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Friday debate: Doing my headset in

Friday debate: Doing my headset in

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Words: Ali Todd

Photo: Andy Lloyd

Evolution is a simple concept. Things develop for better and for worse, and eventually the least advanced die out, disadvantaged by comparison to their opposable-thumbed counterparts. Simple potted explanation of natural progress.

Banshee's new Rune caters for 26 or 650b wheels, but let's not even go down the wheel size debate route... Headsets, chainguides, BBs, steerer tubes. The industry likes to faff with new 'standards', or does it?
Banshee’s new Rune caters for 26 or 650b wheels, but let’s not even go down the wheel size debate route… Headsets, chainguides, BBs, steerer tubes. The industry likes to faff with new ‘standards’, or does it?

The same principle applies in economics – unless held up by a subsidy, a substandard product is overshadowed by the better one, and is pushed out of the market because no one buys it. The bloodline dries up. It withers. It dies. Seen no more. Only the best survives.

So why am I sitting here, surrounded by bikes with so many different variations of the same component? Why has this whittling of the supply not happened? Why, when buying a headset, do I feel I need to employ half of Bletchley Park’s crack team? And why do we need all these different variations of an apparently simple product?

Negative Ali Todd: Pointless

S.H.I.S, before you thing I’ve just mis-spelt a very similar word while leaving caps-lock on, is the Standard Headset Identification System. The world of S.H.I.S is a very confusing one, where new “standards” breed like little rabbits. They all have their codes or names, and they serve seemingly just to make life miserable. Ed H (Technical Editor over at Dirt Mag and former mechanic for the Atherton family) tried counting all the different headset standards that have been invented since the introduction of the mountain bike, and got so angry that he had to stop by 25. Yes, 25. And most of those are still in use.

If all these standards came about because of major innovations, offering more stiffness, better functionality, less weight, more compatibility etc., then I could accept it. The painful truth, though, is that a lot of them are within a few mm of each other. So why?! A lot of the more sceptical forum commentators suggest it’s a scam to make us spend more money on new things as our beloved standards, but in truth, it isn’t. It’s because the manufacturers have yet to get together and decide on a handful of sizes, and are instead producing in an unsynchronised way.

Let’s not get stuck on headsets though. Bottom brackets are another version of the same trouble – BB30, 92, 83, 86, and then square taper, octalink, ISIS… And chainguide mounts are pretty bad too. The ISCG mount changes are problematic.

Right up to date, we’re currently on handlebars. 35mm bars are the new thing..

Positive Ali Todd: Let’s not get too wound up

So manufacturers don’t change things without reason. The huge amount of standards we have is a mark of the trail of progress – a relic or monument to the evolution of the bike. Things get wider, stiffer and stronger – like handlebars, or wheels. If we stopped new standards entirely, stupid or not, we wouldn’t move forwards. And if there’s one thing we mountain bikers love, it’s something new and shiny.

Some ideas, like zero stack headsets, are great – they let us run longer forks without having the bars up at chopper height. Clever stuff.


I’m a sucker for “progress”. I love the marketing buzzwords, and there are few novel ideas I won’t consider carefully. Yet even to my mind the sheer scale of standards in use seems amazing. Can we get all the manufacturers together and agree on a few real “standards” please? Say, three sizes of BB, a few different headsets, and only one chainguide mount… Or is it just me?

Let me know what you think in the comments box below.

  1. matt

    handlebar standards are ok in comparison to the others; what bikes are doing has progressed and the standards are representing this.

    and then some.

  2. Deel

    Absolutely spot on. Setting aside ‘Standards? The great thing about them is there’s so many to choose from’, a standardisation and a bit of simplicity would not go amiss. An evolutionary jump is fine, incremental swings and roundabouts is all marketing hype. It could be any bike and any component when your focus is the next berm, bend or drop.

  3. dominic meacher

    Bikes don’t die, unlike natural evevolution you’re referring to. So if you have a bike with a square taper BB – and you need a replacement and they drop the old standard because, some grumpy old men are too angry to count past 25. Then you’re are BBless and need a new bike!

  4. serge the seal of death

    But what you are getting mixed up are consumer standard bike parts and manufacturing standards. why should Shimano and SRAM get together to standardise? this would just prevent them from inovating, the only reason things like BB adn headsets are remotly standardised are the bearings used, as its much easier to buy manufactured bearings, and then O rings etc, all of these have manufactured standards.
    And alot of older bikers are still lementing the dropping of square taper, becuase as a part it just always worked.
    some things are engineered to work together, i remember clever small engineering firms like middleburn who do things their way, they make a crank and you need their rings and their arms and possibly their BB, because they thought that combination wokred the best with such and such a chain. Its all about controling your products and how they work and interact with what you want them to do.
    and having all these different parts to wade through when buying your parts makes it fun.
    After all ali why not insist that every bike has the same sized bearings in all linkage points etc. persoanlly my bike probably has 6 / 10 different bearing sizes though they whole bike, maybe those should all be standardised, but i am sure a pedal with a BB sized beaing would be at a weight disadvantage.

  5. oldnick

    Re square taper as an example of obsolescence, no it isn’t. Firstly you can still buy square taper BB’s. Secondly you can switch to external bearing BB’s with a new chainset and it will all fit. Where’s the problem?

    If you like keeping up with new stuff yourself fine, if you don’t let your LBS take care of it – it was ever thus.

    I recently bought a Pivot Mach 5.7 carbon frame. Compared to my previous frame (Cove Hustler) which I was swapping the bits over from the 142×12 axle, the tapered headtube with some sort of internal headset, the press fit BB, the direct mount front mech and the different diameter seat post I should have caught fire or had a stroke or something, as it was somehow I survived and even enjoyed the build.

  6. j west

    Yeah, its kind of annoying. But your right, innovation must continue to make things better. But new stuff is way expensive…

  7. Chris Prior

    External BB & Press Fit BB standards are nowhere near as well sealed as an old octolink system. I used to run octolink Dura Ace on an Principia road bike, and XTR on an old Gian NRS and both were failtless over a number of years. I go through extrenal BB bearing every year beacause they cannot be sealed properly. New standards are not always a forward move in my opinion.

  8. Simon

    Nothing “new” has come along for several years now!?

  9. grandad

    cotter pins…

  10. chris-m

    Couldn’t agree more Ali Todd! .
    Thing is, it’s a very fast pace industry and we’re used to changes based on months not years and we expect change to come just as fast. Given time manufacturers will hopefully cotton on to these needed ideas for “standards” and hopefully discard the unnecessary or rarely used current “standards”.
    It is maddening to try to supply customers with parts, being told it is one thing, when it is infact another. I personally like XX44 headtubes (good for steel frames), zero stack headtubes (for high front ends), and 44.1/49mm (Santa Cruz for one) choices.
    Where I draw the line is when Mountain Bikes get road “standards”, which cause problems for future choices and when ideas that are improved, but some companies don’t latch on, e.g. ISCG OLD VS ISCG 05.

    I do wish that there was some sort of get together to whittle down ideas and for them to use the ones that gives choice to the consumer, not give road blocks down the line due to lack of spares or lack of thread to be able to fix (Pressfit BB’s). However, if this were to happen, I believe we are a few years off. However, something DOES need to be done!
    Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with innovation, but IMHO, it should incorporate ideas that are beneficial to the genre, not simply lifted from one to use on another without testing it’s future problems.

  11. Sam

    I can understand why things change, but in the last few years it does appear to be getting silly. Also, as mentioned some of it doesn’t even work.

    Going back to the BB arguement, my old square taper and Octalink ones lasted for ages, ISIS came along offering more stiffness etc but the bearings were tiny as a result and the BB’s had no life span. Next solution was HTII. Great – massive axle, outboard bearings so should be the best of both worlds. Reality is that they are poorly sealed, exposed the elements and therefore don’t last all that long (better than ISIS though). The only good thing is that on the likes of Race Face cranks you have an axle spacer which is great for single ring set ups. BB30 appears to be a pain from what I’ve heard.

    The headset thing is not so bad – 1.5 has been around for ages but didn’t take off for a long time. The tapered set up seems daft to me – I’d rather things were in one camp or the other.

    Axle’s are silly now though – not only has an additional ‘standard’ been introduced for the front, but there are now variatiosn for the rear. If you are unlucky to have none adaptable hubs, changing frames is going to get pricey.


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