The Quill Stem
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.