While bike and fork geometry is getting more and more radical, stem shapes aren’t always keeping up. That means we regularly advise readers of our bike tests to switch the existing stems for something shorter to speed up handling and increase featherlight accuracy. But what should you look for in the ideal upgrade stem and how much do you need to spend? Guy Kesteven has been taking off tillers and fitting as-short-as-possible knuckles since he was riding a rigid Pace back in the 90s, so what’s his current expert take on the best stems?
The great news is that stems don’t have to cost a fortune. In fact, we’ll go further than that, if you told us we had to have a £20 stem or an £80 we’d nearly always go for the cheaper options. That’s because most stems start life as very similar forged alloy lumps. From here the cheapest stems are just drilled and threaded for the relevant bolts and maybe anodised or painted before dropping into the shops. Most expensive stems start the same way, but then they’re expensively, extensively sculpted, shaved and carved into pointier, prettier and slightly lighter shapes. Every time you cut into that basic block or turn a rounded organic shape into something sharp though you’re increasing the chance of it cracking, snapping, creaking, or at best, twisting a lot more for a given bar load. Some stems are even machined from solid billet with no grain alignment and it’s no accident you won’t find any of them in our recommended list here.
Whether you’re looking at a cheaper forged stem or something that’s been whittled, the same basic rules of leverage apply. The broader the clamp - either onto the fork steerer or the handlebar - the stiffer the connection will be for a given weight/wall thickness. You’ll also find some very fancy/funky designs from people like USE which actually work fine once you’ve fought the bits together in the right order. If there was ever a case for keeping things simple though we’ll take a fat, simply forged stem with big 5mm bolts, over a brittle metal basket with tiny Ti bolts every time, whoever is endorsing it.
Interestingly while carbon stems are a thing in the road world, very few have dared creep onto the dirt and even then they’ve stayed firmly on the featherweight XC bikes.
You can get stems under 100g and they might survive for months if you’re a very light and careful rider. However, given that even the heaviest stems here are only a smidge over 200g and that most short stems are under 150g, whatever the price/design we really wouldn’t worry about weight. Especially if going too light compromises safety.
We’ve covered stem’s that are available in lengths from 25mm up to 100mm, we concentrated mostly on shorter reach units as that’s the most common upgrade switch for more responsive, lighter feeling steering. We’ve covered both 31.8mm and 35mm handlebar diameter stems too.
The most obvious category of specialist stems is the direct mount versions that bolt directly onto the top crown of a double crown DH fork. There are some other outliers though like Syntace’s cunning and reliable angle-adjustable stems. Others include optional mounts for cameras/lights in the front plate The OneUp Components stem even works as the anchor block for preloading the steering bearings, leaving the inside of the fork steerer clear to mount their hidden tool system inside.
If you want a totally fit and forget stem for any sort of riding and don’t want to pay a fortune then Race Face’s Chester is a chunky winner. The fact it’s available in a full range of contemporary sizes separates it from similarly performing but older and cheaper designs too.
The forged 2014 series alloy body is shot blasted to remove manufacturing stress and doesn’t get any machining to undermine strength, which means there’s plenty of strength. The handlebar clamp uses a unique overlapping U shaped design to create a mechanical connection beyond just the bolt torque, and the Chester can take a ton of bar wrenching and ugly landings in its stride. It’s broad enough to keep on track when things get tasty, and while it’s not light it’s not a total brick either. The 31.8mm and 35mm versions (which are cheaper) come in two length options each which make the in-your-face graphics on the 31.8mm version the only potential obstacle in choosing a Chester for your bike.
You might have to hunt around to find this German stem and dig deep into your pockets when you do but if you want the best high-performance stem around it’s worth the quest.
On the surface, it looks exactly like the sort of stem we generally shrink away from. Lots of post forging machining leaves very little metal left and combined with titanium bolts it’s right on the 100g borderline we normally reserve for XC only use. However, those big M6 bolts are designed to be cranked up tighter than normal and the remaining metal is formed into deep, stiffness boosting ribs on the steerer clamp and separate bar clamp bands. That meant tentative testing soon turned into a full-on Enduro onslaught as our trust in the MegaForce increased. The harder you ride the more you’ll realise this is an outstandingly stiff and precise stem that also noticeably quietens bar feel in a way that other lighter stems don’t. A full range of sizes is backed up with a 10-year guarantee, and the Syntace range also includes super light XC options, more affordable designs and even a unique angle-and-reach-adjustable handlebar and stem combo. All come recommended depending on your riding needs.
If you want a shorter stem and don’t have oversized 35mm handlebars, Chain Reaction’s house brand provides a super cheap upgrade option that outperforms a lot of far more expensive options. The forged finish is left raw but thinner sections between the clamp bolts on the steerer clamp and faceplate mean it’s still reasonably light. The squared shaft feels totally solid in use though and all the 4mm bolts are Loctite coated for security.
The MTB stem has a slightly narrower, cylindrical neck and open faceplate and that does result in some twist on longer lengths despite being heavier than the Enduro stem. At just £12.99 full price it’s still an absolute bargain if you want 60, 70 or 80mm lengths for a 31.8mm bar.
Pace buck the trend by producing a boxy-looking CNC stem that feels absolutely rock solid accurate and can take a proper battering on the trail. It only comes in one super short length though.
The 32mm length is about as close as you can get a 35mm handlebar to a 31.8mm steerer tube without them physically touching or needing a custom bar like the Pacenti. The super broad face clamp takes it well clear of most CNC machined stems in terms of resisting bar torque too, so tyre feedback and line accuracy get an immediate boost. Despite some aggressive-looking sharp edges we’ve been giving it a complete beasting for a while now without any ill effects. Extra performance does cost extra compared to generic competition though.
If you absolutely never want your stem to move however hard you land/crash/turn and you’re still on skinnier handlebars, then Truvativ’s Hussefelt has been the burliest stem around for years. Allegedly named (slightly wrongly) after the legendary Icelandic Husafell lifting stone used to test Viking strongmen, this big knuckle of forged alloy is unashamedly thick-walled and brutish in design. With only minimal weight reduction on the polished raised logo faceplate, it takes the scales over 200g. With opposed 5mm stem and bar clamp bolts locking it into place it gives a totally rock solid, seismic proof connection between your bars and your fork. You get black and white finishes but it only comes in 40 and 60mm lengths and neither the Hussefelt nor the slightly lighter but considerably more expensive Holzefeller stem come in 35mm bar versions.
This unique bar and stem combo uses an incredibly simple idea to create our favourite defibrillator for bikes with dead handling.
The P-Dent name refers to the fact the handlebar has a large convex section (or dent) in the back of the centre clamping section so it can actually partially wrap around the fork steerer. The bar and steerer clamping sections of the stem also intersect to create an effective length of just over 20mm. That gives an ultralight, instantly reactive steering feel that’s incredible for accurate line and traction tweaking. That’s why our two Pacenti sets are in constant use brightening up the handling of the dullest bikes or taking already awesome bikes to another level. Obviously you need a long reach for the super short stem not to feel cramped on your bike, but if you like properly direct reactions, this is the way to go. Pricing and weights are competitive for a lightweight stem and great feeling 800mm wide, 35mm diameter carbon bar which comes in 15 or 25mm rises. While first-generation stems had a habit of cracking, the newer design has given us no problems.
If you’re trying to shave weight off your bike without obviously compromising control then Ritchey’s WCS stems have always been a top option. The latest versions come in a very complete range of sizes from 35mm upwards and the come in 31.8 and 35mm (£89) handlebar options. The cleanly forged construction gets a little bit of machined cleaning and polishing and the steerer clamp is cut away slightly too. The 220º bar clamp is unique in that it actually lightly clips most bars in place as you tighten the thin, H front plate making set up easy. Although you can provoke some movement if you really wrench on wide bars the broad clamp means it’s solid enough for most riders and it’s definitely one of the few obviously light stems we’d be happy full gas.
While a basic cold-forged stem with a bar clamp at one end and a handlebar clamp at the other is all anyone needs, some people like to be different. If that’s you, then USE’s ingenious jigsaw puzzle stem is a light and trail-worthy way to bolt your bars on.
The single metal part of the stem is effectively a strap that loops around the bars and then the fork steerer which is pretty neat. Getting the expanding plastic wedge block assembly between the steerer and the bars is more of a fight though, so prepare to be patient and remove children's ears and delicate objects from the immediate area before attempting assembly. Make sure you get the angle right as you crank up the two opposing bolts to lock everything into place too, as once it’s set tight, it’s a pain to loosen and adjust subtly.
The updated twin bolt design is impressively stiff for its minimal weight and the clean rounded rear lines make it very knee-friendly compared to back bolted designs. Considering all the cunning R&D involved it’s a decent price too.
Immaculate Lancashire machining makes Hope’s stems expensive compared to Far Eastern fabricated competition but they come in a massive range of styles and sizes as well as a trademark palette of anodised colours.
Keen but not excessive machining from cold-forged alloy ingots puts the Hope stem comfortably mid-pack in terms of weight and stiffness. Stainless steel bolts reduce worries about stripping when tightening though and they’re reassuringly tough even when worked hard in a gravity situation. There is a specific DH stem design too, plus direct-mount and even single piece stem and top clamp for Boxxer, Fox 40 and Marzocchi 888 forks. Hope’s factory direct or ‘van at events’ support is legendarily beyond the call of duty in the UK too, so you know they’ve got your back.
The remaining machining ripples are a real attraction to some people, but it’s the ability to colour match their stems to other Hope components that’s the real driver for most people to dig deep into their pockets to get one.
Syncros’s Hixon all in one carbon bar and stem looks amazing in a sci-fi way and feels great on the trail but bar fit and accessory mounting are very restrictive and conventional bar and stem combos are lighter and cheaper.
The Hixon (and lighter, narrower bar Frazer XC combo) add an instantly futuristic look to your front end. They’re available to mimic fashionably short stem reaches and the latest versions extend span from 760 to 780mm. If the angle of sweep and rotation works for you the actual bar feel is really nicely balanced between accuracy and buzz damping control.
You obviously can’t adjust that rotation angle though and the way the handlebars push forward and then swing back makes the tip sweep pronounced compared to most conventional bars. Attaching lights and other gear to the bars is potentially very awkward too. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that, at just under 300g, they’re not even lighter than a conventional bar and stem combo that adds up cheaper in cost too.