When ripping along bumpy singletrack or diving into steep mountain bike descents, a solid grip on your handlebar and easy access to your brakes and shifter can enhance your ride by increasing comfort and control. But picking the right handlebar for your style of riding and setting up your cockpit for optimal performance is not as simple as it sounds. Shimano’s Mountain Bike Handlebar Setup Guide will help you pick the right bar shape and width, set up the handlebar correctly on your bike, and it’ll help you adjust your brake levers, shifter, and dropper lever so you can ride faster and feel more confident out on the trails.
Part II: Handlebar Setup and Adjusting Your Controls
The Right Tools
Installing your handlebar and adjusting your controls is a critical step in creating a solid connection between you and your mountain bike. The right setup will help increase your control out on the trails, which helps build confidence and skill. But before getting started with these changes, make sure you have the right tools for the job. Most bikes and cockpit components use Allen key wrenches and, in some cases, a T25 Torx wrench. Also, consider investing in a reliable torque wrench like PRO's Adjustable Torque Wrench. This will help you tighten everything to proper spec so you can avoid slippage from under-tightening parts, or prevent damage from overtightening your components.
Installing Your Handlebar
With the right tools in hand and a good understanding of handlebar geometry from Part I of Shimano’s Mountain Bike Handlebar Setup Guide, it’s time to get rolling with the installation process. Start by assuring that your handlebar is centered in your stem. Most bars have easy-to-spot markings to assist with this. Line up the markings and ensure they’re even on either side of the stem.
Next, rotate your handlebar to achieve maximum rise. Remember from Part I of this setup guide that rise measures how high the bar reaches above the stem. By rotating the bars for the maximum rise, you'll see the backsweep when looking down at your bars. Just make sure not to roll your bar too far forward, which can cause the backsweep to become upsweep and "straighten" the ends of the bar. Conversely, if you roll the bar too far backward it has the effect of "flattening" the ends, and pushes the bar too far rearward.
“If the label of your bar is perpendicular to the ground, that's usually a good starting point," advises Chris Jacobson, Product Line Manager for Pro Bike Gear and bikefitting.com. "Then, you can rotate for comfort.” The goal is to achieve a neutral position where your arms can settle into a relaxed stance and where your elbows are not being pushed up. Once you’ve found your optimal position, tighten the stem faceplate bolts in an X-pattern to keep things balanced. When done, assure that the gap between the stem and faceplate is even on the top and bottom.
Once your bar is in place, install your grips. “It’s especially important to remember that if you are using any kind of ergonomic grips, set up your bar first and then adjust grip angle,” says Jacobson. “You want a neutral wrist with fingers extended, so make sure you are in the riding position when making adjustments. You can have a friend hold you up or just lean against a wall.” Aligning the grips with your hands and wrists helps enhance control and minimizes fatigue while riding.
Cockpit Lever Set-Up
Once your bar position is dialed, it's time to slide on your brake levers. The first thing you'll want to remember is that modern mountain brakes are so good that one finger braking is the way to go. You'll have plenty of leverage to scrub speed when necessary, but also have the maximum number of fingers wrapped around your bar for optimal control. Position your brake levers so that your index finger naturally falls onto the lever without having to adjust your hand position when reaching for the brake.
After you've set the brake lever's lateral position, it's time to adjust the angle. This is another matter of personal preference, but you want to strive for an angle that allows for a natural linear connection between your shoulders, arms, hands, and grips when your body is in a riding position and when your elbows are bent and hips articulated forward. The idea is that you want to evenly support your weight in the “V” between your index finger and thumb.
If you happen to set-up your levers pointing too far downward, your wrists will roll forward, weakening your grip. Go too far in the other direction and you’ll have too much upward bend in your wrist, which makes it harder to get into the proper riding position with elbows raised. In the end, your optimal lever position comes down to you, the type of trails you ride, and your personal preferences.
“For me, it's important to set my brake levers up for more extreme situations such as going down a steep trail," explains Shimano Marketing Specialist Joe Lawwill. “Yeah, on flat ground it makes sense to have the levers angled down to keep a nice straight line from your elbows to your extended fingers. But if you go down a steep trail, you will have to reach down to grab your levers, which can easily shift your weight too far forward. And since I often search out ridiculously steep trails, I set my levers up quite a bit. I think it's more important to set yourself up for success when things get sketchy."
When tightening the brake levers to your bar, it’s helpful to use a torque wrench so you can ensure the levers are tight enough to stay in place when riding over bumpy terrain. However, it's also important you don't overtighten the levers because you want to allow for some rotation in case of a crash. That way there’s less chance of damaging the lever if you take a tumble.
Once your brake levers are set, focus on the remaining cockpit controls, which most likely include a dropper post lever on the left and shift levers on the right. The goal is to have both the shifter paddles fall comfortably under the thumb or index finger, without interfering with your thumb when it’s gripping the handlebars.
From picking out the right bar shape and width to securing your controls properly for optimal performance, mountain bike handlebar setup can be tricky. But whether you're a cross country racer or a gravity rider, a solid grip on the bar and easy access to the controls is crucial. Spend the time to set up your handlebar for your type of riding and you'll feel more confident and have more fun out on the trails. "All of these decisions may seem like too much choice," says Jacobson. "But once you dial in what you are looking for, you can narrow things down pretty quickly and create something that will truly make your rides more enjoyable."