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I keep reading threads about bike fit and stem lengths indicating that one should have a stem that provides knee and elbow clearence. One, that seems it will require a pretty long stem to actually have the knees be on front of the elbows when in the drops. My problem is I don't see what difference it makes as my knees are inside my elbows so they will never hit eachother, even with a very short stem. What am I missing??

Are we to be worried the knees will actually hit the elbows, or is it an indication of how stretched out one should be?
 

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Fuzzy indicator.

Knee-to-elbow clearance while on the drops is just a rough visual check to see if a rider's upper body is cramped up or not. I'm comfortable when I see no less than one inch of daylight between my elbow and my kneecap while riding hard in the drops and sitting in the middle of my saddle. That kind of clearance might also be fine for you - or not. So experiment out on the road, remembering that sliding forward or backward on the saddle will affect that clearance substantially.

Years ago, the stationary fitting guideline was to put your hands in the drops of the bars, then position the crank parallel with the downtube. If your elbow just brushed your kneecap, you were said to have proper upper body extension. Nowadays, most competitive riders like to ride much more extended than that.
 

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Another "rule of thumb that has pretty much bitten the dust is that when your hands are in the drops, the bars should obscure your view of the front hub. It really depends on what you're comfortable with. If you're a new rider, or even very experienced, your preferred position might change from time to time. On both my commuter and my race bike, my front hub appears well behind my bars. Your mileage may vary though.
 

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Careful with that

Mr. Versatile said:
Another "rule of thumb that has pretty much bitten the dust is that when your hands are in the drops, the bars should obscure your view of the front hub. It really depends on what you're comfortable with. If you're a new rider, or even very experienced, your preferred position might change from time to time. On both my commuter and my race bike, my front hub appears well behind my bars. Your mileage may vary though.
One key thing in this particular rule of thumb is HOW you look at your front hub. If I tip my head down to look, then my hub is way behind my bars. If I keep my head in my normal riding position and look down with my eyes, the hub disappears. Again, this guide is just a starting point, but you can really confuse yourself if you start tilting your head down to take a look.
 

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You're Not the Boss of Me
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Actually that rule of thumb was/is for "on the hoods" not "in the drops".
 

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Cowboy up
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The amount of clearance between knees and elbows varies depending upon how far you lean over. Perhaps that is another reason it can only be a rough indicator. Also I thought the handlebar width is based on shoulder width. It seems natural for elbows to be outside of knees.
 
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