Chris Carmichael Blog: Two Details That Make a Huge Difference in Your Rides

As some of you may have seen, I got a new bike – a carbon dual suspension 29er – and I absolutely love it. I’ve ridden and raced two other 29ers in the past two years, so I wasn’t expecting to experience much of a difference moving to the new bike. In truth, the difference is night and day. The new bike is light, stiff, comfortable, and has traction for days. As winter turns to spring a lot of athletes are getting new equipment or starting to spend more time with equipment they purchased in the fall. With road and mountain bikes, there are two little details that can make a huge difference in how you feel on the road or trail.

Suspension settings:

I have to admit, I’m not an expert at all the inner workings of front and rear suspension systems; but I do know this much: when your suspension is correctly set up for your weight and riding style you will go much faster, have a lot more control, and enjoy your ride a great deal more. If you haven’t checked the air pressure in your fork and/or rear shock in a while (like since last fall), check the manufacturer’s weight-based recommendations for air pressure and – using your current weight – make sure the pressure is right. No suspension system holds pressure forever, and even if it has, your weight may have changed since the last time you set up or adjusted your suspension.

The recommendations are a good starting point; from there you have to adjust by behavior. The first way to do this is with sag. When you sit on the bike, you’ll use a portion of the suspension’s travel to support your weight. For cross-country training/racing, the rule of thumb is sag of 20-25% of the fork or rear shock’s total travel (20-25mm for a 100mm fork).

Less sag will mean a stiffer setup, more sag will lead to a cushier ride, but there is more to the equation than just comfort. With a stiffer setup you may lose out on using the full travel of your suspension, and you may feel like the bike is bouncing through rocky terrain instead of tracking smoothly through it. You may also struggle with traction in corners. With too much cush, your suspension may bottom out on bigger hits and you may feel like you’re riding a marshmallow. Of course, all of these things are also affected by rebound settings, tire choice, and tire pressure as well, so what I encourage you to do is go for a couple of rides with a shock pump in your jersey pocket. Experiment with changes in air pressure and rebound – generally when air pressure goes up (positive air spring if a dual air system), rebound should slow down, and vice versa. When you’re making changes to air pressures on forks or rear shocks, make them in 5psi increments; you’d be amazed by the difference 5psi can make in the behavior of suspension forks and rear shocks.

If you’re uncomfortable making the adjustments yourself or you want hands-on help, consult your local bike shop and be sure to tell them what kind of riding you are doing, how aggressive or cautious you are, and what handling characteristics you value most.

Road handlebars:

Gone are the days when all handlebars were essentially the same size and shape. Now the options are endless, with compact drops and short-reach options, flat-top or round-top options, and bends that include anatomic, variable radius, Belgian, and Italian. On top of that, there are three main component groups – SRAM, Shimano, and Campagnolo – and they all have shift/brake levers of different shapes and dimensions. The number of possible combinations is staggering, but finding the right setup for you can be the difference between comfort and frustration.

You can change the effective placement of your hands (while riding the hoods) by 3+ centimeters with your bar/lever choice, the placement of the lever on the bar, and the rotation of the bar in the stem. And then of course there’s the myriad choices of stem length and rise, and the number of spacers you can put beneath your stem. But getting back to the handlebar itself, one of the key considerations should be whether you can ride effectively and safely in the drops and with your hands on the brake hoods. I see a lot of riders who have their bars rotated – their levers mounted – in a way that enables them to ride on the hoods just fine, but there’s no way they can ride in the drops and reach the brakes. Or if they can reach the brakes from the drops, they have to drop their elbows (which brings their shoulders down even further) so they can reach up with their fingers to snag the brake lever. Here’s a column I wrote for Bicycling Magazine a while back about getting better acquainted with the drops:

Experimenting with different handlebar shapes, and especially experimenting with different lever shapes, is far more difficult than adjusting your suspension settings. Unlike saddles, for which there are numerous demo programs now, I’m not aware of many handlebar demo programs. Nevertheless, I encourage you to think critically about your bar/lever setup. If you’re comfortable on the bike and there are no problems, then you’ve found a combination that works for you. If you’re experiencing shoulder, neck, or hand pain/numbness I recommend a professional bike fit to look at all aspects of your position – including your bar/lever setup. And if you’ve had a professional fit and are struggling with handling challenges or discomfort in specific hand positions, then I recommend taking a serious look at your handlebar setup.

Have a great weekend,
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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