Better bar / brake reach for smaller hands

One of my favorite adjustments to a bike during a bike fit, is improving the reach to the brake levers. In many cases, reach is something that is either ignored, thinking you will just get used to it, or it is not adjusted properly to fit the individual. I find this frustrating because the reach to the bars can affect your riding experience significantly not only from a comfort stand point, but also in how your bike handles while you are riding. 

The most common ways I see people 'solving' this issue is by using a shorter stem, moving the saddle forward, or a combination of the two. Are those the right answers? Sometimes. Most of time? You might be compromising one part of your set up for another, which should not and does not need to be the case.

The reach is actually one of the last things I get to during a bike fit, as I typically start with the feet (cleats, shoes, etc) and move up from there. Once the cleats are set up, the saddle height and fore-aft positions are closer to where they need to be for the individual, I move on to the front end height, the bar set up and the reach.

In most cases, if the bike is the correct size and geometry for the rider, I refuse to compromise muscle recruitment unnecessarily, as I truly believe there is a workaround for (almost) all bike fit related issues.


Things to take into account when it comes to reach

  • The frame the rider is using - geometry plays a roll
  • The riders goals - Racing? Recreational riding? Duration of rides? Etc
  • Body proportions - leg length, torso length, arm length, finger length
  • Confidence on the bike - A rider who is a bit more timid on the bike might be more likely to need a shorter reach  

Changing the stem

The problem with using a shorter stem to decrease the reach is that it will change the way the bike handles. When you go to a stem that is 80mm and shorter, it is more common for the bike to feel 'twitchy' at the front end, especially downhill and while cornering. If you have a 110mm stem and have reach troubles, changing to a 100mm or 90mm might be all you need to do...

Moving the saddle forward

As mentioned previously, if you move the saddle too far forward for better reach, you might be compromising one aspect of your fit for another, more specifically, your saddle height, hip angles, lower back, knee tracking might not be set appropriately and it will also alter muscle recruitment in ways that might not be favorable. Set the saddle height / fore-aft position and then re-evaluate the reach. 

Shifters / Brake levers

Lets start by stating that different brands have very different shifter/brake lever ergonomics between one another. On top of that, different models from each brand will vary in ergonomics and different model years will also have an effect! For example, Shimano recently launched new 105, Ultegra and DuraAce group sets, which are different in their ergonomics from the previous generation. This affects reach (and generally how your hands will feel on the bars). 

You should pay attention to the length of the levers, the height, shape and adjustability. For example, disc brake levers tend to be longer and bulkier compared with rim brake levers (with a few exceptions), which increases the reach. This should be something to take into account when getting a new bike as it will be more expensive changing once you already have a bike.

If you already have a bike, need to shorten your reach and can not change your shifters / brake levers, there are still a few lever related options to help you out, depending on the age of your components. For 10 speed bikes and older 105 11 speed bikes, you will need to find little plastic shims that get inserted in a way that brings your levers in by a few millimeters. Note that these can be a bit hard to come by these days... If you do find them, it might be a good idea to check with your bike mechanic before hand to make sure they are compatible with your components. 

If you have an 11 speed bike, especially one from the last few years, you will likely not need those plastic shims anymore! New levers have the ability to be adjusted with a small alan key or screwdriver. The location of where this is done from vary between group sets (105, Ultegra, DuraAce, etc for shimano) and brand - Shimano, Campy, Sram. There will be a difference between disc brake levers, electronic shifting levers, e-tap levers, etc. Because they are quite a few variations of how to get this done, I will refrain from adding pictures of each one, but feel free to post a picture of your shifters / brake levers in the comments and I'll be happy to point you in the right direction!

If you have Sram components, you can adjust the brake lever and shifter independent of one another, which can be helpful in certain situations (sprinting comes to mind). If you have Campy... Tough luck. Unfortunately, you can't do a similar adjustment. That said, Campy ergonomics tends to be quite good (a bit shorter, more compact, slightly angled). 


Bars have not only different width but also different reach and drop. The range for bar reach is typically between 65mm and 90mm - as you can see, the difference can be significant! My suggestion is to pick a compact bar with a shallow drop and a reach that is between 65-80mm, depending on your reach needs!

A few notes

  • Be sure to adjust brake cables and cable length if changing the bars and the/or the stem, and when closing the levers too! 
  • Once I make adjustments to the reach, I go back to look at the position as a whole and make small modifications to the height of the front end and to the saddle positioning - changing one thing often have a domino effect... The reach is no different. 

When in doubt, talk to your bike fitter about your options... Many of us have some tricks up our sleeve! Make sure your fitter is looking at the position as a whole when looking at the reach - avoid looking at only parts of the fit, which is a general rule for bike fits as it is.

If you are driving distance from the Vancouver, BC area - come see me in one of my locations! If you are not and would like someone to have a look at your position, I do virtual consultation through video and email. While these aren't bike fits per say, they have a proven track record with pointing you in the right direction.

Have questions? Get in touch or comment below...

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