How To: Top 5 tips for setting up your mountain bike

Dialing in tire pressure, saddle height, bar position and more

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Whether you’re taking a buddies bike out for a rip, or setting up your brand new bike, these tips will help you feel more comfortable and confident.  Photo courtesy of Art's Cyclery

Whether you’re taking a buddies bike out for a rip, or setting up your brand new bike, these tips will help you feel more comfortable and confident (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy of Art’s Cyclery

Editor’s Note: This article is courtesy of the team at Art’s Cyclery. The original post can be found here.

Bike setup depends heavily on personal preference, but in this video we’ll give you some basic tips that will provide a starting point to find what works best for you.

Tire Pressure

Tire pressure is influenced by multiple factors: Riding style, riding conditions, tire selection, and whether or not your wheels are set up tubeless. If you ride very aggressively, higher tire pressure can prevent rim dings, pinch flats, and tire burps. If you ride less aggressively, lowering your tire pressure can improve your traction and overall ride quality. In high traction riding conditions, you can run higher pressure which allows for less rolling resistance. In low traction conditions, a lower pressure will help you find grip.

If you ride aggressively, higher tire pressure can prevent rim dings, pinch flats, and tire burps. If you ride less aggressively, lowering tire pressure can improve traction and overall ride quality.

If you ride aggressively, higher tire pressure can prevent rim dings, pinch flats, and tire burps. If you ride less aggressively, lowering tire pressure can improve traction and overall ride quality.

Tires with a stiffer side wall allow you to run lower tire pressures, while tires with less structure require higher pressure. Tubeless allows you to run a lower tire pressure for increased traction with much less of a chance of flatting. If you have tubes, you are susceptible to pinch flats so a higher tire pressure is required. As a starting point, the range for tubeless tires is 25-40psi and 40-50 psi for tires with a tube. Typically you will want 2-3 psi higher in the rear tire because it often takes harder hits than the front.

Brake Lever Position

Lever position may seem like a minor adjustment, but it can have a huge effect on your riding. The angle of the lever in relation to the bar influences your body position on the bike. Angling your levers too steeply can cause you to put too much weight on the front wheel, leading to wash outs and crashes. If your levers are too flat, it can injure your wrists on jumps or drops.

The angle of the lever in relation to the bar influences your body position on the bike.

The angle of the lever in relation to the bar influences your body position on the bike.

A neutral position, roughly a 45-degree angle in relation to the bar, is a good place to start. Modern brakes are designed to be modulated with one finger, so adjusting your lever to where your index finger sits in the pocket at the end of the lever will provide maximum braking power and performance.

Handlebar Position

The rotation of the handlebars within the stem has a huge effect on bike handling. Many bar and stem combinations will have guide marks so that you can quickly select the bar angle you are most comfortable with. As with all of the other setup tips, it is best to stay away from the extremes. Having your bars too far back can contribute to bad form and also hurt your wrists. Adjusting your bars too far forward will negatively affect the bike’s handling by putting too much weight over the front of the bike. Lining your bars up so that they are perpendicular to the ground is a great starting point. From there you can make small adjustments forward or back until you find the right position for you.

Suspension Air Pressure

Most modern mountain bikes come equipped with an air fork and air shock. The amount of air pressure in your fork and shock will determine how your bike absorbs bumps and obstacles, along with how it handles on the trail. Most suspension manufacturers have a chart that gives you a suggested air pressure for your weight.

The amount of air pressure in your fork will determine how your bike absorbs bumps and obstacles.

The amount of air pressure in your fork will determine how your bike absorbs bumps and obstacles.

The first step in dialing in proper air pressure is checking your sag. Sag refers to how much your suspension compresses under the weight of the rider. We recommend running between 20 and 30% sag in your fork and shock. To achieve more sag, use a shock pump to release air from the fork or shock. For less sag, you will pump air into the shock or fork with the shock pump. Remember you will lose remember roughly 10 psi when unscrew the pump from the valve, so you will need to compensate for this.

Saddle height

Seat height is critical to maximizing your power, efficiency, and comfort on the bike. More importantly, proper saddle height can help prevent long term injuries. Running your saddle too high can lead to discomfort in the perineal area, back, reduced efficiency, and pain in the back of the knee. Running your seat too low also reduces efficiency and can cause knee damage, reduced flexibility in the hips, and back pain. The optimal seat height is when your knee is bent at a 30° angle at the bottom of the pedal stroke. With your lateral condyle (lateral to the knee cap) as the pivot point, measure the angle between the greater trochanter of the femur and your ankle.

Proper saddle height can help prevent long term injuries.

Proper saddle height can help prevent long term injuries.

If you don’t have an angle iron handy, there is a quick way to get close to the proper seat height. Spin the pedals backwards with your heel bisecting the spindle. At the bottom of the pedal stroke, your knee should be completely locked out, but you should not have to shift your hips side to side to reach the pedals. This will set you relatively close to the proper height and you can make small adjustments from there.

Whether you’re taking a buddy’s bike out for a rip, or setting up your brand new bike, these tips will help you feel more comfortable and confident. Don’t be afraid to fine-tune these adjustments to find what works best for you. A properly setup bike can make all difference, so grab your bike, grab your tools and hit the trails.

Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)

About the author: Arts Cyclery

This article was originally published on the Art's Cyclery Blog. Art's Cyclery is dedicated to offering free expert advice, how-to videos, and in-depth product reviews on ArtsCyclery.com to help riders make an educated decision when selecting cycling gear.


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  • Farmer Ted says:

    The biggest factors regarding ‘correct’ tire pressure have to do with the volume of the tire and the amount of weight they are carrying. This is true of any pneumatic tire.

    Small volume tires or tires carrying more weight require more pressure to ‘hold up’ the thing they are carrying while larger volume tires or tires carrying less weight will need less pressure to do the same job.

    One needs to take weight and volume in to account when setting bicycle tire pressure. Ideally, the tire should deform slightly when loaded (rider sitting on the bike) to optimize the contact patch with the ground and provide some conformity with irregularities in the terrain.

    Obviously, there’s a range of pressures that will work for a specific tire/ rider/ weight/ volume/ terrain/ condition combination and experimentation is the best way to figure this out.

    By the way, since the front tire on a bicycle carries significantly less weight than the rear, the pressure in the front will likely need to be a bit lower to create the same contact patch as the rear and even out the grip between the two.

    Too little pressure in any tire will cause it to bottom out against the rim on rough terrain, can affect handling, and may cause flats (even with tubeless setups) or damage to the rim and tire. Too much pressure can decrease grip and gives a harsh ride which can decrease control in high speed or technical situations.

    Also keep in mind that a black tire sitting in the sun will heat up and tire pressure can dramatically increase during a ride which will completely change the handling and grip characteristics of a bike. (this happens with air suspension as well).

    Again, the best way to determine the best tire pressure is to experiment. and be aware of terrain and conditions (including temperature). I’ve found that the difference in pressures between tube and tubeless systems is pretty minimal for my weight(190+), the speed I ride at(fast), and the type of terrain I ride (rocky and technical). I ended up having to run just as much pressure in tubeless tires as I did with tubes to prevent damage so I just went back to tubes because they’re less trouble, regardless of what everyone else seems to think.

    • Nick in AZ says:

      And how do you reconcile that with goat heads? Or are you riding mostly west of the foothills? Man, anytime I set foot or tire east of the foothills it was going to be a goat head day. Switching to tubeless saved me hours of downtime.

      Here in PHX, we’ve got the cactus spines and jumping chollas – which are /almost/ as bad. One flat tire since I’ve been here; you guessed it, on a tubed setup.

      • Farmer Ted says:

        I’m in Northern Colorado and there are goatheads and small cacti but only if you wander off trail. I have zero goat head related flats if I stay on the trails. Besides, a little sealant in a tube covers the goat head/ cactus problem and it lasts a lot longer in a tube than it does in a tubeless setup. Where I ride is very rocky and I constantly had tubeless setups failing due to sidewall abrasions. I don’t have to worry about sidewall permeability with tubes. Beyond that, tire changes are quick, easy, and clean. As far as I’m concerned, tubes are the way to go, tubeless is a messy pain in the ass and the advantages don’t outweigh the disadvantages…at least for me.

  • John J says:

    “If you don’t have an angle iron handy…” What does angle iron have to do with angle measurement? I think the writer mean “protractor”.

    I any event, Measure the floor-to-crotch inseam of the rider. Next, align the crank arm (down) with the seat tube, and set the saddle top to pedal top distance to this measurement, plus 1.5 – 2″. This is a good starting point, in that it you will get good leg extension with some heel lift due to the added 1.5-2″.

    I’ve been running 38 psi in my (tube-filled) thinwall tires for about 20 years. I

    was trying to figure out the bars “forward or back”, but I think you mean with the sweep of the bar rotated up or down, respectively. I run mine about 10 to 15° up from horizontal. Having them “perpendicular to the ground” means the sweep of the bar is pointing straight up.Are you talking about the angle markings on the front of the handlebar?

    You got it pretty close with the suspension sag, and nailed it with brake lever position…. except I’m trying to figure out how having your brake levers angled too far down puts more weight on the front.

    Other than that… great article.

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