Ahead of its Time

The tale of the first threadless headset

The first-ever mountain bike World Championships were held in Durango, Colorado, in 1990, but what happened off the racecourse that weekend was probably more important to mountain biking. A 20-something kid named John Rader walked through the pits, showing his invention–a completely new headset design–to anyone who’d have a look.

Rader had recently begun racing mountain bikes full-time and wasn’t satisfied with the unreliable and heavy threaded headsets and quill-stem setups of the time, so he set out to make a lighter, more reliable solution. That was Rader’s deal. Having grown up around a father who designed racecars, and with a machine shop next to his bedroom, he was a born engineer–despite his education and career in real estate.

If you’d ever taken a threaded headset apart in those days, then you’d have been as blown away as west coast Dia-Compe U.S.A. rep Peter Gilbert was at the speed with which Rader disassembled his new threadless headset, right there in front of him in the pits of the first World Champs. Soon after, Rader and Dia-Compe U.S.A. (now Cane Creek) had a deal. During a brainstorming session to find a simple and elegant solution for preloading the headset, Dia-Compe employee Doug Beeler thought of a piece that he’d seen recently while repairing the wheel of an office chair. “You mean, that star-fangled nut thing?” Rader asked. The idea stuck, and so did the name. With that final step, the Aheadset was born.

Unlike road cycling, which was steeped in tradition, the new and booming sport of mountain biking was happy to accept the new standard. Fork manufacturers no longer had to thread the steerer tube or stock multiple lengths, cutting costs and opening the door for materials like aluminum and carbon fiber. Norco, Rocky Mountain and Raleigh were among the first mountain-bike companies to adopt the new standard, but the rest of the industry quickly followed suit–including those conservative roadies.

Until the patent expired in September of 2010, almost anyone making a threadless headset was licensing the technology from Cane Creek, including ubiquitous brands such as Chris King, Ritchey and FSA. Headsets have changed a bit since then, but nearly every threadless headset made today is still based on the same compression-ring system developed and patented 25 years ago. Not bad for a real-estate guy in his twenties.