MTB Control (Brake/Shifter) Set Up With Andy Winohradsky

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!)

Andy's mtb control placement

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?

Andy's mtb Brake/shifter angles

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?

Steep Switchback Body Position on MTB

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.

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25 replies
  1. RIck says:

    Thanks for the info. It makes total sense, now I know why I cant seem to get all the way down on the bike during descents. I will be making this change as soon as I get back to my garage.

    Reply
  2. Kristina says:

    How do you know how wide your handlebars should be? I think mine are too wide, but I’m afraid to cut them!

    Reply
  3. Brian says:

    Thanks for the info. One question I noticed that Andy is the same height I am. I was wondering what size stem he uses and the length of his handle bars? The information would be much appreciated…MTB in GA with lots of singletrack….

    Reply
  4. Sam Preston says:

    And looking through the turn ;>) Thanks for the refresher , the camp i attended last summer was priceless !!!

    Reply
  5. Max says:

    How do you know when your bars are too wide?
    I am currently running a 50mm stem, and have been experimenting with bar width and bar height.

    Reply
  6. Todd says:

    I did this before my first ride on my new Stumpy. My friends roll their eyes at me for doing this but it just felt right. I can also ride stuff they can’t – go figure.

    Reply
  7. Cat says:

    This makes a lot of sense! I finally have my brakes and shifters in the right position, but I’m certain one of the reasons I crashed on downhills while learning was because of the issue with the brakes. thank you!

    Reply
  8. Andy says:

    Kristina,

    You basically want you upper body in a position that resembles that of half-way through a push up where your forearms are pretty much parallel. So do a push up and measure the outsides of your hands. That width or maybe a fuzz narrower will probably do it. I’m 5’6” and my bars are either 29 or 30″ depending on the bike. If you’re my height or maybe a bit shorter – probably narrower shoulders – I’d say around 26-28″ (?). That’s just a rough idea, of course …

    Also, when you start chopping them down, go a little at a time!!! Can always take more off, but can’t really put it back on …

    Reply
  9. Andy says:

    Brian,

    I’m a towering 5’6″. My stem is 50mm (size small frame – although Yeti sizes their frames pretty big) and my bars (on that bike) are 29″ wide (I have 30″ on my DH bike). I just rode a bunch in Georgia with this same set-up. Tons of tight singletrack, rolling terrain, lots of corners – loved this set-up down there.

    Not that you would use it, but as I stated in the article, I can’t buy the infamous “trees are too tight excuse” in favor of narrow bars!

    Reply
  10. Andy says:

    Hey Max,

    Check out the response I left for Kristina. Forearms need to be nearly parallel. That being said, there are some great riders that do run some extremely wide bars especially on DH bikes. Some guys run bar extensions having their bars measure up to 33-34″! Motocross bars are around 32-33″.

    That’s probably over-kill for your average trail rider, but I’d rather run a bit too wide then too narrow. Hope that helps.

    Reply
  11. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the info, once the snow clears I can’t wait to try the new brake lever position. I have climbing bars on my bike to allow me to change my position around while I ride non-technical terrain to save my back. Are climbing bars a big no, no? Anyway. I spend most of my time on technical terrain with my pinky wrapped around the bar so I think I’m okay with my arm position.

    Reply
  12. Andy says:

    Kevin,

    Not totally sure what you mean by “climbing bars”. If you can maintain the body position described in the article, then your bars are probably fine. If you can’t, then your suffering on the descents because you’re out of position.

    Reply
  13. Stephen Porter says:

    Andy,

    I’m a real newb (hope to take the camp in ABQ in September). In your responses to Kristina and Kevin (above)you say:

    “Forearms need to be nearly parallel.”

    I’m trying to visualize how much my elbows should be bent when measuring for handlebar width. At one extreme–locked elbows, arms fully extended, the width between hands is a lot less than with the upper and lower arms at 90*.

    I hope this makes some sense.

    I’m finding this blog and the whole website the first real concrete advice about things like this. I bought a Yet ASR 5 (alloy) and the shifters/brakes were set up “normally” and even before reading this article, I realized that I couldn’t get a comfortable and proper feeling on the brakes and still reach the shifters when set up this way.

    Reply
  14. Andy says:

    Stephen,

    Do a few push-ups. Your hands will stay in the same spot – the same width – on the floor. How far are your hands apart when you do the push-ups (measure the distance)? That’s about the same distance that you want your hands apart when they are on the bars.

    Reply
  15. Stephen Porter says:

    Thanks, Andy. I guess I’m getting too complicated!

    Where are your shifters (in the pix)? Or do you have a single-speed?

    The shifters and brakes on my bike are butted up right next to each other, with the shifters inboard from the brake lever. When my hand is comfortable on the brake lever, I can’t reach the shifter triggers! I’m going to try to flip-flop them, but I think that will be too big a correction and I also won’t be able to get the brake lever far enough outboard….

    Reply
  16. David Hughes says:

    Excellent article! If MTB ever became a college course, this would be a graduate level piece analysis. Very tight. I’ll read this several times to absorb the material.

    Reply
  17. Gary Pearce says:

    Hello I went out and change my Brakes and shifters imediatly and felt a ton more comfortable. I have the shifter and breaks all in one. Which made shifting a little odd at first but I adapted. Do you have any tips for general setting for front and or back shocks.
    Thank You
    Gary Pearce

    Reply
  18. Laurenne Peot says:

    Andy –

    I think either you or I missed the part where you explained about setting up pad contact and modulation parameters — did you address this and I just missed it?
    If so, please disregard what follows and just put me down as, “My bad!”

    Upon another perusal of said article, I see no mention of this salient area and so I would argue that my use of two fingers levers set up to pull back to about an inch off the bar (BEFORE brake pad engagement!!!) — too close to have a middle finger on the bar — is at least as effective for bar and brake control as your one finger set-up.

    Before you think another thought, let me ask you a slightly tangential question…but only just….

    Do you drive your car with the brake system set up for near-instant engagement upon your foot touching the brake pedal? If so, you must get a lot of whiplash and wear out your tires(and brakes!)big time.
    One more thought about me and my ilk –
    I have been riding this set-up for over twenty years and so do a lot of men AND women Pro riders that I know – not to mention all the photos of other Pros obviously riding the same set-up, the same way.. Oh, wait — I just did! Sorry!

    I wonder what your reply may be —

    Different strokes for different folks — C’est la vie, n’est pas?
    This, however, would be contrary to your stated opinion that this is, allow me to paraphrase here – “…scary..” and that “the difference in contol is huge!”
    My argument is that I have 5 fingers wrapped around the bar — to your 4 — AND I have full contol of my brakes.
    I have no other qualms with your entire article — however, I feel that that this is a very glaring ommission.

    Your thoughts?

    Happy Trails in the meantime

    L

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Laurenne,

      Wow, you are really asking a lot out of Andy! I am not sure what you do for a living but we enjoy helping others ride better and write these blog tips that so many riders all over the world thank us for without asking for payment. Then we even answer their questions for free. I wonder if you would spend hours of your time advising me on what you do for a living without being paid (if you are a CPA that would be great! I could use some tax help!)

      Wow, 20 years! That is awesome and a lot of riding! I started riding a little over 20 years ago too and like you I always used two fingers, only an idiot would use one finger! Fortunately there have been amazing increases in mtb brake power, modulation and tire traction. Now, with a good said of disc brakes we can give ourselves much more control by using one finger!

      Again, we didn’t invent the skills we teach, we learned them from great riders and coaches in many sports and as Andy said, I don’t know a great rider (skill wise) who brakes with two fingers, it just isn’t necessary.

      Cheers,

      Gene

      Reply
  19. Andy says:

    Laurenne,

    The best bicycle handlers in the world are World Cup downhill/ gravity racers (there is no argument for this). Go check out a race, website, whatever, that features these riders. You will not see any riders with two fingers on their brakes – I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – maybe you’ll see one … but probably not!!!

    If you’re talking about XC pros riding with two fingers on their brakes, well, I hate to say this, but most US XC races are so tame these days that fitness is the only thing that counts, and when it comes to riding skills, most XC pros couldn’t ride their way out of a wet paper bag! So don’t look to them for proper bike set-up if you want an example of how to set your bike up to be ridden in challenging terrain.

    I didn’t cover pad modulation because I can’t cover every single detail of MTB riding, set-up, and maintenance in a few hundred words on a blog site. I also didn’t cover how to bleed brakes, what brake fluid to use, different types of brake pads and their applications (just in case you were going to go there next).

    Some top riders do like to run their brake-levers so that their brakes engage when the lever is extremely close to the grip. Guess what? They only use one finger on the brake. If you don’t understand how this is possible without the set-up being “too close to have a middle finger on the bar”, please read the article again and look at the photos and it should become clear.

    And, twenty years ago we were all running canti-brakes, then some years, later v-brakes. Now-a-days, they’re called DISC BRAKES and when they’re set-up even remotely close to correct, they’re about a billon times more powerful then the previous types. So, you may want to change your technique to match the technological changes in equipment.

    But, I don’t know, ’cause in your rant you state that you “have five fingers wrapped around the bar …” That’s a lot of fingers! Maybe you have extras? I only have four fingers and a thumb per hand, as I assume most riders do. Or maybe your talking five fingers, total (both hands)? In which case it would be really important to have only one finger per brake-lever!!!

    If this is the case, then perhaps this article doesn’t apply to you and your pro riding buddies who who use two fingers per brake-lever on Planet of the Fingers!?!? (this doesn’t happen here on earth)

    JUST KIDDING!!!… my bad!

    Reply
  20. Wayne Dewey says:

    Thanks Andy. I finished building my latest bike a short while ago and have struggled getting it set up so that I can “feel” the “pocket” when riding even some rather tame terrain. Never thought about brake/shifter position being that much a part of the equation. I think I will spend a little LESS time trying to figure it out myself and MORE time reading your stuff. Keep it coming!

    Reply
  21. Ron says:

    I swapped my brake lever & shifter positions this weekend & did a test ride. It took about 5 minutes to get used to, & now I can’t believe most bikes ship with them mounted “wrong”. I was previously braking with my middle finger (sometimes middle & ring). Now, braking with the index finger, I have much better modulation & brake control. Also, since the shifters are closer to the grips, my hands are positioned in the middle of the grips rather than jammed toward the inside. This effectively gives me a wider grip & increases my handling control. I was less twitchy in the twisty single track sections & was better able to pick & follow my line.

    I also leveled the brake levers – they were previously angled down a lot (again, the bike came with this “wrong” setup). I think this contributed to the feeling of control & confidence in the steep descents.

    I already have a 27″ bar, so I think I’m wide enough there. Thank God I read your article before cutting it down – I thought it was too wide to make it through the trees. Turns out all I needed was more control. Now I have to see about getting a shorter stem – my current one is 90 mm.

    Thanks for the great free advice. Maybe next season I’ll see about signing up for your 2-day camp. I hope you schedule some on the east coast.

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Great to hear Ron! You are welcome. Would love to see you in a camp next summer. We will be up and down the East coast from Florida to Mass. next spring and summer with three day camps and might have a few 2 day camps. We prefer the three day format as the whole is worth so much more than the sum of the parts.

      Reply

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