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Friday Five: Cockpit

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By Seb Kemp

It’s the little things that count. This is particularly true with the set-up of your controls. These are vital contact points with your bike that will ensure your safety, comfort and ability to perform. One look around a busy trailhead and it’s clear to see that some people overlook the importance of setting up their cockpit, controls and contact points.

Here are a few tips for setting up your controls.

BRAKE LEVERS
Most of the time brake levers come from the factory butted right up against the grips. Some mechanics and sales people will assist in helping new customers set them up properly, but often it is assumed everyone knows why this isn’t necessarily correct for every rider. If the brake levers are not properly aligned with a rider’s fingers it reduces their ability to use the controls to their full potential. It forces you to squeeze the brake lever nearer to its pivot, which isn’t efficient.

One finger is all you possibly need to function modern hydraulic disc brakes. Most rider use their index finger but some use their middle finger. Whatever feels comfortable.

To properly set up your brake levers, place your hands on the bar with your outside of your hand near the very end of your bar (but not overlapping the end) and extend your index fingers. The last one centimeter of your brake levers should be set to fit comfortably where your index fingers naturally extend. Move them in or out-board until they do line up. Next, adjust the reach so they feel comfortable. You should not be stretching to reach the levers when they are at a resting position. Most models have a grub screw or dial near the lever pivot. This can be wound in or out to adjust the resting position of the lever blade.

You should only ever need to use one finger for braking if you use modern hydraulic disc brakes. One finger on the brake lever for maximum finesse and all your remaining fingers should be gripping the bars. With one finger you should be able to finely control your braking, gently easing on and releasing the brake as required. Brakes are not like light switches – either on or off – they should be treated more like dimmer switches and as you move through the trail the amount of braking should be adjusted accordingly rather suddenly panic braking.

Adjust the angle of the brake levers by loosening the allen bolts and twisting the clamp around the bar. Adjust them so that the lever more or less falls in line with the angle of your arms from your torso as you sit on the bike in your normal riding position, to prevent strain on your wrists. Riders doing lots of descending may want to position the levers at a less acute angle. This is something worth experimenting with as it can vastly increase your comfort and lessen arm fatigue.

Set the correct angle for your brakes based on body shape/size and how you ride. My brakes are a little under 45 dregrees. Also, don't over tighten brake bolts because you might damage the bar and if you crash, it allows the brake levers to slide of out harm's way rather than break.

GEAR LEVERS
With your hands in the same position that you used to set your brake levers, open your thumbs so they are in-line with the handlebar. Move the gear levers in or out-board until the contact point matches with the pad of your thumbs. Test them by running through the full range of gears in case they foul with other controls on the handlebar.

The Joe Parkin method. Easy and fast for Vitruvian man or woman. Please note the lady in the picture is my girlfriend and the bike not the model's own, and therefore is not adjusted for her size.

SEAT HEIGHT
There are many theories about this – the LeMond method, the Heel method, the 109 Percent method, The Holmes method etc. Bike’s former editor Joe Parkin showed me the simplest way. Just squat over the bike and put your arm pit onto the saddle and reach to the bottom bracket axle. When the seat is at the correct height, your finger should neatly line up with the spindle. This is by far the quickest way I’ve ever found. Vitruvian man strikes again.

Another way is to sit on the bike with pedals in the six o’clock and 12 o’clock position. Your lowest leg should be fully extended when the heel is on the pedal (this position is only for setting up the height). If it’s bent, then raise the saddle a little. If your hips rock, you’re seat’s too high. The idea is that when your foot is properly positioned on the pedal, your knee should be just slightly bent. If riding very smooth trails I will allow full extension, but if riding more challenging terrain then I may opt for slightly lower to allow a little bit of navigation of the bike underneath me.

If you have a dropper seatpost then set your height with the post fully extended. When your dropper post is fully lowered it should allow you a large amount of fore, aft and side-to-side movement of the bike underneath you. You should feel the seat touch the inside of your knee when you swing the bike laterally. Mountain biking is a dynamic activity so what fits perfectly on the bike fit rig in someone’s office might not be appropriate for the trail. This is why I favor a longer bike with a low top tube matched with a short stem, wide bars and dropper post. Throw away road riding bike fit philosophies unless you intend to just ride dirt roads on your bicycle. More on this in a later installment of Friday Five.

Of course, this might be slightly different for downhill bikes or dirt jumpers. Also, make sure you don’t raise the seat post beyond the manufacturers recommended height as it could become unstable and damage the frame.

Road saddles are often just blades of agony. A good mountain bike seat should have a bit of cushion on the nose for steep, technical seated climbing. The Chromag Trailmaster LTD has padding in all the right places and is made from fine leather.

SEAT FORE/AFT POSITION
The fore/aft position will determine how balanced your body is and how efficient your seated pedaling position will be. Although less important than road bike saddle setup (you will spend much less time doing seated pedaling) be careful not to set the saddle too far forward as this will reduce the pedaling leverage, and too far back may give you back strain, produce muscular pain, make the seated pedal position too slack and therefore inefficient, as well as perhaps cause interference when suspension is compressed.

SEAT TILT
This will differ for different seats, riding styles and gender. A lot of time you might be climbing very steep, technical terrain, which may necessitate balancing your bodyweight on the tip of the saddle to maintain rear wheel traction and weight on the front wheel to prevent it from floating. Our advice is to find a seat with a fair-sized nose and tilt it a little downwards. It will increase control and comfort in technical situations, as well as taking pressure off your genitals.

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