OCD Handlebar and Saddle Alignment

Reader Samuel D asked if I could write something about getting handlebars and saddles straight.

Challenge Taken!

I’ll go one further and show you how I get brake levers at the same height and equally toed in.

The analog nature of saddle and handlebar alignment has always bothered me. There is no indexing as to the correct position. It comes down to eyeballing it and getting close enough.

Brief diversion for a story: Years ago I crashed and separated my right shoulder. For a few months after that attack by a ferocious bunny rabbit, I rode with my bars intentionally canted slightly to the right, until I recovered my range of motion in my shoulder.

Back to work: My methods still all come down to eyeball. I just use techniques and tools to augment my eyeballing ability.

This isn’t about fit. Maybe you want your bar-drops pointing down a bit; maybe you like them horizontal. Maybe you prefer your saddle pointing slightly one way or another for some reason. Maybe you like your brake levers high or low. Fine, Go for it.

This is about getting:

1.      Your brake levers at the same height on the bars

2.      And parallel (or equally toed in, the way I like mine)

3.      Your handlebars perpendicular to your front wheel

4.      Your saddle parallel to your frame.

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Brake Lever Height – Many handlebars come with index markings to assist you getting both levers at the same height. In my opinion this is just a good starting point.



My technique for getting levers at the same height is low tech but very effective. After snugging down the levers at what looks like a good position, place a straight edge on the front of the levers. In the picture I am using a dowel. The key is locating the dowel in a notch, crook, or other identifiable feature on the front of each lever. Then sight past the straight edge to the top of the bars. Move your line of sight up and down until the top of the bars is hidden by the dowel. The bar top should all disappear at the same time. Adjust one lever or the other until it does.

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Brake Lever Toe-in – I like my brake levers toed in. I actually like them toed in a lot. I find this gives me a more natural wrist and shoulder position. People have seen my levers and asked if they got that way in a crash. No, that’s how I like ‘em. Getting equal toe-in is difficult. There are no good hard straight lines on brake levers. They’re kind of rounded all over, for obvious ergonomic reasons. I just stand over the bike, sight down on them, and try to get them even.

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Just for fun today I laid a goniometer next to the outsides of my levers and determined that my levers are toed in 12 degrees relative to my drops, give or take a degree.



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Handlebar Perpendicularity (that’s a fun word) Before beginning this post my method was focused on getting the stem parallel to the front wheel. Taking that idea to the next level, I have a laser level device from Home Depot that throws a line of red light. It’s meant to be used for hanging pictures, but with a little ingenuity, I got it to throw a line on the stem and the front wheel. It’s better than plain eyeball, but the stem is too short for a really accurate comparison. And a slightly crooked stem is really annoying in the middle of a long ride.

A professional mechanic once showed me his method. With the stem binder bolts loose, stand the bike on the fork and the brake levers. In this position, tighten the binder bolts. The bars will be parallel to the fork dropouts, in theory. But there are a few assumptions in the technique. Your floor must be flat, your brake levers must be at the correct height (or not mounted yet), and on some thru-axle bikes the fork dropouts are not symmetrical.

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Anyway that demonstration did give me the idea to focus on making the bars parallel to the front axle instead of making the stem parallel to the wheel.

With the front wheel off, stab the fork over a dowel laying on the ground. For a thru-axle fork, run the dowel thru the dropouts. Then sight down from the front edge of the bars. Move your line of sight forward and backward until the dowel is just hidden, and as for lever positioning, adjust until the dowel disappears all at once.

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A funner but I think no more accurate twist on this method is to shine a light down from above and adjust until the shadow of the front edge of the bars just eclipses the dowel.

Saddle Parallelity (parallelness?) What’s the noun for a state of existence in which two lines are parallel? I asked a mathematician friend. She said it was probably parallelism, which also happens to be a literary term… OK.

I usually sight along the top of the saddle to the stem cap nut. The stem cap nut is always on the center line of the bike, no matter where the bars are, so it’s a good reference point.

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I dunno, maybe it’s a little to the left. What do you think?

An improvement is to lay a straightedge atop the saddle and let it extend forward. It should point to the stem cap nut. The hard part is determining the centerline of the saddle.

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Or if you’re feeling high tech, whip out your laser lever again.

Or you could go buy a bike with an aero seatpost and hope it’s manufactured straight.

Tailwinds and Sunshine





3 thoughts on “OCD Handlebar and Saddle Alignment”

  1. About the level eight, I would like to suggest you to use an air bubble level propped in the handle bar, so while you are parallel to the ground you have to measure the distance from the ground to a fixed point in the levels.

    1. Andrea, it looks like spell check didn’t cooperate.
      If I substitute “lever” for “level” and “height” for “eight”, it makes sense. Good idea. I’ll try it on my next build.

  2. Reader Samuel D checking in. For some reason I didn’t get email notification of this post. And since becoming aware of it a few weeks ago, the pictures haven’t loaded for me on many visits.

    Nonetheless, the words describe the ideas clearly. Thanks! I’ll try these methods on my next build or adjustment.

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