What's the one thing almost every rider notices when hopping on a new or different bike? It's how the touch points feel.
Is the bar wider? Is the stem crooked? Are the brake hoods too high, too low? Are the brake levers misaligned? While our eyes might not see the errors, our hands and arms can immediately tell when something's off.
While a lot of handlebar and stem manufacturers do put some sort of guidelines for stem and lever placement on their products, it's not universal. Even among the brands who do, some only have lines for bar width trimming, others only have lines for the vertical placement of stems and levers, with nothing for the horizontal setting.
And interestingly, the randomness is found with both aftermarket and house brand components.
So why can't stem and handlebar makers just put guidelines or marks on them? I asked a couple key component makers what's going on.
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Why guidelines are needed
Just like having your stem and saddle straight, having your controls (brake levers, shifters, dropper post remote, lockouts) lined up exactly pays off big time for confidence, handling and comfort when riding.
Plus, since there are only three real touch points on the bike (saddle, bars, pedals), having one crooked or misaligned tends to be really noticeable.
"Making sure things are even with all of the contours of a bar and subtle preferences on individual setup can be difficult, so anything to help guide placement and get things even from side to side can really help," said Bontrager Brand Manager Alex Applegate.
"Having a clear reference makes it so much easier to really be scientific about it, and also to repeat changes in the future or on other bikes."
However a lot of riders can be the 'set it and forget it' type. "Most people don’t move the controls frequently, but it does help set up. With road shifter placement having usable and accurate setup markings really helps with getting hoods in the identical place," noted Easton's Director of Marketing Craig Richey.
Clearly state torque limits and installation
As handlebar and stem components have become lighter, the need for correct bolt torque settings and proper installation has increased.
Luckily, most manufacturers are clued in to the first one with the necessary torque values stated on the stem, but proper installation guides are still a mixed bag.
In a perfect world, every rider would either have a professional mechanic do their bike work, or actually sit down and read the instructions first. But the world isn't perfect.
Most riders, if they're anything like the ones I know, are swapping stems 10 minutes before a ride or trying to get it done late at night, after the kids are in bed, the chores are done, and are either in the living room or a poorly lit garage or basement.
With that in mind, clearly noting if the top of the stem faceplate should touch the body of the stem, or if the faceplate should have equal gaps top and bottom, would be nice. Labeling the correct bolt tightening sequence wouldn't hurt either.
It's getting better
Product managers have been integrating guide marks on bars and stems more and more.
"All of our stems have torque on them, both at the steerer bolts and the faceplate bolts," said RaceFace marketing manager Rob Bohncke. "We have had that on all our stems for over 10 years."
Easton has been including guide marks for eight years.
Bontrager is taking it another step further by putting guide marks on its MTB grip lock-on collars.
In the grand scheme of things this is a tiny problem, but we live in world where frozen food has to have warnings about cooking before eating. So with that in mind, adding some guidelines or marks to make handlebar and stem set up a no-brainer seems like an easily won battle.