MTB Setup - Ensure your mountain bike is set up correctly; configure your mountain bike properly

How to set up a Mountain Bike

The Snowbikers Guide to configuring your MTB correctly

A correctly set up mountain bike is crucial if you want to get the most out of your cycling but it is something that often gets forgotten or ignored in the rush to aquire MTB skills, particularly with novice bikers. Not only does it have a major impact on the efficiency of propelling the thing forward (and generally speaking we need all the help we can get) but also can help protect against many common cycling injuries. Experienced cyclists will have their own preferences and will likely change the settings to suit different conditions, but this list is aimed to give the new mountain bike rider a good starting point, and perhaps explain some of the reasons behind the thinking. The settings are detailed with a vague thought to the order in which they might be performed.

Saddle choice

If you sit on your hands on a firm chair, you can feel the “sit-bones” at the back of your pelvis. These are the bits that must be supported by a saddle. If you miss on this one point, then your weight is supported by all the softer equipment in between, and no end of gel and foam is going to save you from a world of misery (see “compressions of an off-road cyclist”). These sit-bones are more widely spaced in women, so they need broader saddles. Once you have covered this basic there are a wealth of choices available. There is a suggestion that saddles with a cut-out around the “more sensitive” areas simply result in increased pressure elsewhere, so for my money I’d go with a plain gel one. More than any other piece of kit, the mountain bike saddle can make or break your day so it is essential you get it right.

Saddle height

There are some very complex ways to calculate saddle height, but the following has worked well for me:

  • Sit on the bike next to a wall, with one hand supporting you upright and your right heel on the pedal. Spin the pedals backward to find the position that extends your leg most. At the correct saddle height, your leg should have only the slightest bend (but not be locked-out). If it is not correct, adjust the saddle and try again.
  • Another pointer: if your hips rock with each pedal stroke it is possible you have set the saddle too high.

There is a common (but biomechanically incorrect) notion that you should be able to touch the floor when sat on the saddle. As such, when set correctly the saddle can feel very high. All I would say is give it 15 minutes, then drop it low again and see how inefficient it feels by comparison.

The seat-post (the bit between saddle and frame) can only be pulled out of the frame so far. Usually there should be about 10 cm left in the frame, and there is often a maximum-extension mark on the post to show this. If you go much beyond this mark, there is a chance of causing damage to your frame, so the best option is to get a longer post if required.

Handlebar height

The handlebar should be about the same height as the saddle. If your bike is equipped with a quill-stem then the whole handlebar/stem arrangement can be shifted in and out of the frame. Increasingly however, bikes are coming fitted with “ahead-style” stems which simply clamp around the steerer tube of the forks. If the steerer tube has been cut flush with the stem, then there is little room for manoeuvre short of buying a new stem with a steeper or shallower angle. If you are lucky, the stem will be accompanied by small spacer discs, the sequence of which may be rearranged to offer some adjustment

Saddle position

On most saddles it is possible to adjust the forward/backward position as well as the tilt.

  • To determine the forward/backward position: Sit on the bike in a normal position (supporting against a wall again) with the pedals horizontal. Get a friend to hold a weighted string from the front of your forward knee-cap. The string should fall in line with the pedal axle. Move the saddle forwards or backwards until you get it right.
  • Recent research has found that a slightly nose-down saddle helps reduce the incidence of back-pain amongst cyclists, and can relieve pressure but some riders don’t like the sensation of being pushed forwards that this can produce. The saddle should be at least horizontal and never nose-up as this can lead to problems with circulation and nerve damage (see “compressions of an off-road cyclist”). If you ride a full-suspension bike, then the sag in the rear suspension will need to be taken into consideration when setting the level.

Brake levers

These control levers should occupy a position in line with your body geometry so that they are easy to access and do not cause wrist or arm fatigue in prolonged use.

  • Sit in a normal riding position with arms and fingers outstretched and in a straight line. With palms resting on the handlebars your fingers should rest on the top of the brake lever without the need to lift or lower your wrist. Off-road riders who find they do most of their braking whilst out of the saddle should perform the above exercise standing crouched on horizontal pedals rather than sitting.

Bar ends

If you use bar ends, then these should be set such that your wrists are in comfortable linear arrangement, with no upward or downward twist when you are in your normal position. As with the brake levers this may be a standing or sitting position, depending on your riding style.

MTB Tyres

Studded mountain bike tyres for sale

With mountain bike tyres there is often a trade-off somewhere down the line so your choice should reflect the type of riding you do. For example narrow slick tyres will roll very smoothly along tarmac and hard-packed trails, but will be pretty useless in mud. Equally, fat knobbly tyres may grip in the worst of conditions, but you would waste a lot of energy making them go around on the road to work. For tarmac and firmer trails look for tyres with at least a central band that has no gaps or knobbles. For wet and muddy, get tyres with wide-spaced knobbles which don’t hold the dirt. If cycling in icy conditions then consider fitting studded mountain bike tyres.

Often mtb tyres are directional (i.e. they should be mounted so that they roll in a particular direction) and some are front or rear specific. Usually there will be something to indicate this on the side of the tyre.

Some rules of thumb:

  • If the tyres have an arrow pattern to the tread, then when looking from above, the front wheel arrows should point to the front, and the back ones to the back.
  • If there is a coloured manufacturer’s logo on one side of the tyre and not the other, then mount with the logo to the chain side of the bike. Bikes are pretty much always photographed with the cogs in front so manufacturers place their main logo on this side.

Mountain Bike tyre pressure is also a game of trade-off. High tyre pressures will give you lower rolling resistance (i.e. less effort to make the wheel go round) but there may be a loss of traction on rough terrain. Low tyre pressure will give better traction but a higher rolling resistance, and there is the danger of “snake-bite” punctures. This is where the inner-tube is nipped against the rim leaving two small holes. On the side of the tyre, the manufacturer usually displays information about running pressures, sometimes in the form of a range and sometimes just a maximum. In my experience 40 psi falls within a suitable range for most MTB tyres, and is a good starting point. If you don’t have a pump with a pressure gauge, then pump up the tyre until you can only just deform the top surface with your thumb.

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