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Cockpit setup: the old way

In the LLB kung fu school of mountain bike riding, we’re most concerned with the setup of your cockpit:

the width of your handlebars and

the position of your handlebar (as determined by the length and rise of your stem).

Handlebar width and position have historically been determined by three forces. These forces have been:

1. Fashion

What are the pros riding?  What’s available on the market? What’s “cool?”

Bike product managers spec handlebars and stems that 1) will help sell bikes, and 2) they can get in large numbers and low prices. That’s their job.

When I started riding in the late ’80s, most mountain bike handlebars were probably too narrow and far away for effective riding. In the early ’90s we were cutting our bars even narrower — as the magazines suggested — to more closely match our road bike bars. Dude, we thought we were so cool with our 500mm bars and 150mm negative rise stems. In day glow pink, of course!

In more than 25 years of mountain biking, I’ve seen popular handlebars grow from 500mm to 800mm and now to 820mm wide. I think we started too narrow, and now we’ve gotten too wide for many riders. At least stems are getting shorter.

While working closely with thousands of riders of all genders, styles and levels, and I’ve seen some crazy handlebars: 6’2″ dudes riding 700mm bars because that’s what their 5’8″ XC idols ride; 5’0″ women riding 800mm bars because that’s what the Bro at the shop sold them, and so on.

Does our anatomy change with bike industry trends? No!

010816dbascent1989

My first “real” mountain bike was a 1989 Diamondback. By 1990 it was day-glow pink. 

2. Type of bike (and rider)

Are you a Lycra-wearing dirt roadie, or are you a baggy-wearing DH bro?

In general, the smoother a bike’s intended riding style (and the riders’ legs), the narrower the bars and the longer the stem. The rougher a bike’s intended riding style, the wider the bars and the shorter the stem.

Also: For every inch you lift your truck, add one inch to your handlebars.

No one targets bike models and sub-models — niches and sub-niches — more precisely than Specialized. When you ride a Specialized bike, it feels exactly the way you expect it to. Here are some of their models, riding styles, bar widths and approximate stem lengths:

Bike model Riding style Handlebar length Stem length
Specialized Epic and Stumpjumper HT XC race 720mm 90mm
Specialized Camber and Stumpjumper FSR Trail 750mm 60mm
Specialized Enduro and Demo Enduro/downhill 780mm 40mm

These style/handlebar/stem relationships make sense for new bikes, but they don’t help regular riders set their bikes up for 1) their bodies and 2) their riding styles.

My S-Works Enduro 29 is set up for shredding: both down and up. The perfect cockpit forces no compromise.  

3. Tradition

If mountain bikes evolved from motocross, we would have started with wide bars and very short stems. But we evolved from road bikes, and we’re still overcoming some traditional thoughts about bike setup.

Can we please throw the following notions away?

Cross country requires narrow bars and downhill requires long bars. No! Little people need short bars, and big people need long bars. You can make small tweaks based on riding style, but your sweet-spot handlebar width is a small range — and it should be determined by your body.

You need a long, low stem to climb well. That’s some old roadie wisdom right there. If you’re climbing a smooth hill at moderate pedal tension, a long stem feels neutral and comfortable (like a road bike). But any time the climb gets technical, or you need peak torque, a too-long stem actually hurts you by disrupting the chain between your hands and feet.

In the RideLogic bike setup system, handlebars are positioned relative to the bottom bracket, at a distance determined by your body. The more important handling is, the shorter your stem.

010816barpositions

Make sense? If not, it will soon.

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7 replies
  1. Gavrilo
    Gavrilo says:

    Hey Lee, I am 183cm tall and ride Specialized camber size L with 60mm stem and 760mm bar with proper height. I feel perfect and ride the same bar/stem combo on Santa Cruz Chameleon which has shorter top tube, but I’m not feel cramped. Your bar calculator says that I need wider bar than 760mm. What I need to do? To try wider bar with same 60mm stem or change the stem too? As far as I learned from you and try by myself bar height is also important and I feel that my bar height/width and stem length fits me like a glove now

    Reply
  2. lee@leelikesbikes.com
    lee@leelikesbikes.com says:

    Gavrilo,

    If you love your bike setup there’s no rush to change it.

    BUT: When it’s perfect, it’ll feel even better!

    If you try a wider bar, change only the bar to see if you like it. This is not officially a good idea, but I sometimes move my grips outward (beyond the end of the bar) to try a wider grip width. I don’t buy a wider bar until I know I like the new width.

    Once you choose your new bar width (actually, do this right now with both of your bikes), try the RideLogic™ on-bike setup test. This accounts for all variables including bar width, and it supersedes all calculations.

    http://www.llbmtb.com/ridelogic-bike-setup-on-bike-check/

    Reply
    • Gavrilo
      Gavrilo says:

      Lee,
      I watched all videos from link you post above, did the RAD thing, and instantly I felt the need for wider bars. It is not placebo. I move the grips thanks for advice ! It is time for 800mm with higher rise, 40mm stem on proper height for Specialized. I calculated everything! Already ordered it 🙂 Finally I know what to look for ! Stoked ! Thanks !

      Just one more thing, do I really need the same width for hardtail?

      Reply
  3. lee@leelikesbikes.com
    lee@leelikesbikes.com says:

    Gavrilo,

    That is great news!

    Do I think you have the same handlebar width on all of your bikes?

    Hmm, are you using the same shoulders and arms when you ride all of your bikes?

    🙂

    Reply
    • Gavrilo
      Gavrilo says:

      🙂 oh, more money to spend 🙂 But I’ll do it for sure!
      I now ride 800mm 40mm stem (my friend have bike shop) it feels perfect, MUCH easier front end lifting, much more control for cornering and braking. Trail position I like more. The whole bike instantly feels like it’s mine personal bike 🙂 I will go on long trail riding these days !
      Hug for Lee from Europe !

      Reply

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