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

March 2017
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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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10 Comments

  1. My husband is doing up some bikes for us to take out this spring – I haven’t been on a bike since a kid where I fell off and broke both arms! So will be checking your blog for handy bike hints 🙂

  2. FitnessNerd says:

    I wanted to start bike riding as a good way to becoming more active but I cant ride a bike as the last time I ride one was when I was a kid so I stick to the bikes at the gym lol but I am anxious to start learning so I started a 6 week fitness plan and see how it goes. Any advice??

    • bgddyjim says:

      A veritable TON! Too much for one comment. Pick a bike, road, mountain or cyclocross. Road is more glamorous, mountain is FUN, a Cross bike will give you the best of both worlds if you do it right. If you happen to be heavy, start with a cross bike or mountain bike. Then, if you choose road, find a cycling club and join it. Then ride the wheels off of that bike!

      • FitnessNerd says:

        Hi sorry i ask a lot of questions and ah okay. Thank you, this helped me loads as i have no idea what bikes best for what.

      • bgddyjim says:

        That’s okay! First, you have to decide what type you really want to get into. I’m partial to speed and so I ended up with road cycling as my main enjoyment. I started out with mountain biking though, so I spent quite a bit of money on that before I decided I wanted to be a roadie. Whichever you choose, mountain biking will be less expensive but if you even THINK you might want to ride on the road in a group, then get a cyclocross bike or a road bike. Let me know if you have any other questions.

      • FitnessNerd says:

        Thats great, thanks. This was lots of help 🙂

  3. MJ Ray says:

    Did you need to change the stem as you got lower or was it still in range of your original one?

    • bgddyjim says:

      I did not have to change the stem. I got by with the original length on the Venge. On the Trek, however, I went through several stem changes to get to a place where I could be happy. The original stem was WAY too long (110 mm if memory serves). I went down to a 70 then up to an 80 where it sits now. The longer stem was a little more tolerable when I was sitting upright.

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