Headsets Revisited- A Decade On

 

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When S&M unveiled the first BMX frame to feature an integrated headset over 10 years ago, it was met with puzzled looks and optimism alike; would it be that much easier to install? Would it be expensive to convert from Aheadsets to integrated? Where did this revolutionary design come from?  Let’s have a quick recap…

Let’s give some context here, by trade I am a cycle technician (predictable I know) working on all types of bikes from BMX to road bikes.  Most people here are thinking to themselves, ‘Growth industry Yakob, everyone can fix a puncture can’t they? Change a set of pads?  Tighten a stem?’  No.  Most cannot.  Search #bikeshopbingo on Instagram for proof…

And that is what’s on most product designer’s minds when manufacturing a new component, not whether it’s gonna stand up to riding abuse, that’s the easy bit, it’s whether 14 year old Joe Kid (who is the one being catered for here as he has access to the most disposable income- his parent’s) is gonna break it just by over-confidently trying to install it when he has close to no idea what he’s doing.

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In that respect, S&M found the perfect ‘idiot-proof’ headset; you pop the 45 degree bearings which aren’t top/ bottom specific into the headtube by hand, slide on the compression cone, dust cap, spacers (optional) and stem. All done, and all you needed was a 6mm allen key.  Most forks don’t even need a bearing race anymore so there’s no more kids rolling around with a new bearing race sat on top of the old one, wondering why their bike sounds like a sack of nails.  As far as anyone who is bicycle-illiterate goes, it’s the holy grail.

So where did it come from?  You may have heard some riders refer to integrated headsets as ‘campy-spec’, this is a historical term referring to Italian road bike manufacturer Campagnolo who originally made a caged-bearing version to Pinarello’s design.  Road bikes obviously needing less in the way of structural integrity from heavy impacts in the way BMX’s do was always going to ring alarm bells.  The 1 1/8″ Aheadset in comparison was made in response to BMX riders’  1 inch ‘threadsets’ shaking loose with every single goddamn ride- but only if your McDonald’s straw steerer tube didn’t snap first.  It’s easy to see who had the best intentions here.

Did it cost a lot to convert from one to the other?  In manufacturing terms, probably not much more than making any other part, but with longer-term benefits, but that was likely the point.  After the ball was rolling in terms of getting Taiwan to resize the bearing diameter to get around paying Campagnolo’s royalties and the tooling for machining headtubes, what was left was an incredibly standardised headset where the very cheap 45 degree integrated bearing is very much a one-size-fits-all affair.  On top of that, now all a company has to do to design a new headset is decide on the colour of the dust cover…
As far as consumers were concerned, it didn’t cost any more for them but it’s not like they really had a choice either, there are absolutely zero aftermarket Aheadset-compatible freestyle frames on the market in 2016.

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Does it improve the way your bike feels?  That’s still very much open for debate, some say that a good integrated headset is more than enough to last a few frames without issue while some have small but noticeable problems like the classic ‘headset tick’ within a week or two.  Some find reputable Aheadsets like Solid‘s needle bearing, Chris King‘s NoThreadset or FSA‘s Pig DH Pro much sturdier and smoother while others find the process of pressing cups too much hassle for too little gain.  Chris King himself refuses to make an integrated headset because it’s ‘floating’ bearing design (as opposed to being hydraulically pressed into a cup which is tightly pressed into the frame via bearing press- never use a hammer) has the potential to warp aluminium MTB headtubes and it’s not inconceivable that the same might happen to a chromoly BMX headtube if the forces were strong enough- or even if the machining tolerances of a frame’s head tube were just a little off which again, is not unheard of (steerer tube and stem fit, for example, is a notorious and long-standing tolerance issue in BMX.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go calling for the reintroduction of American bottom brackets or anything, those are days I’ll never miss or get back.  I’m also not about to say integrated headsets should be scrapped either as there is definitely a big place for them.  I’m not a purist for purism’s sake but when a cheap part that used to get slapped on for 5 years, a decade ago without a second thought dies within two weeks in 2016, I don’t really care how easy it was to install.  Furthermore I have to ask the question;  In their absence, is there still a small market for Aheadset compatible frames and forks?

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