2 Things You Can Buy and Instantly Improve Your Bike Handling!

2 Things You Can Buy and Instantly Improve Your Bike Handling! By BetterRide founder Gene Hamilton

That’s right, your bike set-up can improve your riding!

I have spent the last 15 years studying bike handling and how bike setup effects bike handling. In that time I have kept and open mind and experimented with bars as narrow as 22″ and as wide as 32″ and stems from 150mm to 30mm. I didn’t invent a single skill or bike set-up theory myself I tired what other, “better riders” suggested. Everything I teach I have learned through others (world champions like Marla Streb and Greg Minnaar, motorcycle coaches, ski coaches, gymnastic coaches) and then personally tested out their ideas and had many of my top students (Pro racers like Ross Schnell, Chris Van Dine, Lynda Wallenfells, Mitch Ropelato, Sue Haywood, etc.) test these theories.

Wider handlebars and a shorter stem give you more control. 27-32 inch handlebars depending on your height and a 50-80 mm stem provides the best handling.  Handlebar height is important too, your bars should be 1”-3” lower than your seat when it is raised to optimum climbing height.

Your handlebars are one of the main inputs of control and wider bars give you much more control (because they are more stable (think of doing a push up with your hands 21″ apart and then 29″ apart. If I were trying to knock you over would I have more luck with your hands 21″ apart or 29″?). We have all hit a rock that wanted to violently twist our front wheel to the side. Can you see how a wider bar would give you more leverage to fight this?  I understand many of you have fear issues related to going through narrow trees and riding scared is a recipe for disaster but narrow handlebars create a twitchy, unstable ride.  Do you want to set you bike up to function well on the 3 or 4 narrow tree gaps or the rest of the trail.

Wider bars also allow you to keep your arms bent and chest down allowing you to ride in a more athletic, neutral position.  Perfect for riding smoothly and adjusting to anything and everything the trail throws at you.

Your stem is a not a bike fit device, it greatly effects the control of your bike.  Motorcycles don’t have stems for a reason, a long stem puts you out of balance (too much weight forward) straightens your arms (taking you out of a neutral position) and the long lever of a stem more than 90 millimeters long makes your steering “flop” to the side instead of being precise.

So for a more controlled ride go with a 50 to 80mm stem and 27″-32″ wide bars.  I know this goes against tradition so please try this set up for a week before commenting.  If you understand correct body position, how bikes turn and how to manual or wheelie correctly (using no upper body strength) you will love the control this gives you.

The coolest thing you will notice is how much this helps with technical climbing, no more wheel swerving all over the place. Your bike will track nice and straight.  The best technical climber I know runs a 30mm stem. I run a 60mm stem on all of my xc bikes and a 40-50 mm stem on my downhill bikes.

The early days! The story of BetterRide

I started mountain biking (if you want to call it that) in 1988 in Norfolk, VA. There was an old trash dump behind one of the dorms (I was attending Old Dominion University) that we would ride. The “big hill” was around 30-40 vertical feet and I thought it was massive! I never thought I would be able to make it to the top without stopping to catch my breath! I still remember the first time I made it to the top, what a great feeling.

In the spring of 1993 I wanted a new mountain bike. Being a pro snowboarder who thought I should never pay retail for anything I tired to find a deal on a new bike. I met a KHS sales rep who told me to find a KHS dealer and join the Farm Team and I would get a bike for 10% below wholesale plus another 10% back if I went to five races.

As soon as I moved to San Diego I stopped by the local KHS dealer and he put me on the Farm Team and told me to come back in a few days and meet this woman who was also on the team. So a couple of days later I meet this tall woman covered in dried mud named Marla and we made plans to go riding. I remember thinking, “Walt said this girl is an “expert” so she thinks she pretty fast. I just moved here from high altitude (Aspen, CO) and I am a pretty fit pro snowboarder so go easy on the girl, I don’t want to hurt her self-esteem”.

On the way to the trail (some where in East San Diego) I was hungry and much to the amusement of this Marla woman I stopped at Taco Bell. She asked, “are you sure you want to eat that right before we ride?” Well, we got to the trail and she proceeded to kick my butt all over the place. She would be doing circles waiting for me at the top of every hill and say, “you’re doing better that most of the boys I ride with”. To this day I don’t know if she was telling the truth or just being nice. Getting my butt kicked by Marla really made me respect women athletes.

A few weeks later she asked me if I wanted to go to a race with her in Temecula. I replied, “sure, I should probably race expert because I used to race BMX”. She did her best not laugh and convinced me to try beginner first because I could always move up. Now I was really excited, I was going to win my first race! (at this point I have never seen a cross country race and think that everyone goes pretty hard on the climbs then coasts the descents while having fun and catching a little air).

So we drive Vidalia (Marla’s polkadotted VW camper) to Temecula, pre-ride the course and get some sleep. The next day I am shaking from excitement and nervousness while we register for the race. As my beginner class lines up for the start I look around and I am one of only two riders without shaved legs and the only one without clipless pedals. This is the beginner class?! A couple of the guys have calf muscles the size of grapefruits! The gun goes off and I have never suffered like this in my life! So much for coasting the downhills, this is a 12 mile sprint. I start near the back of the back and gain a little energy every time I pass a racer with shaved legs. I am so beat down from pushing myself so hard for an hour and a half that when I cross the finish line I don’t care what place I am in. Until this race the longest athletic competition in my life was the mile and half run during the Presidential Fitness Test in high school.

I ended up 13th out of 26 and to this day that is my proudest moment in sports. I didn’t have long to celebrate though. As it turned out Marla was having a great race too, she had moved into second place behind Factory KHS rider Mia Stockdale. Unfortunately Mia wouldn’t let Marla pass so an impatient Marla went for an off trail pass endoed and broke her collarbone.

Having never competed in an endurance sport I was hooked after this race. I moved back to Aspen that fall and continued coaching and competing in snowboard events but missed the endorphin rush of aerobic sports. The following spring I “retired” from snowboard competition and devoted my energy to mountain bike racing.

In 1995 at Marla and Toby Henderson’s urging “you aren’t going to get anywhere racing expert” I upgraded to the pro class. My first major race was the 1995 Vail NORBA National. There were over 150 pro downhill racers from all over the world signed up. I was practicing with all of the guys I read about in magazines and really not sure if I belonged in the pro class. With so many racers back then they had a qualifying run and only the top 50 qualifiers went on to the finals. I qualified 48th! I made the finals. This was a big boost of confidence and decided to quit my job and start racing fulltime.

Little did I know this would be an addiction that would leave me $6,000 to $7,000 in debt after every summer for the next eight years. 😉

My coaching career started at Wisp Resort in Western Maryland where I was one of the snowboard directors in 1990. I coached myself and a few teammates who competed in the mid-Atlantic region.

In 1991 I moved to Colorado to train with team Breckenridge. The coaches were really good technique coaches but actually hurt many of their athletes’ mental game and self-esteem. The coaches would say things like, “are you sure you are a pro, that run really didn’t look good”. Having these lousy coaches was frustrating and made me realize I could do a better job.

The next season I trained with Nick Colavito in Aspen who was a much more positive coach. I was fortunate in that I learned both how to and how not to coach from these coaches. In late summer 1995 I was hired as the head snowboard coach of the Steamboat Springs Winters Sports Club. The winter Sports Club’s mission was to use sport as a metaphor for life and to help create happier/healthier human beings. With this mission in mind they defined success as doing your personal best (ie. not winning). This really fit my philosophy and I really enjoyed coaching the team.

I was in for quite a surprise when I found out how serious this job was. This was demanding full-time job (with a part-time salary) with a lot of pressure and late night phone calls from parents. It was also an extremely rewarding experience. Seeing kids grow more confident and having their parents’ thank you for helping them grow felt really great. During my three years there I learned a lot about coaching, took a lot of coaching courses from USA Skiing and Snowboarding eventually become a Level II coach.

During this time I was racing downhill mountain bikes in the summers and coaching in the winters. My passion for snowboarding was declining as my passion for mountain biking was growing. At the end of my third season I decided to move to Boulder where I could train all winter and start coaching mountain bike racers. That was in 1998 and unfortunately I found very little market for my coaching skills. I kept plugging away at coaching while racing and working as a bartender for the next six years until I was able to coach full time in the fall of 2004.

Kids on Bikes!

Those of you who have taken a camp with me or simply been riding with me when we pass a group of kids or a family out riding know how happy I am when I see “kids on bikes” as I usually shout with glee, “Kids on bikes!” Ever since my first my first purple bike with big banana seat and ape hanger handle bars I have loved riding bikes. My bike was my ticket to adventure. It exponentially expanded my universe by allowing me to leave my block and explore unknown territory. It gave me an outlet for my boundless energy too.

As our country has gotten more into consuming and spectating than actually doing anything (shopping is not a hobby, neither is watching other people play sports) it has really saddened me to see so many kids who have never discovered the freedom and adventure of riding a bike. Seeing kids on bikes gives me hope, makes me smile and brings back great memories. The kids on bikes are always smiling too, what a great toy!

After a fun (but way too short) stay with my family for Christmas I had to rush back to Tempe to coach the NOVA junior mountain bike team. I was looking forward to coaching the kids but mad at myself for volunteering to coach so close to Christmas. I was also honestly feeling a little resentful that I was sacrificing family time to coach a clinic (how is that for Christmas spirit! hopefully, I won’t feel like such a Scrooge next year). Well, I woke up Thursday and rushed to get to South Mountain on time and was further upset that there was some confusion as to when the clinic was going to start. I was thinking, “I left my family so I could coach some late, ungrateful kids?”. Well, the crew arrived not long after that and we got started. My attitude quickly changed as any time you get “kids on bikes” it is a good thing and this was no exception. The kids were fun, smart and good riders. We all learned a lot and had a lot of fun despite a chilly and breezy day. The kids were grateful too, they all thanked me and said that they were looking forward to next week’s clinic.

On Friday I was lucky enough to teach a younger group of kids than on Thursday and really relearned/remembered the differences in teaching younger kids and how much fun it is. Three 11-13 year old girls learned how to do wheelies! Like the older kids, we had a lot of fun and they thanked me at the end of the day.

After the camp, I had a little energy left so I went out for a ride. I was hoping to go up Mormon loop and down National trail but ran out of energy near the top of Mormon and turned around. Not long after turning around I ran into more kids on bikes! From the size of their smiles, they were clearly excited to be out riding. I stopped to chat with them and they were pressing me to turn around and do National with them. Turns out that they are from Golden, Colorado and we ride a lot of the same trails at home. Their enthusiasm for descending National almost got me to turn around climb back up with them but I was just too tired. I did my best to focus on what I was doing on the way back to the car but I kept thinking about those two kids. What a grand adventure they were on! Unlike a lot of kids, I see today they were in excellent shape, had great self-esteem and were quite happy.

For years I have thought if we could just get more kids on bikes we end so many problems. A kid with a skinned knee or even a broken arm has a story to tell and will heal stronger and even more confident of himself. A kid that is 30 pounds overweight by the time he/she is 13 years old and has never accomplished and/or failed anything isn’t really prepared for what life is going to throw at him/her. Life involves stress, physical, mental and emotional and riding a bike is similar to life in this matter. Riding a bike can teach a child a lot: that they can do more than they thought, that they have some control over their lives, that exercise is fun, how to handle failure and through all of this increase their self-esteem. I am doing what I can to encourage kids to start riding and I hope you will do the same. Stay tuned for more information on “kids on bikes”.