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Cyclocross and Gravelbiking (Recreational) This has to be the most physically intense sport ever invented. It's high speed bicycle racing on a short off road course or riding the off pavement rides on gravel like :The Dirty Kanza". We also have a dedicated Racing forum for the Cyclocross Hard Core Racers.

Gravel Bike Stem Length?

Old 03-17-20, 06:43 AM
  #1  
grannygears
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Gravel Bike Stem Length?

Hey guys, I just bought a new 2020 Norco Search XR AL-1 this spring. I am 6'1" (185cm) with an inseam of 34" + and change. My bike came with a 110mm length stem which I swapped out for a 100mm Fizik. I went for my first ride yesterday for 12 miles. To be clear this is my first ever drop bar bike, I have a background of mountain bikes and commuter hybrids.

I felt like the hoods are to far away, I tried all the fitting tricks and when I am in the hoods the front axel is behind the bars. When I switch to the drops then the front axel is perfectly hidden. I also tried the elbow on the tip of the seat and I'd say I still have 2" from finger tips to the bar. I have the stem in the top setting with spacers and 6* upright.

Given my height and inseam my Norco Search is a 58cm frame and it has a 399mm reach and a 583mm effective horizontal top tube.

I am going to give it a few more rides before I do anything but I may swap the stem for even shorter. Is 90mm or even 80mm out of the question for a gravel bike? 80mm is only 2cm shorter than my current 100mm and I feel like I might need every bit of it.

To be clear I am not a gravel racer by any means nor do I have a background of any type of racing. I am simply commuting with this bike and recreational riding to lose 20 or 30 lb. Thanks in advance!
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Old 03-17-20, 07:24 AM
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You are my size, and I would ride a 58. Give it a little time, since you are not yet accustomed to drop bar bikes.
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Old 03-17-20, 09:30 AM
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You might want to give it more time, you certainly will get used to more reach. I would say there is no harm in going shorter, but keep in mind you probably want to stretch out in the future if better performance becomes more of a priority.

the axle trick is beyond useless. I use my arm as a measurement device, but that only works because I only use one model of saddle on all my bikes and I know how much reach I want in terms of my arm length.
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Old 03-17-20, 09:54 AM
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I dont understand what the point of seeing the front wheel axle is. I havent a clue if I can see mine on any of my bikes and dont know what it would mean if I could or couldnt see the axle.

If you are stretched out too much, then shorten the stem. If you are still stretched out too much, then raise the stem's angle. Both of these decrease the stem's outward length.
Still too stretched? Buy some more compact bars that have even less reach.

Your steering will change as you shorten the stem, it gets twitchier(more responsive). Thats neither good nor bad, its just reality and everyone prefers a different style of response.

A 110 stock stem seems long for a stock spec 58cm gravel bike.
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Old 03-17-20, 01:26 PM
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Go as short as you want with the stem. It really doesn't make as much difference as people think, as long as the reach feels comfortable to you. I design my personal gravel bikes to use a 50mm stem and I use the next size wider bars than I use on my road bikes.
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Old 03-17-20, 02:01 PM
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Originally Posted by mstateglfr View Post
I dont understand what the point of seeing the front wheel axle is. I havent a clue if I can see mine on any of my bikes and dont know what it would mean if I could or couldnt see the axle.
It's an old wive's tale that *might* have had some credence back when all road bikes were essentially the same geo. It's complete baloney now.
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Old 03-17-20, 02:02 PM
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Originally Posted by grannygears View Post
Is 90mm or even 80mm out of the question for a gravel bike?
It's absolutely not out of the question. My wife uses an 80mm stem on her gravel bike.
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Old 03-17-20, 02:04 PM
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Originally Posted by dsaul View Post
Go as short as you want with the stem. It really doesn't make as much difference as people think, as long as the reach feels comfortable to you. I design my personal gravel bikes to use a 50mm stem and I use the next size wider bars than I use on my road bikes.
Im guessing you design the front center to be longer than many big brand drop bar bikes to offset a shorter stem though...or do something to offset the change.
Too short a stem and knees can hit the drops, its just a fit issue at times.
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Old 03-17-20, 02:21 PM
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Originally Posted by mstateglfr View Post
Im guessing you design the front center to be longer than many big brand drop bar bikes to offset a shorter stem though...or do something to offset the change.
Too short a stem and knees can hit the drops, its just a fit issue at times.
Your assumption is correct. I design the frames with a longer front center, in order to get the front wheel further ahead of the bars to eliminate the feeling of going over the bars on rough descents. I feel like this is best accomplished by increasing the front center, while keeping the trail at a reasonable number to prevent wheel flop.
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Old 03-17-20, 02:58 PM
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Originally Posted by mstateglfr View Post
I dont understand what the point of seeing the front wheel axle is. I havent a clue if I can see mine on any of my bikes and dont know what it would mean if I could or couldnt see the axle.
It is a good rule of thumb if you don't want to have a professional bike fit or try to use one of the online calculators. It is literally a way to eyeball it.

To be clear - generally speaking - you shouldn't be able to see your axle when riding in your normal position.
If the axle is in front of the handle bars (based on line of site), your stem might be too short (and vice versa).

Originally Posted by dsaul View Post
Go as short as you want with the stem. It really doesn't make as much difference as people think, as long as the reach feels comfortable to you. I design my personal gravel bikes to use a 50mm stem and I use the next size wider bars than I use on my road bikes.
Generally I don't feel much of a difference +/- 20mm from ideal. But it certainly makes a difference, in how fast the bike reacts to your steering inputs. You can simulate this to some degree by riding with your hands close to the stem - that is similar to what a very short stem would feel like.

Notice that when mountain bikes went to wide handle bars they went to short stems? By going to a 50mm stem and then using your wider bars you are balancing out that sensitive steering a short stem would give you.
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Old 03-17-20, 06:50 PM
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Originally Posted by chas58 View Post
Generally I don't feel much of a difference +/- 20mm from ideal. But it certainly makes a difference, in how fast the bike reacts to your steering inputs. You can simulate this to some degree by riding with your hands close to the stem - that is similar to what a very short stem would feel like.

Notice that when mountain bikes went to wide handle bars they went to short stems? By going to a 50mm stem and then using your wider bars you are balancing out that sensitive steering a short stem would give you.
The notion that a shorter stem causes the steering to react faster to steering input is based on a flawed principle. Most articles, that I've seen, call out the fact that a longer stem sweeps a larger arc than a shorter stem and therefore the bar movement changes by a like amount. The actual movement of the end of the handlebar to achieve a given steering angle changes very little between long and short stems.

As an example, I drew out a 50mm and 100mm stem and a 46cm bar on each stem. I then drew those same stems and bars with a 30 degree steering angle. The end of the 50mm stem moved approx. 20mm and the end of the 100mm stem moved approx 36mm for a 16mm difference in movement at the end of the stem. The movement at the end of the bars with the 50mm stem was approx. 84.5mm and the movement at the end of the bars with the 100mm stem was 87mm, for an actual difference in bar movement of 2.5mm. So, while the difference in movement of the stem is significant, the difference in movement of the handlebars to achieve the same steering angle is not.

I suspect that most of the effects people feel from changing stem length is due to the change in weight distribution on the front wheel.

BTW- I use a wider bar to get my elbows in a better position to absorb the impacts from riding off road.

Last edited by dsaul; 03-19-20 at 05:01 AM.
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Old 03-18-20, 11:25 AM
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I'm an engineer, but I'm not speaking theoretically. I'm speaking from my experience.

Anyone can experiment to simulate this ride with your hands close to the stem. The bike reacts differently. I find I don't notice it much when pedaling, as my body adjust (I spend way too much time riding without touching the handlebars anyway). But carving a fast downhill turn where I'm not pedaling (where my hands are doing more steering than my body), it is very noticeable - both on the rapidity of the initial turn in, and in mid course corrections mid turn.
That example is moving from a 100mm stem to a 60mm stem on a road bike). 20mm change isn't a big deal, but 40mm sure is. Doesn't make the bike unrideable, but does keep me on my toes and require me to pay a little more attention.

But, just my experience. Try it yourself and make your own decision. YMMV
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Old 03-18-20, 12:24 PM
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Originally Posted by chas58 View Post
I'm an engineer, but I'm not speaking theoretically. I'm speaking from my experience.
That example is moving from a 100mm stem to a 60mm stem on a road bike
You're cramping the fit. We're talking maintaining a bike's fit while moving the steering axis farther forward. Both involve a shorter stem, but they have very different implications.
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Old 03-18-20, 03:00 PM
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Huh? Ya lost me on that. I didn't cramp my fit. But how do you "maintain a bike's fit" while shortening the stem 40mm???

I did something almost exactly like what OP asked about in post #1 . I went from 100 to 90 to 80 to 70 to 60. Again 20mm is no big deal, 40mm is noticeable. What am I missing?
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Old 03-18-20, 04:51 PM
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Originally Posted by chas58 View Post
I'm an engineer, but I'm not speaking theoretically. I'm speaking from my experience.

That example is moving from a 100mm stem to a 60mm stem on a road bike). 20mm change isn't a big deal, but 40mm sure is. Doesn't make the bike unrideable, but does keep me on my toes and require me to pay a little more attention.
If you're an engineer, maybe you know how to draw a free body diagram. What that will tell you is that there is no difference in moment when you shorten the stem. I went through this when someone asked me to make a zero length stem. I thought it was a bad idea and drew an FBD. You have to get to a fairly large steering angle (i.e., you would never get to this angle while riding at speed) before there is a difference between a long stem and no stem.
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Old 03-18-20, 05:19 PM
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It will take 5-10 rides to be able to relax and lay out to the bars if you're used to upright bars. How does riding the "tops" feel? The Search looked like it already has nice compact bars from the pics on the website. That's a plus. I think how you see the front axle translates to your weight distribution between the front/rear wheel. It is useful information as to how you are positioned. I'm 5'10". 32.5 or so inseam. I usually ride a 58 with a 100mm stem and compact or women's bars.I would go 90mm but not 110mm. Big bars like a Cinelli 65 will make that frame feel too big for me at 60yo.
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Old 03-18-20, 06:26 PM
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Originally Posted by chas58 View Post
Huh? Ya lost me on that. I didn't cramp my fit. But how do you "maintain a bike's fit" while shortening the stem 40mm???
By using a bike that's mostly-similar but has a 40mm longer front-center.

You're claiming that a short stem makes a bike handle weirdly, but since you're changing between stems on one bike, you're also changing your fit. That's what I meant by "cramping your fit": if your bike fit a certain way before, and you slash 40mm off the stem length, you're bringing your main contact points much closer to your torso than before. This is a fit change that can have handling consequences besides anything inherently having to do with the contact points having less forward offset relative to the steering axis.

My point is, your experiment doesn't show to what degree the steering weirdness is due to the change in fit, or due to the contact points being in a different position relative to the steering axis. If it's all/mostly the former, then a person using a short stem on a long frame might not have particularly weird steering.
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Old 03-18-20, 09:23 PM
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Originally Posted by shoota View Post
It's an old wive's tale that *might* have had some credence back when all road bikes were essentially the same geo. It's complete baloney now.
You are correct that is is not a precise measure, but IMO, it is still a pretty good rule of thumb for most people - provided you go in with the realization that it is just an approximation or a starting point, and some small tweaks may be required. I use it as a way to guess if the fit is more or less in the right ballpark.

OP, i am 183 with a 34" inseam and i ride best on a 56 - you and i both have longer legs and shorter torsos, and would be better suited by a taller/narrower bike than a longer/lower one. While i ride a 130mm stem now, i started out with a 90mm. If you have a 58, you are likely a bit too far forwards, especially if it is your first drop bar bike. Can you raise the bars a little? That will help, as will using a shorter stem. You can also get a compact, low-reach handlebar.

A 1 size differential is fairly easy to correct for (my first road bike was a whopping 60!).
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Old 03-19-20, 12:27 AM
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Congratulations on the Norco search XR! I have one in steel. Your on the right size bike according to Norco. Bike sizing charts
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Old 03-19-20, 05:23 AM
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I would first give it a bit of time. At least a few rides to see how things feel. Consider a bike fit. Of course might not be an option at the moment. bike fit advisor channel on YouTube is a good resource and has some good guidelines for seeing if you’re close to a good fit. I had a bike fit recently and I went from a 100mm to a 90mm stem. Feels fine. Like others have said shortening by 20mm probably won’t be too noticeable
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Old 03-19-20, 08:24 AM
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By using a bike that's mostly-similar but has a 40mm longer front-center.

You're claiming that a short stem makes a bike handle weirdly, but since you're changing between stems on one bike, you're also changing your fit. That's what I meant by "cramping your fit": if your bike fit a certain way before, and you slash 40mm off the stem length, you're bringing your main contact points much closer to your torso than before. This is a fit change that can have handling consequences besides anything inherently having to do with the contact points having less forward offset relative to the steering axis.

My point is, your experiment doesn't show to what degree the steering weirdness is due to the change in fit, or due to the contact points being in a different position relative to the steering axis. If it's all/mostly the former, then a person using a short stem on a long frame might not have particularly weird steering.
My bad, I was responding to the OP, not to the side discussion.

What you are saying is (obviously) true (well, except I didn't cramp my fit). I have drop bar bikes designed for stems from 70mm to 120mm. Obviously they can all be designed to handle the same if you change the front center. I love my gravel bike with the 70mm stem.

But for the OP, like I originally said - you take a bike designed for 110mm stem and just go as short as you like isn't a good idea. 90mm is fine. Much shorter than that and you will start to notice the handling difference.
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Old 03-19-20, 08:25 AM
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Originally Posted by grannygears View Post
I am going to give it a few more rides before I do anything but I may swap the stem for even shorter. Is 90mm or even 80mm out of the question for a gravel bike? 80mm is only 2cm shorter than my current 100mm and I feel like I might need every bit of it.
How is your experiment going?
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Old 03-19-20, 09:48 AM
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The only issue I see with the OP going to a shorter stem is that anyone can get used to a bad fit. I know how I want my bikes to feel, and I can tell if my stem is too short. Someone that doesn't have that amount of knowledge about themselves probably would bet used to something that could be very sub-optimal. A while back, I decided to put a shorter stem on my road bike to combat neck issues. Then later in the year I felt very cramped so I switched back.
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Old 03-19-20, 11:51 AM
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Originally Posted by chas58 View Post
My bad, I was responding to the OP, not to the side discussion.
It's not a side discussion. The OP's bike might be fit too long, so the effect that fit has on handling is directly relevant.

What you are saying is (obviously) true (well, except I didn't cramp my fit).
I clarified earlier that by "cramp" I meant that swapping in a shorter stem puts the hand contact points closer to the torso. Are you denying that this is the case?

But for the OP, like I originally said - you take a bike designed for 110mm stem and just go as short as you like isn't a good idea. 90mm is fine. Much shorter than that and you will start to notice the handling difference.
This might have been true in your case if you're starting from a bike that already fits. But how do you know that using a shorter stem wouldn't make the handling closer to "normal" when starting from a fit that's too long?
Your phrasing "a bike designed for a 110mm stem" indicates that a given frame has an optimal stem length independent of the rider, but it seems like this is an assumption on your part which your experimentation has not actually characterized.

I brought up "lengthening the front center" earlier because often that's not a lot different than just choosing a larger frame size. In terms of handling geometry, many "forward-geometry" bikes are basically this, done intentionally. So "a bike designed for a 110mm stem" might be "a bike designed for a 70mm stem, with a smaller rider" in the eyes of some designers.

And a reverse example: plenty of racers - including and especially in the pro peloton - use a "too-small" frame and compensate with a huge stem. The resulting handling is seemingly fine, and probably better than if they used a stem of the "stock" length for that frame.

Last edited by HTupolev; 03-19-20 at 12:06 PM.
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Old 03-19-20, 01:11 PM
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I'm about your height, although I think I have more height in my torso than you (32" inseam). I ride a 56cm gravel bike and I use a 80mm stem, which I find improves steeper and more technical descents; the bonus is that it's more comfortable over long miles. I also swapped to Easton AX gravel bars, which have a shorter distance from the mounting are to the drops than the previous 3T bars that were more of a road bike orientation. Overall, I feel like the setup is dialed in for the type of trails I ride.
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