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The handlebars are an important point of contact between you and your bicycle. If the handlebars are not properly placed, you may experience pain in your hands, wrists, arms, lower back, or other areas of the body.
If you have handlebars lower than you like, you may wonder if they can be raised. Yes, you can raise your bike’s handlebars yourself!
Handlebar Height Is Important
Proper handlebar height promotes comfort and good posture when you’re riding a bike. Handlebars that are set too low or too far forward may place extra pressure on your back and joints if you regularly lean forward while cycling. A rider sits more upright when the handlebars are raised, bringing them closer. The optimal handlebar height for most riders coincides with the level of the bike saddle, or higher. Those who prefer to ride their bike faster may choose to have them slightly below the saddle, maybe 4–5 centimeters.
Selecting the perfect height may involve trial and error. In addition to the pressure placed on the lower back, you must consider the comfort of your hand position due to the bar’s depth, width, height, and rotation, as well as the placement of the brake levers. You should slightly bend your elbows while riding but have an approximate angle of 90 degrees between the torso and upper arm.
To keep a neutral wrist position and proper reach, you also have the option of adjusting the location of brake levers. You may also need to adjust the height of the handlebars temporarily while recovering from events such as a neck or back injury.
Height adjustments vary slightly for racing versus recreational riding. Lowering the profile of the handlebars benefits racers by offering increased aerodynamics, traction, and control while also lowering the center of gravity. Handlebars raised above saddle height offer greater comfort and better posture. These are important choices for those who ride recreationally.
Raising Handlebars: An Overview
You can often raise your bike’s handlebars at home as opposed to relying on bike shops. The first step involves knowing whether the bike has a threaded or threadless stem. Threaded stems are also known as ‘traditional’ or quill stems.
Threaded or Quill Stem
A quill stem is common on older bicycles, most children’s models, mountain bikes, single-speed bikes, some entry-level hybrid models, and bikes with fixed gears. This stem uses a threaded headset with the headset’s top portion screwed onto a precisely cut steerer tube that is secured by a locknut. Quill stems usually take a shape similar to the number 7, with the lower potion inserted into the bike’s steering column and the top part clamping into the center section of the handlebars.
The threaded stem allows you to raise the handlebars only as far as the engraved measurements permit. You must be careful not to exceed this maximum extension. If raised beyond the engraved stem measurements, you risk the stem disconnecting from the frame. If this happens while riding, you may suffer from serious injury as the handlebars and stem disconnect.
who hasn’t machined a custom quill stem adaptor for their daughters first bike? pic.twitter.com/DNg5cp48Gy
— Jason Rogers (@hillbillyGTOh) April 26, 2013
Adjusting a Threaded or Quill Stem
Although there may be slight variations with some models, here are the general steps to adjusting a quill stem:
- A nut-and-bolt assembly holds the threaded headset in place. Loosen the hex-head or external bolt that is located on the stem’s top. When tightened, this bolt that points downward maintains the level of pressure that keeps the stem firmly in place. An Allen wrench or key will usually do the task.
- Use a wrench to loosen the locknut.
- You should be able to move the stem freely once this bolt has been loosened, though a gentle tap on the bolt may help if it has been a long time since the stem has been adjusted.
- For newer bikes, you may want to mark the original location of the handlebars in case you need to restore them to that location (for example, you might be making this adjustment as a temporary measure due to an injury or pain that requires you to temporarily change your posture).
- Adjust the stem to a comfortable setting, keeping in mind that this adjustment should never fall outside the maximum or minimum insertion marks that are etched into the stem.
- Grease the stem lightly after wiping away any accumulated dirt or gunk. You should occasionally apply grease to the quill stem’s shaft, and this would be a great opportunity to do so. This will keep the stem from seizing or becoming stuck within the bike’s frame.
- Once the height is adjusted to a preferable level, assure the stem is lined up properly with the front wheel. A proper alignment ensures the bike will move in the preferred direction while you ride.
- Retighten the wedge bolt with your hand—firm enough to ensure safety but not so tight that you cannot remove the nut and bolt later if necessary.
- These steps may be repeated as necessary as you test the handling characteristics and comfort level with the handlebar height at a new level.
With a threaded or quill stem, you may not be able to raise the handlebar as much as you’d like, in which case you’ll need a stem extension. This video demonstrates how to raise the handlebar with a stem extension:
Unlike a quill stem, the threadless system requires more than a simple fork-and-twist adjustment. Threadless stems have two small bolts and one larger bolt that attach to the handlebars. Without threads that may loosen over time, a threadless headset generally offers a greater level of safety and durability. Common on the majority of newer road bikes, mountain bikes, and medium and higher-end hybrids, these stems lack threading on the headset and steerer tube. Rather than having nuts on the headset, the threadless stem is held in place by bolts and clamps that anchor it to the steerer tube’s exterior.
The steerer tube determines the possible range for your handlebar heights. The presence of excess steerer tube above where the threadless stem currently clamps allows you to raise your bike handlebars. However, if there are no spacers between the stem and top cap, a new tube will need to be installed and attached to the stem adapter because the current tube has already raised the handlebars as high as possible. The top cap uses compression to hold the headset in place.
Adjusting a Threadless Stem
Although there may be slight variations with some models, here are the general steps to adjust a threaded stem:
- Loosen the clamp bolts while the bike’s wheels are firmly situated on the ground. The bolts should be on the stem’s back side. Consider adding some grease to the top cap bolt during this time to prevent future seizing.
- Remove the top cap. This will be found on the top of the stem.
- Carefully slide the stem so that it disconnects from the steerer tube.
- Add or remove spacers of an appropriate size to correspond with the amount of space you want to raise your bike handlebars by.
- Confirm that a 3–5 millimeter gap exists between the stem’s top or spacer and the steerer tube. This spacing is necessary for the top cap to clamp properly into place.
- Confirm that a gap of roughly 2 millimeters exists between the top of the steerer tube and the edge of the stem. This spacing is necessary for the top cap to clamp properly into place. Any more than 2 millimeters, however, may cause the steerer tube to fail, so be sure to pay close attention to the size of the gap.
- Replace the bolt and top cap that will pre-load the bearings of the headset. Tighten into place.
- Assure that the stem is properly aligned with the front wheel. This adjustment may take a little time to get into proper alignment, but it is very important that the bar and front wheel sit at a right angle.
- Torque the stem clamp bolts evenly after the stem and wheel are properly aligned.
- Confirm that the headset has the proper adjustments to ensure comfort while you’re riding. Assure that there’s no bearing movement and that you are able to turn the handlebars smoothly and without excessive effort.
Changing the Handlebar Angle
In addition to raising or lowering the handlebar, adjusting the handlebar’s angle may also provide greater comfort. You should rotate the bars so that it’s comfortable to hold them and other parts such as the brakes and shifting apparatus, regardless of their alignment for aesthetic purposes or in relation to the ground below. By rotating the bars until you find a wrist position that is more neutral, you may reduce numbness and increase hand comfort.
The exact angle for adjusting the handlebar depends on your personal preferences and whether you use the bicycle recreationally or for racing or navigating hilly or mountain trails. A good rule of thumb is that the angling of the handlebars should allow the rider to play the piano comfortably on the handlebars, with the ability to reach the brake levers without any pain or difficulty. Remember to tighten the handlebars and any other parts after you have found the perfect handlebar adjustment for your riding needs.
An adjustable stem allows you to adjust the height and angle of the stem, which adjusts the position of the handlebars. Along with raising the stem, you also have the ability to move the handlebars closer or farther away.
The Ritchey 4-Axis Adjustable Bike Stem is an extremely popular and well-reviewed bike stem:
Replacing the Handlebars and Other Considerations
For those who do not want to adjust the stem of the bicycle, another option is to place a different bar on the bike that has more sweep or rise. Greater sweep places the hands farther back horizontally, while more rise offers increased height vertically. Replacing the handlebars requires you to transfer the grips, brake levers, and any other parts to the new bar you place on the bike’s stem.
When deciding between handlebar heights to ensure a more comfortable ride, you must consider other components. Any adjustment must preserve enough slack in the brake cable and shifter cable. If there is not sufficient slack for upward adjustment of the handlebars to promote comfort, you may have to replace the shifter and brake cables and their housings as well.