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If you get aches and pains in your shoulders, neck or lower back after a long bike ride, your handlebars may be too low. Luckily, you can use a stem riser or an adjustable stem to achieve a more comfortable ride.
So should you use a stem riser or an adjustable stem to adjust your handlebar position?
Stem risers are useful for increasing the height of the handlebars by three to six inches, whereas an adjustable stem offers a bike rider greater flexibility to adjust the height and angle for a more custom fit.
Stem risers provide more height, while adjustable stems provide height and angle adjustments. With that said, there are more factors to consider before adding one of these options to your bike.
Below is a more in-depth comparison of stem risers vs. adjustable stems for raising your handlebars.
What Is a Stem Riser?
A stem riser is a tube that fits over the steer tube above the bike’s head tube. The riser basically extends the height of the steer tube, which increases the height of the stem and handlebars.
The Delta Cycle Stem Raiser is an example of a well-reviewed stem riser:
Most stem risers have a diameter of 1⅛ inches, which fits most bikes. However, you can also find risers with a 1¼ inch diameter.
Stems are available in various lengths, typically ranging from three to six inches. Five inches is the standard length for an average stem riser.
A stem riser can place you in a much more upright position, which may eliminate aches and pains from riding too low.
What Is an Adjustable Stem?
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:
An adjustable-height stem secures to the steerer tube. An adjustable arm extends from the clamping point. The top of the arm has a handlebar clamp.
You can move the handlebars higher and closer or move the handlebars lower and farther from your seat. The maximum height change provided by an adjustable stem is often lower compared to a stem riser, but you also have greater flexibility for getting the right fit.
Reasons To Use a Stem Riser
A stem riser may offer a little more stability compared to an adjustable stem. You are not putting pressure on an adjustable arm. However, you may notice a little wobble from the stem riser that you will usually not get when using a fixed-position stem.
Stem risers are best for situations where you need higher handlebars, but do not want to adjust the angle. A riser simply increases the height instead of completely changing the position of the handlebars.
The LITEONE Stem Riser has a maximum height extension of 210 millimeters (over 8 inches):
Disadvantages of Using a Stem Riser
The main drawback to using a stem riser is that it does not allow you to position the handlebars closer or farther away. You can only adjust the height, which may make it more difficult to get the best bike fit for your body.
Reasons To Use an Adjustable Stem
An adjustable stem is best used when you want to adjust both the height and angle of your handlebars, as opposed to only increasing the height.
An adjustable stem not only gives you more options for adjustment, it’s also easier to manipulate. You only need a single hex wrench size to quickly adjust the position of the handlebars.
If you have a bicycle used by multiple members of your household, an adjustable stem may make more sense. You can easily adjust the handlebars on the fly to share the bike with multiple riders.
Disadvantages of Using an Adjustable Stem
An adjustable bike stem allows you to adjust the height and angle of the handlebars. However, you cannot adjust the two settings independently.
Increasing the height of the handlebars involves adjusting the angle, which moves the handlebars toward your seat. Lowering the height of the handlebars requires you to lower the angle, which positions the handlebars farther from your body.
Adjustable stems are also best suited for a type of riding that involves less impacts, such as touring, casual riding, and riding a commuter bike. Constant impacts from jumps and rough, aggressive riding may loosen the adjustable arm, which makes the design less safe for mountain biking.
On the other hand, there’s the Sanzhi Adjustable Bike Stem which is built to work well with mountain bikes:
Alternatives to Stem Risers and Adjustable Stems
If you don’t want to use a stem riser or an adjustable bike stem, you have additional options for raising the height of the handlebars:
- Adjust the spacers on the stem
- Purchase an angled stem
- Purchase a new fork with a longer steer tube
- Use a riser bar for increased height
Your steer tube may include two or three spacers just above or below the stem. If the spacers are currently above the stem, you can position them below the stem for increased height. You may add an inch or two to the height of the handlebars without buying any new equipment.
Another decent solution is to replace the stem with an angled stem. An angled stem extends from the steer tube at an angle, instead of extending horizontally away from your seat. The angle raises the height of the handlebars a few inches, depending on the design.
One of the most secure ways to increase the height of the handlebars is to purchase a new fork with a longer steer tube. Using a longer steer tube does not involve adding more components and clamping points that can fail during extreme conditions, such as when riding mountain bikes.
If you decide to buy a new fork, make sure that it fits your head tube. Some bikes include larger 1½ inch head tubes instead of the standard 1⅛ inch size. Older bikes may use a 1-inch-diameter head tube.
You can also try replacing the handlebars. Using a riser bar, instead of a flat bar, can add an inch or so of height to your grip. The Protaper Alloy Riser Bar is an example of a popular and well-reviewed riser bar:
Purchasing a fork with a longer steer tube and using a riser bar are both options that usually do not decrease your cycling safety and stability.
How Do You Know If Your Handlebars Are Too Low?
A shorter stem lowers the handlebar height, which can put your upper body in a more forward-leaning position. If you lean too far forward, you are more likely to experience discomfort when riding. Some of the signs that your handlebars are positioned too low include:
- Tingling in the hands
- Pain in the shoulders
- Lower back or neck pain
- Extra bike seat soreness
Lower back pain is one of the most common overuse injuries among cyclists. The cause of pain is typically due to the position of the handlebars, seat, and other components of the bike.
The reach and height of the handlebars are connected, as the stem typically sits at a 65-degree to 75-degree angle. If the handlebars are too low, they are also likely farther away from you. Increasing the height or reach of the handlebars may eliminate your discomfort.
Stem Riser vs. Adjustable Stem: Which Is Better?
Stem risers and adjustable stems can improve your safety and handling by raising your bike handlebars to an appropriate level. You can also find options that fit a vast array of bikes.
The main differences between the two are adjustability and height range. An adjustable bike stem allows you to adjust both the handlebar angle and height, as opposed to just the height.
With an adjustable stem, you can move the handlebars up and forward or down and away from you. A stem riser simply raises the handlebars. Also, a stem riser typically provides a greater elevation change.
If you need to raise your handlebars by more than 100 mm (about 4 inches), you may need to use a bike stem riser. If you need to raise the handlebars by only a couple of inches of height, you may prefer an adjustable stem.
Finally, if you frequently ride uphill on a mountain bike, consider investing in some bar ends for mountain bikes to make your ride more comfortable.