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Road Cycling and How to Install and Use an Adjustable Multi-Stem to Your Advantage


December 2020

When and if you start looking for stems, well, there are a lot of them. Standard stems come in degree ranges from 0 to 25°+ and they’re fixed. The only adjustment is flipping them upside down so there’s less of a rise.  Then there are the old-style adjustable stems that raise and lower on a pivot, tightened with a simple Allen key bolt – we won’t be dealing with those at all as they don’t belong on road bikes. For this post, we’ll look at the newer stems that adjust with a simple sleeve inserted into the part of the stem that slides over the fork.

Now, the idea behind the stem is to get the handlebar at an agreeable distance and height from the saddle so as to make a bike’s setup comfortable for the rider.  Once you get that fit done, the idea is simply to ride the bike until such a time as you get used to it and can ride it in comfort.  For most people, that’s pretty much it.  Set it and forget it.

As an aside, even a bike with a perfect setup will take dedicated time in the saddle for a new rider to grow comfortable.

For we tinkerers, an adjustable stem offers a massive range of opportunities with which to play with our bike’s setup.  Better, the modern adjustable stems mean we can take to the task without any additional cost (or minimal costs if you’re going to buy new shims)

Specialized has had adjustable stems for quite a while now, and while they are slightly heavier (30 to 65 grams), their adjustability can make the added weight worth it.  I should know.  I’ve had one for years but never bothered with it because I didn’t fully grasp “how it worked”.  Nor did I think my bike needed a new stem.  In the end, the lure of a slammed cockpit was too much and I took to figuring it out on my own.

Here’s how this whole “adjustable stem” thing works. There’s a collar that slides into the stem (from the bottom, not the top) and that collar is machined so it’s cockeyed. For mine, it’s got a +4 on one side and a -4 on the other (the stems usually come with 0, 2 & 4° shims but there are other greater ranges available). I believe my stem is a 6°, so + or – 4 would give you a 2° or 10° drop with the stem flipped – with the stem flipped to rise, you’d get +2 or +10. My Venge originally came with the shim in the +4 position. To change the angle, you simply remove the shim, turn it 180° and reinsert it. Then, put your assembly back together, preferably with one stem shim on top and one below the stem:

Now, where this gets fun is the subtle difference between -4 & +4:

That’s the difference between -10 on the left and -2 on the right… the handlebar drops about an inch, maybe a bit more (much more, considering the stem spacers under the stem on the right that are gone on the left, as well). The photo on the left was taken a couple of days ago. The one on the right, the day I brought the bike home in 2013. Had I known then I could do so much with the stem I had, I don’t know as I’d have paid the $165 for the set stem I had on it the years between those two photos being taken.

Here are a few mistakes I made early on:

  1. I thought the 65 grams mattered between my hot shot $165 carbon fiber wrapped aluminum stem and the adjustable stem that came on the bike. In truth, there were a vast array of better ways to shed weight from the bike.
  2. My knees got a little week at “carbon fiber wrapped aluminum”.
  3. Whose wouldn’t?!
  4. I mistakenly thought an adjustable stem would be “lame”. I was a rather impulsive noob and I tended read WAY too much stuff about how to be a cool cyclist on the internet. It’s all good in the end, though. I tend to learn from my own mistakes… I don’t quite have that wisdom thing down.
  5. I feared that which I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t quite grasp just how simple the adjustable stem was and how I could use it to my benefit.
  6. That fear caused consternation, which led to procrastination and ended in flagellation. I wish I’d realized what I had years ago. Humorously, if memory serves, the shop owner tried to talk me out of that wildly expensive stem… his mechanic got me, though. Damned young mechanics. I got talked into a lot early on.

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