Pro Bike Setup: CX/Road Edition

Professional cyclists spend endless hours testing fit, function, and bike setups to eek out more speed and power. Take the trial and error out of setting up your ride like the pros with this how-to article.

Riding a road or cyclocross bike is simple in its essence, but maybe not quite as simple as one may make it seem. For many serious riders, the right or wrong bike setup can make or break a ride. This is a quick primer on how to put together your road bike so that it runs great and looks great.

We all start at different skill levels on our road to cycling enlightenment. Some of us, over time, gravitate to particular tools, equipment and bike setups because over thousands of miles some things start to make more sense than others. Most of all professional racers appear to have extremely strong preferences for particular equipment acquired over thousands of miles of trial and error. Pros occasionally have some eccentric setups and routines that may make the rest of us scratch our heads, but offer them that competitive edge that escapes the common rider. While not many can’t aspire to be pro, there are some tips and tricks we can borrow from the pros to make our bikes work that extra 0.01% better.

Note: While some of these tips are functional, some are purely for the sake of fashion and nothing more. As it happens, this article is a little tongue in cheek! Now onwards:

Proper Fit

Fit is everything. Proper fit is essential for having a pro bike setup. Until your body can properly become one with the bike and make the most of your riding experience, you must be properly fitted to the bike.

“Proper fit” will always vary by individual, taking into account your body’s physical proportions, your flexibility and your previous injuries, amongst a myriad of other things that affect your position on the bike. You can work on your fit with a professional fitter, or just work on it on your own. There are plenty of online guides on how to properly fit yourself to a bike if you wish to take the DIY route . Some methods work better for some people than others.

Choose a position that maximizes your comfort. From there, you can worry about going faster and being more efficient. After comfort is achieved, tweak your position to maximize your aerodynamic potential, while still remaining comfortable and neutral on the bike. If something hurts, toy with your setup.

"If the bike doesn’t work properly and silently, that simply isn’t pro."

Proper Mechanical Function

If the bike doesn’t work properly and silently, that simply isn’t pro. No pro is going to ride a bike that hasn’t been set up correctly. Bikes are simple machines and it doesn’t take much to get them running smoothly. Here are some basic steps for keeping your road bike running like a pro’s:

First you’ll want to make sure your drivetrain is properly set up. A clean, adjusted drivetrain shifts smoothly and properly without ghost-shifting or rattling and runs near-silently while riding. Derailleur limit screws set to the correct depth will keep your chain for over or under shifting on both extreme ends of your cassette. This keeps your chain from shifting into your frame or wheel, and negates the need of a rookie ring (that plastic ring attached to your wheel).

Make sure your brakes are set up properly, with the pads properly aligned with the rim or rotor. The brakes should grab ⅓ to halfway through the brake lever stroke, and the caliper should be centered on the rim so that there is no squishiness in the brakes. If your road/CX bike has disc brakes, make sure your brake rotors don’t rub the caliper as the wheels spin.

If your bike is running rough, bring it to a local bike shop or tackle it head-on with your own tools. Deal with any noisy creaks by making sure parts have been properly greased, adjusted and torqued to spec.

Finally, regularly clean your bike! A clean bike is pro, and the simple act of cleaning your bike can alert you to mechanical or structural problems with the bike you might not otherwise notice.

Cables and Routing

Cables are the backbone of your bike’s mechanical function, and are often forgotten by many riders. That’s a shame, simply because many riders mistake poor shifting for their components wearing out, and go out to buy a new bike to get that crisp shifting again. Buying bikes is great for the bike industry, but awful for a rider trying to get the best bang for their buck. You can easily get that same brand-new bike feel by switching out your cables. Additionally, replacing your worn brake cables can bring back a ton of braking power lost to sluggish cables. Change out the worn, gunky cables on your bike to get that snappy shifting and braking back. We recommend Jagwire Road Pro cable kits, which contain more than enough cable to get your whole bike’s cables smooth and new again, and are compatible with every major drivetrain out there.

A messy cable job is a shame. Make sure your cables are set up in a way that not only functions properly, but looks tidy.When installing cable, make sure to use just enough for the cable to make a smooth curve around any parts it must get around, but short enough to not have any excess beyond that.

Give your shifter cables enough slack to not obstruct the handlebars from turning all the way around until the handlebar touches the top tube. Note: Extra pro points for getting a perfect symmetrical arc around the head tube. Install cable ends on the cables and make sure they’re cut to about 1- 1.5” beyond the pinch bolt, but not excessively long or short.

To protect the paint on your head tube from getting rubbed off by cables, try using clear self-adhesive frame protection or (extra pro) self-adhesive tube patches directly under where they contact the frame.

Stem/Headset Spacers

Once you’ve found your happy place fit-wise on your bike, cut your excess steerer off and remove extra spacers laying around. If your bars need to go really low, “Slam that Stem” down to the bearing cover, but be sure in all cases to have that extra 5mm spacer atop the stem. This ensures that you have the ability to set proper torque on the top cap, and a bit of wiggle room should your body position preference change.

In all cases, make sure your bars are level or below your saddle. Not only is it generally needed for proper fit, it’s simply more Pro to have your bars below your saddle. However, fit always comes first, so don’t “Slam that Stem” merely for the sake of looks – your back might end up hating you.

Traditionally a stem should never offer a positive (upwards) rise on a road bike, and should always be flipped to the negative rise. Again, fit is king, so listen to your body.

Handlebars and Brake Levers

Handlebars should be set up so that the bottoms of the drops point directly backwards. You can tilt the bars up slightly , but not more than a few degrees, and never downwards.

Position the brake levers so that their tops are level or slightly angled upwards, but never downwards. Ideally there is a smooth transition from the handlebar to the tops of the hoods.

Adjust your brake lever reach (if your brake levers support it) to get the lever in the perfect position for use from the tops and the drops. Remember that this will change your lever travel, so you might need to tighten or loosen your brake cable tension a bit.

Saddles

Make sure your saddle is visually level and within the setback limits. A couple degrees of tilt is fine as long as your saddle isn’t obviously tilted way over in some weird way. You should be able to rest a little toy car on it without it rolling off. You also don’t want to “slam” your saddle all the way back or forward. If your saddle is all the way forward, consider changing your seatpost.

Make sure your saddle is in good condition. Bent rails, damaged shell or beat-up upholstery should be an indicator that it might be time to buy a new saddle.

Tires

Install your tires in such a way that the valve stem is centered under the tire label. It can be either the brand or the tire model name, but preferably the tire model name. Not only does it look better, but it makes it easier to find your valve stem if you flat.  Occasional a road or CX tire will be directional so make sure you check the sidewall of the tire.  Tires installed backwards most definitely aren’t pro, and will not function as well as they should. Always match your tires front to rear.

 
 

Wheels and Quick Releases

Keep your wheels true, tensioned and in good visual condition. Super dented or beat-up wheels are not fun to ride, and can be dangerous. Match your wheels front to rear. No reflectors should be on your wheels. They are unnecessary, unbalance the wheels and can smack into the fork and shatter into a bunch of plastic shards, which is really bad.

Quick releases should match front to rear. Close your quick releases in the right spot. The rear lever should bisect the triangle made by the seatstays and the chainstays. The front QR should be tightened slightly fore of the fork blade. The actual angle will depend on the design of the quick release lever, but definitely make sure that the quick release can close all the way. This isn’t all about looks – an improperly tightened quick release can be a hazard to you and other riders.

Pedals

If you want to be truly pro, your pedals shall be clipless. Pedals with cages are fine too, if you’re feeling that retro vibe. If you find yourself sticking solely to the tarmac find a comfortable set of road clipless pedals. But, if you are chasing your KOM’s/QOM’s across ashpalt, dirt, and grass you may want to consider looking into some mountain style pedals as they will shed mud and debris better than a road pedal. The flat demo pedals that came with the bike are not going to work. They simply aren’t pro.

In the end, setting up your bike like a pro is about getting it to fit you. If it looks rad, but feels terrible that is not pro. A true pro setup is one that lets you ride comfortably, efficiently, and with a smile on your face.