Mountain bike components- steering
The bars and stem can be adjusted or changed to make the bike fit you better. By adjusting the position of the controls you can alter the 'feel' of your bike and how it handles. You can also ruin the feel of your bike, so it's best to discuss this with an expert.

Mountain bike components- steering

The steering components are the bike's handlebars, stem, possibly bar ends, the grips and the essential headset (the bearings that fit into the frame to allow smooth steering). It is important that all these parts are reliable and in good condition because they all take considerable loads. If you are hurtling down a fast descent you don't want any mishaps! If you have a significant crash, carefully check over everything (or get a bike shop to do this for you) and replace any damaged or suspect components straight away.

By adjusting the position of the controls you can alter the 'feel' of your bike and how it handles

The bars and stem can be adjusted or changed to make the bike fit you. By adjusting the position of the controls you can alter the 'feel' of your bike and how it handles. If you change the length or height of the stem or bars you will alter the handling. It is possible to improve or ruin how your bike handles so ask an experienced rider or a good bike shop for their opinion first. If your headset is loose, oversight or damaged then this too will also affect the handling of your bike.


Most riders never change or adjust the handlebars from the day of purchase, so most riders have an acceptable, rather than perfect, set up. The handlebars need to be the right length - usually this is little wider than your shoulders. If they are too short then the bike will feel 'twitchy' and perhaps 'unstable'. Very wide bars will make the bike steer slowly. Most downhill riders are now using wide bars so that the bike is more stable at speed, and many free riders are also going for wider bars. The wrong width of handlebar will cause unnecessary fatigue in your neck, shoulders and arms.

It is possible to improve or ruin how your bike handles so ask an experienced rider or a good bike shop for their opinion first

Handlebars come in two shapes, straight and riser.
Straight bars are the standard design and they are used primarily for cross country (XC) riding. They are light, simple and handle well at all speeds.

The riser style is generally preferred for downhill (DH) riding, though a few XC riders use them too. They are often wider - making the steering more stable - and increase the height of the handlebars so the sits more upright, which helps when descending. The shape also allows for greater fore and aft adjustment, which is often handy.

Good quality bars are available from reputable manufacturers for a sensible price (from about £10) but if you are after a super lightweight or a super strong pair, then you can easily spend ten times more!
Handlebar stems

Handlebar stemHandlebar stem

The stem connects the handlebars to the fork. You need to have the right length stem for the bike to feel comfortable. (See Getting the right size bike). An overly long stem will slow the bikes' steering and a very short stem will make the bike more responsive, even at slow speeds. If you are using a wide handlebar then you will need to use a shorter stem to balance the handling - a combination chosen by many DH riders.

The stem will also affect the handling by moving your position on the bike. If your bars are low and along way forward you will more stretched out (and aerodynamic) which may be fine for cruising along at speed, and even helpful when climbing out of the saddle, but you will be less stable when descending, as your body weight is pushed forward. The reverse is also true - a short, upright position will be better for descending and may be more comfortable for pottering about, but it may cause problems when climbing.

Stems are available in two types, standard and Aheadset. The standard type is with a column that tightens into the top of the fork, this is very adjustable and perfect for most riders. The newer and increasingly popular stem style is the Aheadset, which requires a specific headset and fork column. The stem clamps onto the fork and is tightened down, it is simple to adjust and lightweight, however the range of adjustment can be limited. Consequently, Aheadset stems are offered in a variety of 'angles of rise' to position the handlebars in just the right position.

When upgrading or changing your stem you will be faced with a number of different models and types. If you are in doubt then seek the help of a good bike shop or an experienced rider. Good quality budget stems are available but if you want a lightweight stem or a specialist downhill model you are likely to pay more.

Bar Ends

Bar ends are forward extensions (anything from 100mm straight ones to 250mm curves) bolted onto the ends of the handlebars. They are used by general and cross-country riders to provide an extra hand position - which is especially welcome on long rides. They are also very useful when climbing, by making more efficient use of the arms and on steep climbs you can more easily move your weight forward to keep the front wheel on the floor. However downhill, or extreme riders do not use them for they could easily catch on obstacles and the handhold is away from the brake levers. Bar ends come in various shapes, materials and prices (expect to pay about £10-£20 for a decent pair) for you to choose from.

Tip: Before you fit the grips, apply hairspray to the bare handlebar to help slide them into position. This will set and prevent the grip from turning.

Grips aren't very exciting but they are essential for comfort and security. They are made from rubber (or synthetic equivalents) or foam with a variety of styles. If you need to replace your grip, make sure it suits you. You just about be able to touch your first knuckle on your forefinger with your thumb (remember, you'll be wearing gloves when you ride). Foam grips can be more comfortable but that soggy feeling when they're wet isn't much fun. Whatever the material, grips must be secure on the handlebars. Good quality grips cost around £5-£10.


AheadsetOnce fitted and adjusted, (you'll need a bike shop to fit a headset) it can usually be left alone. However, if it becomes loose or rough then it needs to be fixed immediately as it will affect the control (see also Maintenance).

Headsets designed for mountain biking often have rubber seals to keep out the muck and water, but more expensive models use sealed bearings for a longer, smoother life. If a headset is correctly installed and well greased it should last for ages, but if you're a heavy 'user' - and that includes racing - then it may be worth replacing your headset every season. Budget models cost from about £10-£15, and the most expensive models are over £100 (plus fitting cost).

The traditional headset has largely given way to the Aheadset. The big advantage of the Aheadset is its ease of adjustment on the bearings, but it does limit the range of height adjustment on the handlebar stem.


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