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I recently finished building up a mountain bike, with the help of a friend. My initial rides - a few miles, nothing too extensive yet - revealed that I need to move the handlebars a bit up and back towards the saddle to make my elbows happy; I prefer them to be bent more than they are now. I can think of two ways to do this: Raise the bars or bring them closer in, or a bit of both. (The stem is already at the top of the fork steerer tube, and I'd prefer not to get an extender on this bike.)

Background

The drivetrain is a Shimano mountain set I pulled off a hardtail 80's steel-frame mountain bike (upgraded in the noughties), hung on a hardtail 90's Specialized Stumpjumper frame (an aluminum frame with slightly more aggressive geometry). Neither bike had any suspension at all, including the front fork. (Due to my preferences. Suspension is nice, but I dislike the slight loss of feedback.)

I'd like to know what these changes are likely to do, and, possibly even more importantly, why this is the case.

Option 1: Get a smaller stem

This is an easy one, as the existing stem is quite long. Whatever I do, I'll want to bring the bars in. However, I could also look for a stem with a steeper angle while I'm at it. How will these changes affect how the bike handles? Will a shorter stem make the bike more twitchy, or less? (I quite like the way it feels right now.)

Option 2: Get some riser bars

This is a fairly simple way to get the bars closer to me. Rotating the bars one way or another will give me more options. However, I quite like the existing flat bar, as the simplicity of it is appealing from an aesthetic standpoint. Will riser bars affect the feel and handling of the bike?

Summary

I have two possibilities, and (I'm guessing) combining both approaches will likely be what I end up doing. Before I start ordering parts, which of these is likely to give me the correct reach while preserving the feel of the bike as it is now, and why? Are there options that I haven't thought of?

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I think the answer is "yes". But one annoying thing about bicycles that has always been true is that adjusting the handlebar position is difficult. On the old style headset you could at least raise-lower the stem quite a bit, but the new threadless design limits that. The threadless stems can usually be removed without strippinng the bar, but a good selection of replacement stems is rarely found. And bike mfgrs continue to make handlebars lower than they should be to make the bikes look "meaner" on the sales floor. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 19 '11 at 12:08

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Moving your bars is probably going to move your centre of gravity which is likely to affect the handling of the bike. That said if the only change is that your elbows are more bent it might not make a big difference.

A shorter stem will move your weight backwards that means:

  • The bike will be more stable and less twitchy.
  • It will be easier to move your weight back when descending. It will also increase your range of movement, giving you more control (as long as you use it!).
  • You will be in a less powerful position for pedaling.
  • The front is more likely to unweight and rise when going uphill.

If you're fitting a shorter stem you'll want to lift the bars up as well, you can do this by fitting a stem which is angled, or riser bars, or both. This is all about what feels good so you'll want to experiment a bit - long/low and short/high both feel good, long/high and short/long don't.

The other thing you can do to get yourself closer to the bars is to move your saddle forwards - the saddle can move forwards or backwards on the clamp, and you could possibly use a seatpost with less/no layback.

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Although not very cool, you could get an adjustable stem:

enter image description here

These come on a lot of bikes, e.g. Ridgeback in the UK. You may find that your LBS has a few knocking around in the workshop that might be available to you for less than the RRP. You will be able to use one to find out what does work for you. If you then upgrade to the ideal stem and take the adjustable one off then it probably will not take too long before you find a home for it on a friend's bike.

I have taken a while to warm to this product, an additional bolt in the stem area made me think that it could weaken the area to introduce play etc. However, in practice, these stems work really well for a lot of people.

You should also investigate the riser bar. They put the hands in a much more ergonomic position than flat bars although you do lose handlebar real estate for lights, speedometers etc. Again, ask at the LBS for what they might have knocking around in the workshop. If you can live with a few scratches then you might get a bargain.

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An adjustable stem isn't what I'm looking for in the end, but these are great for finding the optimal bar height and location. A good option. –  Neil Fein Aug 19 '11 at 16:19
    
Does a riser bar affect handling at all, compared to a flat bar with the grips at the same height/location? –  Neil Fein Aug 19 '11 at 16:19
    
You won't be so stretched out, you can also twizzle the riser bar round to get a much comfier position for the wrists. You can also chop the bars down if need be, although not as much as you can with flat bars. On balance easier handling except on mega steep off-road gradients. Give them a go, I am sure you won't be disappointed! –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Aug 19 '11 at 23:42
    
I have a riser bar left over from my touring rig; I may try it out to see how it feels. I remember feeling isolated from the fork a but, but this is a different bike made of a different fork and frame material, and it's possible I may be surprised. –  Neil Fein Aug 25 '11 at 4:48

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