How Do You Determine the Proper Stem Length and the Rise or Drop for Your Road Bike(s): Part Two, Rise/Drop
I’ll dispense with much of the explanation that I covered in part one because, at this point, we’re cooking with gas…
Now we’re going to look at the rise and drop of the stem, and this tends to get political pretty quickly because it involves, for some, ego. Try to keep an open mind and we’ll roll through this as painlessly as possible. First, know this: It’s okay to want to ride upright and to, therefore, have some rise to the stem. It’s also okay to want to make your bike look like a racecar. And the important part; you’re probably going to be somewhere in between those.
Too much rise and you may as well be riding a mountain bike. Too much slam and riding can become uncomfortable – especially if you actually want to see where you’re going. I’ve been there, tried it, didn’t like it.
The question is, how do we find our lowest point possible? When we’re looking at riding low and aerodynamically, there’s one problem: You can’t ride around your gut. If you’ve got gut, you’re going to need some rise on the bike. Lose the gut first, then we’re in business.
Once you find your lowest possible point, where riding becomes uncomfortable, add a 5mm spacer under the stem and call it good. Also, I won’t bother with how you figure out your highest possible point because A) I have no idea how you do that, and B) anyone can put a double stack on a bike – it looks goofy, but being able to ride is more important, and C) at some point, wouldn’t it just be better to ride a recumbent? I digress…
I’ll start with my Specialized because I have the most photos of that process and it’ll be a little easier to illustrate. This is really hard to get right (not really), so if you don’t know what you’re doing, pay attention. Are you ready? Day one – I’ve already flipped the stem so instead of a 6° rise… well, I have less of a rise:
After you’ve flipped your stem, you take spacers from below the stem and place them atop the stem, thereby lowering the handlebar until you get to the last 5mm spacer under the stem. As you can see in the photo above, I’ve got 20mm below the stem (that’s (2) 5’s and a 10) . It is normal for bike shops to put a bunch of spacers below the stem, and it’s not some crazy conspiracy to try to make everyone ride more upright. You can take fork off, but you can’t put it back on. Better to have some spacers under the stem and tailor the front end to the rider. In any event, this is the next in the progression:
I tried the 5mm spacer above the stem first but I only bothered with that for a couple of days. It wasn’t enough of a change to even feel different so I jumped in and put the 10 and 5mm on top, 5mm below. Once I got used to that, and after I got a new handlebar and stem (same size and degree as the original stem). I tried to put that last 5mm spacer above the stem but it was too much. I had to crane my neck too far to see up the road… I rode like that for a week, just to make sure, but I put 5 back under the stem. Then I had the stem cut:
That I couldn’t lower the stem more meant I was good with its rise – I didn’t need more drop, more drop would have made the ride worse. Now let’s say, just for fun, that I could ride comfortably with that last 5mm spacer on top of the stem… At that point I’d start thinking about getting a 10, 12 or even a 17° stem and flipping it. As it is, I don’t have to bother. Well, that’s exactly how it worked with the Trek. With a 10° stem on there I was more than comfortable and knew I was riding a little higher than I was on the Venge (ride enough miles and you can feel a difference of just a few millimeters). I struggled with the idea of changing the stem because I was nervous the bike would look stupid with a flat stem or even a negative rise on it. While researching for another post, I bumped into a photo of someone else’s 5200 with a 17° stem on it and I loved it… I had one ordered a day later and now that I’ve got it installed, I’m considerably happier – it’s so close to the Venge I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell the difference.
Now here’s why I like stems with a steeper rise/drop: As we get older we’re going to naturally want to raise the handlebar some to combat a lack of flexibility (we’re talking in our 60’s and 70’s)… With, say, a 17° stem, all you have to do is flip it so you have a rise instead of a drop. You don’t even have to mess with spacers unless you’re really losing a lot of flexibility. In short, the stem is an inexpensive way to completely change the ride characteristics of a bike. You don’t have to trade in your road bike for a hybrid when you hit your seventies anymore… put a decent stem on there and you’ve got years more. Point is, there are a lot of options available. All one needs is a plan and to implement it, and as the spacers go, remember: You can cut fork off, but you can’t put it back on. Be smart about what you do to your bike.
Happy cycling, my friends.