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: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/2-things-you-can-buy-and-instantly-improve-your-bike-handling/
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!
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!