Let’s talk mountain bike setup. A seemingly obvious but often overlooked process that has huge benefits when done right. This is, of course, a matter of personal preference but just about every time we get out on the trails we see riders with a setup that shouldn’t be anyone’s personal preference! Thankfully it’s not too complicated to get right and most of the time won’t cost you a cent.
We have 3 articles lined up for you that will cover the cockpit, your contact points, and the basics of your suspension setup. The way you setup your bike will affect your body position and thus your comfort and control over the bike. We urge you to take a bit of time to read each of these articles or watch the videos on our skills and setup playlist, and do some more of your own research in order to get a better understanding of your bike and what set up will work best for you. Alright, let’s jump into the cockpit!
Looking at the handlebar there are 3 main factors to consider. Those are width, rise, and roll.
Wider bars (typically around 780mm on trail bikes) will offer you more leverage over the front of your bike and a more stable platform, thus increasing your control over the bike. The width of your bars will depend on how big you are and how aggressively you ride. Smaller riders may be too stretched out on a 780mm bar and might want to cut theirs down to 760-740mm. You can do this in 5 or 10mm increments to find what works best. You should be able to do this with a pipe cutter or a hacksaw at home but if you’re unsure, your local bike shop can help you out.
The rise of your handlebars is also good to consider. This would be the height that they sweep up from the stem to the grips. 25-30mm would be a very high rising bar, 10-15mm would be on the lower end and then there are of course flat bars which are more common for XC and marathon riding. Higher rise bars will give you more comfort and control on longer and steeper descents. A lower rise will bias your weight forwards, increasing your traction on the front wheel but can tire you out on longer or steeper descents. The advantage of adjusting your bar height through different bar rises as opposed to the spacers under your stem is that you will preserve the reach of your bike, not shortening it. It does come at the cost of a new handlebar though so that must be considered.
The rotation of your handlebar forwards or backward in the stem is referred to as bar roll. Rotating the bar forwards slightly will open up your reach a bit and bias your weight forwards which can improve front wheel traction. Rolling the bar backward will bais your weight further backward which may be more comfortable on longer or steeper descents. This is an easy adjustment to play around with that doesn’t come at any cost. Try some small adjustments here and find what works for you.
Fine-tuning your handlebar setup will be determined by the kind of trails that you prefer to ride and your riding style so do some thinking and testing to figure out what suits you best!
Also related to bar height is the stem height. Here we are talking about where your stem attaches to the steerer tube. Moving this up and down, adding or removing spacers under the stem, will obviously affect the bar height and as a result your body position/weight bias. Because of the angle of the steerer tube, moving the stem higher up will reduce your reach slightly as the bars move up and closer toward you. Adjusting the bar height in this way doesn’t come at a financial cost so if you’re happy to compromise on reach then go ahead and try making some 5-10mm adjustments and find what works better for you. As we have said, lower bar height will bring your body and weight forwards which can help increase traction on the front wheel but can also be fatiguing on longer and steeper descents. Finding the right balance is what it’s all about.
Make sure that you don’t under or over tighten the headset screw on the top of your steerer tube. It should be tight enough to prevent any play in the headset but not making the steering feel stiff.
When it comes to the length of your stem, longer or shorter stems will influence your reach, weight bias, and the nature of your steering. A shorter stem (35-45mm) will offer a shorter reach, a more rearward weight bias, and a quick and direct steering feel. Longer stems (50-60mm) increase your reach, move your body position forwards, and have a slightly slower and less direct steering feel. For optimal performance on the trail, we recommend a stem length in the range of 35-60mm. This is, of course, a matter of preference and you will need to find a length that suits your riding style best.
Your stem attachment to the steerer tube is also used to correctly align the bars with your wheel, don’t be that guy with the skew bars.. While standing over the bike, look down and try to line up the back of your bars with the front of your fork crown, an equal distance on each side. Loosen the stem bolts before doing this and make sure to tighten them to the specified torque again after doing so.
Finally, the angle of your brakes levers can often be an overlooked part of your cockpit setup. This will also influence your weight bias and body position as well as your braking performance. Logically, you will want to set the angle of your brake levers so that they are optimised for when you need them the most and that is while descending. If you tend to rider steeper trails, bringing the levers up towards a flat position will mean that you don’t get pulled over the bars as much and it may increase your braking performance.
If you tend to ride flatter trails you could probably afford to have a steeper angle on your brakes to help you in weighting the front wheel on corners. We wouldn’t recommend that you go too steep though.
You can also adjust how close to the grip your brake sits. If you find that the brake lever position is putting your hand in quite a cramped position on the bar, move it away from the grip slightly. If you’re struggling to reach the brake comfortably and it is pulling your hand too far inwards on the grip, move those brakes outwards slightly. You should be able to comfortably have one finger on the brake while your hand is in the riding position on the grip. If your brakes are not powerful enough for you to brake with one finger then we would strongly recommend that you get some larger brake rotors or even some new brakes if that still doesn’t cut it. Being able to comfortably brake with one finger will be less fatiguing allowing you to be more controlled and ride better.
We cannot stress enough how worthwhile it is to take some time to figure out your bike setup! A lot of this is a personal preference so it will be up to you to find what suits you best. If you’re unsure about anything, drop your questions in the comments or check in with your local bike shop for some advice and help. Be sure to check out our other posts on contact points and suspension setup for a full scope on bike setup. Most of all, enjoy your ride!
Keep it real, J-Dogg.