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Welcome and thanks for visiting the VeloFit Revolution blog.  I'm Eric Bowen, the owner of VeloFit Revolution at  Revolution Bike Shop , located in the north san diego county coastal city of Solana Beach, CA. To learn more about my services, please use the navigation links at the top of the page.   

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« Road Pedals: A Bike Fitter's Perspective | Main | The 5 Most Common Bike Fit Issues, Part 4 of 5: Reach to the handlebars - guidelines. »

The 5 Most Common Bike Fitting Issues, Part 5 of 5: How to shorten your reach to the handlebars - solutions

This will be the final installment of the five part series, "The 5 Most Common Bike Fitting Issues...and how to avoid them."  If you would like to view parts 1-4, they can be found in the archive section of this blog, located in the right hand column.

To review, here are the top five fitting issues:

  1. Poor alignment ("wobbly" knees/splayed legs)
  2. Saddle position too high or too low
  3. Poor cleat position
  4. Saddle tilted too far up or down
  5. Reach to the handlebars (either too bunched up or too stretched out)

Reach to the Handlebars, Part 2 (solutions) 

So, maybe you have read the previous installment (Reach to the Handlebars, Part 1), and  determined that you want to make a change - you either want to shorten the distance from the saddle to your handlebars, or you want to go the other way and lengthen the distance.  What are your options?

A.  Move your saddle forward or backward

B.  Lengthen or shorten your stem

C.  Change the stem angle/rise

D.  Remove stem spacers

E.  Switch to handlebars with different reach

       A.  Change the fore/aft position of your saddle

The fore/aft position of the saddle should be set so that you have the proper relationship to the bottom bracket of the bike. IF THE FORE/AFT POSITION IS CORRECT, DO NOT ADJUST YOUR REACH TO THE HANDLEBARS BY MOVING YOUR SADDLE FORWARD OR BACKWARD. Assuming your fore/aft position is in the correct range, moving the saddle outside of this window to shorten or lengthen your reach can lead to discomfort or injury. 

So, how do you determine the correct range for your fore/aft position? The answer deserves far more attention than I can give it within the confines of this post (a separate article will be forthcoming), but for now I'll leave you with a very simple, rough guideline (a slightly modified version of KOPS - knees over pedal spindles).  First, you'll need a plumb bob (a length of thread with a nut tied to one end works fine), a stationary trainer, and a riser for the front wheel: 

  • Put your bike in a trainer on a flat surface 
  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes
  • Stop pedaling with the crank arms parallel to the ground (in the three o'clock, nine o'clock position)
  • Drop the plumb bob off the front of your knee cap

The end of the plumb bob should fall anywhere from about .5 cm in front of the end crank arm to about 1-1.5 cm behind it. It's important that your bike is level - the wheel axels needs to be the same height off of the ground; that's why you'll need a riser for the front wheel. The crank arms also have to be level with the ground when you stop pedaling.  Make sure you don't change the position of your heels when you stop pedaling, or else this method of establishing fore/aft saddle position can be really off the mark; it's probably best to get someone to help you with this measurement. 

If you find you are more than .5 cm in front of the end of the crank arm or more than 1.5 cm behind it, then move your saddle along its rails to get into the appropriate range.  If your crank arm length is not in the right ballpark (a topic for another day) then this method of establishing fore/aft position can also be incorrect; those with long or short inseams may be surprised to learn that they are way off the mark on their ideal crank length.

Since my suggested range gives you about 2 cm of leeway, you may be able to also fix your reach issues by moving the saddle within this range.  Cyclists who are positioned too far to the rear of the bike will often feel too stretched out.  If the bike is too big, this situation is worsened.  Conversely, a rider can feel too bunched up if they are too far forward on the bike, again a situation that is compounded if the bike is too small.  Lastly, if you do move your saddle, you may also have to adjust your saddle height.

       B. Change the stem length

Of course, the easiest way to change your reach to the handlebars is to swap out your stem for one that is longer or shorter.  Use the ranges in the following chart as sensible guidelines to match your frame size with the appropriate length of stem.

Frame Size (cm)

Stem Range

48 and smaller - 51

  70 - 100

52 -54

  90 - 110

55 - 57

  90 - 120

58 - 61

100 - 130

62 and larger

110 - 140

If you feel like you need to use a stem outside of the ranges for your given frame size to get comfortable, there is a pretty good chance your bike is either too large or too small.  Using an overly long or short stem can lead to a bike that doesn't handle very well - super short stems make a bike feel "twitchy," or super responsive, and overly long stems can cause a bike to feel just the opposite, somewhat "sluggish."  For further guidance on frame sizing, I've written another article, which can be found here:  How to Choose the Correct Size of Road Bike

       C.  Change the stem angle/rise

Another way to change your reach is to raise or lower the handlebars by flipping your stem, or getting another one with a different rise - raising the bars shortens your reach and lowering lengthens it. Want to know how much a different rise will affect your reach?  A typical scenario: flip a 110 mm stem with 7 degrees of +/- rise, and your reach will change by 8 mm.  Here are a couple an excellent tools that I would suggest you bookmark, as it will allow you to calculate the difference in reach for any stem/angle/spacer combo:

Web based Stem Reach Calculator #1

Web based Stem Reach Calculator #2

       D.  Remove stem spacers

If you want to lengthen your reach and/or increase the vertical distance from the top of your saddle to the top of the bars, you can also remove stem spacers. Here's another handy rule of thumb: removing 1 cm of stem spacers will increase your reach by about 3mm.  Most people can't add stem spacers, and even if they could, I don't recommend any more than 4 cm of spacers in between the head tube and stem. There have been some well documented cases of catastrophic steerer tube failures, so it would be wise to adhere to this particular guideline.  

       E.  Change to handlebars with a different reach

Many cyclists aren't aware that handlebar reach (the distance from the center of the bars to the bends where the brake levers attach) can vary widely among various models and manufacturers.  This handlebar measurement will definitely affect how stretched out you might be while riding on the brake hoods, but still won't have any impact on the saddle to handlebar tops distance, as would stem length/rise.  Almost all the new gruppos (Campagnolo, SRAM, and Shimano) have redesigned the hoods to be longer, which I've noticed has lead many of my clients to want their reach shorted.  Although it's more expensive than switching to a different stem, selecting a handlebar with a shorter reach dimension can be a viable option to shorten the saddle to brake hood distance, yet keep the saddle to tops distance the same. [Update: I've written an entire article on handlebars, which can be found here.]

That concludes the series of articles on the most common bike fitting errors, and what you can do to fix them.  In the next article I'll be addressing some of the most common bike fitting questions I get asked by readers, clients, bike shops, and even other bike fitters. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to email me with ideas for future articles:

Reader Comments (1)

On most cyclists I have talked, their most common problem is the alignment of their bike. According to them, wobbling or shaking movement is present whenever they ride on their bikes so basically, they should definitely read this.

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