Friday Five: Bar Width And Stem Length

Is wider better? Is there still a place for narrow bars? How long should your stem be?

By Seb Kemp

Bar Width

A 710-millimeter wide carbon Easton Haven bar and a 810-millimeter wide Funn Fatboy bar. Both widths have their merits, just choose the right one for the right purpose.

In recent years handlebars have got wider and wider, and this is a good thing because wider bars offer you more control, open the chest for easier breathing and contribute to providing a more stable position. This makes you more stable and slower to fatigue. However, width is relative. For riders that ride small, medium and large frames, we would consider the following widths as suitable, respectively: 680-730 millimeter, 720-760, 740-780 millimeter. Anything wider than 780 millimeters is influenced by discipline – downhill or freeride – and personal preference.

The objective of using the correct width bars is to create a sturdier upper body framework but not stretch oneself across them like you are being crucified. Some people, despite their other body measurements, have different shoulder/arm measurements so will need to proportion their bike to their own body. Too wide and you will compromise strength, too narrow and you will have reduced strength and control. Tara Geach (model shown) is 155 centimeters tall and “upgraded” the bars on her size small Specialized Safire from 680 to 700 millimeters wide to help her with the technical terrain she rides.

The objective is to create a strong A-frame with your upper body.

I personally suggest more riders use wide bars. Not gargantuan bars, but something a little more roomy perhaps. The advantage of a wider bar is increased leverage, meaning steering and force resistance requires less power. In a balanced and poised ‘neutral position,’ a slightly wider bar will give you a stronger body position which will also reduce fatigue.

For example, try doing a few push-ups with your hands underneath your chest with thumbs touching. Then try doing some with your hands inline with or wider than your shoulders. Which is easier and feels more stable? This shoulder/arm position in a push up is very much like the position you have on your bike and a rough downhill run is actually very much like a series of push-ups. Fatigue will increase the chances of poor line choice, likelihood of crashing and just slow you down. Your choice, wider or narrow bars?

Illustration: try doing some press-ups with thumbs touching...

Now try to do some press-ups with your hands out wide. What feels easier?

A wider bar isn’t just good for descending duties, it also helps with climbing duties. A wider bar may also give you more leverage while climbing (both seated and standing), provide more control on technical climbs and open up your chest for easier breathing.

Consider the purpose of your riding and the types of terrain you often find yourself riding. Higher speed trails will feel more stable with a wider bar but perhaps if you spend a lot of time on slower, more technical trails a really wide bar will begin to feel a little unwieldy.

As you widen your bars consider reducing the length in your stem if necessary. An older belief was that longer stems make a bike more stable, however, with the changes in mountain-bike geometry in recent years (longer wheelbase, slacker headangle, longer cockpit) the idea of a longer stem being appropriate is now obsolete. Long stems are just band aids for bikes that are too short.

Set your bike up to provide more control for riding off-road and not necessarily what is correct for road bike standards.

As you increase the width of your bars then your reach will increase, necessitating a shorter stem. If you have moved from a 680- to 700-millimeter bar, and you have a 90-millimeter stem – consider reducing stem length to 75 millimeters. As your bars become wider then reduce the stem length accordingly. This setup allows for poise, control and strength in the widest range of off-road situations.

Mountain biking is a dynamic activity that requires a rider to move around on the bike and move the bike under them, rather than be fixed in position. In future installments of Friday Five we will be going through some basic skills and techniques and expanding on why it is time to ditch that half foot of stem you have been carrying around since the last millennium.