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Higher Education: How to Set Up Your Cockpit

Custom tailor your bike to fit like a glove

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When does your new bike really become your bike? Is it the moment you buy it? The moment you get it dirty? The moment it gets its first scratch? Nope. It’s the moment that you’ve finally dialed each of its adjustable touchpoints (handlebars, brake levers, shifters and saddle) to feel like home. 

We’re not going to launch into a fit tutorial here. Frame size, seat height, saddle width and even bar width are often based primarily on your personal measurements. We’re talking about dimensions that are based more on preference. For the most part, there are no wrong answers here, and that’s why it’s so frequently overlooked. Off the shelf, hopefully your new bike will be set up with its touchpoints in completely reasonable positions. If they feel strange, it’s common to think that’s simply because it’s a new bike.  But that’s not necessarily true. With some deliberate trial and error, and some knowledge of the pros and cons of each approach, you can find your happy place.

Handlebar backsweep and upsweep

This is a good place to start because your lever and shifter adjustments will depend on getting this right. Bars have four main dimensions. Height and width, which are simple enough, but also upsweep and backsweep. There are bars with more or less sweep, which is a matter of preference. Bars with more sweep tend to be more comfortable but not as well suited for aggressive riding. Most traditional bars have about five degrees of upsweep and about eight degrees of backsweep. But you are able to shift the balance between the two slightly by rocking the bars forward and back. These are measured from the bar’s neutral position, which you can derive from the marks that are hopefully present (and visible) where the bar is clamped into the stem. To find the starting point, keep in mind these marks are meant to relate to the ground, not the stem because the stem is angled in line with the fork. This is an often overlooked adjustment because it can be hard to detect a bar that is rocked too far forward or back. Looking lengthwise along the bar is a good way to get an exaggerated view of its sweep. Angled too far back, it will lead to poor weight distribution across the palms. Angled too far forward and it will cause wrist pain. Finding your sweet spot may be as simple as some trial and error. If the difference between right and wrong is subtle to the eye, it will not be subtle to the touch. Starting from the bar’s neutral position, try slight adjustments forward and backward. No particular style of riding is better suited for either. When it feels right, it will feel right. 

Hand position

Now that disc brakes have evolved to be powerful enough to stop by using only our index fingers, brake levers have gotten shorter. For the most part, they are shaped to optimize one-finger braking, with room for two if the need arises. But that means there’s a narrow window for how inboard or outboard they ought to be in relation to our hands. We’re doing this immediately after bar position because, to contradict what I said about “no wrong answer,” it is not optimal to need to stretch your finger in to reach the lever, or for it to crowd the rest of your fingers when you brake. Where this does become a matter of preference is where you want your hand to be on your grip. Some people like to have a few millimeters of grip outside of their palm. This maximizes the real estate of grip that you’re holding onto, and nestles your palm into a hammock in grips that taper out slightly at the tips. The other option, pictured above, is actually hanging your palm a few millimeters outside of your grip. This requires a uniformly shaped grip, but some riders claim it offers a more intimate relationship with the side-to-side forces between hand and bar. It also allows you to widen your stance without lengthening the bar. Whichever hand position feels more natural will determine where, side to side, your brake lever should sit.

Shifter and dropper lever position.

With your hand and brake lever’s lateral location settled, a similar question is to be answered for the shifter and dropper lever. In some cases, they are bolted independently to the bar, and this process is relatively simple. Other times, they are each bolted to the brake lever, but can be adjusted independently, both in their angle and how far inboard or outboard they are. Exactly how this is done differs between brands. Sometimes there are individual threaded holes to relocate the shifter (SRAM) or it can be slid in small increments (Shimano). 

There is a good chance that your bike’s initial setup will crowd your hand with the thumb lever. Just know that your knuckle should not be rubbing your shifter when your thumb is wrapped under the bar. Don’t necessarily assume that the thumb lever needs to rest 100% under your thumb. For some riders, it is preferred to slide the shifter or dropper lever inboard slightly to offer more clearance to get your thumb to and from the lever. If you don’t feel there’s a direct, unobstructed line to get quickly on it, then try sliding it a few millimeters from your hand.

The angle of the shifter relates to this as well. It also is independently adjustable of brake lever angle. Similar to the above options, tilting it down and away will give you quicker access but a less solid connection once you get there, and tilting it up towards you will give you more positive contact, but it’ll be harder to get there.

Brake lever angle

There are two competing schools of thought here. One is that the brake levers should be angled to rest just under your extended index fingers while you are standing up in the pedals and your arms, with elbows out, are making an otherwise straight line from your shoulders to your grips. This feels natural for most riders, and will result in your brake levers pointing down somewhere around 45 degrees or, for taller riders, even lower.

But the other school of thought teaches that our elbows should not just be bent, but dropped slightly. Part of this is, when abiding by the best-practices of keeping weight on the front wheel for better traction, allows you to lean forward without extreme lateral bend on your wrists. Also, especially on steep trails, it transfers the load from your thumbs to the palms of your hands. Both of these combine to lessen “arm-pump” (the painful forearm fatigue of long rough descents) but also to keep you more securely attached to your bars in an unexpected impact while descending. The answer for you is likely somewhere in between. Experiment with lower levers and a more relaxed riding position, and with higher levers and a more aggressive position, and try and combine both with a wide variety of trails to find what is right for you.

Brake lever reach

“Reach” is how far out your lever is from your bar when it is at rest. That’s different from what some call “free stroke,” which is how far from that point you have to pull it before the pads hit the rotor. Adjusting deadstroke is a whole other story. Some brakes, like top-level SRAM options, have a way to adjust this. Most do not, and if it feels too far, you may need pads, a bleed, or both. But if it feels just right, there still may be work to be done. What matters most here is where the lever ends up when the pads bite. The ideal position is largely based on your hand size, but it is worth experimenting with. You just want to stay within an optimal range. Too close to the bar, the lever might bottom out on the grip. Even if isn’t happening in the parking lot, it may happen on the mountain. But too far from the bar, and you don’t hit the optimal powerband in your finger. If it’s extended too far, you are literally using fewer of your forearm muscles to pull it. As it gets further in, you activate more muscles and it takes less effort to get more force, to a certain extent. Where the personal preference enters into it is where you want that power to peak. If you find yourself doing a lot of forceful braking, you’ll be flexing the levers further and further in, and for that peak mechanical advantage to meet peek bio-mechanical advantage, the reach will need to be further out. But if you don’t often find yourself at the edge of your brakes’ capability, a little shorter reach will allow you to have better wrap between finger and grip.

Stem Height

Different sizes of bikes will have different-length head tubes (the frame tube that the fork passes through). And different types of bikes will have different stack heights (the net vertical difference between the center of your cranks and the top of your head tube). Longer-travel bikes tend to have higher stack and shorter-travel bikes have lower stack. Assuming that you are on the right size and right travel of bike for your body and your trails, there still are choices to be made. Adjustments are done by swapping spacers back and forth between above and below the stem. This requires the knowledge of how to adjust a threadless headset. And ideally, it requires various sizes of spacers. Some bikes will come out of the box with only 10mm spacers, but 10mm is often too big of a change. When experimenting with bar height, make sure there are one or two 5mm spacers in there.

This is one of the more intuitive adjustments you’ll have to make. If, on the descents, you find yourself with too much weight over the front end, you may need to raise your bars. If you feel like you’re not getting power to the pedals on the climbs, you may need to lower them. But a factor here, as mentioned above in brake-lever angle, is where you position your body over the front wheel. How far you are leaning over the front wheel should be based on choice, not where you’ve set your bars. Before you drop your bars, try leaning over more in sections that are not too steep. It may be worth the compromise on the climbs.

Saddle position

We’re finally done with the front half of the cockpit. Thankfully, this part should be quicker. Our saddle clamps offer the ability to slide our bodies forward or backward in relation to the rest of the bike. Most saddles have markings on their rails which will indicate the neutral position, which is always a good place to start. While finding your optimal setting, an important metric is your bike’s effective seat tube angle. That dimension is technically what you are adjusting when moving your saddle. Seat tube angles have been trending steeper lately because it puts your body weight further over the pedals, giving you a greater mechanical advantage when climbing. And on full-suspension bikes (more severely so on longer-travel bikes), it lessens the force your body weight has on the rear shock. 

For many riders, there is no such thing as a seat angle that is too steep. A couple years ago, 72 degrees was acceptable. Today, there are bikes with 79-degree seat tube angles. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that, at an average saddle height, a change of two degrees will move the saddle position by over an inch, which is more adjustment than we have to work with here. So, knowing that we’ll only be able to change your effective seat tube angle by about a degree and a half, consider what your topography is like. If you spend the overwhelming majority of your in-saddle time climbing, and if you have a full-suspension bike, you will have an easier time on those climbs with your saddle nudged forward. Just know that you may need to raise your seatpost by a fraction of the distance you have just slid it forward to keep the distance to the pedals optimal. If you are on undulating or flatter terrain, you may be better off in the saddle’s neutral position. If you find yourself wanting the saddle to be further rearward than the neutral position, there is a chance you are on too small of a bike. Before you get too comfortable with your saddle slid all the way back, consider whether, when out of the sadde, if you feel cramped between pedals and bars.

Keep in mind that saddle rails are not designed to be clamped right against their bend, as it can compromise the strength. Stay within the “max” and “min” marks on the rails.

Saddle Angle

This decision, like saddle position, should be based partly on the topography of your local trails. If you are rarely in the saddle on flat ground, it may be worth abandoning the conventional wisdom that your saddle should be flat. And that is the conventional wisdom. Saddles are designed to be flat. But if you take a long-travel full-suspension bike, point it uphill and put a human on it, their weight is now biased heavily towards the rear, and that saddle will no longer be flat.

Angling your saddle nose down slightly will fix that, but it will have some consequences. On flat ground, it puts excess weight on your hands and can lead to numbness and pain in the fingers and fatigue in the arms. If you do pedal a fair amount on flat ground, you should probably have a flat saddle. But saddles are tricky. In either of the scenarios, it may not feel perfect. Part of that can be helped with high quality shorts and simply more saddle time, but there is a reason there are thousands of different saddle options out there.  Just like everything else we’ve covered, it may require some trial and error. 

And that is the most important takeaway from this. Be conscious of how your bike is fitting you. If something doesn’t feel right, try something different. It may take some time at first, but the more experimenting you do, the more you’ll learn about what you like. It will make you more informed when upgrading parts and analyzing new trends. And when it comes time to get your next new bike, you’ll have a head start at knowing what you want.

Photos: Ryan Palmer