Brian Palmer of believes the bike trade needs its headset examined. It’s crazy to innovate in an area that may need little innovation...

CHAIN REACTION: Headset headache

For years and years, we’ve had headsets and stems. Adjustment of the former was with a whacking great spanner, or if you were really fastidious, two of the blighters. And the stem went up and down with the aid of a 6mm allen key. 20th Century and all’s well.

But that’s all gone now, and innate Luddite tendencies or not, it seems a lamentable situation. The threads disappeared from the steerer, the stem clamped to the new, smooth surface, but unless you invested heavily in washers, it no longer rose to the occasion.

Carbon doesn’t take kindly to being threaded, so the aheadset would probably have had to be invented anyway, and it’s not that I think it’s a backward step, I’m just not sure it’s a step at all. The promise was lightness having dispensed with that long threaded bolt, the wedge at the bottom and the headset locknut. And now almost ‘on the fly’ adjustment of a loose headset. I can go along with the adjustment part, but the reduction in weight?

Adding insult to injury, the bicycle industry decided that a one inch steerer was no longer adequate, but was crying out for an extra eighth of an inch diameter. Hmmm. The bizarre part of this latter ‘development’ has resulted in a still not inconsiderable availability of one inch headsets, but a total dearth of one inch compatible stems. How can that be, particularly when there are companies that manufacture both items?

I currently have bars and stem on test, and have had to fit a (manufacturer supplied) alloy shim over the carbon steerer, because my four year-old bicycle does not have the contemporary steerer diameter. Marketing wins again.

The professed reason for this increase in steerer diameter was a need for more stiffness in the steering department. But Coppi, Merckx, Anquetil, Indurain et al seem to have achieved their victories despite competing at such an obvious disadvantage – and also with a standard, square taper bottom bracket spindles, but I promised not to mention that.

The penultimate straw was to move the bearings inside the head-tube, after having given them fresh air since time immemorial, except if it makes sense to shift the bottom bracket bearings outboard for more stiffness, how does shifting the headset bearings inboard accomplish the same thing? And is it really a good idea to have the bearing surfaces integrated with the tube?

It didn’t stop there, however, because recent ‘innovations’ now mean that the steerer tapers bottom to top, allowing one diameter of bearings at the top of an integrated headset, and an even larger diameter at the bottom. Again, stiffness is the quoted grail.

I can almost see the justification for all this on mountain bikes, especially those farm gates that just go downhill quickly, but on a sub 6.5kg carbon road bike?

While the larger of the world’s bicycle retailers can presumably absorb the costs of re-tooling their workshops to maintain this ever widening array of headset related paraphernalia, smaller outfits must be hurting to buy all the new kit – or simply not bothering at all.

I don’t doubt that Pettachi, Zabel, and Boonen delight in this new found steering rigidity as they head towards each others’ elbows and the photo finish. But was it absolutely necessary to impose it upon those of considerably lesser ability and bank accounts? I am not against progress: my daily road bike pleasure features Italian carbon fibre and I’m even turning carbon chainrings. Genuine progress in bicycle and component design I find quite exciting, but footering around with what was a perfectly adequate state of affairs just messes with my headset.

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