Tested: Flat Handlebars on an Evil Chamois Hagar Gravel Bike
Why flat-bar gravel makes more sense than drop-bar mountain
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“Ok, we’ll send you a Chamois Hagar, but keep in mind that it’s not a typical gravel bike. Don’t go putting an 80-millimeter stem on it or anything.”
Sorry, Kevin Walsh, owner of Evil Bikes. Not only did I put an 80-millimeter stem on the Chamois Hagar, I also put on a flat handlebar, some flat-handlebar controls, and a pair of Sensus Meaty Paws. To understand exactly why, we have to rewind to the bike’s launch way back in December 2019.
I was with a different mountain bike publication at that time, where we had a strict No-Drop-Bars Policy. Even just writing about the launch of the Chamois Hagar felt like I was breaking the rules. But what I really wanted to do was review it. It was going to be tricky, though. I had relatively little experience in riding gravel bikes, and our audience had relatively little interest in reading about them. It was a niche within a niche, and the bandwidth it would take to cover it could have been better spent covering something with broader appeal. The idea sat in a spreadsheet, getting buried by other more endemic review pitches, and the product-release news cycle soon passed it by.
Then, about a year ago, I got to ride one. It was maybe five minutes on a dirt road, but it was the best five-minute-dirt-road-ride I’d ever had. I was expecting a sluggish, unfamiliar, wannabe mountain bike that would constantly remind me how cool and edgy it was when I just wanted it to behave. But it felt completely normal. I didn’t feel any floppyness in the steering, I had no problem making tight turns, and it was every watt as powerful a climber as I hoped it would be.
If you’ve never ridden a gravel bike, even back in the days when they were called cyclocross bikes, here’s the thing: They’re fast. It’s even more shocking than getting on a road bike. Of course road bikes are fast. They’re on the road. But get any smooth-tired, fully rigid, ultra light, laterally stiff bike out on the dirt, and it will suddenly make your mountain bike feel like a fatbike by comparison. This effect is less striking the less effort you put into the bike, but that’s the point: It makes you want to put in more effort. Even on a hardtail, getting out of the saddle is a lot less rewarding once you look down and see your energy disappearing into the fork, a device whose job it is to make energy disappear. Not so on the Chamois Hagar. It can be said of just about every gravel bike, but they make you want to cover ground and do it fast. Not only does this bike offer the encouragement of instant gratification, it’s oddly comfortable. It puts you in a position that would make any average mountain biker feel right at home, just with their wrists turned 90 degrees.
Sizing, though, is tricky. I felt most at home on a size large Chamois Hagar, though I take an XL in just about every brand of mountain bike this side of a Pole Machine. Size, of course, is a matter of preference, but I had my reasons. Treating the hoods as the “default” position, the centers of the heels of my hands were nearly 60 millimeters further ahead of the steerer tube than they would be if they were planted behind a flat bar. Given that I like a bike with a 500mm reach, the 440mm reach size large felt more familiar. Also, comparing effective top-tube lengths, the size large Chamois Hagar is a tad longer than my size XL 2012 Giant Defy endurance road bike.
Kevin Walsh, hearing me using a sizing theory based partly in mountain bikes and partly in road bikes, then made that statement warning me against installing a longer stem if I had a change of heart about the size large. I soon would have a change of heart, but not one I was expecting.
Evil’s concept behind the Chamois Hagar made perfect sense to me. Riding gravel bikes on anything much beyond gravel can be a little terrifying. A longer wheelbase, a slacker head angle, and for god’s sake, a dropper seatpost, would make the whole experience feel a lot safer. More like a mountain bike. And the imagery around the Chamois Hagar launch promised as much. Alongside relatively standard adventure-y gravel moments, there was some singletrack, maybe some skidding, and I think I saw some steeze at one point. That’s my kind of gravel bike.
It turns out, though, that you can’t believe everything you see on TV. Like the Air Jordan commercials I’d watch as a young Chicago suburbanite in 1991, I was sure I’d be able to be just like the people on the screen if I could only get their same equipment. But riding a gravel bike with steez is not easy. With hands up on the hoods, the Chamois Hagar feels comfortable. Confident, even. But the thing about hoods is, you can either hold on securely or you can use your brakes. Not both. The drops are another story. You can hold on, and use the brakes, AND even throw a little steez, but unless you have a particularly limber, healthy neck (a neck that, for example, doesn’t have a plate fusing the C6 and C7 vertebrae) it’s a bit of a pain to keep your eyes up. Plus, it doesn’t put your body in the most forgiving position when headed downhill. I dialed back my expectations and started dreaming instead of those adventure-y bits. Except, the aggressively low standover on the Chamois Hagar limits the size of front-triangle bag you can fit. It’s got fender mounts and is studded with bolts for all the cages, bento boxes and dry bags you could want, but there are other, more dedicated long-haul gravel bikes out there. So, what the hell?
Flat bars, that’s what the hell. Let’s be clear, I had a blast during my extended time on Chamois Hagar, set up in its glorious, flagship, SRAM Red AXS, Enve cow-catcher, drop-bar beauty. It is a gravel bike that got me excited to go ride gravel. And I took advantage of its forgiving geometry and low standover whenever I got into attack mode on a wide open descent. Out of the box, this bike truly is the ultimate mountain-biker’s-gravel-bike. But I dreamed of combining its potential for long-range quickness with some lighthearted goofing off. So, I begged and borrowed until I had a set of flat-bar lever, flat-mount-caliper SRAM Level brakes and AXS mountain bike controllers. If you want to go flat-bar on a Chamois Hagar, you’ll also have to get creative. There’s no off-the-shelf flat-bar build at the moment. You can always build it up like this from the frame, but on both the SRAM AXS and the Shimano GRX build, you can get away with swapping brake levers and shifters without changing brake calipers and derailleurs. I experimented with various width bars, opting for a narrow 680mm job that didn’t open me up to too much wind but provided plenty of leverage against the barely-20-pound bike.
Things got more interesting at grip choice. Before I landed on the Meaty Paws, I spent some time with a pair of Ergon GP3s, with the big paddle platform and the integrated bar end. On one 80-mile, mostly pavement ride, they were a must. The whole drop-bar thing is as much about having options as it is about staying aero, and though my setup was not areo, having a place to stretch out and twist my wrists kept me from feeling like I was trapped. It’s not the same as having real drops, of course. This move came with compromises, but that’s what happens when you try and blend genres.
About that stem length. With a flat handlebar, the Chamois Hagar fits more true to size. In all honesty, this experiment would have been better had I switched to an XL when I went to flat bars. But I rationalized that there are still XC bikes with long-ish stems out there. I’m not just here to charge steeps, so I don’t need to be that far behind the front wheel. And again, this was an experiment. I just wanted to learn how the Chamois Hagar rides when it takes one giant fundamental step closer to being a mountain bike. It turns out, it rides pretty good, but only as long as your intentions take a step in the same direction as well.
There’s a reason that the drop bar has stuck around for over a century, and it’s not just because UCI won’t allow for anything else. If I found myself 100% on dirt roads, the flat bar seemed a little silly. I wanted the aero position, I wanted to be lower profile in the wind, I wanted the variety, and I did not need to be in attack position. But then I started to ride the “Chamois Flatbar” (as I came to know it) like it were a mountain bike. Where the climbs were either technical uphill singletrack or simply a means to get to technical downhill singletrack. I was no longer simply focused on covering ground. I wanted to bag as many peaks as possible, to be sure, but it was not the meditative all-day push that a traditional gravel ride is. I was switching modes multiple times throughout the ride, between taking advantage of the Chamois Hagar’s quickness on my way up to, in a very different sense, taking advantage of it on the way down.
There’s something you hear people say about riding hardtails, or even some short-travel full-suspension bikes, that they force you to pay attention. They add an element of challenge that an enduro bike won’t offer until you’re chasing down KOMs. That was part of what made the Chamois Flatbar fun to descend on. It didn’t matter that I had to go around those rocks I usually go over. I made it to the top of the climb 15 percent faster. And I rode here from home. Also, regardless of how fast I could descend, there was very little I couldn’t descend. With the drop bars, there simply were sections that were too steep or too unpredictable for a mortal to pull off. Putting flat bars on the Chamois Hagar made it into a truly do-it-all bike. And some of the things it did were actually more fun than a mountain bike. Whenever I found a groomed, soft section of trail, a rare sight in the San Gabriel mountains, being on a 20-pound bike would suddenly make it feel like a whole new sport. The bike reacts to the slightest bit of input, and can be pulled back inline just as easily. It could kick into a skid or a manual in a way that I simply wasn’t used to. And on several occasions, without needing to force it, the Chamois Flatbar could get steezy.
You may be saying that all this could be true of a cross-country hardtail. Put a rigid fork on one, and you’ve got a Chamois Flatbar with better tire clearance, something that I really wish Evil had made possible when designing the frame. But this brings us back to the question of compromises, and where you’re willing to make them. Wider tire clearance would affect the geometry, require extra support, and might sacrifice frame stiffness and add some weight. And then once you put those wider tires on, it will increase the weight even further. There are a handful of 50C tires out there that will fit the Chamois Hagar that have enough bite to get into some reasonably hairy situations. If you need more than they offer, you need a different bike. That puts the experience just on the other side of the knife’s edge that I’m walking when I sing the praises of a flat-bar gravel bike. This whole idea is splitting hairs, but that’s nothing new. How many riders do you know who will run 2.5-inch tires but not 2.6? Who will choose XTR pedals over XT because their stack height is a couple millimeters lower? I even heard there’s a company making a 33-millimeter handlebar for those who find 35-millimeter bars too stiff and 31.8 too flexy. The idea of putting flat bars on a gravel bike like the Chamois Hagar actually creates something pretty unique. It poses some interesting questions about both gravel and XC. But it’s also tons of fun.
Photos: Satchel Cronk