By Jim Langley

Tapes Then and Now

I’ve taped thousands of handlebars since 1970 when I first went to work in bike shops. First, we used mostly Hunt-Wilde vinyl bar tape and Tressostar cloth. Both are still available if you look hard enough and/or don’t mind buying on eBay.com.

During the huge bike touring craze from the mid-'70s and into the '80s, an interesting foam slip-on bar covering was popular, made by Grab-on. This is also still available.

For racers, around 1982 and fresh out of the pro peloton, Benotto Cello-tape, with its gloss colors and super-thin sticky plastic surface became all the rage. And there were custom wraps like Cinelli’s elegant sewn-leather bar coverings that cost so much you rarely saw them out on the road.

Today we have thin and thick plastic and vinyl, as well as leather tapes and more-padded types. Plus new tapes like ESI’s RCT Wrap, which is 100% silicone for excellent padding and grip, though it is on the heavy side.

Back to all those bars I’ve wrapped, even with so much practice with so many different materials, I am almost never 100% happy after taping. There’s always a wrap or two that’s not perfectly overlapped, or a hidden wrinkle, or a tiny spot where the bar’s exposed if you look real close.

So, today I’m sharing a bunch of taping tips and tricks that can make the job easier and nicer – including a brand new finishing touch I think you’ll like. As always, please share your taping secrets in the Comments below.

11 Bar Taping Tips & Tricks

Start with clean handlebars

The first step when rewrapping bars is removing the old tape. Most types are held in place with adhesives. And the adhesive means that if you pull too fast you can tear the tape off in pieces, leaving small bits of tape stuck all around and down your bars. You’ll then need to clean all of these off with a solvent to dissolve the glue; something like isopropyl alcohol works well. But even with the solvent, you may need to scrape the bars to get them clean. It can take a while and make a mess.

To avoid shredding the tape like this, pull it off very slowly and, if it begins to stick and tear, gently rock the tape side to side to gradually unstick the section resisting. You can also drip some of that isopropyl alcohol on the stuck part and work it under with a scraping tool to unstick the tape. Working it off like this takes time – but not as much time as tearing it off and having to clean all the bits off.

Do a test wrap

Handlebar tapes come in different lengths, sometimes barely long enough and other times way too long. So, a great first step is opening the package, removing one side’s worth of tape, and test wrapping one side of the bars.

Don’t actually adhere the tape to the bars, and don’t aim to get a perfect fit and finish. The only purpose of the test wrap is to see how the tape fits, whether you have more than enough or just barely enough.

Shorter tapes are more challenging because you can run out of tape before you reach the tops of the bars. With longer tapes you can just cut off the excess. Either way, test wrapping clues you in to what you’re dealing with so that you can plan your wrap job accordingly.

Measure and mark

To end up with a professional look to your taping job, measure over from the edge of your stem on both sides and mark your bars with small pieces of tape. That way your last wrap of tape on both sides will be equidistant from the stem.

Start cleanly

You start wrapping at the open ends of the handlebars and wrap from there to the tops of the bars. Make starting the taping job easier by taking care to overlap the tape over the end of the bar just enough so that when you push the handlebar plug in that came with the tape, the edge of the bar is covered all around by tape, and the plug sits flush to and tight inside the bar.

This can take a bit of trial and error. Sometimes you have to train the tape to stay in the bar by working it over and inside with your fingers. It can be tricky to get the bar plug in over the tape, too. You may need to tap it in with a rubber mallet.

If you take your time on both sides, you can get them looking exactly the same and even have any logos on the bar plugs oriented exactly the same.

In case you want to try another approach, you can finish the bar ends and push the bar plugs in as the final step in your taping job. However, know that if you didn’t wrap it the same on both sides to start, it’s not easy to change it once the bar’s been wrapped. That’s why it’s usually easier to attend to the ends and plugs first.

Don’t over tape cables

If you have brake and/or shift cables to tape over, you may have read to secure them to the handlebars with many wraps of electrical tape. I recommend not doing this as it just adds time and essentially wastes the electrical tape, since the handlebar tape will secure the cables for you.

The trick is holding the cables in place while you wrap over them with the bar tape. But this isn’t hard. You just have to pay attention if there are dedicated grooves for the cable to make sure they stay in there. The handlebar tape will hold the cables just fine and think of the massive weight savings of not using half a roll of electrical tape – joking!

Manipulate the tape to wrap it flat

The trick to get different types of tape to lay flat as you wind it around the handlebar it to pull just enough to stretch it, yet not so hard that you break it. You can also rub some tapes in your fingers as you wrap to warm them and get them to relax and lay flat. Pulling them at too much of an angle can make them more apt to wrinkle. These techniques take practice, and you’ll get the feel for it as you keep trying.

Overlap by about 1/3rd

To cover the entire handlebar and not leave any gaps, try to wrap so that each one overlaps a third of the width of the wrap before. Since each wrap goes all around the handlebar, be sure to look under and around the tape as you work, or else you might miss seeing that the tape underneath the bars has "gapped" and left the bar exposed. If you notice this after finishing, the only way to fix it is to unwrap and rewrap. So it’s best to keep checking as you wrap.

Wrapping around the levers

To wrap the tape nicely around levers, gently roll the rubber hoods back over themselves so that they stay put and you can see what you’re doing. Most tapes come with 2 separate pieces of tape to stick horizontally over the lever bands behind the bars, too. Put these in place. If they fall off, keep them at the ready and hold them in place as you wrap over them. An easy trick, if they don't already have adhesive on the back, is to use a small piece of double-sided scotch tape to hold them in place.

When the bar tape reaches the lever, wrap behind, up and over, down, behind, and up and over again. Basically, you’re making a figure 8 behind the lever. The goal is to cover the lever band completely.

With wider tapes, you can usually cover the bands with one behind, up-and-over turn of the tape – or only half of the figure 8. This is important to know if your tape ends up being on the short side and you need a little extra to reach your finishing location at the top.

How to cut the end of the tape for a clean finish

The last wrap of the tape determines how clean the final edge of the tape looks. Since tape is always wrapped at an angle, to get a pro look, cut the tape on a diagonal line.

The easy way to do this is by wrapping past your finishing mark so you know you have enough tape. Then unwrap the tape a turn so that you are looking down on the tape. The tape is wound around the bar at an angle so when you look down on it, it will be angled to the left for the right side of the bars and to the right for the left side of the bars.

Beneath the tape as you hold it, you will see the front wheel. Use the front wheel as an indicator of how to cut the tape. To do this, cut as if your scissors are following the straight line along the edge of the tire/rim. This will cut across the end of the tape with a long diagonal line, and when you rewind the tape up and over the bar, you will see that the edge that you cut makes a perfect straight finishing wrap.

If you’re not happy, try again

You can always fine tune any part of the tape job to fix any issues you spot. You can also “cheat” a little extra reach out of the tape by unwrapping and stretching it a little more, or by overlapping it a little less. So keep trying if you’re not happy with the results when you first finish wrapping. Like I told you at the outset, even I’m never happy so I almost always rewrap some part of the job to get it right.

Finishing trick

My final tip – and favorite new trick – is to eschew the commonly used electrical tape for finishing the tape job on both sides at the top of the bars. Instead, I’ve started using self-fusing silicone tape, because electrical tape has a tendency to come unstuck and unroll. The same goes for the logo’d finishing strips included inside the tape package, which is why I don’t use them, either.

This newfangled silicone tape fuses to itself for a much more permanent bond. I got mine, Super Glue E-Z Fuse Tape, at The Home Depot. It’s also available on Amazon.


Jim Langley is RBR's Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim's full bio.

Related Topics Handlebar Tech Bar Tape

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