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Cycling, Free Speed, and Slamming the Stem;  Slam ‘Em All!

I’ve slammed the stem on every bike I own.  One, I got just right.

One is limited by the frame’s geometry, I just can’t get it any lower.

There’s about 10 mm less drop on my Trek

Then there’s the mountain bikes…  Slammed:

…And really slammed:

Slammed and stretched is fast.  To an extent, and understanding that extent can be the difference between riding that ride with a smile and a sore ass, or worse, back, shoulders or hands.

Now, before we get too deep down the rabbit hole, allow me the dalliance of pointing something out…  Look at the stems on the mountain bikes.  Take particular note of the stack of spacers above the stem.  DON’T cut your fork until you’re positive you like the stem where it’s at.  I rode the Venge for a full season with 20mm of spacers stacked above the stem before I finally had the fork chopped.  You can take it off, but it’s impossible to put it back on.  The Rockhopper will get the same treatment, eventually.

Next up is the notion of comfort.  I am not a particularly flexible man.  I can’t touch my toes without bending at the knees.  I had lower back pain for decades before I picked up cycling.  Decades.  If anything, riding lowered fixed my problems.  Fixed.  Repaired.  In the past.

I am not a doctor but this is my experience and I am eternally grateful that I thumbed my nose at traditional wisdom that has one sitting upright on their bike.  This, however, may not be for everyone.  In fact, I may be the odd, rare bird.  It wouldn’t be the first time.

Riding lower, if done wisely and with some forethought, is vastly faster.  On the order of 1-2 mph over cycling upright.  Free Speed.

The problem is the forethought, and that’s where I’m taking this post.

Being older-ish, but not all that old (44 at the time I bought the Venge), and knowing I had flexibility only slightly better than that of plywood, I couldn’t just slam everything down to the frame and ride off into the sunset.  I did it slow, five or ten millimeters at a time, taking as much time as was necessary to get used to it, then I’d lower the bar some more.

Each time I lowered my handlebar, my back felt  little better and eventually I got to a point of diminishing returns, where the bar was simply too low and I couldn’t get comfortable (no matter how much I wanted to).  At that point I raised it 5mm and called it good.

I haven’t looked back.

Understanding bike sizes and geometry.

The size of a bike has a lot to do with how low one can drop stem.  Typically speaking, I ride a 58-59 cm frame.  This goes by my height (6’0″), inseam (33.6″ or 85.3 cm) and arm length (long, never measured myself).  The Trek, above, second photo, is a 58 cm standard frame.  It is the proper size for a more traditional, upright posture on a road bike.  I can get low enough, because of the 80 mm stem I put on it, and the standard drop bar helps too.

The Specialized, my “good” bike, however, is a compact geometry and is a 56 cm frame and some serious drop to it.

Point is, if you want to ride lower, the first, easiest, place to start is get a bike that’s a size, or even two, smaller.  From there you simply add a longer stem and you’re good to ride.  In the case of my Venge, the bike came with a 100 mm stem on it already.

I beat this drum on a fairly regular basis because what I did is so contrary to the current wisdom of the cycling industry.  Do not be afraid of dropping your handlebar from where it was set during a professional fitting.  Once I got used to my setup it became natural, even preferred, and as speed on a bicycle goes, you can’t get more “free” than lowering the handlebar.  Done wisely, there is literally no cost whatsoever.

As long as you can live with a few spacers stacked above your stem until you’re certain you’ve got the stem as low as it can go, comfortably, you’ll have left yourself the ability to easily undo what you’ve done.  

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