Shortening or lengthening the reach on your bike, especially those with drop bars, is one of the most important adjustments that impacts your position. Too much or too little reach can not only lead to an uncomfortable ride and impact handling, but contribute to a number of issues including pain in the low and mid back, shoulders, neck, hands, and wrists.
In this article we’ll cover the main (and a couple minor) ways you can adjust the reach on your bike, each with their own pros, cons and usefulness in different situations.
Curious if your riding position might benefit from a reach adjustment? Try our free fit check here.
What is Reach?
Before we get started, you may have heard the word reach get thrown around a lot in cycling circles. If it wasn’t already a bit ambiguous, there are actually a few ways the word reach is used:
For the purposes of this article, when we refer to “reach” we’ll be talking about effective reach, which is the general distance between where you place your hands (your grips) and where you sit (your saddle position). Both Frame Reach and Grip Reach only measure the reach created in front of the bottom bracket (which is very helpful), but to fully understand the ways you can adjust reach we’re also going to include how reach can be impacted behind the bottom bracket (with your saddle position).
Ways to Adjust Reach
The following are the several ways with which reach can be adjusted on your bike (to varying degrees).
Stem length is the easiest and typically the most desirable way to make significant adjustments to your reach. It does require you to replace your stem, though luckily it’s generally not too difficult or costly. Stems typically come in sizes of 10mm increments though some are available in 5mm increments for the really picky ones amongst us. With the right size bike, many riders will only need to move up or down one size to get their reach within range, though don’t be surprised if bigger adjustments are needed.
Things you should keep in mind when looking for a new stem:
Many stems have their length (and angle) written on the side, usually near the steer tube clamp bolts. If not, you can measure your existing stem length quite easily by taking the distance between the centre of the steer tube to the centre of the handlebar (in mm).
Stem length will have an effect on how your bike handles. Moving to a longer stem will slow the steering down, while a shorter stem will make the steering more responsive. Changes of <20mm are unlikely to create significant handling changes noticeable by the average rider. When in doubt your ride will always be more enjoyable if your position on the bike is right.
*** Replacing your stem if not done properly can lead to dangerous failures on your bicycle. If you’re not confident in this adjustment, we recommend taking it to an experienced local mechanic. ***
Typically riders will seek out a different angled stem to change the height (stack) of their handlebars, though changing your stem for one with a different angle can also impact your reach. Almost all standard stems can be run in a negative (pointing down) or a positive (pointing up) position. This is why a stem’s angle will typically be listed as +/-X°.
The most common stem angles are 6°, 17°, and 45°, with 0°, 10°, 25° and 30° also showing up less frequently. There is no easy rule for how stem angle affects reach, but if you’d like to find out about the impact of the change you’re considering, here is a handy calculator you can use.
Handlebar reach is a measurement not considered by many riders and may fall into the category of things you never even knew you had a choice. Like stem length, adjusting your handlebar reach requires buying a new handlebar.
The reach of a handlebar is measured by the horizontal distance between the centre of the tops (or where the bar is clamped by the stem) and the centre of the furthest point of the hooks. This reach measurement is intended to give riders an idea of how much reach is added between the stem and where the hoods clamp your handlebar. However, the shape of the hook (the bend of the bar) can have a significant impact on where you actually clamp your hoods, and the effective handlebar reach is often less than what is listed.
You would be forgiven for thinking that handlebar may only have a marginal impact, but there is a significant range of handlebar reaches available. Typically ranging between 70-100mm, the contribution to overall reach can be quite significant.
How you position the hoods on your bars can have a significant impact on your overall reach. Understanding this is most important for riders who may never have adjusted their hood position after buying a new bike, as the positioning from the factory or out of the shop is often not suitable for many riders.
While we do not recommend positioning your hoods solely to achieve a change in reach, fine tuning your reach through hood positioning is worth considering. We’ve got a whole post on hood positioning if you’d like to learn more.
Saddle position has a relatively significant impact on reach, though it is placed last on this list as (similar to hood position) it isn’t recommended to use this as a primary method for adjusting your reach. Your saddle position is the most important aspect of your fit, so ideally it should be set first, before adjusting the reach on your bike. However, the fore/aft position of your saddle can be used to make adjustments to reach, so long as it’s within the acceptable range that allows you to maintain a neutral, balanced position on the bike overall.
Typically, saddle fore/aft will be employed to get a few millimetres more or less reach out of your position when changing the stem is not possible or desirable. It is a great way to fine tune your reach once your overall position is mostly established.
Though saddle height (even more-so than fore/aft) should not be used as a primary adjustment of reach, it’s important to recognize the impacts it has on reach. As a bike’s seat tube angle points away from the handlebars (to various degrees), the higher your saddle height the greater the reach. Many riders suffer from positions that have both excessive saddle height and a reach that is too long. Conveniently, lowering the saddle height contributes to improving both these issues, and as such is a great trick to be aware of.
Justin is a lifelong cyclist that has spent the past 15 years in the bike industry across a variety of roles. His diverse work in sales, procurement, fitting, instructing, and planning cycling infrastructure is all driven by a desire to help more people experience the wonder of cycling. He brings this breadth of experience to building MyVeloFit into a company and service that not only provides bike fits, but one that enables more people to get the most out of cycling.