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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Want Speed? SLAM THAT STEM!!! To A Degree


March 2014

What to do, what to do?!

The easiest way to increase your average speed without having to work for it is to lower, or “slam”, your stem – to lower your handlebar so that the drop from your saddle to the top of the handlebar increases.  The day I brought my Trek home, after I had it fitted at the shop, I had a 2-1/2″ drop from the nose of my saddle to the top of my handlebar.  That was my prime road bike from January 2012 through August of 2013 and went through quite the metamorphosis:
Trek 5200The premise is sound:  Lower your stem, improve your profile into the wind and your speed will improve without having to work harder for it.

When I first brought the bike home, I knew nothing about  the intricacies of cycling – all I knew was that the pro who set up my bike knew a lot more about it than I did.  Still, it didn’t take long before I started tinkering with the bike’s setup – but just the stuff that I figured wouldn’t hurt too much.  There were a couple of factors at work in my decision to tinker:  First (and least important), I had a bit of Lance Armstrong Syndrome:  When in doubt, look like Lance – that included making my setup look like his.  Second, was a real desire to ride as fast as I could so I could fit in with the group I had been invited to ride with, as comfortably as possible.   Finally, riding with only a 2-1/2″ drop simply felt weird – almost like I was riding my mountain bike.  I felt like I was too upright.

I decided on a gradual approach to lowering my stem, figuring if I went a little bit at a time I could get used to the changes easier than if I went whole hog, all at once.  That worked well and within three months I had the stem down as low as it could go.  Then I picked up my Venge last August.  Fortunately I didn’t have to start the process all over again – and because I bought a 56 cm frame (the Trek is a 58), I actually started out with 1/4″ more drop than the best I could do on the Trek.  Toward the end of last season I started swapping spacers, lowering the bar on that bike as well:
I went into the shop last Friday and discussed the change with Matt (the pro who set me up to begin with) and he warned me about going much further because I could end up with diminishing returns…  Too low and you end up throwing off the delicate balance between comfort, speed and flexibility.  Now, I’m still in a position on that bike where I can comfortably reach everything while maintaining the proper arm bend, get good power to the pedals and feel excellent – in other words, at least for now, I’m heeding Matt’s warning…  Not necessarily because I trust him on blind faith either – I actually know what too far is:
The Cannondale is simply too much drop for me.  The interesting thing with the 6″ is that I actually can get that famed flat-back’ed position, but it’s uncomfortable as all get-out riding like that.  I have to work on keeping my arms bent as my natural reflex is to ride with my arms straight to keep that balance I wrote about earlier (back to front, not side to side).  And therein lies the rub – there is a such thing as too much and no amount of desire to have it the other way can change that without a lot of extra work.  Six inches of drop is my diminishing return.

Now, if you’re a noob and have a desire to try this, there are a few things to consider.  First is weight – I don’t have a six-pack, but I don’t have much of a gut either – maybe 1/4 – 1/2″.  If you have a bit of a belly, you can’t bend around that – at the very least it’ll mess up your breathing.  The gut’s gotta go first, though don’t be afraid to tinker – you never know, your stem might be too high to start as most shops trend that way for “comfort’s” sake.  Second, a great deal of care should be used when removing threadless stems to move the spacers.  Put everything back together too loosely or too tightly and you’ll damage your bike’s steering mechanism or worse, it could lead to a crash.  Replacing everything must be done correctly (use the Bike Repair App if necessary).  Finally, you have to make sure you’re not too low to ride comfortably in the drops too.

UPDATE:  I wrote a second post on this subject that goes into depth, looking at the type of handlebars, the style of frame and the size of the bike in relation to slamming the stem.  I also get into a decent marker to start at.



  1. PedalWORKS says:

    Throughout the season I progressively lower the stem until the saddle-to-handlebar drop is ~ 4″. For me it isn’t some much flexibility but more confidence. The first few weeks of riding are tentative as I re-equaint myself with the bike and speed. The more I ride, the faster I want to go. Then I begin to tinker with the stem height and length.

  2. sxeveganbiking says:

    The drop on my 56cm GT is 10cm (4″) and I really can’t imagine dropping it further due to comfort. I am currently following the workouts in Tom Danielson’s book ‘Core Advantage’ to strengthen my core group to prevent a recurrence of back problems and I can feel a difference already. It’s aimed at cyclists but applies to other sports and general back problems.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Nice! I used to have some serious lower back problems as well. I hope that workout does well for you. I was lucky enough that cycling (and a decent chiropractor) was enough for my back. Good luck!

  3. Great post. The stem on both my road and TT bike will go through the same process this spring.

  4. […] my first post on this subject, I took explained my experience as it pertained to how I went about slamming my […]

  5. […] 9.  With just over 13,000 hits, I was infatuated with trying to slam my stem to get in the most aggressive position possible ever since I brought home my first real road bike.  The post is The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Want Speed? SLAM THAT STEM!!! To a Degree. […]

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