Setting the handlebars and controls up correctly on your MTB is a crucial part of being able to ride it properly when riding conditions become technically difficult. Unfortunately, though these are fairly simple adjustments to make, there are very few riders out there that understand how to do this, and why it is extremely necessary (bike shop employees and even professional “bike fitters” included! – most of the time you’ll get the same exact fit on a ROAD bike as you will on an MTB even though the applications, body position, type of terrain, suspension, etc, are night and day different!). Below, I’ll explain how to set up your handlebars and controls correctly and why it matters.
(Remember, the few hundred words that I hunt-and-peck into this article are by no means a substitute for actual, live, BetterRide instruction. Obviously, your controls relate to a lot of other aspects of riding the bike that I may allude to, but don’t have the time, nor the space, to go into detail about here.)
O.K. … first, there are many aspects to riding a MTB correctly that are quite counter-intuitive. One of these things is that we really want to control our bike primarily with our lower body. We want to engage the large muscles of our body and also our feet and ankles (which are excellent at keeping us balanced – unlike our hands, arms, and upper body). When we’re doing things correctly, the majority of balance, power, and control, should be transmitted to the bicycle through the lower body. Most riders use way too much upper body input to try to control the bicycle.
However, since our feet aren’t super great at grasping and pulling (especially with biking shoes on – and, no, you can’t count on your pedal-clips!!), we need to rely on our upper body to manipulate the bicycle into position so it can be driven with the lower body. I like to say that the reason that the handlebars are on the bike is to manipulate it into position so you can “drive” it with your lower body (with balance, power, weight-shifts, etc).
So … even though we need to use the big powerful, intuitive, athletic muscle systems in our lower bodies to assert the majority of control over our bicycles, obviously, we do push, pull, crank, leverage, etc, the handlebars with all of our strength at times. Therefore, obviously, our set-up needs to jive with what we’re trying to accomplish.
Another tremendously misunderstood and grossly overlooked essential skill to riding correctly – especially when the conditions get nasty – is also initiated at the handlebars: braking! We’ll get into that and how proper brake lever position is essential.
If our goal is to be able to control our bicycle in challenging terrain, then the goal of out bike set-up is to maintain proper body position – as much as possible – in said terrain. The proper position of your upper body – in the powerful, athletic, neutral, and balanced riding position – is half-way through a push-up. This allows for range of motion in all directions, and adequate application of power by engaging the larger muscle systems of the upper body such as you shoulders and back, chest, etc. Our handlebars need to be at a width that allows us to maintain that position. Too wide: no good! And – much more common – too narrow: even worse!! (Exaggerated example: try doing push-ups and pull-ups with your hands nearly touching vs. hands just over shoulder width apart … )
… and I’m not buying the “Well, where I ride the trees are too narrow …” So, on a two hour ride – you’re tellin’ me – you’ll give up having proper control over your bicycle for 1:59:55 in favor of the five seconds it will take you to negotiate a few sets of trees? Hmmm ….
Also, note where my hands are on the bars: all the way out at the ends. I like to feel the lock ring of my grip with my pinky finger. Why? Because of our inate body awareness, we know almost exactly where the outer edge of our hands are without having to look at them. We will instinctively make adjustments around or in between obstacles so that our hands won’t hit the obstacles. Although an inch of “un-manned” handlebar to the outside of your hand doesn’t seem like a whole lot, its plenty enough to cause bad things to happen if you hook it on an obstacle at 20 mph. More often, a rider will over-compensate for this extra handlebar width by giving up essential aspects of controlling the bike such as bike lean in corners (by standing the bike up – over-compensating – to miss an obstacle by a foot with that extra inch of bar) because – unlike their hand – they can’t “feel” or sense exactly where the end of that bar is.
Next, for reasons that we won’t go into here, almost (all?) MTB’s are sold with the controls (from the outside of the bar toward the stem) in the order of: grip, brake, shifter.
To obtain the position that is shown in the photo, we must switch this order to: grip, SHIFTER … then, brake. Some models of shifters have “shifter indicators” that tell you what gear you’re in. These are nearly useless and downright dangerous (if you do actually look away from the trail to look at the shifters) and often can get in the way if this order is switched. Sometimes the indicators can be removed or altered. Sometimes these indicators are permanent, and if this is the case with yours, still try to do your best to achieve the following proper position with your controls.
So let’s look at the first photo. With my index fingers resting on the brake levers (as they should be anytime you’re riding difficult terrain) notice where the fingers contact the levers: all the way at the end. These are brake levers, as in leverage. So, the farther to the outside of the lever that you can squeeze it, the more power you’re able to transmit to the braking system. (Some riders use their middle fingers on the brakes instead of their index fingers, which is fine, the important thing is that you are using only one finger per brake, and that it contacts the lever all the way at the end (I wouldn’t, however, use my pinky or whatever you call the slightly stupid finger next to the pinky as my braking finger!). The idea, itself, of using two fingers on the brakes – not to mention three or more – scares me to death!! The difference in the control of the bicycle is huge!)
All modern disc braking systems (even v-brakes … usually!) have plenty of power to be engaged like this and instantly lock both brakes if desired. Also, all systems have “reach adjustment” allowing the lever to be positioned closer or farther from the bar to accommodate different sizes of hands and fingers. Often, once the shifter and brake are switched, the brake lever feels as if it is too far away from the grip. Use the reach adjustment to position the lever at a comfortable distance from the grip (I like a 90 degree bend in my finger when the brake engages).
Next look at the photo taken from the side of the bicycle. Notice how my brake levers are in a rather “high” position, nearly level with the bars and definitely not underneath or below the handlebars. Why? Because they need to be positioned correctly when I really need them!
I need to generate as much power as possible to push and pull the bike into position and I need to keep my wrists straight in order to do this. Imagine trying to push your handlebars through the floor. Now imagine trying to dead lift your handlebars through the ceiling. In both of these scenarios, your wrists are straight, not bent. Can you imagine trying to bench-press 200 lbs with your wrists bent? When you’re in your powerful athletic position on the bike, half-way through a push-up, with your wrists straight; and you extend your fingers: that’s where your brake levers should be. Makes sense, right?
The problem is, most riders find this setting when they are in the parking lot (on level ground), or maybe their professional bike-fitter set them up when they were seated on their bikes, on a trainer, in the shop! This is fine if all we ever did was ride around – seated – in flat parking lots or on trainers in shops, but when we really, really need to be in control (when we can really, really crash bad if things aren’t nearly perfect) is when things get steep (going downhill). When this happens, the front of the bike drops significantly in relationship to our bodies, we need to stay as low as possible with all of our weight on our feet. The fork will compress some (as the brakes are applied) because there will be significantly more rider and bike weight on the front wheel (even though rider’s weight is still on the feet). Now, if your brake levers were in a good position in the parking lot or on the trainer, they will be way too low – almost directly under your handle bars – and you will have to bend your wrists and reach over your bars and down to your levers in order to reach them. This is bad for all the reasons we stated above. (note from Gene: Andy is 5’6″ and therefore is shoulders tend to be quite a bit lower over the bike than someone my height (6’3″) so your height has a lot to do with brake lever placement, I run mine “down” quite a bit more than Andy’s. The goal is to have a straight wrist when braking)
Look at the photo of the fella riding the bike down the steep switch back. That dude is in really good position (o.k., that’s me …). Despite the steep pitch of the terrain, all of my weight is on my feet (this is essential for control in this type of situation). My arms are beginning to straighten out because the steepness of the trail is forcing me near the end of my range of motion (seldom will you find a section of trail as steep as this particular section). The steepness necessitates that I am extremely low on the bike. My brake levers, which were a little high for parking lot or trainer cruising, are now positioned perfectly (they will also be a little high for braking on steep climbs. Though I do occasionally use my brakes on climbs, its quite seldom, and I’d much rather have my brakes set up perfect for steep descents – where I almost always use my brakes). Can you imagine having to bend your wrists and reach over the bars in this situation?
Because speed control is mandatory in a situation such as in the photo, often riders get “pulled” forward and up (to simulate the position of being seated in the parking lot – the place where they set their brakes up) in order to try reach the brake levers. In this case, they can’t stop effectively, and they are completely out of position as they try to do it.
So, we want to set the angle of your brake levers so that they are in the proper position when you need them most (when the bike is pitched downhill) and so that they are accesible from your descending body position (knees bent, low on bike, half-way through a push-up with upper body).
As far as the position of the shifters or perhaps a remote switch for an adjustable-height seat post (which we all should have!), I’m not super particular, as long as you are easily able to reach the control and you aren’t accidentally contacting it and engaging it.
Every top rider that I can think of, where technical control is mandatory to the success of their riding, sets their bars and handlebar controls up nearly identical to the above. If your bike is not currently set up similar to the above, and if your goal is to have control of your bicycle in difficult terrain, do what ever it takes to make it happen.