Mountain Bike Cockpit Setup For Better Handling, Bike Industry Slowly Catching On! (Lucky You!)

If you are in the market for a new mountain bike you are luckier than ever! Over the years it as been amazing how slow the mountain bike industry has been to leave tradition and embrace new ideas on how to make a mountain bike handle better. We have been pushing for change, especially in the mountain bike cockpit set up department (longer frames, shorter stems, wider bars, slacker head angles and dropper posts) since those products were developed and finally all those things are mainstream! This is great news for you as rider, you now have bikes that are much more fun to ride and safer right from the factory!

Few things are as important on a mountain bike as the length of your stem and width of your bars. Your “Mountain Bike Cockpit” is your control center and we have been stressing wide bars and short stems since the beginning of BetterRide in 1999. The resistance from bike manufacturers and riders stuck in “traditional” bike design was amazing and it has taken years for riders and the industry to catch on.  Just a few years ago bikes with 110mm stems were standard and riders said we were nuts running 50 and 60 mm stems. Now we run 35-50 mm stems and they give us so much control that a 60 mm stem feels a little long! Wide bars were once 28 inches wide, now we ride 29-32″ wide bars for even more control. See this article from 2010 on why wide bars and a short stem give you more control, the stem lengths and bar heights now seem a little dated:

The crew at All Mountain Cyclery putting a 50 mm stem and 780 mm bars on a XC Race bike!

The crew at All Mountain Cyclery putting a 50 mm stem and 780 mm bars on a XC Race bike!

Taller bikes (29″ and 27.5″ tires and longer travel suspensions) have also changed our bar height guidelines to having the bars 1″ higher than the seat (at full climbing height) to 3″ lower than the seat (height is a big factor here, taller people tend to have a bigger drop from their seat to the bars while shorter riders often can only get the bars down to 1″ higher than the seat.

Saddle height is important too as it needs to be at the optimum height for power when climbing yet the heck out of the way when descending (so you can stand in a centered, balanced and neutral position). This is a common formula for road racers: Saddle height (cm) = inseam (cm) x 0.883 This is measured from the center of the bottom bracket to the low point of the top of your saddle. For mountain biking lower your saddle a little from this number, 10-16mm lower makes you feel much less “tippy”.

Then buy a “dropper post” so you get the seat out of the way almost instantly when descending! Gravity Dropper was the first company to make “dropper posts” and boy, the resistance we got from our students, “it weighs too much”, “I don’t want/need another gadget”, “I’ll never use it”, etc. Now, Gravity Dropper is just one of 10 companies that make dropper posts because they work! Even Thompson is making one and stud cross country racers like Erica Tingey are using them!

XC Star Erica Tingey with a Dropper Post on her race bike!

XC Star Erica Tingey with a Dropper Post on her race bike!

The fore-aft placement of your saddle and saddle tilt can also have a big impact on your riding. Mountain biking is quite different from road cycling as bike handling is much more important off-road (we face conditions road cyclists don’t; wet roots, loose gravel, deep sand, steep rock faces, etc.), we tend to climb and descend steeper pitches and we are not in a static position for the entire ride. Most of the rides I do I am either seated and climbing or standing and descending so I have my seat set up for climbing. This means I have the seat a little forward on the rails and tilted nose down a bit. This can be a little cramped and put some pressure on my hands on flat ground but feels great when climbing !

When we are climbing we should be “hinged” forward at the hips. I have tilted my seat slightly forward and it really helps me hinge! By sliding my seat a little forward on the rails it is easier to stay centered enough to keep the front wheel on the ground while having enough weight on the rear tire for traction.

Everyone is built a little differently and mountain biking is a very dynamic sport so there is definitely some personal preference with your cockpit setup, experiment and find out what works best for you! This might take some testing, often what feels good in the parking lot doesn’t work best on trail! Make adjustments, make sure you understand good body position (AND are IN good body position) and then test how the bike climbs and descends after making adjustments. A stop watch can be handy here as what feels faster often isn’t.

Get your bike dialed and create a great ride!


9 replies
  1. David
    David says:

    When you get a chance try to address running shorter bars due to Narrow tree gates. We have them here in Texas and at your suggested bar length, I couldn’t fit through the gates. Another subject that interest me is running clipless vs flats as a pedal choice. I’m an older fella 59 and not into racing. I’m considering changing over too clipless, but am a little concerned about busting my ass… Is there really that much to gain when switching?

    • Gene
      Gene says:

      Hi David, there is a little to gain and a lot to lose when going from flats to clipless. It is funny to me how many bike shops say, “we can upgrade you to clipless pedals”. How is doing something that takes away your confidence an upgrade? Please check out these two articles for more info on flat pedals vs. clipless pedals: and

      Now as far as bar width in Texas is concerned I haven’t ridden every trail there but I have ridden most of the trails in Dallas, Waco and Austin. The tightest trees I have encountered in Texas were on a ride in Dallas by the private jet airport a little southwest of town (can’t remember the name, not the best neighborhood but really fun trails) and was told, not near as politely as you ASKED your question, something like, “you can’t ride your stupid wide bars on this trail, a pro racer told me to run a long stem and narrow bars …”. So I decided to ride that trail with my 32″ wide bars and there were three spots in that entire network of trails where the trees were right about 32″ apart, which means I had to slow down and wiggle through them. The other 99.9% of the mileage I was fine with my wide bars and enjoyed the added control they gave me especially in the fun sweeping corners on that trail. So I think a lot of people underestimate how wide those tree are. There is usually a vision component to this, riders tend to stare at the tree/s and not look through the gab where they want to go, this often causes them to hit one of the trees. Now, if you ride trails where you have to slow down and wiggle through trees once every two minutes or so then cut your bars to the appropriate width to get through. I hope this has helped.

      Create your best ride yet,


  2. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Great article!
    I LOVE my short stem, wider bars and the flexibility to adjust my seat height on the fly on both my DH and 29″ HT bikes. Riding technical trails is so much more fun with the right setup!!!

  3. Tom Conlon
    Tom Conlon says:

    Hi Gene,
    A couple of years ago I shortened my stem length from 120 to 60mm. It was so scary on the first ride that I went back to the longer stem. Now, a new bike, longer bars, trying newer riding strategy and shortened my stem from 90 to 60mm. My question is “Why?”. Would you please explain the geometry and advantages in reducing the stem length. The bar length seems a no-brainer as the leverage is increased and more arm motion translates into less wheel turning. But the stem length doesn’t make so much sense. Please help me understand.

    One more thing – a suggestion: Could you make the videos in your online tutorials play in slow motion? Watching them repeatedly helps but your points could be made more clear with slow-, and even stop-motion video. Also the camera angle, e.g. in your sand video, would be more instructive viewed from the side.

    Thank you!

  4. Joe
    Joe says:

    I would like to run a dropper seat post for my cross country bike. The problem is that my seat post diameter is 27.2 and I do not have the option for internal cable routing on my frame which I would prefer. do you guys have any recommendations for good droppers that are light, aren’t an eye sore, and come in 27.2 diameter. I really like the rockshock reverb stealth, but that isn’t an option for me.

  5. Jon
    Jon says:


    Check out KS (Kindshock). They are now offering a 27.2 variant of their Supernatural dropper post. I love mine!


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