Robot’s Useless Reviews – Stems

I completely omitted stems from my cursory review of cycling vocabulary last week. Stem makes no sense as a name for the component we’re all referring to as the bike’s stem in our everyday lives. The stem of what? Can you have a stem with no roots? And what blooms from this stem? The handlebar? Please.

Of course, pipes have stems. People refer to other people’s legs as their stems. That’s slang. You can stem a tide apparently, though I don’t know how. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. You would study that if you didn’t want to work in the bike industry, unless you did and do, in which case it probably helps. It’s also an acronym for Slurpees Taste Extra Magnificent (but only the cola flavor). That’s an opinion, but it’s the correct one, so…

OK, I take back what I said about ‘gooseneck’ not making sense.

On occasion, in my bike selling days, I’d have a customer call me up and ask me a question about the component in question, but they didn’t know the term ‘stem,’ and, searching desperately for a word to describe this part of the bike, they’d blurt, “You know! The gooseneck!” Then they’d apologize, feeling sure that wasn’t the proper name, but I’d say, “Sure, the gooseneck. You can get goosenecks of various lengths and angles to help your bike fit you better.” Gooseneck is also a hard to justify name for this component, BUT at least it’s funny.

As a thing, the stem has an amusing history. Once upon a time, a long stem was what you wanted. Ah, so masterful, the user of the long stem. Then you wanted a slammed one. So PRO. Also, so bad for your back. Then, especially if you were riding a mountain bike, you wanted almost no stem at all, like the least possible stem. For all of these things there were very good reasons, except the first one, the middle one, and also the last one. These are all pretty dumb ideas.

In some small way, there seems to be a component battle raging there at the crossroads of bars and frame. All the while we’re trying to shrink that component down to near non-existence, we’re also trying to route our brake line and shifter wiring through it. This small piece of real estate is now home to bearings, races, hydro-lines and electrical conduit. It’s like a clown car of functionality, and until everything is wireless and/or telekinetic, I don’t see the situation improving.

Here’s a thing I can tell you about stems that is 100% accurate. You don’t want yours to come into rapid contact with any part of your body, but most especially not your groin area or your face. I have done considerable research in this field and my data, mostly in the form of excruciating pain and hard to explain bruises, bears out the hypothesis. In fact, knowing what I know about stem/groin/face interactions, I’m surprised today’s mountain bikers readily don knee pads but have decided not to bring the codpiece back into fashion. I’m disappointed actually.

Sometimes, you see a stem that is integrated into the handlebar, and at that point, I would guess it is no longer a stem, but maybe just a handlebar clamp, which is probably what we should have called it in the first place, eventually becoming the h-clamp, because fewer syllabs. As with every other part of the bike, we’ve likely thought about the stem too much, a problem I’ve not solved by writing this baker’s half dozen paragraphs about it, unless you’re willing to let my word, this one, be the final word on the subject. No. I didn’t think so. But I tried.

Our friends and site sponsors at Shimano North America also make all manner of stems and other components. I use them. I like them, and I think you might too.

Join the conversation
  1. khal spencer says

    Somewhere in the garage, I still have a Cinelli 120mm XA. Lovely stem. Absolutely no use for it whatsoever unless I find a period piece bike to put it on.

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      Khal, might be good as a back scratcher or a hammer for very small nails. OR…you get it set in a hunk of amber, like people used to do with bees or other interesting insects. Then it’s a coffee table curio.

    2. khal spencer says

      Hi Emlyn and good morning. I always loved the look of those old Cinelli stems with the brushed aluminum. But this is one case where the modern design with all those allen head bolts is Campagnolo-sent, insofar as swapping out stems or working on the bike.

  2. Hautacam says

    Re the lack of codpieces or other armor intended to moderate the unfortunate consequences of stem-body collisions — may i present for your consideration a longstanding product evocatively named the Nard Guard. It‘s like a shinguard you strap to your stem. I thought it would be a historical footnote but apparently it is still in production. Enjoy!

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      @Hautacam – Ho. Lee. Fudge. Wow. Thanks for calling our attention to that product.

    2. spokejunky says

      The olde BMX days had the full pad kit from FliteBMX which composed the bar pad and stem pad. They’ve even got one for Stevil.

  3. johnrom719 says

    Obviously grip rods sprout from goosenecks!

  4. TominAlbany says

    My dog’s in the corner muttering, “You can just have those things removed. You know. Like you did to me. Why do you call it ‘fixed’ when I’m actually non-functional now? Huh? Huh?”

    He’s a little bitter.

    So, was this article about asparagus?

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