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How To Set Up Your Bike Cockpit

Small adjustments to your mountain bike’s controls make a big difference


©Beth Puliti

When is the last time you paid attention to your cockpit? No, we’re not talking about airplanes here. Bicycles have cockpits too—but you won’t find any flying controls here. On a mountain bike, the cockpit is where the handlebars, stem, brake levers, shifters and grips rest. But just like an aircraft, these controls are essential to performance.

If you've never adjusted your handlebar setup, you're in good company. A lot of mountain bikers have overlooked this area on their bike. Some have had their bike for a while and have grown accustomed to the incorrect setup. Others expect a new bike to be ready to go once the bike shop mechanic has set it up. However, giving little or no thought to whether this area is correctly set up for your measurements can result in poor control on the trail and/or muscle injury.

Taking just a few minutes (literally less than a half hour) to adjust your handlebar controls properly can drastically improve the way you ride. From increased braking power to smoother shifting, correct cockpit setup will result in improved comfort and control.

So, where should you begin?

Dial In Your Stem
You want to make sure that your stem is aligned with your front wheel. To adjust this, face your bike and use an Allen key to loosen up the steerer clamp bolts. Grip your front wheel between your legs to free up your hands. Tweak until it is in line and then tighten the steerer bolts back up.

While we’re discussing the stem, keep in mind that the stem faceplate bolts should be tightened equally to ensure your handlebars don’t become damaged or broken. This means that the top two and bottom two bolts should be as evenly threaded as possible. Finger-tighten the bolts first, then use a cross-sequential tightening pattern to prevent bolts from loosening on one side of the stem while you are tightening the other side.

Brake Lever Spacing
Many people place their brake lever right up against their handlebar grip because it looks nice. This is also most likely the way you’ll find your bike set up when you obtain it from the factory or dealer. Though it’s aesthetically pleasing, this isn’t the best placement. Why? Because it places your fingers too close to the brake lever pivot, which tires out your hands and leads to decreased braking power. Braking further away from this point—usually where the lever bends—will increase your stopping power. To figure out the proper position, throw a leg over your saddle and grip your handlebars at the very outermost spot. Stretch out your pointer finger and then position your brake accordingly.

Brake Reach & Angle
For your safety, your braking fingers must be able to easily reach your brake levers. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that plenty of bikes are initially set up with the brake levers extended as far as possible. Unfortunately, those of us with petite hands will have a hard time reaching levers set up this way, so sometimes adjusting the lever blades is imperative even before your first trail ride. To modify an ill-fitting setup, use an Allen key to loosen the screw near the lever pivot. If you must adjust the brake lever angle, simply loosen the bolts and turn the clamp. The proper angle varies with each rider. Hop on your bike and see what feels most comfortable and causes the least amount of wrist strain.

Positioning the Shifters
Once you have moved your brake levers into their proper location, you’ll want to adjust your shifters. Position them so that you can easily access them without accidentally catching the brake levers. Shift through a complete cycle while seated on your bike to make certain they aren’t in the way of your brake levers.


Unsure if your cockpit is poorly positioned? Here are some indications that yours is badly set up:

  • A wobbly stem
  • Brake lever clamps in contact with your grips
  • Ill-positioned handlebars
  • Unreachable gear levers


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