Monday, June 7, 2010

Bike Mistakes - Part 1: Handlebar

This is the first in a series on common mistakes on your bike... 

I've been thinking about a series of posts about common mistakes that most everyone (even some shops) makes on bicycles. I'm going to give this a stab here and see how it goes. I'll be focusing on mechanical mistakes as well as those that may effect comfort, handling, or safety. I don't know how many parts there will be - this will just sort of evolve. If you have a suggestion or something you'd like to see covered: leave a comment and let me know.

So, let's start at the front of the bike - and with an important contact point: the handlebar.
This is the control center of your bicycle. Almost every control command; braking, shifting, and steering, must go through the bars in one way or another. Sure, there are other ways to control the bike by shifting weight and changing position on the bike - but when you really think about it; most of these maneuvers require some sort of interaction with the bars too. So, how do you set up your handlebars for maximum effectiveness? I'll start with road drop-style bars and the move to flat and riser mountain-style bars.

First, some guidelines: Always use caution and NEVER do this while riding the bike. Preferably you will have the bike set in an indoor trainer for these steps for easy adjustment and self-evaluation. Always use a torque wrench set to manufacturer's recommendations when tightening bolts - especially on carbon fiber and lightweight aluminum. This is implied any time I say to tighten the bolts. Any longer, nearly 99% of bolts on bicycles are metric. Use a metric wrench. If you are not certain about anything, consult with an experienced, professional mechanic.

And this article is by no means a substitute for a bike fitting or visit to the mechanic. This is meant to be a guide to help you identify some of the mistakes that may be present on your bike and give you a starting point to solve them. Consult with a professional for a solution to your unique problem. I mean, come on - you really expect me to solve your problem through a blog? :)

ROAD "DROP" BARS (Click photos to enlarge)
First: since my specialty is bike fitting - if you are not certain that your handlebars are in the right position, consult with a bike fitter. Just messing with different stem lengths or angles is a waste of time and money. Even if you don't pay for a formal fitting: get a fitter's advice. Let them see the bike and describe your problems. An experienced fitter can sometimes get 90% of the way to a better position by seeing your bike and maybe seeing you sit on it. Perfection is found in that last 10% - but 90% is better than what a lot of people are tolerating.

Now, maybe not the biggest mistake - but the one that has been haunting me lately is poor handlebar rotation and brake/shift lever position. Often, the source of this problem is actually when the bike is packaged at the manufacturer's assembly facility. (Yeah, I'm going to throw that stone - you bet. Even the manufacturers are not perfect; and sometimes they need to be told so...) Many road bikes arrive in the store partially assembled. This means that the shifters are often already installed on the bar and the bar tape is already wrapped. If the shifters are not in the proper location; this is a time consuming thing to correct (and occasionally costs the shop a roll of bar tape) - but has a huge effect on the rider's comfort.

How do we get this right? (This is one of my favorite bike fitting "tricks") Start with setting the rotation of the bar in the stem clamp. Loosen the stem's faceplate bolt(s) just enough that you can barely rotate the bar in the stem. The handlebar is now loose - be very careful and do not do this while riding. Sit on the bike and grasp the bar in the drops - the lowest position available on the handlebar. Giving no regard to the position of the shifters and reach to the brake levers (these will be adjusted later); rotate the bars up and/or back until you find a position where the drops are most comfortable and usable. (Caution: this may damage the graphics on the clamp area of the bar or scar the clear coat of a carbon handlebar - you did it to yourself: not me. Don't say I didn't warn you...) Frequently, this ends with the extension of the drops falling into a plane that is nearly horizontal. The "old school" method of setting bar rotation used to be to point the end of the drops at the rear brake - nearly the same result as this; and somehow we got away from it. Once you're satisfied: tighten the faceplate bolt(s).

Usually, this results in a significant downward rotation of the bars and will put your brake/shift levers in an uncomfortable and unusable position. This next step may require unwrapping the bar tape. (You may want to have new bar tape ready to go; as tape often tears when it's being unwrapped. Not much feels or looks better than new tape anyway...) You will need to move your levers up on the handlebar to bring them back to a usable position. Carefully loosen the levers' clamp bolt (which will have varying positions depending on the model - consult with a shop if you have questions). Also - don't ride this way. (Duh, I know - but you gotta be careful these days...) Move the lever upward until you reach some combination of the following criteria: the transition from the top of the bar to the rubber hood of the lever is smooth and as flat as possible; the lever position creates a perch which allows you to grasp it with your hand in a neutral, almost "handshake" orientation; and there are no extreme bumps, angles, or arcs which create pressure points or voids which are not comfortable. All of which will vary slightly depending upon the 1) shape of the curvature of your bar, 2) model of levers, and 3) preferred position and 4) anatomy. I will use a level to make sure they are in the same position. (There are very rare situations in which they may not need to be - consult with an experienced fitter.) Finally, carefully tighten the levers' clamp bolt. Then re-wrap your handlebars (starting at the end of the drop - wrapping toward the center-line of the bike: perhaps this is an idea for another post...). You may want to have new bar tape ready to go; as tape often tears when it's being unwrapped. Not much feels better than new tape anyway...

If you got this right, (and your bars are in a good position to begin with) you should notice improved access to all parts of the handlebar. This method does occasionally result in more difficult reach to pull on the brake levers themselves - especially on "compact drop" bars and for riders with small hands. If you are noticing this: consult with an experienced fitter or mechanic to see if there is a brake lever shim available for your levers to move your levers closer to your bar and adjust the brake cable appropriately.

Mistakes are less common on mountain bike and hybrid type handlebars - they're just less mysterious and finicky. But, we still see occasional issues here. Just like road bike handlebars; rotation and brake lever position are the most frequent problems.

The first things to understand when positioning this style of handlebar is that most all of them have certain degrees of "rise" and "sweep"; even the flat handlebars. Rise is the amount of upward offset of the ends of the bars in relation to the center clamping area. Even some flat bars have a little bit of rise. Sweep is the amount of offset back toward the rider from the plane of the center clamping area. Sweep will often vary from model to model and some bars are offered in different degrees of sweep. This rearward, angled offset is most useful in matching the grip area to the natural angle of your hands when you grasp the bar.

Use a similar technique to position flat bars as you would a road drop bar. Start with setting the rotation of the bar in the stem clamp. Loosen the stem's faceplate bolt(s) just enough that you can barely rotate the bar in the stem. The handlebar is now loose - be very careful and do not do this while riding. Ideally, you have the bike set up in an indoor trainer. Sit on the bike and grasp the bar at the grip area. Giving no regard to the position of the shifters and brake levers (as these will be adjusted later); rotate the bars up and back until you find a position where the bar is most comfortable and usable. (Caution: this may damage the graphics on the clamp area of the bar or scar the clear coat of a carbon handlebar - you did it to yourself: not me. Don't say I didn't warn you...) This will most frequently result with the top of the bar being horizontal to very slightly tilted upward when correct. Once you're satisfied: tighten the faceplate bolt(s).

Next, re-position your brake levers and shifters. Loosen their relative clamp bolts to allow them to freely rotate. Locations and wrench sizes will vary by model. Consult with a mechanic if you have questions. Noting again, that this may damage the finish on your bars. Sitting on the seat; reach to your bars and find a comfortable position. Note the angle your hands naturally take if you extend your fingers. Your brake levers should be positioned so that they sit perfectly at this angle so as to be easily in reach from a neutral, relaxed, natural position. Angled too low or too high requires too much movement and adaptation to allow for quick, safe, comfortable braking. Adjust your shifters accordingly as well. (Twist-style shifters like SRAM Grip-Shift or Shimano Revo are easy, just put them where you can easily read the gear indicators). Again, the left and right sides should be in the same position. There are extremely rare situations where they may not need to be in the same place. Consult with a professional fitter if you have questions. Once you are satisfied, tighten the clamp bolts.

If you are concerned about the width of your bar - how far apart your grips and brake levers are apart - consult with a fitter and knowledgeable mechanic. Various solutions exist - but depend upon whether your handlebar is compatible and may include cutting.

-Off center: graphics on the bar are not to be trusted 100% of the time. Measure from the end of the bar to the edge of the stem clamp and move until the measurement is equal on both sides.
-Shifters/brake levers in different positions from a crash/incident: using the methods described above; adjust the errant lever until it matches the correct one.
-Slipping: stem clamps'/faceplates' bolts should be tightened to equal torque with equal space on top and bottom (except with specified by manufacturer: i.e. Salsa's "stiff upper lip" faceplate construction). If slipping continues after checking for appropriate, manufacturer recommended torque with a torque wrench; consult with a mechanic who may apply "friction paste" grease or recommend a handlebar/stem change.
-Creaking: on older bikes with a steel handlebar, this is often the result of a bar with a "sleeved" clamp area and cannot be resolved without changing bars. Otherwise, try removing, cleaning, and greasing all bolts and clamping surfaces - using friction paste where appropriate - and re-assembling to proper torque with a torque wrench.
-Over-tightening: use a torque wrench! There are good ones available for $20-$150 which is less than the cost of that carbon handlebar or seatpost you're about to crack. Just do it. (Ritchey Torq-key: $20-$25 {5nm only}; PRO Torque Wrench: $125-$135 {3nm-15nm )

If there are other issues you have or are pet-peeves of yours - leave a comment and I'll reply or post an update with some solutions.

I hope this is helpful.

Thanks for reading!


  1. great post. i don't know if i'll be looking too carefully at my bike handlebars for fear of being paranoid that i now need to adjust them. sometimes ignorance is bliss. :)

    sometimes in the drops my forearm is hitting the flat part of the handlebar which bruises my forearm.

  2. Not to bias your opinion of your fit; but that is a common symptom of exactly what this post is about.

    If the drops are rocked too far forward, the reach to that portion of the bar is exaggerated so that the forearm contacts the top of the bar when riding in the drops.

    Rock the bar back to a more neutral orientation and you may find the bruising goes away. Of course; there are those who like the bruises as they think it makes them look tough! :)

    I still recommend having a couple rolls of bar tape handy though...

  3. Thanks for this - just what I needed. I was getting very sore hands and shoulders from the sharp angle between my shifters and a downward tilted set of bars. I suspect a sore upper back was also related. That was a shop fit. Have moved it to neutral and will give it a try.

  4. In addition, you may also find comprehensive review and opinions dropped by the earlier buyer.

  5. I know this article is old, but have any tips for how to position my bullhorn handle bars?

    1. Anon-

      Thanks for commenting!

      The article has been around a while; but is still just as relevant and very popular.

      To address rotational positioning as per the scope of this article I would use a similar technique - except that you only have to worry about the bullhorn extensions.

      Mount the bars with the stem faceplate slightly loose and VERY CAREFULLY get on the bike while mounted in a indoor trainer. Give no regard to the brake levers as they can be re-positioned.

      Make slight rotational adjustments until you feel comfortable. This will often result in the bullhorn bar extensions tilted slightly upward. But, this makes sense because if you observe the natural and neutral position of your hand at the end of your arm when extended toward the bars, it is not horizontal to the ground either.

      Be sure to tighten the stem clamp and then position your brake levers as needed.

      Further positioning of the bars: reach and drop, ought to be addressed by a trained and experienced bike fitter if you are still having comfort, confidence, or handling issues after addressing rotational position.

      Good luck!

  6. Thank you, for your time and care for others sharing your knowledge!

    1. Absolutely! My pleasure. As I have said before; I was fortunate to have some influential people around me to hello when I began cycling that propelled me on my way. This is one of my ways of paying it forward.

  7. Matt, I have an issue with my right hand going numb on rides longer than 10+ miles primarily involving my thumb index and middle finger. My left hand does not seem to have the same issue. Is it good to turn the shifters slightly inward towards the stem versus parallel to the frame as this is more of a natural position for the hand? Thank you.

    1. Jason;

      Good question. Thanks for writing in to ask.

      First, let me get this out of the way: It is hard to answer your question empirically without knowing a lot more about your situation - i.e. seeing you on your bike in person and asking more questions. So; as you have probably read from me before: there is no substitute for meeting with a qualified, experienced bike fitter.

      That said: you may be on to something there. However, this varies by shifter model as some are designed to account for this ergonomically and others are not. I do adjust shifter rotation with some frequency in my bike fittings and it may help with your hand numbness symptoms, but it may result in merely improved comfort and not address the numbness at all.

      Further; there may still be other conditions contributing to your experience: among them the subject of this posting (assuming that you've read the article and addressed these issues on your bike already). Also: handlebar height (too high OR too low); reach to the handlebar (too close OR to far); improper saddle tilt shifting your weight forward; improper saddle rotation (left/right of center); improper stem rotation (left/right of center); handlebars that are too wide OR too narrow; and any number of physiology issues and or injuries - just to name a few... ;-)

      All this to say: feel free to try a few things, but try to just change one thing at a time; measure and document the changes from the original position (so you can set it back to the original position accurately if needed); and give it a few rides. In some cases you'll also discover that the opposite of what you THINK may be the solution is actually the solution - so it is often worthwhile to experiment with both ends of the spectrum.

      As you can see; this is a complex area to try to troubleshoot. Because of all the variables and the possibility that it may not be the bike at the root of the cause at all (but something else that merely manifests on the bike); know when to "cry uncle" and invest in a session with a reputable bike fitter.

      Finally; a last word of caution, as you're making adjustments - check and double check the fastening bolts for proper torque (using a torque wrench if at all possible) before you go ride to test it out.

      Good luck; and if you happen upon a solution - come back and share your results and what worked!

      Thanks for reading and asking!

  8. Matt... Thank you for taking the time. I know one of the hardest things to do is respond to a fit via an email. I have been fit by both the Guru machine as well as a fitter at a LBS. I preferred the fitter versus the Guru (same store) overall. Currently, I ride a BMC GF01 with Ultegra Di2 gruppo.

    He resolved most issues overall but I did notice that the bike fitters I have used in the past put the shifters at a slight inward angle on my other 2 bikes (Trek and Fezzari). I noticed my hand going numb reasonable quick and will sustain that way for some time. It is more prevalent going downhill versus uphill, and as mentioned, more prevalent, on the hoods versus the top or the drops.

    Any help you can give is always useful. I noticed that the shifters are aimed slightly up and parallel to the bike frame. Thank you for the timely response as well as the time it took to reply.

    1. Jason, the area of numbness you describe is classic for the distribution of the median nerve (which passes through the carpal tunnel on the inside of your wrist). You may want to see a doctor to check you out for signs of carpal tunnel syndrome that is being aggravated by some positioning when you ride. Alternately you may simply be putting pressure on an area of your palm too close to your wrist and overlying the nerve.

  9. Very informative writing..sometimes I've noticed that there are lots of bike exist in the road have those mistakes!

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