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Assuming a steerer/fork/brake/cable setup that does not rely on the stem facing forward: is it safe to point a stem backwards as a way to reduce seat-to-bar reach (i.e. as a way to 'fit' a too-large bike to a smaller/shorter person)? If not, why not?

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

No, it would not be particularly safe. The steering would get extremely twitchy and difficult to handle.

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What is it that makes this so? Could you provide some details? – Ehryk Jul 8 '12 at 0:41
I don't see how the steering would be any different than dutch bikes where the bars curve around and are held behind the headset. – Kibbee Jul 8 '12 at 17:23
It is very different. Try it for yourself. – zenbike Jul 8 '12 at 17:39
@Zenbike Ehryk and Kibbee might or might not try this for themselves but the entire readership of this question certainly won't. We read so that we can avoid having to try everything for ourselves. Have you tried this? – bdsl Feb 3 '15 at 8:40
@bdsl - Yes, I have ridden bikes set up in this manner. I don't recommend it. The leverage for the steering is wrong. It reacts in a twitchy and unstable manner. As I said already. There really isn't anything else to say. You are welcome to try it yourself, or to take my word. No skin off my back either way. – zenbike Feb 5 '15 at 16:34

In the BMX world, they use minimum offset or zero offset necks for flatland. The minimum offset options allow you shorter reach without causing problems being backwards. These are some options (the neck/bar combo might not help, but it was shown as examples of options that exist)

In the picture you see a zero offset zero angle bar-neck combo, a minimum offset S&M neck and a Kore neck on a Morales:

enter image description here

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Of course, BMX bikes are not intended for steering stability/comfort, but are intentionally "twitchy". – Daniel R Hicks Jul 8 '12 at 2:22
no, you are right, especially flatland bikes, these bars and necks are designed to feel about the same forward and reversed. – BillyNair Jul 8 '12 at 20:52

The handling issues would depend on the rider's common hand positions vs the steering axis. Generally the hand positions for most stability would have the hands forward of the axis.

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Steering issues aside, I would think that even if you got the reach aspect of the bike to work like this, there would be many other problems with the fit of the bike. Could you even stand safely over the top bar? Could you drop the seat low enough to reach the pedals?

Also, the headtube and stem are usually slightly angled. On a mountain bike or especially a road bike, you probably wouldn't have much movement available, as I think the handle bars would meet up with the top bar.

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stems can be angled upward or downward with a simple flip on the steerer. With a downward-sloping stem and/or a steep-angle head tube, I could see that being an issue but could easily be mitigated by flipping the stem upward (which would probably also help with reach). – djangodude Jul 8 '12 at 2:13
yeah, it might work with a set of flat bars like on a mountian bike, but drop bars would be no-go as they would come in contact with the top tube very easily. But if the fit of the bike was off by so much that you needed 4 inches less (assuming a 2 inch stem), then the bike is probably a really bad fit, and even if the steering did work, it probably wouldn't be a great idea. – Kibbee Jul 8 '12 at 2:38

Assuming, as the questioner did, that we are not considering cabling and such, Whether or not to put the stem facing forward or backwards depends on the handlebar shape and placement as well as where you hold the handlebar. I think the physics of bicycle stability is pretty complicated, in any case.

There may be analogies between holding an automobile steering wheel at the "10 and 2" o'clock positions versus the "8 and 4" o'clock positions (or even one-handed at the 6 o'clock. In the car, though, we generally don't use the steering wheel to support ourselves, except during cornering. If you are making a hard turn to the right in a car, then your body will shift to the left. If you are holding the upper part of the wheel (10/2), then that body shift will help pull the steering wheel back towards the center. But if you are holding the bottom of the steering wheel (6 position), then the harder you turn, the more your body will cause the steering wheel to turn even more to the right. So, holding the upper part of the wheel would be more "stable" than the bottom, especially in an emergency.

On the bike, we do put weight on the handlebars a whole lot more, and emergencies can throw us from the bike!

Without holding onto the handlebars (or very lightly), the weight of our body and the bike serves to help keep the front wheel tending to point straight forward because of the way the fork is at an angle and the way the wheel axle is off the axis of the steering tube/headset. At the same time, there is a force of, say, road or hub friction that pushes the front wheel to twist towards the back. The angle and weight should overpower the push back.

Let's now suppose that we have a somewhat standard stem, facing forwards. Now also suppose that instead of riding without holding the bars, you ride by holding onto the end of the stem that clamps onto the handlebar, right in the middle of the bars. If you are putting your weight on the bars, as it a road bike I think, then you are probably pushing forward. This would basically make a force to make the wheel face straight forward. However, if you reversed the stem and held it in the same way, then when pushing, it would tend to swing the stem around making it turn either one way or the other.

When braking, this force of pushing on the handlebars would become even greater, even if you are riding a "cruiser" (where more of your resting weight would be on your butt).

Of course, we generally don't ride single handed (or no-handed). And so each hand can serve to balance the push of the other. If we have a backwards-facing stem, and our hands very close together, as in those stylish messenger handlebars, then braking would be very dangerous because it would be almost like riding one-handed and the bike would suddenly turn whenever you braked:

                             In all diagrams, the      ^
                             forward direction is UP,  |
                             looking down on bike.

                O         <- "O" means steering tube axis.
             ---o---      <- "o" is the stem clamp to the handlebar.

On the other hand, even with forward-facing stems, we do see hand placement that is behind the steering tube in cruiser or beach bikes or dutch bikes (as mentioned by user Kibbee), yet they are somehow safe (motorcycles also often have the grips behind the steering axis):

    --          |          --       
   /            |            \   
  /             O             \  
 /                             \  
/                               \

This (above) situation is, I can only guess, safe because the hands are so widely spaced from each other that they balance out. Additionally, maybe it's because you put less weight on your hands in bikes that use these.

With those narrow messenger bars, they are actually relatively difficult to change direction compared to mountain bikes because you don't have much leverage on the turning and because the hands serve mostly to keep you aiming straight:


Normal mountain handlebars are just wider, but that gives you a lot more leverage and control:


And the most "maneuverable" and "twitchy" bars would be something like this:


Some other handlebar setup, for reference, are below. These others also offer multiple hand placement, so the twitchiness and handling would be different depending on where you hold them. These tend to have grip locations ahead of the steer tube.

Drop and/or mustache handlebars, where it's been a bit "squished" so we see the drops:

    _                        _
   / \                      / \
   | |                      | |
   | |                      | |
   | \----------o----------/  |              
   |            |             |

Trekking / butterfly handlebars:

 /              |              \
 \_____----     |     ----_____/   

There does not seem to be a strict rule of whether hands forward, at, or rear of the steering axis makes a particular situation safe or dangerous. In general, there seems to be a mix of influences on handling (and danger from turning-when-braking) depending on such things as:

  • how forward/backwards the hand placement is,
  • how wide the hand placement is,
  • geometry of the bike (angle of steering tube, axle location for front wheel, etc.),
  • whether you have more resting weight on hands or not,
  • riding one-handed as when signalling a turn (or no-handed),
  • braking using one-hand (this almost threw me from my own bike), using coaster brakes, etc.
  • braking front vs. rear wheel (may depend on which hand in single-handed riding)
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I want to upvote you for the extensive, considered answer and the ASCII art of handlebars that must have taken a lot of time, but I don't think you actually answered the question. – Carey Gregory May 17 '13 at 23:42
I agree with Carey - but I also think some of your assumptions are misguided, for example your comment on the Dutch handlebars. – Rory Alsop May 18 '13 at 12:40
To carey-gregory: My response is sort of trying to convey that, "it depends", and that there it is not possible to accurately answer "yes" or "no" to the original question. Perhaps the original question should be voted down because it does not given enough specifics? I was trying to improve upon the accepted answer of "no... twitchy" with its support of "Try it yourself." To @rory-alsop: I can see that the assumption of safety of a dutch bike might be unsupported, but I don't think it's "misguided". Can you specify what assumptions are incorrect? – PositiveK May 18 '13 at 18:18
No - you misunderstand. I have no problems with the safety of a Dutch bike. It just isn't because the hands are widely spaced. – Rory Alsop May 18 '13 at 18:26
Related question/anwser: stability of flat handlebars – PositiveK Jul 7 '13 at 20:34

The real answer here is that reversing the stem changes the handling very little. 90% of the handling comes from the fork length and curve (trail) and the head tube angle. These things control the inherent stability of a bicycle. The stem length is more a matter of comfort, although there is an important matter of knee clearance, especially if you ever intend to stand on the pedals while riding.

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Putting the stem on backward won't make a bike twitchy. Think about riding a bike no handed. Some bikes do ride twitchy no handed, some are very stable. How it behaves is determined by the fork and the head angle and geometry of the bike. None of this changes if you were to rotate the handlebars or take them off entirely.

There is an instructional video on YouTube of a guy teaching how to ride a manual (a wheelie without pedaling) and one of his tips is to reverse the stem to move the handlebars way back -- it makes it easier to leverage the front wheel of the bike off the ground. He not only reverses the stem, but replaces it with a longer stem so the handlebars are really way closer to the saddle.

Here it is:

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How does riding a bike on one wheel relate to steering? – MÒŽ Sep 17 '15 at 21:19
How do handlebars relate to steering? I can ride anywhere I want without them. Except when I'm on one wheel. Then I need the bars. – Lee Sep 18 '15 at 20:36

I have reversed the stem to bring the bars closer. I found no difference in steering or safety. If a reversed stem is needed, use it without worry. My answer is specific to "cruiser bars," or "cow horn bars" that do not interfere with the top tube.

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