To Thread or Not to Thread

In this era of hi-zoot, threadless/integrated headsets and clamp-on stems, old-fashioned threaded headsets and quill stems seem almost quaint. I don’t normally think of myself as a Luddite, but I have to admit, in this case I far prefer the old to the new.

Sure, threadless systems have their advantages; the headsets are easy to adjust and the stems are stiff and strong. The downside though, is that making adjustments to bar height requires purchasing a new stem, an extender, or even a new fork. And, of course, once the steerer tube is cut, there’s no going back.

I have to wonder if the oft-touted advantages of threadless systems are actually of any use to the typical commuter or utility bicyclist. I’ve run threaded headsets for decades and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to adjust a headset. Also, unless someone is racing or riding offroad in rugged conditions, how stiff does a stem need to be? Instead of worrying about stem stiffness, we transportational bicyclists might be better off heeding Sheldon Brown’s advice.

I suspect the real reason the industry has pushed to promote threadless headsets is that they reduce inventory for both shops and manufacturers.

I suspect the real reason the industry has pushed to promote threadless headsets is that they reduce inventory for both shops and manufacturers. With threaded steerers, suppliers need to stock a different fork for every frame size. With threadless steerers, suppliers only need to stock one fork size, which can be cut down to the customer’s preference at the time the bike is assembled. Certainly this is a legitimate approach when looked at from a business perspective, but it offers no real benefit to the end user.

I must admit, I simply prefer the look of quill stems. To me, they’re more elegant and look less industrial than clamp-on stems. But beyond their aesthetic qualities, they also offer the tremendous advantage of being fully adjustable over a vertical range of a few inches. Proper bar height is crucial to rider comfort, and for most people, the ease with which quill stems can be adjusted is likely to outweigh any benefits associated with threadless systems.

Which type of headset/stem do you prefer?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

41 Responses to “To Thread or Not to Thread”

  • Jon Grinder says:

    While we are at it, I’d like to throw in a shout-out to 3-piece bottom brackets. Cartidges require no skill to install, and are adjustment-free, but none of them spin like a well-adjusted “real” bottom bracket.

    A caveat: I do use cartridge bottom brackets in some of my bikes, but only because I’m lazy.

  • Paul says:

    I hate the aesthetics of quill stems, they look so rubbish to my eyes. How often do you adjust your bar height really?

  • AJ says:

    Quill = Easy.

    I do not adjust often, admittingly; but the simplicity and aesthetics appeal to me.

    aj

  • Jeremy says:

    I love the looks of a nice quill stem, but after having to unwrap and then rewrap my handlebars last week (after the threading on my quill somehow managed to become stripped) I would have preferred a threadless stem with a faceplate.

    Also a lot of the threadless stems that custom builders are making are extremely elegant.

  • Nicolas says:

    Is aesthetics a good reason ?
    - If yes, i’d choose Threaded,
    - if no, then the choice “no opinion” is missing !

  • Andrew says:

    I’m indifferent – one of my bikes is threadless, one is threaded (actually, I’m pretty sure my beater is also threaded, but the stem bolt head is stripped, so fat lot of good it does me).

    I’ll agree with Paul, though, except for when you are initially sussing out fit on a new bike and making tiny tweaks, or when you’re swapping out major components (like a new kind of handlebar), I don’t really see any reason to change stem height, and so the one advantage ends up being kind of moot.

  • David says:

    Alan, I disagree with many of your assertions on this one.

    I’ve had to adjust the headsets on my various bikes over the years far more often than I’ve had to adjust bar height. In fact, the stiffness and strength advantages of threadless systems makes it less likely that you’ll need to adjust the headset at all.

    I would also argue that the cost advantages to the bicycling industry benefit the consumer by relieving pricing pressure. There’s a lot of competition in the industry so it’s not like the manufacturers are just using the cost savings to pad their profits. More likely it’s giving the consumer more bike for the money. Also, most small bike shops aren’t exactly printing money, so anything that reduces their costs is helping the consumer by keeping them in business.

    As for your aesthetic preference, there’s no arguing that point and it’s certainly nice to be able to adjust bar height if necessary, but the benefits of the threadless system shouldn’t be minimized. If the bespoke manufacturers want to use threads and their customers prefer them, great! But I think for the mass market, threadless is the way to go and don’t forget that it’s the mass market that ultimately produces the customers for the bespoke market.

  • Rex in Phoenix says:

    If I were buying a bike today two of the options in my price range would be the LHT, and the Polyvalent from VO. I’m sure for my style of commuting and general purpose riding the LHT would be a great bike but given the availability of an alternative with a threaded fork, I wouldn’t even consider it. I’m not doctrinaire about avoiding threadless systems. If I found myself with one on a bike that was otherwise to my liking I wouldn’t give it a second thought, but if I’m starting with a new bike and have no compelling reason to choose the one with a threadless system, I’m going with the threaded fork every time.

    As far as frequency of adjusting bar height, I’ve done it about five times in the last six months as I changed bars, riding durations and styles. That’s irrelevant though—the point about a threadless fork is that once it’s cut you may not be able to adjust it much at all without buying something, even if you only want to do it once.

  • Scott says:

    I also disagree with Alan here.

    Of the 15-20 bikes I’ve owned in my life, I’d say about 10 of them had threaded headsets. And of those, probably all but one or two had headset problems. They were either too loose and could never get tight enough, or they were rusted shut so you couldn’t change or replace or adjust anything.

    I would never by a new bike with a threaded headset again.

  • Ahmad says:

    2 points in favour of threaded:

    1. It may be true that once a rider has found an optimal height, they will not adjust their stem. However, in getting used to a new bike, you might find yourself experimenting with different bar and seat heights – And once that steerer is cut, you’re stuck.

    2. In my work getting old bikes back on the road, I am always pleased to get one with a threaded stem as this means it can be adjusted to fit many different riders, not just the original owner.

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I think threaded equipment is more elegant, but only if you go the Nitto route. There are a lot of god-awful ugly quill stems out there. I just bought an old Nitto Ultegra stem at my local bike non-profit and it’s a real beaut. Perfect for my “fast bike” old Univega I’m building.

    On the other hand, my touring bike has a threadless setup and I have a feeling the added stiffness is nice there. When fully loaded, front and back, more stiffness in the front end is an undeniable advantage. Since I replaced the god-awful ugly Ritchey stem with a much better Verlo-Orange, I can’t moan about the looks as much, either.

    In the end, though, I think the “advantages” of the threadless are not applicable to the average rider. With the exception of the removable handlebar clamp.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    I think each has their place, but I believe most people are better off with threaded. The bike can be adjusted to fit a far greater range of riders more easily, thus extending the useful life of the bike, and most people in the US have their handlebars way too low and then end up wanting to raise it later when they realize they aren’t Lance (or simply age). As for aesthetics, to me there’s nothing more beautiful than a Nitto bar/stem combo out there.

    IMHO Threadless makes a lot of sense for race bikes, but very little sense otherwise.

    BTW, there is nothing that says a threaded stem cannot have a removable faceplate or that a threadless stem will.

    One final note: threadless stems *have* opened up the possibility of having steerers made out of anything other than steel. Despite how you might feel about non-steel steerer tubes, it simply wan’t realistic to make them out of anything other than steel or ti pre-threadless.

  • Logan says:

    One other benefit to a threaded stem is the ability of attaching accessories! Like the picture above, the crane hammer strike bell only fits one inch tubing. When we built up the rowdykitten’s bike she choose over-sized drop bars with a flat rest on the top of the bar for comfort. This bar shape in combination with a the short threadless stem makes mounting any “dashboard” accessories very difficult. We have resorted to zip ties to cheat on the oversized diameter and odd shape of the bars.

    I agree on the aesthetics of the threaded. I have been considering having a fork built that will lower the trail and will fit a threaded stem on my Surly LHT. ;)

  • Andrew says:

    @ Jeremy

    Totally forgot about the PITA that is removing bars from a quill stem (funny, because I just did it recently).

    That alone is almost enough to cement my vote for threadless.

  • Tim in S.B. says:

    I have an aversion to low bars. Even with an appropriately fitted Surly LHT with an uncut steerer tube, I find myself wanting those bars higher than even the highest riser stem can give me. So my last option is to get a stem extender, which may or may not compromise the strength. The main problem with threadless systems is if the steerer is too short to begin with, you can only go so high later on, unless you buy a new fork.

    My alternate commuter is a 1988 rockhopper with a quill stem. The stock quill stem is at its maximum upward extension and to get the bars higher, I can swap the quill stem with a high rise quill like the Nitto Dirt Drop, or get a quill stem extender. My main issue with quill stems is that they don’t commonly come with stem caps, so changing handlebars takes longer.

    Since I’m always tinkering with my bikes, my ideal stem would be a quill stem with a stem cap for easy bar removal. For me, comfort comes before aesthetics, and I think funky setups have their own aesthetic appeal.

    Tim in S.B.

  • Jeremy says:

    @ Andrew

    Yea I was fuming by the end of the stem change. Bar end shifter off, unwrap leather tape, brake lever off, change stem, brake lever back on, bar end shifter back on, rewrap tape.

  • Bob says:

    The problem with height adjustment and threadless headset/stem set ups is that bike shops or manufacturers cut the steerer too short. At our shop we don’t cut steerer tubes unless requested to do so by the customer. By leaving some spacers above the top of the stem you are able to adjust bar height quickly and easily. Most manufacturers unfortunately cut their steerer tubes too short to allow much adjustment. Surly is a notable exception in that they do not cut their steerer tubes on any bike. We’ve had several customers use two stems on LHTs giving them a second bar just for accessory mounting.
    One other advantage of threadless stems is that by flipping the stem over you can get two different angles.

  • Lyle says:

    I’ve got a bad neck so need an upright, fully adjustable stem. Obviously, quill stems are the only way (for me) to go. There are times when I want to go fast and therefore have the option of lowering the stem, but those times are getting fewer and farther between. Threadless setups are worthless to me unless I could get an extra long steerer.

  • Tamia Nelson says:

    Boy, this is a very personal decision in so many ways. I have bikes with threadless and those with threaded headsets. The quill on one with a threaded headset is “frozen” and cannot be removed, which has been causing me some headaches. I really like the aesthetics of threaded headsets on traditional bicycle designs, however, but the convenience and easy customization of threadless has won me over for my newer bikes. So, I really have no preference overall, and feel the bike type would steer (ahem) my decision if I were building up a custom bike. Maybe you should include a third category, Alan — No Preference.

  • Reuben Collins says:

    @Andrew
    @Jeremy

    I agree that swapping handlebars on nitto-style quill stems is a pain. I’m sure you both know this, but for the record, the type of headset you prefer doesn’t necessarily determine your handlebar mounting system. There are plenty of threaded/quill systems that use a faceplate handlebar mounting system.

  • Jim Ball says:

    I change handlebars frequently, (carpal tunnel) and I ride a little higher now. I like the adjustable quill with adjustable angle and two bolt faceplate. Different style bars require a longer or shorter reach The two bolt face plate and adjustable angle, make this easy. I have had no issues with the stiffness of the ones I have been using. I am now using handlebars with a little rise and some sweep back. (North Road)
    I am also a chronic tinkerer. Threaded quills rule!
    Jim

  • 2whls3spds says:

    Threaded rules! I bought a used bike with a threadless headset on it. BIG MISTAKE, the former owner must have been Lance, I haven’t been bent that far over since my last proctology exam, or IRS audit…I forget which. Regardless, I was going to have to either replace the front fork, expensive or buy an adjustable stem, not particularly attractive. Fortunately someone wanted the bike pretty bad, so I sold it for what I had in it.

    Aaron

  • RJ says:

    “Making adjustments to bar height requires purchasing a new stem, an extender, or even a new fork.”

    I work in a bke shop and spend all day fitting people on bikes. I would have to disagree. The threadless stem is a blessing– and I’ve never put a new fork or an extender on a bike. Only sometimes does a customer need to “buy a new one [stem],” and it would be with the same frequency of a threaded stem if you’re going to make a comparison. Getting a new stem usually means getting a different length– quill stems do not change in length last I checked– you would have to get a new quill stem as well.

    But often– adjustment only requires flipping the stem over, moving a spacer or two, or using the “wedge shim” that Specialized stems come with, that adds 4 more degree options. All with a basic allen wrench. Easy. So easy, I do it on the floor, in front of the customer, without wisking the bike up to the mechanics.

    So, on the contrary– threadless stems are VERY easy to move around.. up, down, angle and all– they even have more otions. Quill stems can only move up and down. No angle change.

    I think once again– Alan has been wooed by aesthetics. ;)

  • RJ says:

    Also–

    I do not think the adjustability of the stem is intended for the cyclist to adjust while they own their bike (though road cyclists may start with a stem pointed up, then turn it over to flatten it out as they gain flexibility– but this is a very specific case)..

    but rather, the ability to fine tune the handlebar position is important in making a static frame fit a unique human body. Very important indeed! We are all unique.

  • Ron Georg says:

    Howdy–

    Threadless stems were a godsend to mountain bikers. Before threadless, we needed to carry a pair of giant wrenches to tighten a loose headset. There were portable versions, including super-soft aluminum ones, but they were all a pain. Threadless can be adjusted with a five-mill allen.

    This was not a theoretical problem. Threaded headsets were contantly jangling loose on mountain bikes. There were various attempts to fix the problem, such as the maddening little set screws Specialized put on their threaded headsets to (not really) hold the whole mess together.

    Not only do threadless headsets adjust more easily, they rarely come loose once they’re properly torqued.

    I’m somehting of a Grant Peterson disciple myself, and I appreciate the aesthetic and adjustability considerations, but count me on the threadless side.

    @Tamia: Have you tried penetrating oil? Heat can also be effective, though be careful using it around the pentrating oil. Bigger hammers are also often useful.

    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg
    Corvallis, OR

  • Bren says:

    I agree with RJ – in my experience, threadless stems are actually more adjustable than quills. I have several bikes of each type, and unless you have one of those rivendell style, super-long quills, you can only adjust a quill stem by a centimeter or two before it tops out. simply rearranging spacers on my threadless accomplishes that, and then when you flip the stem for extra height, I think its easy to make the case that you threadless stems exceed the adjustability of quill stems.

    not to mention the ease with which you can replace handlebars, as has already been mentioned…

    as for aesthetics, Deda makes some really sexy gun metal stems with matching bars that look great on vintage racing bikes.

  • Doug P says:

    I’ll check in with Ron Georg on this one. The 1″ threaded headsets in the beginning years of mountain biking were a pain, and I welcomed the threadless for the on the trail adjustability, as well as the relative ease of bar replacement. If threaded stems had removable faceplates, that would be a big improvement. I have left plenty of steer tube on my bikes, and have lots of height adjustability as a result. Although Alan is right- aesthetically, the threaded stems like the Nitto are pretty.

  • Reuben Collins says:

    @Bren
    @Doug P

    Again, I know I’m preaching to the choir, but let’s not confuse issues. There are quill stems for use in threaded headsets with removeable faceplates. How the handlebars attach to the stem is a separate issue from how the stem attaches to the fork.

  • Rex in Phoenix says:

    To corroborate Reuben’s point, observe the removable faceplate on the threaded quill stem of the Fuji Cambridge just four posts previous to this one (http://www.ecovelo.info/2010/02/21/pizza-tweed).

  • Croupier says:

    Um, at the factory that I work at all of our forks start off with the same size steerer. We cut down threaded and threadless steerers alike, no need to stock more than one size if you know how to use a hacksaw.

  • Alan says:

    @Croupier

    Most dealers probably don’t want to go through the trouble of threading a steerer, do they? Just wondering…

    Alan

  • Andrew says:

    @ Reuben, Rex

    Huh. Wonder why those never really caught on. I daresay that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that on a quill stem, and yet nearly every threadless stem I’ve seen has a removable faceplate. I assume it’s an aesthetic thing…

  • Montana Cyclist says:

    Velo-Orange and Soma Fabrications both sell threadless stem adapters which allow a threaded headset to be paired with a threadless stem and handlebar. Like many commenters, I love the look of a classic ATB outfitted with a Nitto Dirt Drop. But the VO and Soma products provide plenty of flexibility for raising the height of handlebars and adjusting the reach. And they look pretty good, too.

  • Croupier says:

    @ Alan

    No, I don’t know of many bike shops that would be keen on threading a steerer. However, our threaded forks have a fairly long steerer with a (comparatively) large threaded section. This allows them to to be compatible with all of the head tube lengths that we work with almost exclusively (7″, 7.5″, and 8″). It’s probably a tad easier for us as a recumbent manufacturer (with less head tube sizes), but I’ve recently seen some threaded steel upright forks that are made to be extremely trim-able (Bike Works NYC, SOMA).

  • Carl in San Angelo says:

    Sheldon Brown has an interesting suggestion for building an adjustable threadless headset. Basically, you use a pinch-bolt type seat tube collar to secure the headset, rather than the stem and spacers. That leaves the stem free to move up and down the length of the steerer.

    Take a look at http://www.sheldonbrown.com/handsup.html – scroll down to the section titled Threadless Without Spacers.

  • Aytan says:

    One awsome thing about threadless headsets (I’ve only had one on a bike)
    Get this, you can put TWO STEMS on a threadless fork!!!
    Such a silly idea, but having two sets of handlebars is pretty sweet.
    For touring, a second set of handlebars for riding fully upright, with a stem oriented 180 degrees from the other (towards the rider) with some really slim flat bars.
    Any thoughts?

  • Bill says:

    I own more than one of each, and do all of my own wrenching. Given the choice, I’d go threadless. Servicing and adjusting threadless is much easier, stem swaps are much easier, and with proper planning of spacers, steerer length and stem angles height adjustability is plenty easy enough. A quill stem may be easier to move up or down, until you find the brake cables are too short or too long for the new position, or the long-quill stem has bottomed out in the steerer. Then that advantage is moot.

    Plus, threadless is lighter and lacks nothing in strength. No, lightness isn’t everything, but heaviness without added function is not a virtue on a bicycle.

    The Nitto’s on my Rivendell and Miyata look right at home. So do the VO stems on my two Kogswells, and the Ritchie on my Calfee.

    Bill

  • bob says:

    I see the benefits of threaded headsets, but I will always prefer threadless for one simple reason: they stay in adjustment almost no matter what. Setting the bearing preload is dead simple, and once it’s set, you just clamp that stem down and stop thinking about it.

    Maybe it’s just my luck, but every threaded headset I’ve used (and I’ve used a lot, including some very nice ones) has required near-constant attention. At first I thought maybe I wasn’t torquing the locknuts enough, but I just recently stripped a top nut so I don’t think that’s the issue. Either way, it’s gotten to the point where I instinctively worry about the headset when I ride a bike with a threaded one. With threadless headsets, it’s one less thing to worry about.

  • Rex in Phoenix says:

    For what it’s worth I have been quite enlightened about threadless systems from several of these comments and now have a more positive view of them. I wasn’t anti-them to begin with but didn’t see them as offering much to me personally. Now I see some advantages that might not necessarily make me choose a threadless system (all other things being equal), but that certainly give me more reasons to consider one. Thanks for the good insights.

  • Karl OnSea says:

    With the issue of inventory management, is there any reason why forks couldn’t be produced with a long threaded steerer that can be cut down to the correct length just like with a threadless one? Sure, you’d have to tidy up the thread with a file, but apart from that . . . ?

  • J says:

    Any given size run of bikes usually comes with 1-3 steer tube length forks for threaded, and are cut to fit.

 
© 2011 EcoVelo™