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Game Changer : Aheadset

Cane Creek headset
James Spender
8 May 2015

The best ideas are often the simplest, and you don't get much better, or simpler, than the original Aheadset headset.

Headsets are a crucial, if often overlooked, part of the bicycle. So overlooked, in fact, that it wasn’t until 1991 that the design which had helped carry bicycles along their merry way for the best part of a century got a revamp.

‘We filed the patent for the Aheadset in 1990 and it was granted in 1992,’ says Cane Creek’s vice president of sales, Peter Gilbert. ‘I first saw the product as a prototype on inventor John Radar’s bike at the 1989 mountain bike World Champs. Several of us were dyed-in-the-wool road riders, but we’re looking at it going, man, this has got a great application in road, it’s just so logical.’ 

At that time bikes all had threaded headsets, where the preload on the bearings was achieved by tightening a set of locknuts down onto a threaded steerer tube. Unfortunately for the mountain bikers, these locknuts had a tendency to shake themselves loose, so a more robust solution was required. ‘The key components to the Aheadset system were a threadless steerer tube and the ability to put pressure on the assembly, ie between the stem, spacers, top bearing cover and crown race,’ says Gilbert. ‘To put that preload into the system you needed a mechanism to take up the torsional and radial loads as well as compaction. Our solution was a tapered compression ring that under pressure would flex and load the headset bearings evenly.’

Crucially, the Aheadset meant the components creating the preload were not responsible for holding the whole assembly together, as with locknuts. Rather, once the preload had been adjusted by way of a top cap bolt that located in a star nut inserted in the steerer tube, pinch bolts in the stem were then tightened to clamp the stem onto the steerer, thus taking up the stresses in the assembly. It was an elegant solution, but there was a bit of convincing to be done before it captivated the road market.

‘Although we’re now Cane Creek, we were then known as Dia Compe Incorporated,’ says Gilbert. ‘We mainly made brakes but were also partners in RockShox [suspension forks], so we had a platform. I could go to a dealer and take a fork with a prototype stem and headset and say to the customer, “Check this out, let’s put it on your bike.”

‘We had both one inch and inch-and-an-eighth models, as at that point there were some mountain bikes still running one-inch headsets, and road bikes were all one inch. But the road market was generally very conservative. I recall going to Trek with a TIG welded stem and threadless fork steerer and they were like, “Ah, we’re not sure about this, it doesn’t look or feel right.”’

Preaching to the unconverted

Gilbert cites the migration of many mountain bikers into road cycling over the subsequent 10 years as part of the Aheadset’s eventual success, as with that move came more open mindedness to new methods and materials. ‘That was the game changer, and it lead to all kinds of other innovation. Steerers could be made from alloy or titanium as opposed to steel – lighter metals but ones not particularly able to deal with having threads cut into them. And also eventually composite steerers, which opened the door to the road market.’

However, there was one neat trick Dia Compe still had up its sleeve – cross industry cooperation. Instead of holding on to the patent and forcing the issue on its own, Dia Compe cleverly opted to license the Aheadset design.

‘We were a fairly small company,’ says Gilbert. ‘We believed that for the product to have credibility it needed strong partners, so we did licence arrangements with Chris King and Tioga. Tioga was one of the biggest headset manufacturers worldwide, and Chris King just had a stellar reputation. Chris King even made many of the parts for our headsets that we rebranded Aheadset [Chris King still sells his under the trademark NoThreadSet]. If we’d chosen to hold the Aheadset in our own bucket of toys it would have taken us longer to get the industry to embrace it. After all, what does a brake company know about making headsets?’ In the end, it turned out rather a lot.

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