Aligning the Stem and the Front Wheel AKA Why I am Now Insane

07.24.2013 | 7:55 am

A Note from Fatty about the WBR Contest: I have two awesome things to tell you today. I shall reveal them to you in the form of this convenient numerical list.

  1. Today’s Giveaway from Today TheFeed will be giving away a one-month subscription to The Feed – the 14-piece, 19.99 pack — along with a six-pack of Garmin-Sharp Podium Bottles
  2. We’ve Reached the Ceiling: Trek’s matching program for the month had the upper limit of $90,000. We’ve reached that limit, and blown right by it So from this point our dollars are not being matched by Trek. This does not however alter the number of chances you will get in any donations you make in the contest for the bike and The Feed. Which means when you donate you still get the same number of bonus chances as when the matching was going on.

I have to say, I love the fact that Trek put together an audacious matching program with a very large matching ceiling — and then donors smashed right through that ceiling, with plenty of days left in the month. That says good things about everyone. 

And remember, the Trek Madone Series 7 / ENVE Wheels and Cockpit / SRAM RED bike contest continues through the end of the month, so — if you haven’t already — be sure to donate today.

Aligning the Stem and the Front Wheel AKA Why I am Now Insane

I have ridden in an astonishing number of conditions. In the snow. In rain. Up steep hills with grocery bags hanging from my handlebars. In 111-degree (F) temperatures (last weekend, in fact). 

No matter what, though, I love being on my bike. I just do.

Unless and except when I start fixating on one thing. One simple, unimportant — but absolutely infuriating — thing that completely absorbs my attention and has, I’m sad to report, driven me completely insane.

I am speaking, of course, of the alignment of my bike stem to my front wheel.

Now, some of you are cocking your heads in confusion. What could I possibly mean? What problem is there with stem / wheel alignment? The stem points forward, the wheel points forward. They’re aligned. 

Others of you, on the other hand, know exactly what I’m talking about, and are nodding sympathetically. You may even be suppressing an urge to reach out and give me a hug, for which I thank you (for the suppression of the urge part, I mean).

The Problem

For those of you who don’t get it, let me try to explain.

In an ideal universe, your stem should be pointing exactly straight when your front wheel is pointing exactly straight. Like in this very well-drawn illustration:


See how nice that is? The line of the stem is obviously going right down the middle of the front wheel, which means the handlebar is perfectly perpendicular to both the front wheel and the stem.

Unfortunately, real-world space is three dimensional. Which poses a real problem for me. Specifically, neither of my eyes is exactly in the center of my head, so even if the stem is perfectly aligned, when I look down at the stem and bar with just my right eye, it looks like this:


And if I look at it with just my left eye, it looks like this:


And before long, I’m riding along, looking straight down, peering through one eye and then the other, moving my head side to side, wondering not whether my stem is perhaps slightly off, but just exactly how incredibly misaligned it is. 

And also, how is it even possible that I’m able to stay on my bike with my handlebar turned so egregiously either this way or that (depending on which eye is open at the moment).

No, Seriously, This IS a PROBLEM

I try to calm myself. I tell myself, “Look, even if the stem isn’t perfectly aligned with the wheel, it’s pretty darned close. I mean, think about your arms for a second. Is one or the other of them closer or farther away than the other when you’re riding?

So I begin to focus on my arms. I look at the left, then the right. They’re out at approximately the same angle.


I look again. I’m not sure, but I think my right arm might be stretched out a little bit further than my left arm. Or it’s possible that the opposite is true. Regardless, I am beginning to be convinced that — one way or another — my arms aren’t stretched out the same amount.

“This must be why my right hand goes to sleep when I ride,” I think. “Because my right arm is stretched out further than my left arm.”

“Or not as far, I guess,” I conclude to myself.

And then I begin to wonder how it’s possible that I’m ever able to even ride in a straight line at all. With my stem so crooked (either pointing too far left or too far right…I’m still not sure), I should be riding in perpetual circles.

Then, just to see whether it helps me figure things out, I try riding around in circles to see which is easier: clockwise or counterclockwise. 

The results are troubling, but inconclusive.

Attempts at Diagnosis

Back at home, I stand over my bike. My left eye closed, my neck craned slightly so that my right eye is — I imagine — exactly lined up with the top tube. I position the stem so that it is a perfect continuance of that straight line, then look to see if the front wheel continues that Platonic Straight Line.

It does. Or maybe it doesn’t, quite. It’s hard to tell. 

So I do it over, this time with my left eye. In the end, I give up without adjusting anything. Whenever I adjust things, it only gets worse the next ride. “Did I adjust it too much? Or maybe not enough? Is it better now, even a little? Or is it out of alignment now, but just in a different way?”

And then, “You know, I’m not even sure I adjusted it in the correct direction. And now I think my headset is creaking.”

I tell Lisa about this problem, wondering if she does the same thing. She looks at me uncomprehendingly. “My bike is fine.”

What does she know?

Invention is Needed

I go to the Park Tools website. There must be a tool for this, something that makes it mathematically certain that your stem is lined up with your wheel. I can even picture it: two ratcheting clamps, parallel to each other, on a telescoping bar. Fasten one end to the stem, the other to the wheel. 

There is no such tool. I consider a Kickstarter to create one, then realize I’m terrible with using tools and may be the single worst person in the world to invent one.

So maybe there needs to be a new standard, I think. Where forks and stems interlock, so they line up perfectly all the time.

Also, by the way, I’d like someone to do the same with seatposts.

And In Conclusion

I’m heading out on a ride now; it is my sincere hope that I will be able to ignore the horror that is the misaligned stem / front wheel.

Further, I am acutely aware that there will be someone who will read this and — having never before given this malady a single thought — will suddenly become obsessed.

And in short, I apologize for having brought this to your attention.




  1. Comment by Davidh-marin,ca | 07.24.2013 | 8:02 am

    There’s a simple answer to this: Unicycle…and I think you may have one….still.

  2. Comment by iRide | 07.24.2013 | 8:14 am

    Invention is not needed but possibly an intervention.

  3. Comment by Tom in Albany | 07.24.2013 | 8:36 am

    Mr.FC. I’m sorry you’ve missed on on the biggest piece here! It’s not just the stem-front wheel relationship. Even more important is the wheel alignment. Does a straight line run through the the rear wheel’s tire along the diameter run exactly along the front wheel’s diameter? Imagine the inefficiency induced by misalignment there. Does that same link perfectly bisect the seat tube and down tube and, for that matter, the bottom bracket? Am I unknowingly forced towards one side slight more than the other to stay balanced? Are the wheels just badly installed or is the frame bent? Holy hollyhocks, Batman! Stop me before it’s too late!!!!

    Elden, your desire for precision means that maybe you have an engineer gene in you. However, you clearly do not have “The Knack” ( so, it’s clearly squelched by your “World Famous Blogger/Fundraiser” gene.

    Relax. Enjoy. Ride your bike. Just make sure you remembered to adequately tighten your stem so that you don’t crash!

  4. Comment by dicky | 07.24.2013 | 8:45 am

    Just close both eyes, problem solved.

  5. Comment by EdwinH | 07.24.2013 | 8:52 am

    A detailed, step by step procedure for perfect alignment was already developed and published a while back:

  6. Comment by Sylvia | 07.24.2013 | 8:54 am

    This is the reason my bike shop hates me…

  7. Comment by JRay | 07.24.2013 | 9:46 am

    I am so glad you brought this issue to light. For so long I have felt alone in my obsession. Today! I have an ally. Whew… I thought it was just me.
    Perhaps the tool could be a combo stem, seat post alignment thingamajig. Hmm…? C’Mon Park Tools you have a niche to fill.

  8. Comment by Tim | 07.24.2013 | 10:09 am

    Bravo Dicky, Bravo.

  9. Comment by Arpad | 07.24.2013 | 10:53 am

    You are Woody Allen on a bike. That’s a compliment.

  10. Comment by Anonymous | 07.24.2013 | 11:00 am

    I use a level. Set the corner of the level in the center of your tire, then align the edge of the level with the center of your stem and make sure the bubble is dead center. Then try as hard as you can not to think about it again.

  11. Comment by Wife#1 | 07.24.2013 | 11:02 am

    Ahahaha – Woody Allen on a bike! Perfect!

    I cannot pretend to truly comprehend your plight Fatty, because I barely know what a stem is. And when you guys start throwing out all the bike tech geek speak, my eyes glaze over faster than drizzled sugar on a krispy kreme.

    However … I’m pretty sure that like Sylvia, my bike shop hates me. Mainly because I hear what is apparently a “phantom” chain ring sound much of the time. I apparently have the hearing of a dog, cause I’m the only one that can hear it. Or, it doesn’t actually exist and it’s all in my head. Either way, I have to bake a lot of cookies to keep my boys up the road happy. Make no mistake, they still roll their eyes when they see me strolling in the door, but I like to think (delude myself) it’s in an affectionate kind of way.

    So who won the bibs? I’m really hoping it was either Nancy, AKChick, EvinNZ or a Chapek brother! If the latter, they should use them for prototype work.

  12. Comment by Jerry Pringle | 07.24.2013 | 11:08 am

    Thanks, Fatty, for this post – I think about this every time I ride! I swear that my bike leans left, because I see the bottom of the front rim with my right eye, but I’m right-eye dominant, so most every perspective is shifted. I can’t ride far enough with my right eye closed to see the difference without crashing! Don’t get me started on making sure the cap on the stem is aligned either – and it doesn’t do anything!

    My long lost brother. – FC

  13. Comment by Zeeeter | 07.24.2013 | 11:15 am

    Davidh-marin,ca – can’t believe you mentioned the Unicycle. Do you know how much trouble I got into last time I reminded him about it? :)

    That said, what if your saddle is misaligned with the one wheel . . . . ?

  14. Comment by Wife#1 | 07.24.2013 | 11:32 am

    @Zeeter… can’t remember if David has mentioned before that I actually know how to ride a unicycle. A residual talent from my youth that has mysteriously been retained against all odds.

    I missed all the unicycle hoopla. What’s the story? You can stand to get in trouble again. Can Fatty ride one already? Or has one and doesn’t know how? Or does he have one of those giant, off-road ones that look like crazy-all-packaged-up-in-a-single-wheel?

    I’ll state the obvious. If I can ride one, anyone can!

  15. Comment by Richard P. Kelly | 07.24.2013 | 11:37 am

    You need a third eye.

    And after I just went to all that time and expense of having the damned thing removed. – FC

  16. Comment by Saso | 07.24.2013 | 11:45 am

    I don’t share this obsession. However, I have obsession of my own – with any sound that the bike is making apart from the standard silent perfect swish. Any crackling or tinkling sound just tears me apart on my ride.

  17. Comment by Kristina | 07.24.2013 | 11:50 am

    That ’someone’? That someone will be me. You may have just, with one fell blog post, rendered me unable to contentedly ride my bicycle ever again.

    I’m so sorry. – FC

  18. Comment by Brian in VA | 07.24.2013 | 12:07 pm

    I think it’s far more important to understand that the earth spins at approximately 1,000 mph and, while spinning, it is circling the Sun at approximately 67,000 mph. So we’re on a round ball that is spinning and circling another round ball at very high rates of speed. At any moment, we could be going almost 70,000 mph in a slightly curved line! It’s a wonder any of us can ride a straight line when we want.

    In others words, I think those pesky handlebars and their misalignment don’t amount to a hill of beans in terms of your ability to ride straight lines. So, enjoy the ride and stop looking down.

  19. Comment by PNP | 07.24.2013 | 12:15 pm

    Seriously, you can solve the whole thing with a piece of string.

    Don’t tease. Explain how. – FC

  20. Comment by ColoradoXJ13 | 07.24.2013 | 12:21 pm

    What you have not considered is that eve in if your stem is straight, the handlebar might be slightly bent from a crash, making everything worse.


  21. Comment by wishiwasmerckx | 07.24.2013 | 12:35 pm

    I realize that this column was mostly for humorous purposes, but I do have two solutions for you. To avoid the dominant eye effect, turn the handlebar 90 degrees and eyeball the alignment from side to side instead of from front to back. Also, take a yardstick and hold it on edge down the middle of your stem. Much easier to align when the reference points are stretched out for you.

  22. Comment by Andrew | 07.24.2013 | 12:41 pm

    I’m obsessed with this, too. A month ago, I posted a question about aligning the stem on Bicycles Stack Exchange:

    Unfortunately, no one has given a good answer yet. :(

  23. Comment by Frank | 07.24.2013 | 12:52 pm

    You forgot another issue, that’s every bit as important, but maybe not as visible. Nobody’s two arms are the same length. One side will be longer than the other. For that reason, and that alone, you do not want your handle bars perpendicular to the wheel. You need the misalignment because of your own peculiar abnormality.

    Line up your stem with the handle corresponding to your long arm forward. Then you just look out the eye that makes it look like you’re perfectly aligned. Problem solved.

  24. Comment by Steven | 07.24.2013 | 1:54 pm

    The piece of string would need a plumb bob on the end. Just run it over the center of the end of the stem, and let it dangle just over the tire. Center it up and lock it down.

  25. Comment by UpNorth | 07.24.2013 | 2:00 pm

    This is an issue for me, but only on the trainer. I can spend an entire workout trying to convince myself that yes, it is all straight/aligned and no, I do NOT need to get off my bike and check it from another angle…

  26. Comment by lowco2 | 07.24.2013 | 2:03 pm

    Now imagine all the trouble people have who ride lefty forks! Every time I look down, I’m frightened for a second to discover half my front end is missing. Where did it go? Do others have this problem.

  27. Comment by Curtis Manley | 07.24.2013 | 2:11 pm

    And here I was just getting over the horror that I can still see my front hub in front of my handlebars on my road bike! You’ve ruined my rides for the next six months. Damn you fatty!

  28. Comment by Spiff | 07.24.2013 | 2:18 pm

    I got mine straight but I keep wondering how I can get it straighter.

  29. Comment by notmuchofarunner | 07.24.2013 | 2:39 pm


    (I now hate you, of course, but wonderful nonetheless)

  30. Comment by Steve | 07.24.2013 | 2:41 pm

    I’m afraid to touch my stem because after I took the bike to the mechanic the last time the headset came back adjusted perfectly. I don’t care if the handlebars are angled 45 degrees from the front wheel, I’m not fooling with it because I’ll just mess the headset up and the handlebars still won’t be straight. BTW add Bill Strickland to the list of stem alignment obsessive compulsives.

  31. Comment by Steve | 07.24.2013 | 2:53 pm

    Man, more insane people then I ever imagined riding bikes. Of course, most non-bike riders think riding even 10 miles on a bike is insane, so we are all pretty much in the same boat.

  32. Comment by Jeff Bike | 07.24.2013 | 3:08 pm

    Pop a chalk line on the floor and align both wheels exactly centered on this line, then make sure the bike is perfectly vertical with a level, then with a string and plum-bob….oh never mind! take it to the shop and let a pro do it.

  33. Comment by Brian | 07.24.2013 | 3:27 pm

    Close one eye. Align the stem with the wheel using only one eye. Viola!

  34. Comment by roan | 07.24.2013 | 3:56 pm

    Fatty, maybe you are dealing with more than real world space, the 4th dim-ension ‘lies’ between the ears, and that 3rd eye is the problem. I’ve the same condition…that is until I attached my ‘cell’ phone to my ’stem’. Problem solved…stem cells just know where to go.

  35. Comment by evanf | 07.24.2013 | 4:33 pm

    Sorry that I haven’t read through all of the comments, but I would think that if you use your digital camera (or your phone’s camera) that has one eye, you should be able to look at that image as you are holding it over the bars and stem and see if things are set up right.

  36. Comment by Mendrick | 07.24.2013 | 6:14 pm

    Dicky… Baaahahahahaha. And I suppose TWO pieces of string work. And a ruler. And something to weight the string down with. And maybe something even more precise like a caliper to measure with. Tie said weights on the string. Now tie strings onto handlebars the exact same distance from the center line of the bike. Now measure distance of each weight to center of tire… Waala. Just have to put the bike in a stand that aligns front and back tires while doing this. Honestly have no clue- but that sounds good right? I say dicky is on to something myself.

  37. Comment by Clydesteve | 07.24.2013 | 6:36 pm

    People keep telling you to use a plumb bob, fatty, but they do not say how: eat the PLUM and BOB’s your uncle!

  38. Comment by JohnP | 07.24.2013 | 8:07 pm

    AAAHHHH. You have infected me. I never thought or worried about this until after I read this and went for a ride tonight. It is like someone else getting a song stuck in your head. Curse you Fatty!!!!

  39. Comment by MikeL | 07.24.2013 | 8:37 pm

    When I hit infinite do-loops like this my first wife would typically ask me if anal retentive is two words or hyphenated.

  40. Comment by Santi | 07.24.2013 | 9:03 pm

    Plumb line: String + washer.

    Make sure you are on a flat surface.

    Step 1: tie washer to string.
    Step 2: unscrew stem cap bolt 1/2 way.
    Step 3: dangle washer as close to middle of tire as possible. Run string through middle of stem faceplate and tie go around stem bolt.
    Step 4: wait a few seconds until washer stops moving (this will feel like 10 minutes).
    Step 5: if washer does not align with center of tire, correct stem angle by small increments and return to step 4.

    Fixing bikes with science!

  41. Comment by John H. | 07.24.2013 | 9:10 pm

    Oh bugger…….!

  42. Comment by Arizona guy | 07.24.2013 | 10:22 pm

    I actually wrote a letter to Leonard Zinn himself about this and got a response. I assumed pro wrench’s had a trick to assure this exact alignment – but the sad fact is no! Half the pro peloton are squinting at their front wheels certain something is wrong, and all the responses were summed up as ‘eyeball it and forget it’ so I try…

  43. Comment by Rach | 07.25.2013 | 3:03 am

    There must be an easy solution to this, I’m sure you’ll get it aligned :)

  44. Comment by Espen | 07.25.2013 | 4:27 am

    The tool is called a ruler. Simple as that.

  45. Comment by BamaJim | 07.25.2013 | 5:15 am

    Parallax causing problems again. At least it lets you see the rocks on the trail in 3d and, hopefully avoid them.

  46. Comment by Napleszen | 07.25.2013 | 8:00 am

    A level and a plumb bob or heavy bolt on a string, you should be able to get it aligned with these items.

  47. Comment by Nic Grillo | 07.25.2013 | 8:14 am

    What’s worse is getting on your bike after a crash and spending the whole rest of the ride wondering if the crash messed up my alignment, or was it already like that in the first place. And if it was already like that, is looking at the stem with one eye closed what caused me to crash?

  48. Comment by NYCCarlos | 07.25.2013 | 10:32 am

    I think I have it worse. I have an aero seatpost, so it doesn’t twist, but my seat rails aren’t perfectly straight because I wrecked on that seat once. My seat is never in perfect alignment. It’s always about 2degrees off! DRIVES ME BATTY!

  49. Comment by Beka | 07.25.2013 | 11:17 am

    Just wear a pirate patch over one eye to ride! Problem solved! ;)

  50. Comment by Clancy | 07.25.2013 | 12:12 pm

    Went for a nice long ride last night and couldn’t stop looking at the stem/wheel alignment. Thanks Fatty!!

    But I also realized something else – something you’ve missed in this fit/alignment segment.. Other have noted that often one arm is longer than the other, and while that is to be considered, I’ve also always suspected that my head-to-shoulder center is not quite even – that if you measure the centerline of my spine to the center-point of my shoulder sockets, you will find that my right shoulder is 2 or so mm longer than my left shoulder (based on my totally scientific evidence of looking at myself in the mirrors in spin class for years always wondering why my t-shirt sleeves are never even). But my point is – if my right should is indeed 2-3 mm farther displaced from my body centerline, then shouldn’t my handlebars be offset from center by the same amount to properly compensate?

  51. Comment by Davidh-marin,ca | 07.25.2013 | 6:05 pm


    Has it required a realignment of how you ‘dress’? Left or Right

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  53. Comment by Peter Leach | 07.25.2013 | 9:13 pm

    I’ve stolen my LBS’ method:
    - loosen head stem / steerer bolts
    - hang bike by its front wheel
    - stand back and check alignment of front wheel, head stem (and top tube if you want)
    - tighten head stem / steerer bolts

  54. Comment by Tim R | 07.25.2013 | 9:53 pm

    Lasers. Surely someone can make something with fricking lasers. One hundred percent with you, Fatty. Drives me to drink some nights.

  55. Comment by AKChick55 | 07.26.2013 | 12:36 am

    SNORT! ROFLMAO! Oh my word! I think that I enjoyed the comments more than the post! So. Incredibly. Awesome. And Dicky – oh man, you take the prize. I was howling with laughter and giggling uncontrollably for several seconds. Glad I’m home alone with the dogs. :) I don’t have this problem but I do have a squeak that I can’t find that is driving me crazy. I’ve lubed everything I can find and it’s STILL SQUEAKING. AGGGGGHHHH

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  57. Comment by centurion | 07.26.2013 | 10:59 am

    “What does she know?”
    She knows she is The Hammer. And you are the nail.
    She know she should just on the damn thing and ride.
    She is smart.
    She knows you should just get on and ride too.

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  59. Comment by Anonymous | 07.29.2013 | 12:03 pm

    Put your head over the stem. Close one eye. Sight down the right side of the stem toward the front wheel, lining up the right edge of the stem, the right edge of the top of the wheel, and the right edge of the bottom of the wheel. Note how much of the bottom of the wheel is visible when the edge of the stem and the edge of the top of the wheel are exactly aligned. Repeat with the left side of the stem. Adjust so that the revealed part of the bottom of the wheel is identical on both sides.

  60. Comment by Rory | 07.29.2013 | 12:21 pm

    I’m thinking a laser line level will probably do the job.

    If you can shine the line from above the bike so as to dissect the stem and then the tire right down the centerline of both you should be pretty assured that the slight off angle is you compensating for road camber as you right and not a 1/2 degree “it was right before I tightened those two bolts” critical adjustment.

  61. Comment by Ken | 07.29.2013 | 10:26 pm

    Too late. I adjusted mine after each of the last two rides. ONce to the left and once to the right. I’m sure it is good now though…

  62. Comment by Chris Balser | 07.30.2013 | 9:58 am

    I have invented the device, which will be available for purchase early next year. I needed to wait for the patent to use bike handlebars to slign bicycle componentry.

  63. Comment by ????? ??? ?? | 09.9.2013 | 6:17 pm

    ????? ?????


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