The Quill Stem


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I’m not a Luddite. I need to say that as a prelude to the defense I am about to mount for a technology that has been abandoned as thoroughly as the Conestoga wagon. I’ve missed the quill stem for years now for rather selfish reasons. Every time I’m involved in a photo shoot for a bicycle frame with fork, I wish that I was shooting a fork with a cut steerer finished with a beautiful headset, say one from Campy or Chris King. The results from those shoots are so much more satisfying when there’s not six inches of carbon fiber steerer extending from the top of the head tube.

Deep breath … that’s a problem that almost no one else has.

I also miss the quill stem when I pack a bike for travel. Whether I’m packing one of my bikes in a travel case or even a cardboard box, I’ve always appreciated how I could loosen a bolt that was always 6mm, give a tap from a hammer and the stem would slide free. Simple and consistent.

Unfortunately, the needs of the traveling cyclist have been answered with a variety of travel products, some more enjoyable than others. And the way the airline bike charges are going, bike cases and cardboard boxes will cease to enter cargo holds altogether with.

But those are relatively minor annoyances when compared with the loss of handlebar height adjustability. The combination of a quill stem with a two- or four-bolt faceplate offers an incredible degree of adjustability. It’s easy to say that you can just leave several centimeters of steerer and place spacers above or below the stem, but that’s becoming less and less the case. New steerers from several manufacturers won’t permit more than 3cm of spacers between the stem and the top bearing of the headset and not more than 1cm of spacer above the stem due to the expander plug’s ability to fracture unsupported steerer.

I’ve been working on some reviews of bikes that will be running here shortly and have struggled to achieve the right combination of bar height and reach to allow me to hit that sweet spot of handling. It’s been 10 years (give or take) since most manufacturers offered bikes with quill stems; the benefits touted with threadless stems included lower weight and a reduced likelihood of misalignment between the handlebar and front wheel in the event of a crash.

Reduced weight isn’t a bad thing, but I don’t understand why this particular idea caught on to the degree that it did. I’ve seen plenty of crashed bikes that suffered a sheered steerer at the stem or upper headset bearing. No upside to that.

In bicycle fitting there was a simple calculus that all the bike fitters I knew kept in mind. I knew that for every 3cm up or down I moved the bar I needed to change the stem length by 1cm, longer if the bar came up, shorter if the bar moved down.

Does anyone still recall that you used to be able to order Cinelli stems in 5mm increments?

It’s too much to hope that the industry will resume using quill stems; it would be smarter to hold out hope that we’ll have free universal wi-fi available worldwide by the end of the year. Yeah, I thought you might laugh. However, is it asking too much to want more choices in stem angle? I know we all think that a stem with a positive rise (more than 90 degrees from the steering axis) looks silly, wouldn’t it make sense to offer stems in at least three angles, say 80, 84 and 88 degrees?

As the industry moves further and further from custom sized bikes on the high end, riders need more options to achieve proper sizing through component selection. Multiple setback seatposts are necessary just as multiple angle stems and multiple reach and drop bars are must-haves. It used to be that when I encountered a rider whose bike didn’t handle well I thought there was a problem first with the wheels, second with the bike. Today, I’m convinced that most of the time if there’s a problem with a bike’s handling, that problem is rooted in fit. Move the saddle, move the bar and you can usually solve the problem and in the end, that makes more sense to me as a means to help most riders; as much as I love custom bikes, what we really need more of is flexibility in component selection.

18 comments

  1. Brian Lockhart

    I suspect the wholesale abandonment of quill stems was hastened along by bike shop owner feedback to manufacturers re: how much easier it was to size a customer / swap out a stem with the newer systems. Changing out stems with a quill stem involves removing 1 brake lever and 1 side’s worth of bar tape; try doing that 2 or 3 times to satisfy a customer and make a sale. With the newer systems it’s a 5 minute flash of a 5mm allen wrench to change out a stem. Way easier for the local bikeshop employee. That feedback probably got fed to the manufacturers, and *poof*, no more quill stems.

  2. Jason Evans

    While doing some random searches on 1 inch threadless forks, I came across the Serotta forum which had several entries from Richard Sachs all in favor of the threadless vs. threaded. The main point being that the threaded stems expansion locking mechanism puts the load on the fairly thin walled steering tube, thus also putting load on the bearing mechanism as well.

    I’m no structural engineer, but it made sense to me. Does Ron from the Cozy Beehive check in here? maybe he could shed some light on the threaded/ threadless from a mechanical standpoint.

    -jason

  3. Bret

    Have you tried BMC’s quill seat post? Seems like a cool design. Takes the guesswork out of seat alignment. Maybe they have a stem/fork application in the pipeline.

  4. blackocks

    i recently purchased a nice older merckx steel frame, and i’ll be happy to finally have a worthy home for my cherished custom Salsa quill stem…

  5. grolby

    Agreed on the need for better component selection to get a good fit. One of the most disappointing victims of the modern component industry is cranks shorter than 170mm. It’s the appalling result of manufacturers looking at a bell curve of product sales, and chopping off the ends. It seems to me that the ultimate effect of this is to shrink the market, especially since since 170mm is much too long for perhaps as many as 50% of women riders (I’m just a short man with short femurs). Not a good plan, and very frustrating for me. Fortunately, SRAM makes some fantastic Rival and Red cranks in 165mm lengths, but they won’t sell me another crank (the S900) because it’s too long. Quarq isn’t getting my money, either, as a result of that.

    As for headsets and stems, I can appreciate the benefits of threaded headsets and quill stems for a rider and fitter, but as a mechanic there’s just no comparison. Great threaded headsets were by no means bad (in fact, they were great), but threadless headsets are amazing. They are consistently simple to maintain, simple to adjust, practically foolproof. As a rider, I do benefit from the lighter weight, and I like the greater diameter for standard threadless headsets over the 1″ threaded standard, but none of that is a big deal. As a mechanic, the difference is enormous. I would much rather work on a threadless headset. By a long shot.

  6. Chris

    Came here to post exactly what Grolby said. Ditto on everything.

    Quill stems are a very, very bad engineering solution with zero advantages. When you got your bike fit, you came away with a bar height and reach – having adjustability is useless when you only want a single position. When I pack and ship and rebuild my bike, the stem goes back exactly where it was before, no dicking around with rulers.

    And I think quill stems are *ing ugly, but I guess that’s personal preference.

  7. Jeremy

    I think what padraig means about adjustabablity isn’t so much about being able to change your position but more about finding the correct position in the first place- the very small selection of threadless stem sizes and angle combined with the height above headtube limitations of lighter forks (to say nothing of the aesthetics) makes dialing fit harder. Furthemore, the advent of compact geometry means that fit can very greatly between frames of the same supposed “size,” meaning you have to examine things like headtube length, bb drop, etc. when figuring out if a given frame will fit you. All in all, more flexibility in stem sizing would mitigate all of this.

    Things are easier for me- i run forks with steel steerers so i can use as many spacers as i need to achieve desired bar height; aesthetically i don’t mind as much since i ride huge (63cm) frames so 40-50mm of spacers doesn’t look so bad proportionally.

    I wholeheartedly agree that threadless headsets and clamp on stems are mechanically superior to threaded headsets and quill stems.

  8. Chris

    If Joe Rider buys a frame with a too-short headtube, and *then* tries to fit the bike to him – yeah, he may end up with too many spacers, and want a quill stem. But if he’d have gone in and had a fitting done before picking a frame – he’d have no worries, and have minimal spacers under that threadless stem.

    And, threadless stems ARE available in different angles. A quick peek at a catalog shows stems at 80 degrees (Easton, Thompson), 82 degrees (Deda), and 84 degrees (FSA, 3T). Lots of the graphics are done so they can be flipped, too, if you don’t mind the aesthetics of positive rise. So there are options out there.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for all the comments.

      In the late ’90s Profile was one of a few manufacturers making a quill stem with an open face plate. Three bolts, new stem, no torque wrench. I defy anyone to suggest there was something simpler than that for purposes of fitting or traveling.

      There’s no question that a threadless headset is easier to work on, and as Jeremy points out, that wasn’t the point of my post. I’ve seen threaded headsets destroyed on installation (watched a mechanic use the adjustable cup to make sure the fixed cups were seated!) and I’ve seen threadless headsets overtightened to function as steering dampers. Strange but true.

      I do believe in the superiority of 1 1/8″ steerers, but there’s no real reason quill stems couldn’t have increased in diameter.

      The Serotta thread Atmo commented on is curious. I’m not one to disagree with Richard, but I must say I have never seen a steerer bulged from overtightening; it is easily the thickest tube used in a bike.

      And while my argument in favor of quill stems is for achieving exactly the right position, I’ve known many riders who have raised their stem at the beginning of the season because they were aware their flexibility wasn’t the same as they had in August. After a winter spent cross-country skiing, I often raised my stem by 2cm.

      Finally, while it’s true that many manufacturers offer different angles in threadless stems, the varying lengths in fork clamp can negate those changes in angle, causing an 84 degree stem to yield the same bar position as an 82 degree stem. And don’t forget that some manufacturers insist that you use their stem with their bar or you void the warranty.

      When considering a stem for a new bike, with most manufacturers you have six options for fit. There’s the length of stem you think will work based on the top tube length and then you have +1 and -1cm from that length. Three options, and then each of those stems can be flipped, or not. Setting aside for a moment what you might be able to achieve with spacers, I think that six options isn’t a reasonable response, certainly not when someone is spending upwards of $400 on a carbon bar and stem.

  9. James

    I’m in the pro-threadless camp. I hardly ever change my stem height after I’ve built the bike, but I have to adjust the headset a couple of times a year. I like being able to adjust the bearing headset preload with a couple of allen wrenches. Heck, I could do it on the road if I needed to. And the stem doesn’t get stuck in the steerer after a winter’s worth of salty-road rides. Not that it’s ever happened to me, of course. I think this is one case where innovation truly constituted an improvement.

    I will admit to really liking the looks of that 3T stem in your picture, though. I had a similar piece mounted on my DeBernardi back in the day.

    Despite all the nice rider benefits, the lower bike manufacturing/assembly costs probably drove the switch. No need to put the threads on the steerer tube, and no need to dress them after you’ve cut the fork to length. Headset installation is probably faster, too, especially with integrated headsets.

  10. e-RICHIE

    Jason Evans posted -
    “…I came across the Serotta forum which had several entries from Richard Sachs all in favor of the threadless vs. threaded. The main point being that the threaded stems expansion locking mechanism puts the load on the fairly thin walled steering tube, thus also putting load on the bearing mechanism as well.”

    i have said and written many things about why i feel threadless is “better” than threaded, but i don’t ever recall mention the quill or the mechanism with which a stem for threaded forks affects (anything).

    the threadless stem is part of the headset, period. it’s a spacer. that in itself is genius. and those who say they are more cumbersome to install, maintain, or otherwise manage…i have the contrary POV atmo. that suppliers have cut back on size selections is another issue altogether.

    ps in all fairness, if you ever bulged a steerer back in the day, it’s probably your (one’s) skill set that needs updating rather than the quill stem.

  11. Android356

    I guess the older you get the more you like the old stuff. I remember hearing about the love of steel and never going back, and more often than not its ringing true for me too. As well as the love for quill stems, lugged frames and other non-carpet fiber bike essentials. I will say that I do have a carpet-fiber laced bike and have ridden a lot of full CF frames and wheels. Great for being light but also being light on character as well (ie: dead as a door nail). As my favorite local bike mechanic says “pay more to get less” holds true, I get more looks and joy out of my new hybrid 1975 Coppi 5-speed with vintage Campi (Cinelli quill stem) then the any of the new tricked out stuff I get to ride. Now having said that I would’nt take up any serious hills any of this stuff but any modest runs they are great to be with. Any mention of bad engineering or failures on headsets and you can always look at a mechanic that goofed it up in the first place. I’m still running Campi SR on a 23 year old frame and with regular maintenance it shows normal wear. Just like old cars versus modern. Change oil and adjust valves ever 3k miles? Never again on modern. All my old European and American iron needs something all the time. Ah, I guess I have to go dust off my old vinyl before I put it on the player.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Richard: Thanks much for clarifying your views. I agree with you about the genius of the system. I just wish we could size riders better.

      Android: As I wrote, I’m no Luddite. My primary ride is carbon fiber and I haven’t ridden friction shifting on a bike since 1996. I really do just want a better way to size the bike to the rider.

  12. Jason Evans

    e-RICHIE thanks for jumping on and clarifying! I was going off memory which is pretty substandard on the best of days.

    I should have checked my sources before quoting, and there we have both the brilliance and ignorance of the amazing interwebs. Access to amazing amounts of information from well respected individuals in any given community and the ability of anyone to completely butcher that info.

    Thanks to both Patrick for creating this space, it is hands down one of the most well thought out designs I have seen, and thanks to Richard who has made his expertise available through several public forums such as this.

  13. Josh

    On a training ride a few months ago, I found myself explaining to a 20 yr old Cat 1 that there were once such things as as threaded headsets and they worked with an expansion bolt inside the steerer tube, etc. The more I thought about it, the more threadless systems made sense. Stiffer, lighter, easier to adjust, easier to install, cheaper to produce.

    My personal favorite quill stem was the ITM Eclypse, polished welded steel.

  14. RMM

    Just as there are custom frames, some frame makers make custom threadless stems. Obviously they cost orders of magnitude more than off the shelf stems, but you could, theoretically, get a stem made to your exact specifications. Many of these custom stems are steel, which negates any weight savings inherent in the threadless stem system.

  15. Rich

    A few ahead stem manufacturers have produced multiple angled stems in their time both Deda and FSA come to mind with 3T still producing their stems in two angles. Having fitted many people to bikes over the years having the option of a few degrees adjustment can make a massive difference to the comfort level of the rider.

    With the introduction of the 31.8 standard it has opened up a whole host of stems deemed for MTB use. Although they may be a little heavier (and yes sometimes uglier) it offers some options. From memory I don’t remember multiple angles on quil stems, just the option of height adjustment.

    I am more than happy to live with ahead systems, but in an ideal world I’d happliy have a regular headset rather than intergrated, but that is a whole other discussion.

  16. Larry T.

    For me the looks of an aluminum quill stem can’t be beat. And what other piece of your bike do you spend more time looking at? The only drawback to me with threaded headsets is the large wrenches needed to adjust them. There’s no argument just whipping out a 5 or 6 mm hex wrench is far easier and for pure function its hard to argue with the clamp-on stuff no matter how ugly it is. All of my personal bikes have threaded steerers and quill stems while the bikes we rent to clients on our Italian cycling vacations all have clamp-on stems. I’m willing to put in the extra work on my own stuff but for our clients the ease of clamp-on is the way to go. For builders it’s a no-brainer..no more threading steerer tubes, just make ‘em all nice and long, then let the client or his/her mechanic cut the steerer to length. If it’s cut too short or the client wants a higher bar position later, another fork sale is generated. If I was a bike maker I’d probably do the same thing since most people don’t know or give a darn about the looks or easy up/down positioning you can get with a quill setup.

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