Editorâ€™s Note: This is a continuing series of training tips provided by Gene Hamilton, founder of Better Ride mountain bike training clinics and camps. Ross Schnell is a former student and raves about the positive changes Gene made to his riding, and that dudeâ€™s a ripper. If he can help the pros, he can help you.
I have spent the last 15 years studying bike handling and how bike setup effects bike handling. In that time I have kept an open mind and experimented with bars as narrow as 22″ and as wide as 32″ and stems from 150mm down to 30mm.
I didn’t invent a single skill or bike set-up theory myself. I tried what other, “better riders” suggested. Everything I teach I have learned through others (world champions like Marla Streb and Greg Minnaar, motorcycle coaches, ski coaches, gymnastic coaches) and then personally tested out their ideas and had many of my top students (pro racers like Ross Schnell, Chris Van Dine, Lynda Wallenfells, etc.) test these theories.
Wider handle bars and a shorter stem give you more control. 27-30 inch handle bars depending on your height and a 50-80 mm stem provides the best handling. Handlebar height is important too, your bars should be 1â€-3â€ lower than your seat when it is raised to optimum climbing height.
Your handlebars are one of the main inputs of control and wider bars give you much more control (because they are more stable (think of doing a push up with your hands 21″ apart and then 29″ apart. If I were trying to knock you over would I have more luck with your hands 21″ apart or 29″?). We have all hit a rock that wanted to violently twist our front wheel to the side. Can you see how a wider bar would give you more leverage to fight this?Â I understand many of you have fear issues related to going through narrow trees and riding scared is a recipe for disaster but narrow handlebars create a twitchy, unstable ride.Â Do you want to set you bike up to function well on the 3 or 4 narrow tree gaps or the rest of the trail?
Wider bars also allow you to keep your arms bent and chest down allowing you to ride in a more athletic, neutral position.Â Perfect for riding smoothly and adjusting to anything and everything the trail throws at you.
Your stem is a not a bike fit device, it greatly effects the control of your bike.Â Motorcycles don’t have stems for a reason, a long stem puts you out of balance (too much weight forward) straightens your arms (taking you out of a neutral position) and the long lever of a stem more than 90 millimeters long makes your steering “flop” to the side instead of being precise.
So for a more controlled ride go with a 50 to 80mm stem and 27″-30″ wide bars.Â I know this goes against tradition so please try this set up for a week before commenting. If you understand correct body position, how bikes turn and how to manual or wheelie correctly (using no upper body strength) you will love the control this gives you.
The coolest thing you will notice is how much this helps with technical climbing, no more wheel swerving all over the place… it will track nice and straight.Â The best technical climber I know runs a 30mm stem.Â I run a 60mm stem on all of my XC bikes and a 40-50 mm stem on my downhill bikes.
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