Solving Bike Handlebar Issues With an Adjustable Stem

Biking the beach path

Kayte Deioma

Last week I went out bike shopping for my daughter. She's tall, but not quite fully grown. In the course of trying to find a great deal on a kid's bike I came across a beautiful bike for her, a Marin Lucas Valley. The price was right and I knew it would be good for her in the long run as she grew into it. The only problem was that it was just a bit too "long" for her. She felt stretched out and the flat handlebars were a different experience from her previous hybrid/comfort bike. So what to do? The answer was to install an adjustable stem, which would solve the only aspect of this bike that wasn't ideal for her.

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Bike Stems

Your stem is the part of the bike that attaches the handlebars to the fork. It's a key part of your steering, and what channels your action on the handlebars into the front wheel being pointed in the direction you want to go.

The size of a stem varies between bikes of course but in general, it's usually about as long as the width of your hand. A small adjustment in the stem length can make a big difference in the way things feel. Just 10-20 mm difference in length can have a significant impact on a rider—whether one feels overly stretched out, or tucked in nice and comfortable. Most of the time, you can only accomplish this change by swapping out the stem completely.

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Adjustable Stems

Any easy solution to the problem that my daughter had with improper handlebar fit (beyond what you can do with normal bike adjustments to make it fit you better) can be found in swapping out your current stem for one that is adjustable.

Like its name implies, an adjustable stem can be modified in a way that brings your handlebars up and down as well as forward and back. This is accomplished with a two-piece design allowing the stem to bend in the middle, with a bolt fastener that clamps down to hold it in the preferred position.

Note there are two main styles of stems—the newer style called a threadless stem and the older version called a threaded or quill stem. What we're describing here applies to a threadless stem only.

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Modifying Handlebar Height and Length

By bringing up the adjustable stem, the natural result is that it raises the overall handlebar height while bringing in the overall length as well. A person sits more upright and not so stretched out—in a way that is more comfortable for many riders. With the new stem, my girl can sit more upright, not hunched over and stretching forward to reach the handlebars.

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Maintaining Fit Over Time

Another thing that this offers is the ability to modify the current bike over time to account for a kid who is still growing. What's nice is that as she gets taller, I know that over time I'll be able to use the adjustable stem to refit the bike to her changing body. What she has trouble reaching now may be no problem in a couple years so I can adjust the stem to take the handlebars back down lower and a bit further away from her. That'll eliminate any crowding and help keep the bike fit to her in a way that is both ideal for comfort and riding style.

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Easy Modifications

An adjustable stem can be modified literally in seconds, in most cases with a plain 'ol Allen wrench. Though you might not be the kind of person to make these constant modifications to your bike, there are those who'll dig this type of easy customization.

Consider a situation where you're going to go on a relatively short but pretty intense ride with somebody you know really likes to spin the pedals and go fast. You take your handlebars down to give you a sleek, more aerodynamic stance on the bike. Or, maybe you're going out with a friend on a leisurely afternoon ride that'll take 2-3 hours. You can then simply bring the handlebars up so you are sitting more upright and relaxed. Seriously, it's about a ​30-second adjustment.

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Bike Sharing Made Easier

From time to time, I'll have friends come visit from out of town who want to find a way to go riding when they travel. An adjustable stem can make the difference in typical frame sizes a lot easier to manage. I'm tall, so in many cases just bringing the handlebars up and back makes my big bikes still workable for shorter friends. In fact, between that and adjusting the seat height as needed, frequently a person can safely and comfortably ride a bike that may be a couple frame sizes different than what they'd normally select, especially if it is a smaller person riding a larger bike.

I'm not saying two roommates sharing one bike would love this constant adjusting, but it can make the occasional loaner use very much possible and easy.