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Get a handle on your bars: How to set up your cockpit

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

You can greatly improve the quality of your ride by investing a little time adjusting your handlebar setup. It's super easy to do!

Let's start with some vocabulary.

  • Grips: Those rubber things your hands hold on to while you ride

  • Shifter: The device that controls which cog your chain sits on. Some bikes may have two shifters, depending on your drivetrain.

  • Dropper Lever: the trigger that makes your dropper post go up and down. Some people don't have a dropper seat post. If you don't have one, you should look into getting one, it's a game changer! It is common to see a dropper button on a bike with two shifters.

  • Clamp: what holds your components onto the handlebars.

In some cases, all the tools you'll need may be on your bike multi-tool. You'll need some hex wrenches and depending on your components, you may also need Torx wrenches.

Time to dive into adjustments!

Your finger should rest in the crook of the lever

First, I like to start with making sure the brake levers are sitting in the right spot. You'll want your first finger to be able to rest in the crook at the end of the brake lever. You want your finger to be in that spot because it will allow you get maximum leverage out of your brakes, making them more effective.

If the lever is too far to the outside or inside of the bars for your finger to sit in the correct place, You may need to move the clamps toward the inside or outside of the bars. Start by putting your hands on the grips. This will help you determine where your clamps need to move to. The clamp adjustments you make will be specific to your components on your bike. Here you see one clamp for all the components (brakes, shifter, dropper). Loosen each clamp bolt and move the clamps to allow your fingers to rest in the correct place.

Dropper and brake integrated onto one clamp

Shifter and brake onto one clamp

Below, you see individual clamps for each of the components.

Brake and shifter on individual clamps

As seen in the picture above, the brake clamp is on the outside of the shifter clamp. I am always surprised that bikes get set up this way. This creates an awkward hand position for riders and makes it impossible to reach the shifter while your hands are on the grips. It also encourages people to brake with their finger in the middle of the lever. This leads to ineffective braking. It also creates space for two-finger braking which can lead to out-of-control situations. If this is how your bike is set up, you'll need to remove the grips and switch the clamps around so they're more ergonomically correct.

Some shifters and droppers have an additional adjustment you can make. This shifter has two attachment options. I can use the hole on the left or the right to adjust where the shifter sits without moving my brake. There is a little screw sitting in there now to keep the dirt out. I would just remove that screw so I can use that setting if I wish.

If the lever is too far out for your finger to rest on it, you can adjust it so it is closer to your finger. Depending on what sort of brakes you have, you may have an adjustment knob or there may be a set screw. The knob allows you to adjust the lever without a tool while the set screw requires a hex wrench, usually a 2mm. The set screw may be oriented on the inside or outside of the lever. Adjust the reach so your finger can rest in the crook of the lever but ensure that when you pull the brake, it doesn't reach the handlebars or hit other fingers. If the lever pulls to the bars, then you may need to bleed your brakes.

Your brakes may look a little different. Most brakes have some kind of adjustment screw, some brakes do not.

This is a possible location for an adjustment set screw

Next, check the angle of your components. You'll want your wrist to be in a comfortable position. I like my wrist to be pretty straight when I ride. When I have a bent wrist, it creates a lot of discomfort. I feel some tendonitis-like symptoms and any time I hit a jump with my wrist in that position, I feel unstable in my landing. To adjust the angle, you'll loosen the clamp bolt and adjust the angle to where it feels comfortable for you.

Ensure that you tighten everything enough but be careful not to overtighten, especially if you have carbon handlebars. You should be able to use all components without them slipping around on the bars.

If you want to learn more about braking (one of the most underrated skills IMO), book a skills session with me. I can teach you how to use your brakes to help you stay in control and maintain traction. If you'd like a professional bike fitting, look in to a bike fit with Christina Grande. I booked a fitting with her to help me get my winter bike dialed in. It is SO comfortable and I feel like I could ride all day. I learned a lot about adjustments I can make to accomodate what my body needs.

I highly recommend spending some time to make these adjustments. Keep in mind that when you make adjustments, you can always make refinements or you revert back to how you had it before. These adjustments are a personal preference so find what works for you! Having everything adjusted just for your hands will allow you to focus more on your riding and improve your confidence!


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