Are Tapered Steerers Necessary?

I’m usually a huge fan of technical innovation, and rave like a little fan-boy every time I see a piece of new cycling kit that looks pretty or shiny, that is constructed of a substance I find attractive such as Ti or carbon, or that otherwise promises to be lighter/stronger/cure pattern baldness.

I’m also usually standing there cheering with a giant foam chili-pepper hand when Salsa comes out with a new product.

This post may be uncharacteristically curmudgeonly of me.

I’ve written lately about the new bikes coming out from Salsa, including the Colossal and the Warbird.  The Warbird, in particular, is intended to be a gravel racer.  Guitar Ted had some interesting thoughts on tire clearances for the Warbird, although as a ~150 pound rider, I’m not fully in agreement with him…I find 35s to be perfect for my gravel use, and 40s to be unduly heavy.  But there is one part of the march forward that I don’t fully understand: tapered steerers.

The Vaytanium has a straight 1-1/8″, headtube.  I run a carbon fork with an aluminum steerer.  Of all of the biking problems in the world, I cannot say as I’ve ever had a situation where I wished for more rigidity in the fork or steerer, or in the front end generally.  In fact, for a bike oriented towards gravel racing, one would think you’d want more compliance, rather than more rigidity.  If given a choice between two front ends for gravel grinding, both of which being equally strong for the job, I’d pick the one that would do a better job quelling vibration and harshness…and I have a hard time believing that a larger diameter part is the right part to do that job, in this application.

Don’t get me wrong–the tapered steerer makes perfect sense for a road bike that will be pushed hard into corners on sticky asphalt, and makes perfect sense on a mountain bike or fatbike…the extra force imparted on the headtube is better distributed by the wider bottom end of the tapered steerer.  It’s just that I don’t understand the advantage of it on a gravel racer.

I haven’t seen anyone break a steerer or headtube in gravel racing.  Heck, I haven’t seen that on many bikes at all, outside of manufacturing defects or using bikes well outside of the intended purposes.  And there certainly aren’t any weight savings to be had with a tapered steerer…so I have to assume that it’s being done for increased rigidity…which I don’t fully comprehend.  So here are my guesses:

1.  For heavier riders, the tapered steerer and its greater rigidity becomes a significant advantage.  I suppose this is possible, but I still think it’s unlikely to be a really significant issue for this application.

2.  Keeping up with industry trends requires adoption of new technology to remain relevant, even if the ‘improvements’ are marginal.  Also possible.

3.  Fork production dictated use of a common design spec.  Salsa worked with ENVE on the forks for both the Warbird and Colossal.  Perhaps the best manufacturing efficiencies dictated use of common dimensions on the steerer…or perhaps manufacturing efficiencies for the frames themselves dictated use of common dimensions on the headtube.

4.  There is some other, palpable advantage in riding the tapered steerer that I’m missing.  Completely possible.

I’ll be waiting to ride the Warbird and Colossal, with baited breath.  I don’t think it’s too terribly likely that I’ll be running out to replace the Vaytanium with one, but I’m really, really, really curious about how they ride.  I’m also curious to ask the Salsa guys about the motivation for the change from straight to tapered.

MID MORNING UPDATE:

I see that there are several posters over on MTBR who are lamenting that Salsa used ENVE forks instead of Whisky forks on the new lineup.  That’s a decision I completely understand, given ENVE’s history of excellence and Whisky’s unproven status…and given some of the difficulties Whisky had last year bringing new product to market (i.e. the cancellation, redesign and re-issue of their full carbon 29er mountain bike…which occurred after many shops and customers had placed orders).  It may be apparent from the Superfish and the Ridley, but I’m definitely an ENVE fanboy.

The update point I wanted to make, though, focused on this quote:

Plus, the Foundry disc fork is better than the Enve road disc fork because the Foundry uses a thru axle and the Enve doesn’t.

That’s the kind of logic I just don’t understand.  For a gravel racer, we assume that a fork is better because it uses a thru-axle?  Really?  Are there a ton of gravel racers out there breaking skewers?  Having issues with skewers not being strong/stable enough?  For the Vaya, I can see 0 advantages to having a thru-axle.  Don’t get me wrong…when I went to the Rumblefish, and now with the Superfish, I completely understand the benefits on mountain bikes…and particularly on 29ers.  I could maybe…maybe see the benefits for a really aggressive road racer who liked to sprint or corner insanely hard.  Maybe.  But for a gravel racer?

When will the strength/torsional resistance/etc., of a thru axle benefit a gravel racer?  I’d be curious to see what studying Whisky did to determine that a thru axle made sense.  I’m sure they can say “it’s XX% stronger” and “it’s XX% more resistant to twisting”, but in real riding applications, will that extra strength ever really come into play?  Really?

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8 thoughts on “Are Tapered Steerers Necessary?

  1. A couple thoughts on this:
    – The Colossal is a road bike that folks might be “pushing hard into corners” so the sense in a tapered fork is there. Done.
    – For the War Bird (which I’ve dubbed the Battle Chicken) the changes from the Vaya seem rather dramatic. I’ve owned a Vaya and have a custom Ti frame that’s remarkably similar to the new battle chicken (till they release the geometry specs I can’t be 100%). The geometry changes make the ride VERY different. It’s much more nimble than the Vaya. Part of what this means for me is that I can do more double and singletrack with more confidence and control. The Vaya never seemed to do this well. I had my bike built for long gravel races but it’s fully capable of handling CX conditions. In fact it will be used on rougher conditions in the Boulder Ultra Cross in two months. So, the point here with respect to the tapered fork is that, some of the benefits you mention come into play here. I have the same ENVE fork. I do more on this bike than your typical midwest gravel race. If I were only doing routes like Almanzo or Dirty Kanza and never doing UCX, CX or other adventure routes the straight steerer with it’s increased compliance would be preferred. However, that said it worked just perfect on DK200 this year. Compared to the straight steel fork on the Vaya I can’t honestly say it’s any more or less compliant when fitted with the same wheels and tires.

    • Great thoughts.
      -The Colossal is a road bike, certainly, but the spec and weight (and the disc brakes) suggest that it will be used for longer distances more than for racing. Perhaps not, but that’s what the spec suggests. For a more comfortable ‘grand fondo’ esque ride, I’d think you’d want more compliance, instead of more rigidity. This is all just speculation on my part, not yet having ridden the bike.
      -The Battle Chicken’s geometry is as of yet foreign to me as well, so I’ll take your word for it, and look forward anxiously to a first ride.
      Which bike did you use for DK200 this year?

      • - Completely agree on the grand fondo ride. I suppose it depends on what you want the bike to do and how you want it to ride. However, I’m sure in the “one ring to rule them all” mindeset Salsa can’t market one of every frame design with every spec.

        – It was an easy choice to use the Mosaic. If fact DK200 is the reason I had that frame built. I’ll be curious to see the geo specs. I’m sure they had a scout in Emporia who saw my fame and thought it was a brilliant idea! ;)

        – Wow?! Really? A TA on a gravel or CX bike? I honestly cannot see the logic there either (and I didn’t know they made this). Given that a standard QR still works on a MTB (Fox and Rock Shocks still sell plenty of em) even a 29er which should theoretically place even greater torsional load against the axle, I can’t see very many riders at all putting that kind of load or force on a gravel/CX ride. I can see even fewer people noticing the difference. Unless of course they’re in the ultra-clydesdale category and cranking 1000+ watts. Multiply Cavendish times three (weight and power) and you might, perhaps, maybe need a TA.

        – ENVE vs Whisky: When I built up my Mosaic I originally ordered a Whisky fork. Due to some patently false specs (weight was WAY off) and not all that great production (really rattle can style paint drip) I returned the Whisky in favor of the ENVE. There’s absolutely no comparison. The ENVE is top notch. I understand the value and pull of Foundry’s “everyman”, hard working, blue collar no BS marketing, but to be honest other than the marketing, it’s not that different from the un-branded cheap eBay stuff I’ve looked at. Unfortunately the prices don’t reflect that. Full deets on that decision here: http://enduranceexperience.com/2012/01/21/selecting-part-icular-s/

  2. You know i think the same way about the need for tapered steer tubes, but i’ll play devil’s advocate, or at least talk about some possible resulting positives anyway.

    I don’t necessarily see the advantage of a stiffer front end either, especially with disc brakes now eliminating the issue of fork chatter that plagued canti forks, but that is assuming the engineer designed the tapered fork to be blatantly stiff in the first place. We could view this new standard as one that simply gives the engineer the ability to make a fork stiffer if he wishes, or design the layup to be laterally stiff and not vertically stiff, or make it a noodle. In the end the designer gets to decide this within the forks boundaries. It would be interesting to see if there are any really stiff 1-1/8th forks that are actually stiffer then a noddle tapered fork, although i suspect most tapered forks were designed with stiffness as the focus. Interesting to think about at least.

    As for through axle front ends, personally i actually do think they have strong merit in most applications, including road bikes, and that eventually they will probably be common. They solve the issue of lawyer tabs and legal suits, wheel swaps are just as fast if not faster, the hubs are very simple with fewer parts, and since there is the axle providing more bracing and lateral stiffness at the most lower portion of the fork the rest of the legs can be tuned to offer more frontal compliance and material can be removed elsewhere. The through axle only increases the lateral stiffness, totally freeing up design parameters. Obviously since this is so new it’s not even available to public yet the weight will probably temporarily be increased, but i am certain that with refinement the system could reach comparable weights.

    In the end i resort back to thinking of Ari, and just riding the bike, whatever it is, however far it is, just ride the thing.

  3. I would bet it just comes down to the fact that tapered steerers, if they are not already, are rapidly becoming the standard. I would bet if Salsa went to an outsourced carbon fork on the Vaya, they’d redesign the headtube to be tapered. That’s just the way everything is heading.

  4. There is no reason for a change in the bicycle industry to be useful. Change is there to make it look like bikes are getting better regardless of whether that’s actually true or not. It gives bike owners a reason to upgrade – for new bling or because they can’t get components [ie. forks] they want if they don’t adopt the new innovation.

    Just look at how much effort is spent gushing over the latest doodad/feature vs. how much effort is spent setting up and tweaking a bicycle or rider technique. Most people could see improvements in how well their bikes ride if they spent time working on optimizing what they currently owned, but that’s not sexy.

    My MTB is 4yrs old and I’ve gone through several amazing phases of improved riding experience as I changed the setup on my bike and worked on my riding technique. For the most part this was free and didn’t involve buying anything [except some new tires!]. It would be very easy to have replaced this bike twice to stay up with the latest tech in the MTB world rather than working on the same bike which is now old news, but I am now getting more performance and enjoyment out of that bike than ever before and I know there is more improvement left to uncork if I put the time/energy in.

    So when bike companies tout the latest innovation each year I mostly yawn. This isn’t my first rodeo. There are of course some genuinely good things that get designed and built, but they are floating in a sea of pointless change. So you really have to look for what’s worth your time and dollars. As well as accepting new standards you can’t avoid – like tapered headtubes.

    Companies that really get my respect are the ones that don’t change their bikes every year. And when they do change one it’s because they feel they have some really useful upgrades to share.

    safe riding,

    Vik
    http://www.thelazyrando.com

    • I mostly agree with you Vik. A LOT OF HYPE in the bike industries to get that almighty $$ out of your pocket and into theirs. Most riders though are pretty gullible I’ve found just listening to, and reading, what they say. Wheels and spoke counts are a good example of hype.
      Regarding tapered steerers I think there is some legitimacy, at least in MTB world. Personally I have already damaged one lower bearing from a top-of-the-line Headset mfgr (who I won’t mention b/c I love their products) on my steel 29er SS after several years of rough riding, first few years was with rigid forks on it, then I switched to a Reba fork. Either way, it not only happened once, but twice. BTW, I’m 175 lb and ride with lots of body english and am fairly fast, so it’s not extraordinary circumstances or anything beyond what the headset was designed to accomplish. Same kind of 1 1/8 Headset. Just the lower bearings were affected and would get notchy, but not totally blown out. Either way, covered under warranty. So, with that said, I’m going to get a tapered steerer for my next MTB bike and hope that resolves the bearing issues. From the tapered steerers that I have ridden, the bikes do feel the stiffer in the front compared to standard 1 1/8 inch frames. But the key difference isn’t so much the steerer being fatter, it’s the extra frame material around the headtube where the TT and DT meet are also wider/beefier, thus creating larger diameter, less flexible front ends, thus better steering precision. THAT’s the BIG DIFFERENCE! I love my steel frame(s) and after ridden alum. frames w/tapered steerers, I want a steel front end that handles more like those do b/c on the steel frames the HT isn’t flexing, it’s the TT and DT twisting under torsion when the rider is throwing the bike around that creates a bit of nervousness in the front end, depending on weight of rider and how aggressive they’re riding, and especially on 29ers due to higher front ends. So a tapered steerer on a fork probably won’t make that much difference, BUT a larger HT dia., TT, and DT interface WILL! Having larger bearings on the bottom just spreads out the loads across a larger surface area, creating better reliability in the long run.

  5. Pingback: Standardization vs. Progress | ridingagainstthegrain

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