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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Setting Up the Cockpit of a Road Bike; Handlebar Angle, Hood Angle, and Drop – and the Pain Getting It Wrong Can Lead To: Part Two; The Stem

Picking up where Part One left off, the cockpit of a road bike is where a lot of the action is. You know, once you get the crankarm length right, the pedals figured out, the saddle width, the saddle height adjusted and the fore/aft position of that saddle, and then back to height, well all that’s left is the cockpit… and stem rise/drop, stem length, stem spacers, handlebar width, reach and drop, and the angle at which the bar comes off the stem. We’re going to need a bigger post.

Short story is, there’s a lot to deal with. Now, if you want to skip all of this mess, and I certainly would understand if you did, just have your bike fit to you by a pro. I spent three hours having my Venge done and out of the whole process, we lowered the saddle by about two millimeters (I won’t lie, I was stoked that I set the bike up that close to perfect on my own). If you’re going to go the pro fit route, I recommend telling that pro how you’d like to ride, aggressive, leisurely, or somewhere in the middle. I’m what I like to call “middle-aged aggressive”. My really flexible days are long gone, but I can still get pretty low and fast… and it’s better on my back this way. Whatever your choice, it’s important to know the default of most bike fitters will be “leisurely”. They’re going to put you upright on your bike so you act like a giant wind scoop. Oh, it’s comfortable alright, until you try to pedal that thing over 25-mph and you’re looking for a second drop bar so you can get down out of the wind.

I’m in the red and black… Middle-aged aggressive.

Let’s start with the first piece of the cockpit, the stem.  The stem, at least on modern bikes with modern handlebars (but not the integrated stem/handlebar single piece setup), is the most flexible piece of equipment there is on a bike when it comes to quickly changing the characteristics of a road bike.  The modern system is called a threadless headset.  Typically, you’ve got an upper and lower bearing that sit in cups in the “head tube”.  The upper shaft of the fork slides through the bearings and the stem slides over that.  The top cap screws into a bolt in that shaft, tightening the system to the point there’s no play.  Compared to the old threaded quill stem steering assembly, the threadless setup is a marvel of ingenuity and one of those rare instances where engineering makes something work better while making it easier to maintain at the same time.  Like I said, rare.

For noobs, there are a few important points to remember about setting up a bike.  Once the saddle is situated in the right location, the stem is the piece that gets the handlebar where we want it.  We never adjust the saddle to make the cockpit fit.  Other than the spacers above or below the stem, the stem itself dictates reach and rise.  On my two road bikes, I’ve got different stems to get the shifter hoods in the same location with the same saddle to bar drop on two vastly different bikes:

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The Specialized on the left has a 100mm stem with a -6° rise.  It’s a 6 degree stem flipped upside down to cut down the angle rather than make the handlebar rise.  This is a little deceptive, of course, because either way you flip the stem, it’s still going to rise due to the angle of the fork and steering assembly.  If I wanted a flatter look, I’d go with a 12° stem, flipped (I’m actually thinking about doing this, just for fun).  On the Trek, however, I’ve got a 17° stem flipped, which is enough to take the rake of the fork to make the trek’s stem “flat” or level to the ground.  This is decidedly badass, especially when it’s on a 21 year-old frame.  Now, if you compare the rake of the Venge and the Trek, you would see that a 17° flipped stem would be too much on the Venge, you’d end up with a drop.  We match the rise or drop of the stem with where we want the handlebar when we’re done.  

Now, the stem also handles another invaluable role.  The length of the stem will determine how far you have to reach for the handlebar hoods.  If the stem is too long, it’ll be uncomfortable to reach for the hoods because you’ll be too stretched out.  Too short and you’ll feel cramped into the cockpit.

My Trek, a 1999 5200, is a standard (or traditional) 58 cm frame.  The Specialized, from 2013 is a compact 56 cm frame.  They’re very different frames with different geometries, but with the proper stem, I’ve got the same reach and drop from the saddle to the handlebar on both bikes.  I’ve got a 90mm long 17° negative rise (meaning it’s flipped) stem on the Trek.  On the Specialized, it’s a 100mm 6° (again, negative rise).  With those two setups, using “stack and reach” measuring, the hoods on each bike are exactly the same height off the pavement, and the saddles are in almost the exact same location in relation to the pedals and off the ground.  In fact, the bikes are so close, the owner of our local shop checked my work and said making the two any closer is an impossibility.

This is by design.  I wanted to be able to go from one bike to the other, because I ride both a lot, without feeling a difference.  I can ride the Specialized for 50 miles, switch to the Trek and go for another 50 without feeling it in the setup.

With the right stem, you can adjust a cockpit to suit your needs, whatever they may be (or however those needs may evolve over time).  My gravel bike is a neat case in point.  I should have put a 120mm stem on it if I wanted to match my road bikes (it’s a 56 cm compact frame, with a more relaxed geometry than my Venge, which has a race geometry) The longer stem would give me the proper stretch, but I chose a 110mm with 6° negative rise so the handlebar is a little closer.  This allows me to sit slightly more upright which helps when trying to dodge potholes on dirt roads.  I have the same drop from the saddle nose to the handlebar, the same saddle location, etc., etc., I’m just a little shorter in the stem so I can sit up.  I also switched the handlebar from a shallow drop to a standard… but that’ll be the next post.