The best thing about bikes, aside from riding them, is how personal you can make them to yourself. Many cyclists tend not to be able to leave their bike standard and start to change parts and accessorize to either make it faster or more comfortable.
I am often asked about changing the stem on the bike for a shorter stem. What does it do to the bike, and how will it change it for the user. In this article, we are going to explain this.
What is a Stem?
Firstly we need to understand what a stem is. A modern day stem looks like the picture below. It is the bridge between the top of the forks to the handlebars. It has two clampings, both on the rear, typically four clamping bolts on the front. These do come in many different shapes and sizes, and some are even unique to specific bikes and can only be replaced by other stems made by the manufacturer.
Stems also come in various sizes, so you will have some as small as 60mm and as large as 150mm. They go up in increments of 10mm between sizes. Pros can be seen riding on stems made custom and tailored to certain riders.
I remember hearing about a sprinter who had a stem made of 163mm to suit him and his bike.
Should I have a shorter Stem?
This is a question I am often asked. As a bike fitter myself, many people do come to me and ask me what the stem length should roughly be, but it depends on much more than just the bike and your height. It is unique to the user.
They ask this because, in recent years, we see smaller and smaller stems come along on bikes, and there are many reasons for this, such as bikes are being designed differently, people now value comfort over speed, and it just looks much cooler.
What are the Pros and Cons of a Shorter Stem?
Let’s be fair in saying pulling in the handlebars does make the bike much nicer to look at. It pulls everything together and gives it a sporty and compact look which many cyclists want now. I believe we should be proud of how our bike looks. Shorter stems help.
Typically over the years, bikes have been made to lean us forward to become more aerodynamic and stretch us out. Not only does this tighten up the hips a lot, but it can be uncomfortable on your lower back too.
Changing your stem brings your body back and puts you more upright, and for many people, this is a much more comfortable position. This is the case for 70% of people, in my opinion, over my time bike fitting.
It makes the bike more Agile
When we shorten the stem, we actually change drastically how the bike handles. It becomes much more agile and snappier. You will get a much better feeling of responsiveness from the bike, and it will take much less movement to get deep into those sharp corners.
You will notice that mountain bikes generally have very short stems, so you can move them around a trail much easier.
Although it isn’t much at all, maybe a few grams, it all adds up. A shorter stem is slightly lighter but by very little. Upgrading to a carbon fiber stem will save you a few more grams too.
If you make your stem shorter, you will have to buy a new stem. You can’t cut and reweld a stem easily, so it will cost you to change it out. You will also find if you don’t know what you’re doing, it could take time to learn, or you might need to hire a mechanic to do the job for you.
Adjusts your fit
Changing the stem if you already have a comfortable position could cramp you up. It might have the opposite effect and make you feel uncomfortable and put too much pressure on your hands.
It makes the bike Snappier
Although the bike can feel more agile on a shorter stem, it does make the handling snappier. By snappier, you have to be a little more conscious of going around corners. It also means when you take your hands off the handlebars, it’s possible to lose control quicker if you hit a bump.
Going for a shorter stem does have huge advantages, and typically many bikes now come with shorter stems naturally as they are suited to more cyclists. Shorter stems are fantastic for people who are doing technical riding or generally want a bit of extra comfort.
As a long distance rider myself, I hugely favor a shorter stem on my bikes. It all comes down to personal preference and how you feel while riding.
Robbie Ferri has spent years working in a bike shop, has worked with industry leading brands on product creation, has been a semi pro athlete, and is a fully qualified strength and conditioning coach. He has broken World Records, bikepacked all over the World and raced ultra distance at a top-level.