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Daily Archives: August 11, 2018

The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: The Stem and Handlebar – Understanding the Bicycle Cockpit and How it Works

I’ve seen a lot of strange things as bike cockpits go. Typical, and this is even among some strong cyclists, is the handlebar tilted up at an awkward angle so the bottom of the drop bars aren’t parallel to the ground. This tilts the hoods up, presumably to help with reach. There are angles for the hoods that pro bike fitters will shoot for, but I’ve tended to go by feel (and, ahem, looks), so I don’t know if I’m right… but I can ride 100 miles without my hands going numb on either road bike so I had to get something right. Or close to it.


If your bike looks like this one, there is something very wrong with your understanding of how a bike should be set up. With the amount of seatpost showing, the rider is WAY too small for the bike. And that handlebar is entirely wrong.

The cockpit is where a lot of a bike’s mojo happens. Too stretched out and you feel like you’re always being pulled to the nose of the saddle. With the handlebars too close, you’ll feel like you’re sitting bolt-upright, or worse, like you’re crunched between the saddle and the handlebar, especially when you’re in the drops, and breathing properly will be nearly impossible. Another big mistake I’ve seen noobs make is to set the cockpit before the saddle, or simply live with the factory stem and set-up. The simple word is don’t.

Here’s a before and after of my A bike – Never ridden at the end of the 2013 season, and with 16,000 miles on it in 2018:



First, notice the spacers below the stem on the 2013 photo. The stem length and angle are the same (just a different, lighter stem) on the ’18 photo. The saddle is back maybe 2cm and the handlebar doesn’t follow the plane created by the stem – the bar is rotated down to give me a bit more drop. One thing I would be critiqued on is the angle of my hoods – they’re just a touch passed level and they really shouldn’t be, according to Hoyle. On the Venge, the drop and reach are perfect and I can ride for hours in the drops – the reach is just right.  While a pro bike fitter might take issue with my hood angle, it works.

Then there’s the Trek:


There’s a lot going on here, because I’ve changed quite a bit – everything but the brakes and chainring bolts. The saddle is a little softer because the Trek’s a harsher ride. The saddle is also a little farther back in the newer version of the bike and the stem is quite a bit longer – as is the reach in the bar itself. The hoods are entirely different. Back in 2012 I was riding, as designed by the shop owner, in a much more upright position, compared with now:

Shops tend to opt for the upright posture on a bike, a position I tend to disagree with, personally. Either way, I changed my cockpit to suit me as I grew as a cyclist – and let me tell you, the second photo is a whole ton faster than the first – and that’s the same bike.

So let’s look at the nuts and bolts of the cockpit. First, we set the saddle. Height first, then fore and aft, then we check height one more time to make sure we’re still good. These are both simple procedures. Then, once the saddle is set, we set the reach – because the reach can change once the saddle is properly set.

It’s here I run into trouble. I don’t know much about bike fit angles and such. It could be fair to say I know just enough to be dangerous. I do know what looks good, though, and these look good, ride fast, and are exceedingly comfortable.

What I did, rather than just go all willy-nilly, is I took my professional three-hour-long fit results and I changed the cockpit, little by little. Once I took it too far by a couple of millimeters, I went back. The result is the Specialized in it’s current state. From there, I did my best to transfer those numbers to the Trek, I even went with a 17° flipped stem so I could get more drop… because only with a bit more drop could I get enough to match the Specialized.  This is because the 5200 and Venge are different sizes and completely different geometries.  And I decided to do that because I saw this photo whilst researching another post:

Now, I made some improvements on the photo above.  Rather than put the shifter hoods on an awkward angle, I opted for straight in line with the handlebar plane and rather than rotate the bar forward and down, which would level out the bottom of the drops, I like following the plane created by the stem.  A small detail, of course, but I think the bike looks a little better with the cleaner cockpit angle.

To wrap this post up, there are some things that can be messed with on your bike’s cockpit, and some things that should be left alone.  The height of the stem, the angle of the handlebar and hoods, the drop or rise of the stem… all of those can be played with to your heart’s content.  The reach, or length of the stem, shouldn’t be messed with much after you’ve had your professional bike fit – with the understanding that raising or lowering the handlebar can change the required length of the stem depending upon how drastic a change it is.

It’s always best, when playing with the set-up of your bike, to go with small moves to make sure your body “likes” the change.  Be smart, research the changes you’re going to make, and don’t be afraid to go back once you’ve gone too far.

Happy cycling.