Bike fit: shorter stem and higher bars?

Here’s a common theme, but a helpful one.

Hi Lee;

I ride a Gary Fisher HiFi that I am happy with, but I am rather challenged when descending some of the rather steep, short, slippery sections of the trails we ride up here in B.C. (I’m not talking anything like the picture on Page 22 of MMBS, but it feels steep to me)

Recently, a friend who rides a Nomad, suggested that shifting to a shorter stem (say 50mm) and raising it as well, might be helpful. (shortly after I got the bike I went from a 110 to 90mm stem)

He noticed that even though I do a reasonable job of getting my weight out behind the saddle on the steep bits, I’m really stretched out. (more XC than Trail bike I think he said)

Just wondering what your thoughts would be on something like this?

I was kind of thinking that psychologically it might give me a boost as I seem to be in a bit of a negative feedback loop at the moment where I tense up when approaching the drops and tend to brake at the top of the steep bits which compresses the fork etc., etc. you know the drill 😉 Keeping low certainly helps but it is challenging to steer and go down steep bits at the same time I’m finding.

Ultimately some coaching is in the works just not right now.

Cheers Greg

Hey Greg,

You are right on.

A shorter/higher bar position will help you maintain balance on the steep descents. A good rider can still rip with a long/low position, but it’s harder.

I was just talking with Lopes for MMBSii, and you’ll find this interesting:

He has five (5!) Ibis Mojo frames, each with a different build: downhill, slopestyle, super D, cross country and slalom. They all have identical 65 mm stems and 27 inch bars. He tried a longer stem on his XC bike, but he hated it on the descents (Laguna beach is steep) and went back to his standard 65 mm.

BTW: He says he climbs just as well with a short stem as with a long one.

If I were you, I’d buy or borrow some cheap stems and run some tests. 50 mm will make a tremendous difference; you might zero in at 60-70 mm.

Bike setup braaap,

— Lee

10 replies
  1. Joe says:

    Hi Lee,

    I’ve been reading with some interest your advocacy to shorter stem lengths.

    I am in a similar situation as Greg, above. I have a Santa Cruz Heckler, older model. Head angle is reported at 69 degrees, but that is with a 515mm axle to crown length. My 130mm fork is only 500mm A to C. The lower portion of my headset, between the fork crown and he head tube, is about 10mm. So, I would guess my head angle is about 69.5 degrees. Not very slack! I find myself with too much weight on my hands. Fine for climbing, but a little too nose heavy otherwise (I have terrible form). I’d prefer a more relaxed posture which would make the bike more maneuverable (hops, drops and the like) and also help me see down the trail better.

    Okay, here is the question, I’ve heard that shortening the stem can make the steering a little quicker, maybe evan a little more nervous, and some use longer bars to counter that (my bar is about 680mm- Easton Monkey, 1.5″ rise). So it seems a short stem would be beneficial on on a bike with a slack HA, where the steering may be a little more relaxed. But what about on a bike with a steeper HA? Wouldn’t that further accentuate the quick/nervous steering?

    An interesting aside to this is a post I read on by someone that owns both a Nomad and a Bullit, both with a similar builds. He states: “I’m able to run a 50mm stem on the Nomad without killing the climbing capability and cornering precision. My Bullit runs a 90mm stem to maintain the same quality of climbing and cornering.”

    I also contacted Santa Cruz to see what feedback they might have on this bike. (I’ve had EXCELLENT customer relations with SC, they usually respond the same day to email!). I said that I thought 50 may be a little short, but I was considering between a 60 and 70mm stem. I was told from their feedback that the 50 may be too short, and to possibly try a 70mm from my current 90mm. My LBS (deals SC bikes, Transition, etc- not roadies) also said the steering may get a little nervous with a 60, and was leaning towards a 70.

    Anyway, original question, is there a synergy between HA and stem length such that a steep HA and short stem may not match up well?

    Thanks for all you do,

  2. leelikesbikes says:

    Hey Joe,

    – I’m unaware of a shorter stem making a bike nervous. The head angle, trail — all the geometry — remain constant.

    – If you are a meathead who leans forward and saws on the bars, then I suppose, yes, a shorter stem will give you a quicker steering response.

    – The Nomad and Bullit are very different bikes. Plenty of variables there, not to mention that guy’s suspension setups.

    – A 50 is very short, especially compared with a 90 or 100. A 60, 70 or 80 might be your ideal compromise.

    Experiment. Push that “short stems make my bike twitchy” thought out of your head!

  3. Scott says:

    RC over at MBA did a column on this last month:

    [Lee cut the URL into pieces to fit into the html table]

    (or go to TECH -> Ask RC: Relationship Between Head Angles and Stems).

    Basically he says ‘slack and short don’t mix’, but can be compensated for with wide bars. Then again, he doesn’t say what constitutes short.

    I personally like the slack-ish and short-ish combo of a 69 deg HA and 90 mm stem. I ride more slower speed rocky and rooty technical stuff and with the short-ish stem I can keep my rear wheel weighted for climbs AND still get behind my seat for drops, and it makes manualling easier. The slack-ish HA, though I think I could comfortably go slack-ish-er, is more forgiving going down and up ledges (can endo going up too!) and when you just plain run into stuff. Together they both help combat poor form, rather lapses in good form, thru technical terrain.

    On the other hand, staring at your front wheel cuz you’re worried about endo-ing get’s twitchy too.

  4. Joe says:

    Dear Lee,

    Thank you for the rapid feedback. Very much appreciated! And yes, I am a meathead, although maybe not for the very reasons you mention.

    Thank you too Scott for the post and link.

    Scott mentions he can manuel with a 90mm stem, whereas I feel my weight is too forward and my wheel is glued to the ground. Attempting to get any air results in falling out the the sky like Wyle-E-Coyote into a carnivalesque front-wheel, uni-cycle balancing act. The fact is that I am apparently devoid of any skills whatsoever does not help matters so I will probably go short with a 60mm to help compensate for my inabilities, and allow time for my current wounds to heal. My fear was de-weighting the front wheel and losing traction in the corners, resulting in further misadventures, albeit to the entertainment of my disturbed friends. 🙂

  5. marckt says:

    you should never, NEVER, NEVER take what Mountain Bike Action says without a grain of salt

  6. Tjaard says:

    The other thing that would help would be an adjustable seatpost(Gravity Dropper, Command Post, Joplin etc). Dropping your seat will help a lot with steep descents and jumps, and lowering it a little will really help rail curvy singletrack! I would now rather ride a hardtail than a bike without a remote operated seatpost!

  7. vapor says:

    “My fear was de-weighting the front wheel and losing traction in the corners…” Joe, read what Lee has written about weighting the pedals. It is possible to use the range of motion in your legs to add weight to both tires through your pedals. You can add traction almost whenever needed. Eventually it turns into pumping the terrain, and when that becomes second nature, looking further down the trail for the sweet spots to pump.

    MBA is kinda like Playboy, everybody reads it for the articles. In cases of “reading” MBA, stay focused on the bike porn and never mind RC.

  8. Joe says:

    Thanks vapor. Very good advice indeed.

    New to this site and it is expansive!! It will take some time to surf around.

    Bike porn. :0 Yup, love to read the glossy fold-outs.

    Thanks too Tjaard. Like Lee, I have 2 kids. But they’re a lot older and keep me from buying such cool stuff for my bike. I do adjust fairly often. Sure wish had one of those posts though.

  9. Joe says:

    Follow up-

    I ended up with a 65mm stem (from a 90mm) which offered a 10° rise (Easton DH).

    I swear it is a different bike. Handles so much better. My posture is better, more upright to better see the trail, and no back-ache (yet). I don’t know what the perceived fear is about shorter stems getting getting nervous.

    Thank you, Joe

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