MTB Handlebar Setup Concepts
Dialing in your setup – MTB Handlebars
MTB Handlebar setup is important to a bike’s personality. Suspension, Tires, Brakes are important as well, but if your cockpit isn’t setup appropriately this can be all for not. A proper handlebar with the right setup will be comfortable and predictable across a variety of terrain.
Handlebar dimensions are provided in width, rise, upsweep as well as backsweep.
Small deviations in these define if a bar is fast, neutral or slow handling. Large deviations drastically alter a bike’s performance.
Now, before the internet comes unglued, there are different baseline dimensions common for different disciplines. More on that later.
Adjusted by trimming handlebars.
One of the subjective dimensions up for a lot of debate over the past couple years. A bar should be wide enough to provide the rider sufficient leverage to control wheel direction as well as keeping the rider’s hands in a power position in relation to their shoulders.
Too wide may feel great at top speed where the additional leverage as well as greater distance input per degree of steering slow the handling. Contrarily too wide of a setup will pull your hands out of a power position reducing a rider’s ability to change direction or input weight to the font wheel.
The last time I put bars on my personal bike I left them uncut for the first couple rides. I found that if I dropped into a corner perfect it felt amazing. However I didn’t have the strength or minute muscle control to input adjustments after the initial turn in. I was unable to use my upper body strength to push, pull or steer effectively. Climbing I found my arms too straight to apply weight into the bar. The bike wandered in technical climbs.
We don’t often see too narrow of a handlebar on a contemporary setup, but here are some symptoms. A bike will feel nervous as the distance input per degree of steering decreases. Narrow bars often lead riders to longer stems to accommodate fit which modifies front end weight input and steering. The lower leverage input makes it tougher to isolate your upper body weight which creates less predictable handling.
Overly narrow bars also compress your chest which hinders breathing. This was one of the real eye openers for XC racers a few years ago as they moved from the traditional narrow setups.
Too wide, too narrow? Think about doing pushups. There is a sweet spot being able to use your muscles for power and balance. Handlebar width is similar. Best practice is to start a touch long and trim down to a sweet spot. Remember bars are easy to trim, hard to stretch…
Editorial rant: Recently we had a brand rep explain that they no longer suggest riders cut their bars, but “get used to” running at a stock length. This is so preposterously offensive I’ve made it a point to make fun of it as often as possible. Sounds like a great excuse for the brands to not have to fine tune setups with their clients… Bike setup is critical and you should work with a resource capable of dialing you in.
Some bars do have minimum widths to control how stiff they become as leverage decreases – these companies also offer bars of varied stiffness to accommodate a range of riders. If you have questions on which bar stiffness or disposition work with BikeCo’s staff to understand the advantages of the right layup for you.
Height. Adding to “Stack”
Adjusted with handlebar rise or stem spacers.
Getting your hands in the right position is important for overall body posture and weighting the front end of the bike.
Variations in frame geometry and disciplines mean a bike will typically have an ideal range of appropriate stack.
For instance flatter bars are more often seen on XC / trail bike setups such as the Ibis Ripley or Yeti SB4.5. This helps weight the front end while providing riders a more aggressive lean angle.
More trail / enduro setups feature riser bars for optimum downhill performance.
Assuming no fit issues from injuries (or age. or both…) there are some basics to look for on bar height.
Too low: this generally feels good climbing and has good bite in high speed flat corners. You can tell your bars are too low if the bike wants to yank out from under you when you descend steeper terrain. (As I’ve gotten older I’ve noted I have to watch how low I run my bars to avoid extra stress on my back from lean angle when pedaling.)
Too tall: when your handlebars are too tall you lose the ability to push the bar down into terrain. Go back to the pushup concept, rather than a pushup motion “punching” back into the bar you are almost “pulling” down to weight the bar. Without the ability to use your arms for additional suspension and strength you quickly feel like a passenger versus a pilot.
Most riders use the handlebar rise for the majority of the height while using stem spacers to fine tune setup. On a new bike room for 30mm of stem spacers, typically two 10mm and two 5mm will allow riders to dial in bar height. More advanced riders may go down to 2.5mm spacers to allow for very minute changes.
Length. Adding to “Reach”
Adjusted with stem length.
Don’t roll your bars to change this dimension. This is one of the most common setup errors we come across.
Handlebar angle QUICKLY changes a bike’s personality. Nearly all modern handlebars should be setup with the angle from the clamping surface to the end of the rise parallel, or slightly rolled rearward, to fork stanchions.
If you roll the bars too far forward the bike will speed the handling, making a bike “nervous”. Too far rearward “slows” the handling, making it feel sluggish.
There are generally marks on the handlebar’s mounting surface. MORE OFTEN THAN NOT there are way more hash marks than you would ever, ever use. There are so many marks to ease a visual reference with a variety of stems as well as to balance graphics on the bar. Not so you can roll the bar 45% either direction… That’s not going to work well.
Say you’re riding a demo or buddies bike. Riding it a few mm to long or short, with the proper bar angle, will be 100% more fun than getting that “perfect” length at the cost of the bike’s personality.
A Quick Recap
Handlebar width is a personal setup without a concrete “right or wrong” but there is definitely a range that will best compliment your riding.
BikeCo’s Chris Fuller recently build his new Ibis Ripmo. I spoke with him about his bar setup.
“At 6’3″ I typically run 780mm bars, although on my new build I haven’t cut them down from the stock 800 yet. 800 is rideable but I feel like I have more power in corners with the 780 setup.”
Landon Gregson explained “I’m 5’11” and run 770 on my Arktos. I probably could run 760mm I just kept them at 770 and maybe ride in on the grip a little bit.”
Personally I run 785mm from the edge to edge of my grips (I believe the bars are cut around 775 maybe 780). At 6’1″ with wide shoulders this seems to be a comfortable fit. I have edged wider over the years, as did most riders with years of tenure – remember 711 bars being wide? I remember carbon inserts to stretch early Easton bars to an unimaginable 730mm… Dating myself I suppose.
The long and the short, see what I did there – puns, riders should be looking to fine tune their cockpit. Handlebar, stem and stem stack should all be reviewed to maximize handling characteristics for your riding style and terrain.
One of the best parts of working with BikeCo Pro Riders is getting feedback. Brian Lopes read through this blog and sent his setup notes – check them out here!
Check out the best handlebars in MTB here
At BikeCo we work with our clients to dial in setup and will exchange stems on a new bike or cockpit to ensure the ultimate in fit. Contact our sales team for more details.