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How to choose the best stem length

Too short or too long? How do you know the correct length stem for your road bike? road.cc has the answer

How do you find out the correct stem length for you and your bike?

I’m going to start by suggesting the best way to find the answer to that question is to arrange a professional bike fit with a reputable bike shop. Most shops offer bike fits of various varieties from simple to advanced, and many offer it as part of the buying process so you’re not charged loads of extra money on top of your new bike.

Stems come in many lengths from stubby to super stretched. Put simply, if you want a racy, aggressive and aerodynamic position, a longer stem will provide a more stretched out riding position. If comfort is your top priority, a shorter stem length will bring the bars closer to the saddle and put you in a more upright position, placing less strain on your back.

But the stem length needs to be considered as part of the bigger picture of the frame size, saddle height, saddle fore-aft adjustment and the shape and size of the drop handlebars. That’s where a professional bike fit is invaluable, as all those other factors will be considered.

How to find right right drop handlebar for you + 8 of the best

Read more: 9 top tips for setting up your new road bike

Stem length affects handling

Changing the stem length not only impacts your fit and comfort, it affects the handling dynamics of a road bike. A shorter stem will result in snappier steering, a longer stem will produce slower steering. Adjusting the stem length can be used to tailor the handling. That’s generally why cyclocross races use a shorter stem, and long distance road cyclists opt for a longer stem.

Storck Fascenario.3 Platinum - riding 3.jpg

Correct reach

Stem length alters the distance you have to reach to the handlebars. If you’ve been riding your bike for some time though and you’re happy with the general fit, a good indication of whether the stem length on your bike is correct is simply to go on how you feel. Do you feel too stretched and reaching the hoods strains your back? Or do you feel cramped? Pain in the neck, shoulders and lower back can be clear indicators that you might be better off with a longer or shorter stem.

- 9 ways to make your bike more comfortable

Optimum position

What you’re aiming for is a position that ensures you have a slight bend in the elbows to allow your arms to bend easily as the front wheel tracks the road surface. You don’t want your arms locked out straight, that’s a sign of a stem that is too long. It’s tricky to assess yourself when riding though - riding past shop windows is a good tip, but even better is, as I’ve mentioned before, getting a professional bike fit.

One good rule of thumb for choosing the correct length stem (and it works for the road.cc team) is to sit on the bike with your hands on the top of the hoods and look down at the front hub. If the stem length is correct, the handlebars should completely hide the front hub. If you can see the hub in front of the handlebar, the stem is too short.

Experiment with stem length

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Making small changes can bring about noticeable improvements in comfort or aerodynamic performance, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

Canyon Endurace Wmn CF 9.0 - stem.jpg

If you’re friendly with your local bike shop they’ll likely have a couple of spare stems and they’ll lend you one to try out, or you could try a cycling friend or even your local club.

Start with a stem that is 10mm longer or shorter, depending on whether you want to extend or reduce your reach to the handlebars, and go for a ride. How does it feel? Better? It’s good to do a couple of rides of decent length to see how the stem length change impacts your riding comfort.

But if you’re making radical changes, a 70mm stem on a 58cm frame or a 140mm stem on a 52cm frame, for example, is a clear indication that you might be riding the wrong frame size.

Read more: How to fit and set up a saddle

Frame size-specific stem lengths

Most bike manufacturers fit different length stems across the size range, so shorter stems on smaller frames and longer stems on larger4 frames. This size-specific approach goes a long way to getting you set up with the correct stem length, providing you’ve chosen the right size frame (another area where a bike fit comes in useful).

Generally speaking, stem lengths on road bikes vary from 80 to 140mm, with 100mm and 110mm the most common sizes. There are shorter and longer stems available if you’re short or very tall and ride a frame size at the extreme end of the size range.

Stem angle

The other factor to also consider when choosing stem length is the rise of the stem. If you want a lower position, opt for a stem with a negative rise that lowers the handlebar height in relation to the ground. If you're after a more upright position, a stem with a positive rise will lend you a more comfortable fit. It’s all down to personal preference.

Don’t copy the pros

Over the years I’ve seen many amateur cyclists simply take their stem length decision directly from what the pros are using, but a word of warning. A professional cyclist covers 30,000+km in the saddle each year. The bike is essentially their office, and their bodies are conditioned to a stretched, aerodynamic position. Plus, they do a lot of core work in the winter to give them the strength and flexibility to maintain such positions.

things pros do - 1 (16).jpg

But there are many pros that clearly ignore sensible bike fitting advice and forge their own path, and pros riding smaller frame sizes and fixing the reach with a super long stem is common in the peloton. That’s why 130 and 140mm are common stem lengths, and we’ve even seen custom made 150mm stems on some bikes.

Based on that, I wouldn’t advocate copying any professional rider when choosing your stem length. They might look fast and slammed but replicating their fit could be asking for back and neck trouble. You’ve been warned.

Read more: Tour Tech 2017 – The stems the pros are using

There’s an app for that

Yes, in this world of apps for everything, there are some apps that claim to be able to help you adjust your stem length and bike fit from the comfort of your living room.

Bike Fast Fit uses the phone's video camera to dynamically record the rider’s position to analyse a whole range of measurements, including stem length as part of the frame reach, forearm and torso angle.

We hope this was helpful? If you have any tips you use for setting the correct stem length, do add them to the comments below.

David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes

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37 comments

Avatar
@soundtrooper | 3 years ago
3 likes

I disagree with the bike fit propoganda, I've had many over the years and most of them where absolute trash, including some from quite famous and well regarded fitters, some of whom have their own YouTube channels. Nearly always saddle too high and reach too long. My advice is get your saddle height and setback sorted and experiment yourself, everyone's body has unique needs and fitters rarely good enough to spot or account for this, be prepared to put the work in yourself basically...

Avatar
lball91 | 5 years ago
0 likes

It's touched upon here but not in detail...

In what circumstances would you bring the stem up 1cm or so using spacers instead of getting a shorter stem? Can't find anything online about this but it feels like :

  • Shorter stem = shorter effective reach = you sit more upright
  • High stem = higher bars = you sit more upright

Is anyone able to clear this up? 

Cheers

Avatar
Skytriker | 5 years ago
2 likes

I just wasn't comfortable riding my Giant Defy. I felt too stretched out. After reading advice here, and elsewhere, I took the plunge and changed my 100mm stem for and identical 70mm one. That 40mm has made a huge difference. I am more comfortable, have noticed no change to handling and the numbness in my hands has decreased significantly. Although probably nothing to do with the stem change, my speed has increased by an average of 2 mph 

Avatar
Karbon Kev | 5 years ago
0 likes

So basically you're saying David, to keep trying out different stem lengths until you get the right length?

Your first tip to get a proper professional bike fit is the only way to ensure the correct length, done by a professional and not any old bike shop!

Avatar
StraelGuy | 5 years ago
0 likes

I just meant that if the lengths and angles formed by the triangle formed by back, arms and top tube look like an equilateral triangle, he considers the bike well set up?

Having said that, if a certain Mr. Hawkins has his two penneth, I'm sure squirrels will come into it somewhere .

Avatar
hawkinspeter replied to StraelGuy | 5 years ago
6 likes

StraelGuy wrote:

I just meant that if the lengths and angles formed by the triangle formed by back, arms and top tube look like an equilateral triangle, he considers the bike well set up?

Having said that, if a certain Mr. Hawkins has his two penneth, I'm sure squirrels will come into it somewhere .

Could be, but you don't really want your arms straight as usually that means you've got too much weight on them.

Hmmm, perfect triangle?

 

Avatar
don simon fbpe | 5 years ago
0 likes

I heard the salesman in a certain northern internet bike shop what also has a small salesfloor tell a customer that he had the perfect triangle whilst sat on the bike.

Get the perfect triangle and you'll have the correct stem length.

Does anyone know what the perfect triangle is?

Avatar
StraelGuy replied to don simon fbpe | 5 years ago
0 likes

don simon wrote:

I heard the salesman in a certain northern internet bike shop what also has a small salesfloor tell a customer that he had the perfect triangle whilst sat on the bike.

Get the perfect triangle and you'll have the correct stem length.

Does anyone know what the perfect triangle is?

 

Maybe he meant back, arms and top-tube  ?

Avatar
don simon fbpe replied to StraelGuy | 5 years ago
0 likes

StraelGuy wrote:

don simon wrote:

I heard the salesman in a certain northern internet bike shop what also has a small salesfloor tell a customer that he had the perfect triangle whilst sat on the bike.

Get the perfect triangle and you'll have the correct stem length.

Does anyone know what the perfect triangle is?

 

Maybe he meant back, arms and top-tube  ?

Go on...

Avatar
hawkinspeter replied to don simon fbpe | 5 years ago
0 likes

don simon wrote:

I heard the salesman in a certain northern internet bike shop what also has a small salesfloor tell a customer that he had the perfect triangle whilst sat on the bike.

Get the perfect triangle and you'll have the correct stem length.

Does anyone know what the perfect triangle is?

Nope.

I'd assume that the triangle would be the 3 contact points - pedals, saddle and bars. However that doesn't make much sense as those 3 points are just what the bike is set up as, so they don't relate to the rider until there's been some measuring/fitting/adjusting.

They probably meant the back, arms and legs, but I wouldn't have thought that you could come up with a "perfect" triangle as that'd depend on the rider's flexibility etc.

Avatar
don simon fbpe replied to hawkinspeter | 5 years ago
5 likes

hawkinspeter wrote:

don simon wrote:

I heard the salesman in a certain northern internet bike shop what also has a small salesfloor tell a customer that he had the perfect triangle whilst sat on the bike.

Get the perfect triangle and you'll have the correct stem length.

Does anyone know what the perfect triangle is?

Nope.

I'd assume that the triangle would be the 3 contact points - pedals, saddle and bars. However that doesn't make much sense as those 3 points are just what the bike is set up as, so they don't relate to the rider until there's been some measuring/fitting/adjusting.

They probably meant the back, arms and legs, but I wouldn't have thought that you could come up with a "perfect" triangle as that'd depend on the rider's flexibility etc.

There can't be any hard numbers as we're all different, so I imagine the lead up as being on the lines of:

Salesman: Swing your leg over this mighty steed. How does that feel?

Punter: It feels fine,

Salesman: I thought so, I can see the perfect triangle (top tube, back, arms).

Punter: Perfect triangle, eh? This bike must've been made for me. Sold!

 

Avatar
Jitensha Oni replied to don simon fbpe | 5 years ago
0 likes

don simon wrote:

hawkinspeter wrote:

don simon wrote:

I heard the salesman in a certain northern internet bike shop what also has a small salesfloor tell a customer that he had the perfect triangle whilst sat on the bike.

Get the perfect triangle and you'll have the correct stem length.

Does anyone know what the perfect triangle is?

Nope.

I'd assume that the triangle would be the 3 contact points - pedals, saddle and bars. However that doesn't make much sense as those 3 points are just what the bike is set up as, so they don't relate to the rider until there's been some measuring/fitting/adjusting.

They probably meant the back, arms and legs, but I wouldn't have thought that you could come up with a "perfect" triangle as that'd depend on the rider's flexibility etc.

There can't be any hard numbers as we're all different, so I imagine the lead up as being on the lines of:

Salesman: Swing your leg over this mighty steed. How does that feel?

Punter: It feels fine,

Salesman: I thought so, I can see the perfect triangle (top tube, back, arms).

Punter: Perfect triangle, eh? This bike must've been made for me. Sold!

 

Yep, I’d assume that was the scenario in that case.

There are other defintions of the triangle that involve the balance of power, comfort and aerodynamics according to need, however, as described in:

http://go4distance.blogspot.com/2009/11/bike-fit-triangle.html

 

Avatar
Pushing50 replied to don simon fbpe | 5 years ago
1 like

don simon wrote:

I heard the salesman in a certain northern internet bike shop what also has a small salesfloor tell a customer that he had the perfect triangle whilst sat on the bike.

Get the perfect triangle and you'll have the correct stem length.

Does anyone know what the perfect triangle is?

A bike salesman once told an ex-girlfriend in front of me that she had the perfect triangle during a bike fit. I knocked his bloody teeth out!! cheeky

Avatar
srchar | 5 years ago
4 likes

I have a mate who's obsessed with "looking pro" and has a long, negative rise, slammed stem because it puts him in a more aerodynamic position.  I on the other hand have 25mm of spacers and a straight 110mm stem.  Only one of us can ride in the drops for any length of time, which is the most aero position.  Guess who?

Avatar
Dhill replied to srchar | 3 years ago
0 likes

srchar wrote:

I have a mate who's obsessed with "looking pro" and has a long, negative rise, slammed stem because it puts him in a more aerodynamic position.  I on the other hand have 25mm of spacers and a straight 110mm stem.  Only one of us can ride in the drops for any length of time, which is the most aero position.  Guess who?

Don’t know, tell me?

Avatar
henryb | 5 years ago
0 likes

Indeed - I'm 5'11" too, but ride a 56cm frame with a 80mm stem

Avatar
Dhill replied to henryb | 3 years ago
0 likes

henryb wrote:

Indeed - I'm 5'11" too, but ride a 56cm frame with a 80mm stem

Good for you.

Avatar
Flintshire Boy replied to Dhill | 1 year ago
1 like

.

Two very valuable contributions to the discussion. Many thanks.

.

Avatar
Rendel Harris replied to Flintshire Boy | 1 year ago
2 likes

Flintshire Boy wrote:

.

Two very valuable contributions to the discussion. Many thanks.

.

.

Dear Flintshire Boy

.

I'm sorry you had to see

.

Someone making pointless and rude interventions.

.

So different from

.

Your own well thought out

.

Rational, constructive and non-personal

.

Comments. Hopefully people

.

Will follow your excellent

.

Example in future.

.

Yours,

.

Trendy libtard Rendy

Avatar
Hirsute replied to Rendel Harris | 1 year ago
1 like

Bit pointless replying to a year old post to a poster not seen for ages !

Avatar
Rendel Harris replied to Hirsute | 1 year ago
0 likes

hirsute wrote:

Bit pointless replying to a year old post to a poster not seen for ages !

Don't suppose it matters to poor old Flinty, the important thing is to have his voice heard and get some sort of acknowledgement of his existence, even if it's only derision. He's not here for any sort of debate or discussion. Better than scrawling on lavatory walls I suppose.

Avatar
TheBillder replied to Rendel Harris | 1 year ago
1 like

He's not the real Flinty - this guy is:

Avatar
imajez | 5 years ago
0 likes

You cannot alter stem lenght without affecting handling. So you really need to use wider bars with shorter stems and vice versa to maintain handling. Assuming handling is fine to start with.

 

Avatar
StraelGuy | 6 years ago
0 likes

We're all different. I'm 5' 11" and  ride a 58 cm frame with the stem shortened a centimetre to 100 mm and a 56 cm frame with the stem lengthened to 120 mm.

Avatar
kil0ran | 6 years ago
0 likes

I was surprised to find after a recent bike fit that +10mm on the stem completely solved lower back pain, particularly as I didn't feel particularly cramped on the bike. At 5-11 I would normally be riding a 56 but a nominal 54 with a 110mm stem seems to be sweet spot (usually 54s come with a 100mm stem).

In the search for a new bike I've been relying on absolute stack/reach measurements and stack/reach ratio. Geometry Geeks is great for comparing geos and seeing if a bike's going to be within your fit envelope.

The one thing I regret is that I didn't measure the effective stack & reach of my old, perfectly set up bike. I've got the frame stack/reach from the manufacturer but have had to estimate the other measurements. If you're searching for a new bike make sure you've recorded the basic fit parameters from your old one:

Frame stack

Frame reach

Saddle tip to bar centre

Saddle setback (tip distance behind BB centre)

Bar centre stack

Bar centre reach

Saddle height from BB centre

Also record the position of your shifters and drops angle, if you're not swapping bars over.

Avatar
SimonS | 6 years ago
0 likes

So why do pro's often ride bikes that appear too small with extra long stems?

The top end bikes are supposedly designed with the pro's needs in mind so they should have short enough head tubes to get the drop they want, there shouldn't be any issues with stiffness now (which might have been an issue back in the days of thin walled steel tube gates), weight is added to frames to keep them UCI legal.   

A frame that's too small potentially results in excessive seat post (where you will get some flex) and a very long stem will affect the steering (on  a bike that's supposedly has carefully tuned handling based around one of normal length) 

Avatar
check12 replied to SimonS | 6 years ago
0 likes

SimonS wrote:

So why do pro's often ride bikes that appear too small with extra long stems?

The top end bikes are supposedly designed with the pro's needs in mind so they should have short enough head tubes to get the drop they want, there shouldn't be any issues with stiffness now (which might have been an issue back in the days of thin walled steel tube gates), weight is added to frames to keep them UCI legal.   

A frame that's too small potentially results in excessive seat post (where you will get some flex) and a very long stem will affect the steering (on  a bike that's supposedly has carefully tuned handling based around one of normal length) 

 

because they aren't designed with pros in mind, and pros need longer/lower reach. 

See the 1x 3t bike winning race bike and it's stem for example. 

Avatar
Jimmy Ray Will replied to SimonS | 6 years ago
0 likes

SimonS wrote:

So why do pro's often ride bikes that appear too small with extra long stems?

The top end bikes are supposedly designed with the pro's needs in mind so they should have short enough head tubes to get the drop they want, there shouldn't be any issues with stiffness now (which might have been an issue back in the days of thin walled steel tube gates), weight is added to frames to keep them UCI legal.   

A frame that's too small potentially results in excessive seat post (where you will get some flex) and a very long stem will affect the steering (on  a bike that's supposedly has carefully tuned handling based around one of normal length) 

 

Never forget that pro riders are generally young men. Young men that have often made decisions about positioning and frame preferences prior to even being men.... do not think that professionals choices are made through wisdom and insight, its often not the case.

That said, a smaller frame will handle quicker (due to the shorter wheel base), and the extra seatpost will indeed flex... which is a good thing for someone sat on the end of it for hours.

Plus long, slammed stems look good. 

I was 28 before I made the realisation that 110mm stems provide the best balanced handling, and actually, having my bars a bit higher was still aero enough and a damned sight more comfortable. 

 

Avatar
james-o | 6 years ago
1 like

While realising that this complicates things and isn't the focus of the article, it's worth getting the saddle in the right place so you're well balanced (height and fore-aft) first before thinking that stem length is a full fix for any discomforts. It can help but it's not the main thing. Start with the saddle as your base point for all fitting, then move on to other areas. 

The stem obscuring front hub thing tends to happen on classic geometry road bikes so it's a handy guide there but could lead to an overly-long stem on newer 'gravel' geometries with shorter stems and slacker head angles or longer fork offsets. Like knee over pedal it's usually a coincidence rather than an aim.

Avatar
Roadie_john | 6 years ago
2 likes

The main reason the pros use long stems is because they often ride what would be for a ‘normal’ person, an undersized bike. 

I use long stems because I’m tall with long back and arms. My winter bike has a 145mm stem and that was a massive improvement on the original 130mm stem, which left me cramped. But it’s a 57 when I normally ride a 59...

Stem length is a personal thing...

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