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At this point, the thought of another headset “standard” is funny in a very dark way. It’s similar to the chuckle I get when I try to reassure myself by saying, “Well, at least there’s no way the value of my home can erode further.” But, here we are: The value of my home keeps dropping and there’s yet another headset standard out there.
Coming on the heels of several years of significant changes to headsets, head tubes and steerer tubes, the 44 External standard deserves an honest evaluation because it might be one of the smartest.
Before I cover 44 External, however, there’s this new Standardized Headset Identification System (S.H.I.S) that the wonks among us might want to familiarize themselves with. It’s confusing at first, because it calls for new language, but the idea is to simplify the identification of different headset/head tube/steerer tube formats based on dimensions and cup design. What was formerly called a “ZeroStack” head tube is now called a 44/44, which denotes the diameter, in millimeters, of the upper and lower bore. The details, in all their technical glory, are HERE.
Now that those pesky details are behind us, we can focus on the good stuff. The 44 External headset design is the brainchild of Sean Chaney, who builds gorgeous titanium bikes in Portland, Oregon under the Vertigo [[[www.vertigocycles.com]]] name. He discovered that there was room within the confines of the existing ZeroStack, er 44/44 head tube, to accommodate a 1.5/1.125” tapered steerer (40/28.6mm in S.H.I.S. language).
He needed just one simple part: an external lower headset assembly with a 44mm diameter skirt. With that piece in place, riders who own an older frame with a 44/44 headtube (and there are a ton of them out there: Gary Fisher, Giant, Scott…) can, by installing a 44 External lower headset assembly (no change to the upper assembly required), upgrade to a tapered-steerer fork. That’s pretty sweet. But, there’s an even cooler reason why this is such a big deal.
Sean is a small builder and small builders have fewer resources than the Treks of the world. Tapered steerer tubes dictate a unique head tube that is very difficult (read: expensive as all hell) to manufacture. While a big company can afford automated equipment and amortize its costs on a complicated part, Sean, who builds a handful of frame a year, estimates it would cost $500, at a minimum, for him to hand-lathe a titanium tapered head tube that met his standards. That’s his cost, just for the head tube and before he adds in the costs of overhead, mitering his top and down tubes for the tapered headtube and, oh, feeds his baby. Even though his frames are not inexpensive—$2800 for straight-gauge tubing; $3200 for butted—a tapered head tube would be cost prohibitive.
A Zero Stack headtube, on the other hand, is a simple cylinder. It’s easy to make, easy to cut to custom lengths and easy to keep in tolerance. “For little guys like me, who do everything by hand, it’s a huge time and money saver,” he told me. After some initial frustration trying to get other small builders to sign on to the concept, Sean presented his idea to David Turner, of Turner bikes. David saw the potential in the system (he has since adopted it for his own bikes), and called Cane Creek, where director of R&D, Josh Coaplen, admitted his original response was “That probably won’t work,” However, Josh modeled the idea in Solidworks and saw it would. “I was pretty stoked, because I knew the small builders would be appreciative of it,” he says. Naturally, Cane Creek is now producing 44mm, external cup, lower assemblies.
And that’s the plum for the rest of us: By lowering the cost and complication barriers, we get to use the latest tapered-steerer forks with a wider variety of frames, particularly the wonderful handmade offerings that will be showed at the National Handmade Bike Show next week.