Being mechanically able to build a bike cockpit is one thing, knowing how to align all the parts for optimum function and comfortable control is quite another. Michael Hanslip sets us straight on handlebar and lever positioning.
Setting up the front end of your bike is not difficult but there a several points you should bear in mind when adjusting bars stem and levers. Apart from the sage advice to always use a torque wrench when tightening stem bolts, here are my other tips for your cockpit set-up.
Most new bikes (as opposed to a bare frame and fork) are shipped with three to five centimetres of spacers on the pre-cut steerer tube. Most of you will be aware that the spacers can be placed above or below the stem to alter the stem height. I proclaim that an average rider should have no more than three centimetres of spacers under the stem – any more suggests that the frame is too small (the corollary for this is that many carbon fork manufacturers insist on no more than three or four centimetres of spacers).
Before you install that stem, remember that most stems can be flipped. In fact, the majority of stems have two-sided graphics so that they look correct either way up. With the built-in angle of the stem (which does vary a lot from model to model) the height of the stem can be raised by several centimetres just by flipping the stem over from its lower position. With a carbon fork I always like to put one thin spacer on top of the stem to ensure that the entire stem is clamping on solid tube.
The ‘tops’ of the bars should be in a comfortable position for climbing. Low enough that you can control the front wheel, and high enough that you can stay there all day. The ‘drops’ of the bars should then fall into a position which is not so low that you can’t ride on the drops for at least one hour without back pain. If you cannot get your current bars in both a good tops and a good drops position, then try a bar with a different amount of drop (see figure 1).
Rotate the bar in the stem so that the back of the drop section points directly at the rear wheel axle. This position puts your wrist at a comfortable angle when riding in the drops and with many bars also places the top of the bar in a dead flat position (this applies to both aero-section bars where the top is not round but also to the forward projection just behind the brake hoods that changes angle as you rotate the bar in the stem). From an aesthetic as well as a functional point of view, a small variation from this ideal is permissible, but if you feel a need to make it radically different then try a different bar.
Slide the brake levers onto the bars and position them near the top of the bend so that the hood is horizontal and thus continues the extension of the bars without an angle change (see figure 2). This maximises your possible hand positions rather than isolating the hood from the bar. It only works with modern bar bends; if you have bars with the word ‘classic’ in their name then they cannot be set up this way. Placing a long builder’s level or straight dowel e.g. a broom handle, across the hoods will accentuate any slight misalignment and help you find a straight and balanced position.
If necessary, now is the time to install the cables. I always try to put the shift cables onto the ‘wrong’ side of the frame – the rear derailleur cable goes to the left side of the head tube and the front cable to the right. They then have to cross over somewhere before the bottom bracket guide to get to their correct derailleur. This keeps the cable housing away from the head tube. It is not always possible to install this way. Don’t cut those housings too short – you can trim them later. Fix the cables to the bars in two places with tape. I don’t like electrical tape for this as it stretches too much and lets the cables migrate. If everything is tight, now you can go for a test ride to see how you like your new position.
Once you have decided it is good (and that the brake hoods are even with each other!) then tape the bars. There is a plethora of ways to wrap the tape, but really, some practice is the most important thing to achieving an even wrap. Pro teams wrap their bars ‘inwards’ while most shops wrap their bars ‘outwards’ (defined by the direction of the first wrap at the bottom – and you really should start at the bottom – whether it points outwards or inwards). Having tried both I don’t think it makes much difference with most bar tapes. The last few bars I’ve wrapped I have even mixed the direction – both sides wrapped to the left, and unless you look closely you can’t tell.
Begin your taping with an entire width of tape hanging off the end of the bars. This provides sufficient tape to stuff inside the bar to retain the bar plug and ensure the full circumference of the bar has tape tucked in (looks better, retains the plug better). Overlap about 1/3 of the width of the tape as you go – that is, lay down the new tape wrap to cover 1/3 of the tape already on the bar. In corners you need more overlap on the inside of the bend and less on the outside to keep it looking good and to prevent wrinkles.
Pay particular attention to how the tape passes the brake hood. You’ll want to roll up the hoods to make space and the goal is to have no gaps where the bar is visible. Most tape includes a short section to place over the lever clamp, a tight wrap under and then over the lever body should provide complete coverage.
The tape requires a fair bit of tension but you don’t want to pull enough to break it. Again practice comes into play. At the top, cut a shallow angle across the remaining tape so that it wraps on itself in a perfect square edge. Wrap the bar tape with some adhesive tape – here is where I like to use electrical tape (and it comes in coordinating colours) and then tidy the job with the finishing tape supplied with the bar tape. It looks really pro if you get the end of the finishing tape under the bar where you can’t see it.
Down the road you might decide something is not quite right. I have moved the brake hoods a few millimetres without ruining the bar tape job. Rotating the bars in the stem is super-easy. On most bikes you can get the stem off the steerer tube in order to shuffle spacers around without loosening the bars (and here is where a bit of slack in the cables will help). Swapping to a shorter stem is always possible, but depending on the cables a longer stem might not fit. This can also be true of moving the bars up very much – small changes will always work but a large upwards shift often causes over-tight cables.
After a few weeks of happiness, then it is time to trim the cables to their permanent length. The cables are trapped under the tape so you must trim the other end. To successfully do this, remember to remove the inner wire from the outer housing before you cut – I’ve seen this step forgotten in store workshops more often than you might believe. I like to replace the cables annually (or more often if required) which means that the bar tape naturally comes up for replacement just as often. Use the old cable housing as a guide to cut the new pieces exactly the same (unless you weren’t happy with the old length, obviously).
After finishing with the tape you need to worry about the accessories. Lights, computer, GPS – there are many things we place on our bike these days. Out front mounts have become de rigueur for a reason – this is the most visible and effective position for your computer/GPS device. It also uses up the least amount of bar space. Even if you are doing this in the middle of summer, don’t forget the lighting system you are going to use next winter. This is a balancing act further complicated by the narrow centre section that many bars sport today (back in the old days the bulged part of the bars was at least 10cm wide – now it can be barely wider than the stem). If you are desperate for more accessory space there are several bars-space enhancers that make room for multiple devices.
Because of the length of time even a casual rider spends on their bike, small alterations in the cockpit can add up to big differences in comfort. Don’t be afraid to experiment if your bike isn’t perfect now, but remember to make one change each time (if you make two or more changes you can’t know which one did what). Also remember that the necessary change to improve comfort can be backwards to the direction you intuitively want to go.