4 Tips to Instantly Make for a Better Ride

I just spent the last 3 days working with my friend and colleague Gene Hamilton or Better Ride ( to become a certified Better Ride skills coach. I took a camp with Gene a few years ago and it made a huge impact on not only my riding but how I look at creating training programs to enhance technical skills. When he sent out an email telling his former students he was offering a chance to become a coach for him I jumped on it.

Besides learning how to teach basic and advanced skills I also learned some great things about bike set up. Here are the top 4 things that Gene says will instantly help improve anyone’s ride (yes, even an XC rider):

1) Shorter Stemlong stems (90+ mm stems) are a left over from road bikes and beach cruisers. A shorter stem will actually give you more control and help you stay in a more balanced position. In fact, Gene feels so strongly about it that he offers his students a “buy back” guarantee – if one of them buys a shorter stem and doesn’t love it he’ll buy it back from them. To date no one has took him up on the offer.

2) Wider Handle Bars – Gene recommends a 27-30 inch bar. Wider bars give you better leverage for steering and standing pedaling. Wider bars also help you keep your elbows out which aid in breathing and steering. While some of it depends on your body size, wider bars equal better control.

3) Droppable Seatpost – Getting your seatpost down will help you get into a better position when descending and let you make better use of your legs to help absorb shock. I personally have a friend who refused to lower his seatpost on descents – two broken wrists later (thanks to getting launched over his handlebars) he is the proud owner of a droppable seatpost.

4) Wider Tires – Wider tires offer a bigger contact patch. This gives you more traction which equals more control. Plus, Schwalbe tires have produced a study that shows that wider tires actually roll faster (given the same tread pattern). Aggressive tread patterns offer more control and confidence so if those are important to you then avoid semi-slicks.

Gene also said to be wary of bike fitters. He feels that they are good for helping you find a good seat height and position but overall they do not understand how fit effects control. They often suggest a longer stem which compromises control and balance.

Check out for more info on his camps and if any of you are heading to the Grand Junction area this summer and want to set up a private lesson with myself or get in on a clinic I’m teaching let me know, I’d be happy to help you learn more about how to gain more control and have more fun.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Gabe Neymark says:

    How much is a private lesson with you because I’m coming up to GJ later this week to ride.

    Reply • March 29 at 10:33 am
  2. Lon Hultgren says:

    I am happy to report that my YETI 575 came with an even shorter stem than the one I replaced on my last bike! Ya think that YETI knows something about bike control?

    Reply • March 29 at 6:34 pm
  3. Nate says:

    I agree with these on all counts. Great tips.

    Reply • March 30 at 8:28 am
  4. Heath says:

    I’m going to defend professional bike fitters. I’ll agree to be wary of some. A lot of them are cyclists themselves, one of my close friends is an athletic trainer and mountain biker. He does bike fits at the University of Pittsburgh Sports Performance complex. As a cyclist himself he has a good idea on how set up effects control. So check their background first.

    Reply • April 1 at 7:44 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Heath – good call, not all of them are guilty of that. The best thing you can do is educate your self on what helps with handling so you can make good decisions.

      Reply • April 1 at 10:42 am
  5. Randy says:

    Well, I completely agree on all points… with a couple of caveats:

    1) Longer stems are indeed left over from road bikes and 90+mm stems are ill advised for anyone. However, the more XC ‘flat’ riding you do, a stem up to 90mm might make sense depending on the match between your body geometry and the bike’s geometry. My XC/AM bike is a med Yeti 575 and I’m 5’10” with a relatively long torso and arms (so… I’m basicly ape-like). I have riden a large 575 with a short stem – which works pretty well. But overall, the medium frame with a 90mm stem gives me better overall handling on everything but the most crazy downhill.

    2) I tried wider bars last year and I really liked it. But, ended up swapping back to my 26″ MonkeyLite SL as we have a lot of tight single track through trees around here and the wider bars caused too many ‘nicks’.

    4) Before everyone freaks out at the comment about “fat tires = lower rolling resistance”, allow me to clarify. The study is for MOUNTAIN BIKING folks – it completely conceeds that on smooth road surfaces, skinny, smooth, and hard is the way to go. However, for anything bumpier than a gravel road, a fatter tire with relatively lower air presure requires less overall energy to produce the same forward motion. The general idea is that it consumes less energy to ‘absorb’ a small feature in the tire/tread’s path than to ‘roll over’ it. The difference is not huge by any stretch – but even if it was a ‘break even’ result, the traction and suspension benifits of running a wider, lower presure tire would still tip the scales in favor. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the trend in what the top World Cup XC riders are running for tires. Not so long ago, EVERYONE was running 2.1’s or lower. Today, 2.2’s and 2.35’s at 35lbs. Only downside is weight of the fatter tires and the slight responsiveness sacrifice.

    Just my two cents.

    Reply • April 1 at 11:58 am
  6. Wish I Were Riding (aka John) says:

    I don’t do enough DH style riding to warrant a droppable seatpost. I usually leave my at full height 99% of the time. I don’t really have trouble with it being that high either.

    I do want wider bars.

    Also, I went to 2 well respected people for bike fit. I don’t believe I got my money’s worth out of either of them. I still think riding lots of different bikes with different geos, can be the best teacher as far as fit goes.

    Reply • April 1 at 2:05 pm
  7. Darrel says:

    The report by Schwalbe says
    “The data on tyre pressure yields near-revolutionary results. On the road
    the principle of ‘the more, the merrier’ applies, as has been common road-
    racing-knowledge for years. A firmly inflated tyre makes for good
    propulsion. To this present day many mountain bikers have adhered
    unflinchingly to this rule, too, transferring it without reflection, so to
    speak, into the dirt.
    Way off! As soon as you leave the road, reducing tyre pressures does not
    just leave rolling resistance more or less unaffected, as can be heard here
    and there, but actually reduces rolling resistance! This is true even on
    level paths of fine gravel (Chart 3 on page 7), but the rougher the ground,
    the greater the effect, as the grassy ground shows. Reducing tyre
    pressure from 4 to 1.5 bar (57 to 21 p.s.i.) can save an averaged 20 W!
    The main reason for this is the unevenness of the ground.”

    Reply • April 8 at 10:47 pm
  8. Jon Gustavson says:

    Yes, great tips! I agree and apply all of these as well for anything from XC to lite DH (Super D) and have had great results with 45mm stem, 30″ bars, 5″ adjustable seatpost and 2.3 tires ran tubeless with aggressive tread.

    Reply • February 18 at 10:00 pm
  9. Jamie Maillet says:

    Hi James
    I am looking at adjustable seatposts and I am considering the x-fusion hilo. Is there any that you recommend in particular? Also I run a 90mm stem on my Specialized Pitch with 27″ wide bars. I’ve tried a shorter stem (75mm) and the 90mm feels better to me. I haven’t had any issues with descents and climbing is much improved with the 90mm. What are your thoughts on this? Am I doing something wrong?

    Reply • October 17 at 5:43 am
    • bikejames says:

      If it works for you then keep using it. You might try a shorter stem (60mm) and see if you notice a difference but if you like the 90 mm then rock it.

      Reply • October 17 at 2:34 pm
  10. Harlan says:

    I’m a big fan of all the tips pointed at above and have spent the past couple years making the switch for the pure pleasure of riding more aggressively and dynamically. But, coming from an endurance and XC racing background I find that the short stem and wide bars are not the fit i need for producing power on the bike. A bike fitter often thinks they are fitting for power results and not pure trail enjoyment. I don’t think fitters are bad, but the evolution of people enjoying more technical mountain biking has not translated as well to the fitter’s world. What do you think?

    Reply • March 1 at 6:45 am
  11. simon says:

    Just about to swap out my 110 thompson stem for a 70mm nukeproof warhead. Already have warhead 710mm bars. Here is an interesting point. I ride my warhead bars swept back, so if they were dead straight they would in effect be like 70mm stem. Therefore with new stem with the bars not swept back the ride position will be roughly the same, so now I can tune the cockpit to fit better for technical turns pumping etc…..let you all know next week, if i remember!!

    Reply • May 3 at 7:12 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Not the same thing. Rolling the sweep of you handlebars forward results in a different balance point and not something I would recommend. Just get a 60 mm stem.

      Reply • May 3 at 9:39 am
  12. Tony says:

    Great tips again James,

    One other set up element that tends to be ignored is also the placement of the brakes and gear levers. The bike shop has to fit them to the handlebars but they cannot put them to suit all people. We ride differently in how we place our hands, how we brake (2 finger, 1 finger) and even the size of our hands might make where they have been set to be slightly wrong.

    Loosening them up, getting on the bike and adopting the normal position to see where the fingers need to be to find that lever is essential and getting it right can avoid some horrible, niggly aches that start to appear in the wrist, shoulder and even back.

    I am an aggressive rider and find the best position for me is to have the brakes almost pointing at the floor, but my buddy sits far back more when he rides and so my position would be out of reach for him. His are set more in line with the top of his bars.

    There is no set right way – but make sure they are not set to the wrong way!

    My pennies worth.

    Reply • March 22 at 3:35 am
  13. Gus says:

    I agree with this and actually have my bike setup this way. Thing is, all the fast guys at the track and on TV do the opposite. They have their seatpost raised to the sky, dropped long stems with tiny bars, and not a dropper post to be found. Forget about flats…seems like its a split crowd and while you and Lee are teaching one thing, the reality out on the trails is that the fast guys are doing the opposite and are being mimicked by the casual rider.

    Reply • August 27 at 7:52 am
  14. Adam says:

    Hi, I have a yeti 575 XL, dropper post, 685 mm Answer Pro Taper bars, and Thomson 110mm stem. I want to get some wider bars, and a shorter stem. I’m 6’4″. I’m worried I’m going to be cramped in the cockpit if I shorten my stem. Thoughts?

    Reply • March 3 at 9:56 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Hip and shoulder mobility is what determines if you get cramped in the cockpit. Work on improving your mobility and you won’t have to use your stem length to compensate for it. A shorter stem will help your balance and control on the trail, plus it will make standing pedaling easier.

      Reply • March 4 at 12:53 pm

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