer of tape should be angled upwards and should overlap about half of the already-wrapped tape (the adhesive should be going over the bars more than the already-wrapped tape), with nice even-width bands.
Wrapping around the brake lever (road handlebars with STI shifters)
The lever hood should already be peeled back from removing your old bar tape.
Hint: Before going around the brake lever, it is probably worth checking your bar tape coverage so far, as it is better to notice patches where the ‘bands’ have gone too wide or where there is a bit of a flap earlier rather than later.
It is at this stage of the bar taping that you will probably wish you had three hands. If the strip of bar tape isn't sticking onto the brake lever by itself, hold the very ends of this firmly in place with one hand. Using your other hand wrap the bar tape up as far as the lever so it overlaps the strip and then bring it from the inside over to the top of the bars.
Hint: Once I have bar taped around the brake lever and onto the top section of the bars, I pull the brake lever hood down to check the bar taping around the brake lever looks okay.
Now you can carry on taping the same way you were on the lower section of bars (along the top of the bars your tape will be coming from behind the bars to in front of the bars).
Decide where you want the bar tape to finish (considerations: amount of space you need on your bars for gear e.g. lights, device mount). Wrap roughly up to where you want the tap to finish and, to get a straight finish, from the front of the bike pull the tape downwards at an angle pointing towards the stem. Using scissors, cut the tape vertically so you are left with a ‘tapered end’.
Hint: if you are using a very stretchy tape, holding the tape on the inside of where you are cutting will mean it won’t spring back and unwind itself once you have cut it.
Now you can test where the tape will finish on the bars by wrapping it up to the end and checking you are happy with this. If it is too short, tough, if you would like it a bit shorter or would like the tape to finish in a different place you could try cutting a bit more off at the same angle.
Once you are happy, use electrical tape to secure the bar tape – attach it so that it is continuing in the same direction as the bar tape and wrap it round a couple of times, trying to overlap as neatly as possible.
Trim the electrical tape so that it finishes on the underside of the bars for a neat finish which is less likely to get rubbed or caught. Any finishing tape that came with the bar tape can be added over the electrical tape if you wish.
Hint: If I am using quite a short piece of finishing tape I like to test out where to start taping from to make sure the tape finishes on the underside of the bars.
Inserting the bar ends
If you have expandable elastomer bar ends, happy days, if not, I like to add a tiny bit of superglue to the edge of the bar end plug to encourage it to stay in a bit more (this will stick to the extra tape rather than the bars). With the elastomer-style bar end, you can tell when the hex key bolt is expanded enough because you will feel it tightening as it expands.
Bar taping the other side
Repeat the above, but mirror the direction the handlebar tape is wrapped (so that you still go from the inside of the handlebars to the outside). Make sure you are using the right end of the tape for the pattern on the tape of the direction you want it to be in relation to the side you have already put the new bar tape on.
Hint: To make sure the two sides match, I like to count the number of ‘bands’ of tape on the bars to make sure either side is wrapped identically.
And... you're done!
Time to finish off your cup of tea (or treat yourself to another one) and stand back and admire your handiwork.
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