The Mountain Bike Cockpit: 5 Tips to Perfect Fit and Function
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Your mountain bike’s cockpit is highly customizable and absolutely critical to your comfort, confidence and control on the trail. Indeed, as one of three bike-body contact points, along with your saddle and pedals, the cockpit is your bike’s proverbial command center, the place where steering happens, gears are changed, and brakes are actuated. Set-up starts with picking the right width handlebar, getting it positioned properly, and then adding brake levers, shifter, and other cockpit controls. Most MTBs these days also have a dropper post lever. Some also include suspension adjustment controls. That’s why it’s critical your cockpit is properly set-up. With that in mind here are five tips that will help you achieve perfect fit and function.
Tip # 1 - Handlebar Width
While there’s no definitive right answer, generally speaking handlebar width is a function of rider height and riding style (XC versus trail/enduro versus downhill). Taller riders will typically want a wider bar; shorter riders a narrower set-up. More important, though, is riding style. Cross-country bikes are typically spec’d with bars in the 700mm to 740mm range, these narrower bars pairing better with longer stems, bringing rider weight forward and delivering a more efficient pedaling position and quicker steering. At the opposite end of the spectrum are downhill bikes, which are usually outfitted with 780mm to 800mm wide bars. This provides improved stability at speed and more leverage when steering into and thru corners. Trail and enduro bike handlebar width usually falls somewhere in between (roughly 740mm to 780mm), aiming to strike a balance between efficiency and stability, also keeping in mind you’re more likely to encounter tight trees where clearance is key. When in doubt, opt for a wide bar to start, and if you don’t like it, trim it and try again.
Tip # 2 - Handlebar Height
When setting up your MTB cockpit, start by dialing in handlebar height, which is adjusted by adding or removing spacers from underneath your stem, or by installing a taller or lower rise bar. The lower your bars the more bent your hips will be, which will bring your body forward, meaning more weight and traction on your front wheel but less on the rear. Raising your handlebar will have the opposite effect. Generally, cross-country oriented riders will prefer a more forward position, while the gravity-focused crowd trends toward a taller more upright stance. Bottom line, listen to your body. If for instance you’re having shoulder or back pain, try adjusting your position by moving spacers up or down, or trying a different bar until you feel comfortable.
Tip # 3 - Handlebar Roll
Next focus on handlebar roll, which when gripping the bars, will affect pressure distribution on your palms. Ideally, you want it to be equal. If the bar is rolled too far forward, you’ll feel excessive pressure on the outside of your hand. If rolled too far backward, you may experience the sensation that you’re only gripping the bar with the inside of your hand. Also remember that different bars will have different backsweep and upsweep, so don’t be afraid to experiment until you find a handlebar model and roll position that fits you.
Tip # 4 - Brake Levers
Once you’ve sorted bar width and position, it’s time to add cockpit components, starting with your brake levers. Again there is no one right way, but to maximize comfort, position your levers so that you can comfortably brake with just your pointer finger and when actuating your brakes your wrist and forearm stay aligned. Having your wrists cocked too far forward or back can lead to discomfort and make you more susceptible to injury. Also note that with most brake levers you can adjust the bite point in or out, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Many riders prefer to have the bite point quite near the bar, which tends to lessen hand fatigue.
Tip # 5 - Levers
With your brake levers in place (and assuming you have a 1x drivetrain, which virtually all mountain bikes do these days), now position that lone shift lever and dropper post lever. The key here is to put them in a place where they can be easily reached without having to ungrasp your handlebars. Otherwise you may have to move your hand around on the grip, which can be dangerous, if say you’re in the middle of a nasty rock garden and need to hold on tight.