The Dust-Up: Headset Cable Routing Is Not a Victimless Crime


The Dust-Up: Headset Cable Routing Is Not a Victimless Crime

Travis often sneaks a scornful jab at thru-headset cable routing into his stories. In this Dust-Up, he explains why. And it’s not for all the obvious reasons.

Legend has it that Ronald Reagan briefly used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” during his 1984 re-election campaign. I was maybe four years old at the time, so I probably thought it was totally awesome, dude. But then in high school, a long-haired American history teacher named Kermit Eby spelled out that song’s somber message about how we treated our Vietnam veterans after they came home from the war.  So, of course, the legend ends with The Boss asking The Gipper to kindly cease and desist.

That level of carelessness is probably pretty common when campaign soundtracks or other marketing tools are chosen. They deal in a sort of emotional shorthand. When you’re trying to grab someone’s attention, there’s no time for depth or nuance. The message doesn’t have to make practical sense when you think about it. You’re not supposed to think about it. You’re just supposed to want what it’s selling. That’s why the whole Reagan snafu came to mind when I imagined the moment when some product manager first saw thru-headset routing on a road bike and said, “It’d be totally awesome if we put that on a mountain bike, dude!”

Thru-headset cable routing on road bikes never really bothered me. Mostly because I don’t own a road bike. But also because it at least makes some sense. After drop-bar cables got tucked under bar tape twenty odd years ago, they were already pointing towards the headset. No huge harm in tucking them just a little further. Also, back when I did own a road bike, I wasn’t faffing with its cockpit as much as I do on my mountain bike. There was no suspension fork to pull and service, and fewer recurring creaks to hunt down and grease; but that’s not what this Dust-Up is about.

My first draft went into lengthy, snarky detail about my grievances with thru-headset cable routing on mountain bikes. And not just about the inconvenience. Also about the fact that it puts unnecessary bends in shift cables. And that it artificially creates extra incentive for going wireless. And that the industry was finally developing some quiet, user-friendly internal routing methods. And that, when you’re not looking at a bike in perfect 90° profile, you’re still gonna see those shameful, shameful control lines. On top of all of its maintenance and performance headaches, thru-headset routing seems to suggest that our bikes are ugly without it.

But you probably don’t need me to convince you how ridiculous it is. And maybe you’re not even all that bothered. Headset-routed bikes are only a problem for the people who own them. I use the same logic when trying to quell unrest about things like electronic dropper posts. Nobody’s forcing us to buy them. There are plenty of good alternatives if we don’t like the idea. But if more and more brands keep speccing thru-headset routing, there will be fewer and fewer good alternatives.

I wasn’t all that worried until Commencal released the Tempo mid-travel trail bike in March of 2023. The consumer-direct brand’s commitment to alloy frames and smart spec have made them a go-to workhorse option for anyone who prioritizes value and versatility. And the Tempo introduced brand new, clean-looking dual-link frame design that appears to have been appropriately tuned for a downcountry bike from a downhill brand. But to the entire Mountain Bike Internet’s chagrin, it came with thru-headset cable routing. I happened to be looking to buy a new short-travel bike when the Tempo launched, but it was immediately out of the question. I almost felt betrayed. It didn’t seem like a very Commencal thing to do. It’s more of a Scott thing.

Of course the Scott Spark was an early adopter. The shock is inside the seat tube, so it was only fitting the cables would be in the head tube. Although Spencer Harding’s stellar review explores its aptitudes in bikepacking, the Spark was marketed as a race bike. It’s meant for podiums, not practicality. So, I didn’t see its cable routing as a threat to mountain bikes as we know them. But a year and a half later, when the updated Scott Genius all-mountain bike showed up also sporting thru-headset cable routing, I knew Scott would eventually massacre my boy, the Ransom.

I owned a 2018 Scott Ransom (left) for over five years. It convinced me that “overbiking” can actually be quite practical sometimes. I love the hardtail-like firmness of Scott’s Twinloc remote lockout, especially on a bike with 170 mm of rear travel. But it started showing its age a couple years ago, and I daydreamed about trading up when the new version (right) came out. I just can’t stomach it now, so that’s yet another compelling bike I’ll never own.

And the list goes on. The Orbea Occam was one of the lightest, quickest-feeling long-travel bikes I’d ever ridden. But the new one has thru-headset cable routing. The Canyon Lux Trail was a thick-skinned short-travel bike, not just an overforked XC bike. But the new one has thru-headset cable routing. The Propain Tyee CF was an innovative, exotic enduro bike at a pretty good value… But, well, yeah. These are all non-UK European brands, and that seems to be a common thread among thru-headset users. For example, Cube, Mondraker, and Focus have also been headset-routing-pilled, but I’ll save the pan-Atlantic culture war for another dust-up.

Even though thru-headset routing is a fun punching bag right now, it sure seems like the idea is spreading. I won’t be laughing if I have to hold my nose when buying my next bike. But there are small glimmers of hope, even if some are emanating from the e-MTB market.

Not long before the Commencal Tempo launched, the Transition Repeater became the Bellingham-based brand’s first foray into both e-MTB and thru-headset routing. It was a real “say it ain’t so” moment, but subsequent models quietly returned to traditional routing. Same thing happened on the Vitus E-Sommet, though the brand’s future is unstable after the Signa Sports shake-up left Vitus, Nukeproof, and Chain Reaction Cycles on shifting ground (all puns intended).

Stepping back into the real world, there’s also the fact that the new Canyon Spectral dodged the bullet fired by the Lux Trail. Similarly, the recently updated Commencal Meta V5 did not imitate the Tempo’s cable routing. And then there are the brands who’ve never run afoul of natural law to begin with. The updated Giant Trance was just launched with traditional cable routing. Same with the new Ibis HD6, Pivot Switchblade, and Norco Optic. And of course, new models from alloy frame die-hards Privateer and Raaw didn’t let me down either.

These bikes were all released pretty recently, and each brand presumably made their choice knowing thru-headset routing was an option. Maybe they even knew some of their competitors would try to lure shortsighted buyers by sweeping a few cables under the stem. But maybe some brands actually value customers’ long-term experience over simply casting a cleaner shadow.

It sure seems like most mountain bikers don’t want thru-headset routing. In fact, 8,930 of 14,762 respondents to a 2022 Pinkbike survey said they would not buy a bike if it had thru-headset cable routing. Of course, times are tough right now, and bike manufacturers have bigger concerns than winning the hearts and minds of Pinkbike commenters. But this thing might eventually die a slow death once we get through another product cycle or two. It may take European brands a little longer to get real, but cut them some slack. Bruce Springsteen wasn’t born there.

If you’re new to this series, welcome to The Dust-Up. This will be a semi-regular platform for Radavist editors and contributors to make bold, sometimes controversial claims about cycling. A way to challenge long-held assumptions that deserve a second look. Sometimes they will be global issues with important far-reaching consequences; other times, they will shed light on little nerdy corners of our world that don’t get enough attention.