As a professional bike fitter, I know all too well how important optimizing your handlebar height for maximizing comfort and performance on your bike. It’s one of the first areas I examine when working with clients.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the intricacies of adjusting handlebar height, ensuring your ride is tailored to your unique needs, from understanding the factors influencing handlebar height to practical tips and techniques.
Whether you’re fine-tuning your bike fit for optimal efficiency or simply seeking enhanced comfort, learning how to adjust handlebar height on a bike is essential. We’ll be covering:
How High Should Your Handlebars Be?
The best person to answer this question for you is a bike fitter, but there are some easy giveaways.
The first thing to understand is everyone is different. There’s no magic formula based on height for you to use, as some cyclists will be better suited to lower handlebars and others to higher ones.
The best place to start is to take your handlebars level with your saddle and make further adjustments to get what you want from your cycling. Here’s what you can expect from adjusting either way from level.
Taking The Handlebars Lower
If you plan to take the handlebars lower, it will put you in a more aggressive position. It will lean you over forward, typically making you more aerodynamic.
Professional road cyclists tend to have very low handlebars compared to their saddle (although this is beginning to change a little as our approach to aerodynamics evolves).
This will add pressure to the lower back, hips, hands, and even the shoulders. It’s generally not going to add to comfort, and although it may make you faster, it means you will not be able to sit in that position for a long time unless you’re very flexible.
Taking The Handlebars Higher
The most common adjustment to make is to take the handlebars higher. This puts you in more of a relaxed, upright position. This will make you much more comfortable, and you will often see high handlebars on hybrid and commuter bikes.
Mountain bikes also tend to have more upright riding positions with higher handlebars than road bikes.
Taking the handlebars higher takes a lot of pressure off the back, hands, shoulders, chest, and hips and can even help the leg muscles distribute power better. Having a higher set of handlebars often means you can ride for longer with less pressure on the body.
How To Adjust Handlebar Height On A Modern Bike (Threadless Stem)
Most modern bikes are fitted with threadless stems (sometimes called “Aheadset” stems). With this design, the front fork’s steerer tube extends out above the headset at the top of the head tube, and the stem clamps onto it.
It would be best to allow around 20 minutes to complete this task. You will need a set of Allen keys, and we highly recommend using a torque wrench if you have one available.
On some modern aero road bikes, the stem is combined with the handlebars into a single aerodynamic piece (see the photos above).
Integrated stems are still threadless, but are much less adjustable than conventional threadless stems, as you lose the option to flip the stem or swap it entirely as we’ll cover in Step #3 (unless you’re prepared to change the handlebars too).
Step #1. Undo The Stem Bolts
First, undo the stem bolts.
These sit on the rear of the stem, and generally, you will find two. Undo anti-clockwise until they are loose, and you can move the handlebars side to side without the wheel turning.
Step #2. Undo The Top Cap Bolt
Next, you are going to need to undo the top cap bolt.
This sits on top of the fork steer tube and is used to compress (preload) the bearings in the headset. Undo this fully, remove the bolt and top cap, and put it somewhere safe.
You should now be able to remove any spacers and lift the stem off the top of the fork steerer tube.
Step #3. Adjust The Height Of The Handlebars
Now, it’s time to adjust the height of the handlebars.
There are two main ways you can go about this:
Option 1: Adding or Removing Spacers
Unless you have a “slammed stem“, you will normally have several spacers around the steerer tube, below or above the stem.
The easiest way to adjust your handlebar height is to increase or reduce the number of spacers below the stem.
If you’re lowering the handlebars, add spacers above the stem so the steerer tube is covered up to the top cap.
Once you’ve spent enough time with the bike in this setup to know it’s right for you, you can consider cutting down the steerer tube so you can do away with the spacers above.
If you’re raising the handlebar height, you’ll be limited by the length of the steerer tube using this method. If you can fit enough spacers to achieve the height you want then that’s great, but if not you’ll need to combine this method with another listed below.
Some manufacturers recommend always leaving at least one spacer at the top of the stack to ensure the top cap doesn’t hit the steerer tube. This is particularly the case with carbon steerer tubes.
If using a carbon steerer tube, check the manufacturer’s recommendations for the maximum number of spacers that can safely be used.
Option 2: Flipping/Swapping The Stem
If you can’t get the desired handlebar height using spacers alone, consider flipping the stem or replacing it entirely.
Many stems are angled, so flipping the stem will also reverse the direction of the angle, making the handlebar height higher or lower. Longer stems will exaggerate this effect.
To flip the stem at this point, all you need to do is remove the faceplate bolts, and then it will come free from the handlebars. Turn the stem upside down, reinstall it on the steerer tube, then reattach the handlebars and tighten up the bolts to the correct torque stated by the manufacturer.
If your stem has no angle, flipping it will have no effect. We’ll cover the other options remaining for you further down this guide.
Step #4. Tighten Everything Back Up Again
Finally, let’s get everything back together. Start by putting the top cap back in and screw it up just enough that the fork feels tight and there’s no play in the headset. Avoid over-tightening the top cap, as this can damage the bearings.
Then, you will need to get the stem aligned with the front wheel and tighten up the bolts on the rear of the stem. Use a torque wrench here if you have one. If not, nip them up tight enough so the stem stays in line with the wheel. It is normally anywhere from 5 to 10 Nm.
You are now ready to take the bike for a test ride and enjoy the changes you have made.
How To Adjust Handlebar Height On A Vintage Bike (Quill Stem)
Quill stems insert into the steerer tube, rather than clamping around it. They feature a wedge system to secure them in place and often have a height-adjustable design.
Though quill stems have largely been replaced by threadless stems on modern bikes, you’ll still come across them often as they are incredibly common on older bikes.
These are much easier than adjusting threadless stems and can be done in minutes.
To complete this task, you will need a set of Allen keys, and we highly recommend using a torque wrench if you have one available.
Step #1. Undo The Stem Bolt
The first step you need to take is to undo the stem bolt.
This will sit on the top of the stem, typically a 6 mm bolt. You will need to turn this anti-clockwise until it starts to feel loose. You want to be able to move it but without the bolt coming out of the stem being too loose.
If the stem is stuck, you can persuade it by applying some force with a mallet, but ensure that you protect the stem with a cloth or a clean rag.
Step #2. Adjust The Handlebars Up or Down
Next, you will need to adjust the handlebars up or down to where it will be comfortable for you. When you find the right height, ensure the stem is aligned with the front wheel.
It’s important to look out for the minimum mark on the stem. If you have passed it and there’s not enough inside the steerer tube, then it compromises the bike’s safety.
Step #3. Tighten The Stem Bolt
The last step is to tighten up the stem bolt. It is good to check the manufacturer’s guidelines if you’re using a torque wrench.
If not using a torque wrench, nip it up until tight, then hold the wheel between your legs and ensure the handlebars don’t move from left to right without the wheel.
What If You Can’t Adjust The Handlebars Enough?
Often, you will find that making adjustments alone is not enough to get the right height you want. Here’s how to raise bike handlebars further than the standard adjustment range.
Use A Different Stem
Stems come in all different shapes and sizes, and with different angles. Changing the stem for one with a steeper angle means it can raise the bars higher or lower.
When it comes to how to adjust bike handlebars, the easiest way is to change the stem over before anything else. It’s cheaper, can easily be done at home, and they even make adjustable options.
Swap To A Riser Handlebar
If you want to go higher, you can also use a riser handlebar.
More commonly seen on mountain bikes, these bars are shaped to rise up from the mounting point to the hand position, giving your grips a higher position.
There are drop bar riser options for your road bike too.
A Word On Stem Risers/Steerer Tube Extenders
A less common solution some riders opt for is a stem riser, also known as a stem extender or steerer tube extender.
While these give you a lot of extra height, based on my extensive experience as a mechanic and bike fitter, I would personally advise against using them in most cases.
Firstly, an extended steerer tube comprising two components clamped together will be inherently weaker than a steerer tube formed of a single piece of metal.
Secondly, the extreme increase in length increases the leverage from the handlebars, amplifying any force applied from them to the steerer tube and head tube, increasing the risk of failure.
Under no circumstances should extenders be used with a carbon steerer tube, given the risk of catastrophic failure.
If you use a hybrid or city bike and only plan on relaxed riding on paved roads, you’re unlikely to run into much trouble, but I certainly wouldn’t use a stem riser with a mountain bike. I’d also avoid them with road bikes, given the increased forces of riding and cornering at speed.
If your stem is very long (i.e. the handlebars are further away from you), swapping it for a shorter one will bring the handlebars closer to your body, making your riding position more upright and helping with the feeling of being too stretched out without needing to use a stem riser.
Unfortunately, if you still need to use a steerer tube extender, then there is likely a more fundamental problem present; either the frame is much too small for you, or you may not be flexible enough for the style of bike you’re riding.
Note that if the steerer tube is very short, and you can’t fit any spacers on it, it may have been cut down by a previous owner.
In this case, replacing the fork may give you some extra height without resorting to a stem riser, but be sure to check all the dimensions first so you don’t waste money on a fork that turns out to be the same length as what you had before!
Now You Know How To Adjust Handlebar Height…
Changing the height of your handlebars can completely change how the bike feels to ride. For some, it can add comfort, and others might get a speed advantage. Adjusting the height of your handlebars is a great skill to learn and much easier to do than you might think.
Thanks for taking the time to read our article – now you know how to raise bike handlebars and much more!