The Rant: Thru with it

In the beginning, there were axle nuts. They were simple and crude and required a tool to remove. They still exist today on many bikes, from cheapie department store numbers to the finest BMX bikes money can buy. They work and work well.

Then came wing nuts. Racers needed a way to get wheels off quickly, and big wing nuts are faster than digging a wrench out of a pocket. I can’t imagine that you can get much leverage on those to keep them tight or loosen them—I’ve spent over two decades messing with bikes on a professional basis and can count the times I’ve dealt with these on one hand. If you are intent on some period-correct bullshit, you can buy these new to build up your Maxi-Car replica hubs. Goes well with Mafac cantis and real leather chamois.

Then came the quick release. 1927. Tullio Campagnolo.

An internal cam multiplies closing force so wheels can be tight and still easy to remove without tools. But that lever always, became a handle that seems irresistible to the less mechanically inclined to spin the QR on, thus turning the whole mess into an even less effective wing nut. And don’t get me started on external cam QRs. Garbage. Lighter and cheaper, but the size of the cam actually reduces clamping force. Pair that to hubs with smooth aluminum clamping surfaces and a soft aluminum nut and you’re probably better off with those wing nuts.

Toss disc brakes into the mix and suddenly things get even more serious. Braking forces could theoretically try to pull the wheel out of fork ends, and getting the wheel to line up in the same spot to keep pad rub at bay can be damn near impossible.

The solution? Thru axles. Big axles with big threads. No springs. No more open dropouts. The wheels lock into the same place every time. Oversize axles improve fork and frame stiffness. No more little springs to lose. All very good things.

The drawbacks? New standards. Everybody is doing their own thing, and there seems to be little to no interest in the industry to get together and trim some of the fat. Speaking of fat, fat bikes are partially to blame for this whole ordeal with a pair of new hub width standards (197 and 177) to add to 135, 142, 150 and 157. And don’t forget Boost 148. Now road bikes want to use 12 mm thru axles up front to go with the 15 mm and 20 mm options as well. But each of those sizes also has different thread pitches and different lengths to go with various frame and fork designs.

For the most part, these are logistical problems: getting the right part on the right bike at the right time. But there seems to be some safety problems as well. These things are starting to make me feel like a beginner. Even after messing with thru axles for over a decade, over the last few months we have started to see more and more issues. I finished a wet and loose descent (on a drop-bar bike no less) with what felt like a loose headset. Not uncommon on the first ride, but it wasn’t loose. The axle was about to fall out of the fork.

We recently had a few high-end bikes come through for testing with rear thru axles that would loosen up while riding, sometimes more than once. And maybe it’s just me, but it seems like RockShox comes out with another version of the Maxle every year, all of which need an instruction manual to use properly.

I already have a box of random thru axles, yet the few times I’ve needed one I never seem to have the right one. But that box of quick releases? I just pulled one out last week that fit to finish building a new/used bike for one of my kids, who is outgrowing bikes at a pace faster than the Canadian government’s relocation website shut down after the election.

Two things are clear here. First, technological improvements often come at the loss of simplicity. Second, even something as simple- looking as a thru axle is hard to get right but very, very easy to get wrong. Perhaps combining old-school tech with modern standards is the way to go. I just pulled off a non-quick-release thru axle last night—a few seconds with a 6 mm hex—no extra cams or adjustments, just righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. It made my inner Luddite happy for a few seconds, at least until I realized I had to fish the hose for the hydraulic seatpost through the carbon fiber frame.

At which point my inner Luddite turned on its sad song playlist and got drunk.

This piece originally appeared in Dirt Rag 197. Subscribe now to never miss an issue and sign up for our weekly email newsletter to get fresh content delivered to your inbox every Tuesday.