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Frickin’ headset standards. With so many head tube interface options and tapered steerer tubes joining 1 1/8 and 1.5in options- and these are just the mainstream choices- figuring out what headset will act as an interface between your frame and fork can be massive headache. With a tapered Zero Stack head tube and both tapered- and straight-steerer forks on tap, we called on the headset experts at Cane Creek to help us navigate their wide selection- and to help our Project 24 bike around the corners.
In order to make things easier for both shops and consumers, Cane Creek recently launched their headsetfitfinder.com headset selection website and is shipping most of their headsets in halves. This approach easily accommodates mixed-standard frames and allows for easy upgrades (when transitioning from a straight to tapered head tube, for example). In the case of our Project 24 bike, this meant a 1/18 Zero Stack top assembly and both 1.5 Zero Stack and 1.5 Zero Stack Conversion bottom assemblies from the company’s new Forty-Series.
After using the handy step-by-step guide on the headsetfitfinder website (you’ll need a decent pair of calipers if your frame isn’t in their database- our ’11 Ellsworth Truth wasn’t when this was written), Cane Creek sent out 1 1/8 ZeroStack top assemblies in each the short and tall carbon cover verstions ($53 each) and a 1 1/2in ZeroStack bottom assembly ($42). I wondered at first why Cane Creek would offer the same top assembly in both short and tall versions, but given the short head tube on the Truth, I was happy to have the tall version taking up some of the room between the frame and stem. 29er riders and old-school riders will no doubt prefer the lower version.
When it arrived, I was impressed by the look of Cane Creek’s newest headset. The Forty-Series (and it really is a series, with dozens- if not hundreds- of variations) is made overseas of 6061 aluminum and features black oxide coated cartridge bearings top and bottom. Because of the countless options, it’s hard to compare weights- our set weighed in 141g thanks to the large steel crown race, which allows the use of a straight 1 1/8in steerer with a 1 1/2in lower bearing. For comparison purposes, a 1 1/8 ZeroStack set with the low top comes in at a competitive 102g. The captive seal and compression ring are claimed to improve top assembly sealing and make swapping or servicing forks that much easier, as does the Interlok spacer compatibility (not tested). Though it is very good looking (especially in the sun), the $21 upcharge for the carbon cover’d top assembly doesn’t come with any weight savings, possibly making it hard for some to justify.
Once installed- ZeroStack headsets press into the head tube using the usual headset press- I all but forgot about the Forty. Over the two winter months’ I spent with it, the headset remained smooth and quiet, which is really all that I ask. All that a change to a tapered-steerer Magura Durin Race fork meant was swapping out the crown race for a non-conversion model- a $10 part, readily available from Cane Creek. Unlike most headsets’, the Forty-Series’ has an integrated face seal, to act as a first line of defense against damp and dust. Despite the seal, some winter precipitation made it to the bearings, which did show a very small amount of surface rust when disassembled. Though the bearings remained smooth and it doesn’t seem as though any moisture made it in to the balls, this was a bit of a disappointment. Happily, Forty-Series internal components are compatible with others from Cane Creek’s range, so an upgrade to stainless bearings would be an easy one when the time came (also available from Cane Creek’s website).
Despite that tiny amount of surface rust, which didn’t impact the Forty’s performance, I was impressed with Cane Creek’s workhorse headset. Because the mountain bike industry is in a bit of a transition, the ability to use a straight-steerer fork on a new tapered head tube frame, and to inexpensively upgrade to a tapered fork when the time comes, has the potential to be a big time and money saver. Between the multitude of options ordered and a straightforward selection tool, Cane Creek have taken a lot of the pain out of headset ordering. The system’s individual components seem well made and (especially with the aluminum top cover) represent a good value. Given the ability to upgrade bearings if and when needed, it’s really hard to see spending any more on a headset.