Almost four years ago, I wrote a post arguing that tapered steerers and thru-axles were overkill for ‘gravel bikes’. As I wrote in my last post a few days ago, my early writing on this blog was based on some significant inexperience, and overestimation of my own knowledge.
Four years later, with the benefit of riding a variety of bikes in a variety of conditions, I can say that tapered steerers and thru-axles are now items that I’d consider deal-breaker must-haves on future bikes–in particular if I ever decided to replace the Moots as an all-surface bike.
My early thoughts were that there was never a circumstance where that much rigidity was needed, particularly on low-traction surfaces. Candidly, I was simply wrong. Increasing the rigidity of the bike at the axles and steerer only improves the bike. I don’t think anyone wants deflection at the head-tube to be the determining factor in vertical compliance. Stiffer head tubes and frame/fork interaction only improves the quality of a bike. Tune compliance into other parts of the frame.
As for thru-axles, I see three significant advantages. One, frankly, is that alignment of the hub and frame is exactly the same, every time you install and remove a wheel. In a world of disc brakes, that sort of predictable repeatability is a huge asset. The second asset is the enhanced stiffness of the hub and frame when riding. Again, that is not a location that you want compliance. Stiffness improves handling, braking and shifting.
With the Moots, running the ZIPP Wheels, there have been times when I’ve dived into a hard corner and noted the subtle hint of a brake rubbing. It’s not a palpable feeling–it is just the sound of a brake dragging a tiny bit. After a lot of work to isolate why that’s happening, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the small amount of flexibility that can occur in the hub/frame junction when high lateral loads are placed upon the wheels–such hard cornering on surfaces ranging from limestone to clay to pavement.
The third significant advantage is hard to argue–thru axles are much stronger and more durable. I’ve never broken a skewer (I tend to use high-quality skewers), but still…adding a bit of strength can’t hurt in this application. Sure, they’re a bit heavier, but the benefits outweigh that minor disadvantage.
Some of the comparative downsides of skewers can be mitigated by using quality skewers, like the incredibly nice DTSwiss ratchet skewers. But even those don’t compare to a well thought out thru-axle setup.