Can a Mountain Bike Stem Be Too Short? What About Frame Size?

Can a Mountain Bike Stem Be Too Short?  What About Frame Size? These are questions we get A LOT from students, newsletter subscribers and random riders that found us during a search for a new bike. Over the years there has been a lot of experimenting with stem length, bar width and frame length, by bike manufacturers, bar/stem makers, top racers, myself and our coaches and many interested riders. While there is no “standard” in the industry in general stems have gotten shorter, bars wider and the length of the front of a bike (the “reach” measurement is the best measure for front of bike length, it is measured horizontally from the bottom bracket to a plumb line dropped from the center of the top of the head tube)  has gotten longer over the last 10-20 years. There are outliers which have stayed the same or even moved in the opposite of these trends but I believe they are not providing optimum handling.


Can a mountain bike stem be too short

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

The stem lengths I have experimented with range from my first mountain bike which had a 150 mm stem to a zero stem that Azonic put out in the mid-late 1990′s. Bike companies have done the same, most recently Mondraker, this article explains their idea: http://www.bikerumor.com/2012/07/19/mondraker-introduces-forward-geometry-are-you-ready-for-a-10-mm-stem/  My experience was the zero stem was weird because I had to almost lean forward to keep my weight equal on both tires for cornering but, that was a long time ago when I didn’t understand body position as well as I do today and unlike the Mondraker the bike I was riding was not designed around a zero stem. As for Mondraker they tried it out for a year and I heard they handled weird and they have since gone to 30-50 mm stems. Personally I have settled into the 35-50 mm range as stems this length give the most precise and “easiest” control. By easiest I mean when riding bikes with 35-50 mm stems I am not thinking about the handling. Put me on a bike with a longer stem, even a 60 mm and it feels odd, even after 4 days of testing (enough time that the “new is weird feeling” should have vanished). I now prefer 35 mm stems but on slightly shorter bikes I run a 50 mm (still experimenting). To me this makes since has motorcycles are designed  to handle well and they don’t drastically change stem length to accommodate shorter or taller riders. For some reason many riders think a long stem climbs better than a short stem, this simply isn’t true I and some of my riding buddies can climb the steepest, most technical trails with these stems, stem length has little to do with climbing, it is all about body position. So from the Mondraker experiment I would say that at least for now 10 mm is too short. From my testing and the testing of our coaches and friends we believe the ideal is 35-50 mm and 60-70 mm a compromise for riders with frames that are too short.

Frame length (reach and chainstay) for better bike handling. This is something I have experimented with for years as different sponsors have had different opinions on how long a bike should be. Mondraker obviously has too and many companies have been lengthening the reach of their bikes. Here is where I feel there is a too short and possibly a too long. In general the longer the reach measurement the bigger the “sweet spot” on the bike (the spot where all your weight is on the pedals) and more stable the ride. Of course if a bike gets too stable it is hard to maneuver.  Another big frame aspect that affects handling is chainstay length, the longer the chainstay the more stable but less nimble the bike, too short a chainstay and the bike feels twitchy. One manufacturer’s large can have the same reach as another’s medium so to understand what I am calling a large, medium and small the measurements on the Canfield Brothers 2014 Balance, http://canfieldbrothers.com/frames/balance and Specialized Enduro 29er are what we will use. They make great starting points when discussing reach and chainstay length as I feel they have it pretty dialed (Canfield Brothers Balance has a reach 7mm shorter than Specialized Enduro and the Canfield brothers have short but not too short chainstays as does the enduro 29er). The tough thing for me is my height, I’m 6’3″ so I have no idea what it is like to be 5’2″ and ride a small. Fortunately our coach Andy Winohradsky is 5’6″ and I have discussed in length with him the differences between a small and medium for a guy his height. Andy has helped me shape my size theory below.

Metric Small Medium Large X-Large
Top Tube Length (Effective) A 563mm 584mm 607mm 627mm
Top Tube Length (Actual) B 528mm 547mm 571mm 594mm
Reach C 400mm 420mm 438mm 457mm
Standover Height (Based on 27.5″) D 681.5 726.5 744.5 754.5
Seat Tube Length E 381mm 431.8mm 483mm 508mm
Wheel Base F 1127mm 1148mm 1171 1192mm
Head Tube Angle 160mm Fork (Internal Headset) G 66.5° 66.5° 66.5° 66.5°
Head Tube Angle 160mm Fork (External Headset) H 66° 66° 66° 66°
Seat Tube Angle (Effective) I 75° 75° 75° 75°
Seat Tube Angle (Actual) 69.3° 69.3° 69.3° 69.3°
Chainstay Length J 425mm 425mm 425mm 425mm
Bottom Bracket Drop K 5.5mm 5.5mm 5.5mm 5.5mm
Head Tube length L 105mm 110mmm 120mm 125mm
Canfield Balance

Canfield Balance

All this talk on bike length as it relates to the rider, how about bike length as it relates to the trails we ride? On dirt bikes there is no real sizing for adults, just different size engines so a 5’6″ dirt biker will be riding the same length 450 cc bike as someone 6’6″ as that is the length the manufacturer feels handles best (you can shorten and lengthen the chainstay a bit but it is rarely done by most riders as it requires lengthening or shortening the chain too). If there is an ideal dirt bike length then maybe there is an ideal mountain bike length? I need to ride a few more true XL’s (remember some XL’s have the same reach as a large Canfield Balance) to test my latest theory on bike length (it used to be the longer the better for my 6’3″ body) but I am starting to feel like there might be a point where bikes are just too long for the trail. I still feel if you are between sizes move to the bigger size so you can run a nice short, great handling stem but not sure if that works if you are between a large and an XL, as I like the nimbleness of my large Enduro 29er. It is much more nimble than my XL EVO 29er and way more fun to ride but that could do as much or more with the chainstay being 26 mm shorter on the Enduro. I need to ride a XL 29er with short chainstays before I know for sure if it was the long reach or the long chainstay that made the XL EVO feel so cumbersome. I ran a 35 mm stem on the XL and I currently run a 50 mm on the L Enduro so my cockpit is only 5 mm shorter on the large but honestly, the 50 mm stem doesn’t feel as good as the 35 mm! In short I feel that bikes with 420 to 430 mm chainstays and 420 to 445 mm  reach measurements handle the best given the trails that we ride. An important to thing to remember here is this whole discussion is on bike handling, for a really long ride being a little more stretched out can feel more comfortable but doesn’t feel as nimble.

Next week we will tackle the question, “can handle bars be too wide?”.



BetterRide Student Aaron Mattix Palisade Ride

BetterRide Mountain Bike Skills Students Continue to Amaze Us! The Ultimate Upgrade?!

BetterRide Mountain Bike Skills Students Continue to Amaze Us! Whether it is an 81-year-old student finishing the Leadville 100 in 13 hours, a passionate rider hitting a step up that previously kicked his butt, a 65-year-old riding steeps and drops with ease or a young racer entering his first full World Cup season on the Specialized/Monster Energy team we are inspired by our students. Reaching your best is hard work and takes consistent deliberate practice, something they have to make time for and commit to despite their busy schedules.  Over the last few weeks we have witnessed our students riding at their best and gotten so many emails, facebook posts and phone calls that I thought I would share a few stories, photos and links with you.

Professional trail builder and beard farmer Aaron Mattix posted an interesting review of his camp and what has happened to his riding in the two years since. At first he was pretty bummed to be doing drills on pavement but goes on to say this: “My bike still has its fair share of parts that need replaced, but now that I have the knowledge, drills, and experience from Gene’s camp, I can continue to upgrade my riding level, which is the ultimate upgrade.” It is a really fun read and cool to see one of our camps from a students prospective:  http://localstash.net/2014/04/2-years-later-better-ride-camp-review/  The rest of blog is great too, really heart-felt and often entertaining.


BetterRide Student Aaron Mattix Palisade Ride

Aaron Mattix having fun in Palisades, Colorado!

Dale Watterson posted this on our facebook page the other day:

“Awesome time at Over the Edge Sports bike festival this weekend. I got to apply more things I learned from my Better Ride class and was able to clear a step up and sand pit that had previously kicked my butt. Thanks again Dante and Jackie.”

BetterRiders had a great showing at the KHS/Five Ten Reaper Madness at Bootleg Canyon in Boulder City. We had students on the podium in all pro classes and tons of fast amateurs on the podium too, including an all BetterRide Jr. Expert (Cat 1 podium)! Really impressed with riders hard work and commitment.

BetterRide Students

All BetterRide top 3 in Jr. Expert (the future pros) Galen Carter in first, Niko “Kill It” Kilik in second and Tyler Krenek in third!



BetterRide Mountain bike skills students

Pro Women podium students Adrienne Schneider in first and Joy Brinkerhoff in third


There is a great interview with five time BetterRide Camp veteran Mitch Ropelato on pinkbike, he talks about his career, his choice of using a 29er for many downhill races and there are some GREAT photos too! Read it here: http://www.pinkbike.com/news/29er-questions-mitch-ropelato-2014.html

And I got to ride and coach John Palmer again!  http://wp.me/p49ApH-13G

We love helping you reach your best and it is great to see you practicing instead of just riding! Keep up the great work!

Don’t just ride your bike, drive your bike,



Shawn Neer, Downhill switchback in Pemberton, BC

Mountain Bike Switchback Tripod Technique

Great video from BetterRide coach Andy Winohradsky on the Mountain Bike Switchback Tripod Technique!  As Andy states we teach the “proper” in balance and in control switchback skills (line choice, body position, vision, balance, etc.) in our camps but this is a great way to get around super scary switchbacks and for beginner riders to use on switchbacks that they aren’t comfortable with.

If you missed Andy’s mountain bike switchback line choice article and video check it out here: http://wp.me/p49ApH-13i


Student Jen Hanks working on mountain bike switchback

Student Jen Hanks working on tight switchbacks

Remember, there are no style police in mountain biking! We would much rather have you “dab” (put your foot down) than get hurt. Our goal is to help you ride with more confidence so we really stress baby steps when learning anything. Think how many injuries could be prevented if mountain bikers learned skills first and then worked their way up using baby steps instead of letting their friends goad them into trying something they didn’t feel ready for.




mountain bike student cornering

65 Year Old Mountain Biker Killing It! BetterRide Students Have More Fun!

Although we are most famous for coaching World and National Champions* in our skills progressions we coach riders just like you too! In the same camps with those world champions! Here is a short video of a John Palmer, a 65 year old mountain biker and student who started riding bike when he was 59!



John proving that skills trump “balls”! We love helping riders like John improve just as much as the world champions. Anyone who learns to ride a bike at 59 and does steep descents like that at 65 is a World Champion in our book! Keep it up John!


*Mitch Ropelato, Ross Schnell, Sue Haywood, Jackie Harmony, Greg Minnaar, Marla Streb, Fred Schmid (photo below)

Mountain bike racer Fred

Fred was actually 81 at the Leadville 100 mountain bike race this year!

Fred is a two time World Masters Champion and finished the 2012 Leadville 100 in less than 12 hours when he was 80! Such a pleasure to coach inspiring riders like Fred and John!