I need anywhere from three to seventy-nine rides to get my stem straight after putting on a new one or taking it off for any reason. This is not unusual. Look around on a group ride at any moment and you can see at least one person squinting stemward, alternating perspective by closing the left then right eye, cocking a head this way and that. The only more haunted person ever than a cyclist who just put a stem on is that guy who kept hearing a heartbeat come out of the floorboards.
I used to spend about half an hour setting the stem where I wanted it when I first installed it. Then I realized it was never straight no matter how much time I took. Now I just slap the thing on, eye it up while straddling the top tube and singing along to whatever build music I have playing, and torque up the bolts after just one adjustment. On the next ride, I begin a process of ever-finer adjustments, going from multi-millimeter movements down to mere brushes of my fingers meant to close up a gap roughly the size of the space between a proton and an electron. At some point during the finickiest of these changes, I inadvertently whack the hell of the stem and restart the whole process from a worse position than ever. But I persist—because the only stem-related madness worse than not being able to get it right is, of course, riding with it not right—and, one day, miraculously, the stem is exactly, perfectly, flawlessly where I want it.
That is, inevitably, when someone hops on my bike for a second, or wheels it across the shop for me, or in some other way gets a rider’s vantage and says, “Hey—you know your stem’s crooked?”
I used to believe them. I would go over to their bikes to see an example of a straight stem. I would say, “Hey—you know your stem’s crooked?”
My saddle sits lopsided to the world, too—but just right for me. I fudge my left shifter up in comparison to my right, not much, maybe just a couple millimeters, because when they are identically situated, the bike feels off to me. My cleats don’t sit the same on both shoes. One of my socks always rides higher. The right leg of all of my knickers ends up three or four inches higher than the left.
It all feels great to me. I’m a mess on a bike. But I’m my idea of a mess. That’s better than being someone else’s idea of perfection.
Originally published in The Selection, May 10, 2013