Weight-weenies will wince and the budget conscious wail at the wonga expected for Nitto's lugged steel stem but for an admittedly small niche it will do just the job.
You probably don't have to try too hard to imagine the problem I had with my lovely old steel road bike. What was once my best racer used for randonnees and reliability trials long before the new-fangled sportive events were overrun with 15lb carbon marvels is now used fitted with fatter 28mm tyres for riding to work, muddy winter miles with mudguards and generally pottering about.
It was all good except that the handlebar and quill stem - especially the stem - was both too long in the reach and too low for anything remotely approaching a comfortable ride in that guise. I tried raising it as far as it would go - even tried pulling it a centimetre beyond its 'minimum insertion point' much to the horror of my local bike shop but it was obvious I needed another 4cm - almost 2" - in height apart from a shorter reach and it looked like I was going to need another, taller-at-the-front frame. Which is a shame when it's for such a mundane role and you're emotionally attached to a bike you've had happy times with.
Bring on Rivendell Bicycle Works in California and the stem they designed for just that job and then had made by Nitto, the Japanese handlebars and stems specialist. Now, Rivendell have a bee in their bonnet about 'high' handlebars for comfort and they are also commendably obsessed with lugged steel frames so although there are many and varied stems made of forged alloy in a more conventional style, some of them even with an extended, taller quill, Rivendell went to town with the lugged steel stem, making it just the job for both a super-plush road riding style and also to match a fine old steel frame.
The price is a bit of a shocker - it cost £135 when I got it in for review and that's gone up to £142 with the US dollar exchange rate - but the Nitto lugged steel stem with its 6cm longer quill has given me the extra height I need and bit more besides for later if necessary. I also ordered it in 100mm to achieve the shorter reach I needed but I could have also chosen 80, 90, 110 or 120mm as well, so all the bases should be covered for most people's size requirements and certainly mine.
The appearance to my eyes especially as it's fitted to a steel bike with more or less matching steel lugs is an improvement on the nice-but-bland alloy 3T stem I removed and the satin-finish plating is a good enough match for the anodised alloy components on the rest of the bike.
Quite a surprise was that I expected to experience the extra height in unwelcome steering vagueness and flexibility - 40mm is a lot of extra length in a part subjected to so much stress - but the new stem felt if anything more precise than the alloy stem it replaced, probably explained by the fact that the extra length goes more upwards than outwards. That extra height adds comfort and, of course, being more comfortable meant that I was more at-one with the front end of the bike altogether, so no complaints there.
Fitting, of course is a complete pain because you have to detach all the brake and gear cables and remove the 'bar tape on at least one side before you can swap out the old and new parts but I took the opportunity to change the tape, cables and even the handlebars as well, making it a worthwhile job.
Note here that if, like me, you're going to take advantage of the extra stem height and you have STI-style combined brake and gear cables you'll need to change the cables completely because the originals will be cut to length to suit the original height of the 'bars. Both the quill, lightly greased, and the handlebars , not greased, fitted precisely with their mates suggesting that the thickness of the electro-plated finish had all been carefully considered into the design for accurate fit.
About the only thing you could question was that a steel stem is inevitably going to be heavier than its aluminium alloy rival but when we weighed the 100mm Nitto at 367 grams against the 110mm 3T alloy at 269g, the difference of 98g or 3.5 ounces seems negligible especially considering my seat-pack alone, with its filling of multi-tool and inner tubes weighs over 500 grams.
An expensive but finely made, arguably even beautiful handlebar stem that is an ideal aesthetic match for a lugged steel frame. Most importantly, though, it can provide a comfy riding position if that's what you want on a bike you would otherwise have to spend a lot more on getting to fit properly. In that context, it's both great to look at and very good value.
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Make and model: Nitto lugged quill stem
Size tested: 100mm
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
It's a traditional 'quill' handlebar stem to fit an older frame with a 1" threaded fork steerer that has a 22.2mm internal diameter i.e. most of them. Apart from its lugged steel design that some people will find perfectly complementary to their lugged steel frame, the main claim to fame of Japanese Nitto's lugged steel stem is that it has a quill - the bit that fits and holds in place by means of a threaded wedge and an allen-key-fitting expander bolt down inside the fork steerer tube - a good 6cm taller than the average quill stem. This means that a frame that would be otherwise too low and aggressive-fitting at the front - in other words the handlebars are too low and cannot adjust safely higher - can be rendered comfortable.
Here's what the suppliers Rivendell who also designed the stem for manufacturer Nitto have to say about it:
"Our lugged quill stem is the strongest and most beautiful stem out there, and is hand-brazed by Ms. Yabashi, a 42-year old woman who works at Nitto. It is made of CrMo tubes specially drawn for this application, using our own investment-cast lugs. The stem quill is 22.2mm; the bar clamp is 26.55mm.
This stem is a soft, not shiny nickel finish, something Nitto calls dull-bright, strange as that may sound. The quill is 190mm. It is expensive, but of course is a good choice for a bike that'll last a long time. If you can afford it. If not, get the Technomic Deluxe - another, more conventional forged-alloy stem also made by Nitto - and save $$$."
That pretty much sold it to us and the relatively-expensive, lugged steel option was certainly a bonus even considering the price. It perfectly complements a rather nice classic and hand-made steel frame that we would have otherwise had to replace to get a comfortable fit now that we're using the bike for pleasurable ambling and commuting rather than anything remotely athletic.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
OK, we said it has a 22.2mm quill which will fit more or less any traditional bike with a 1" standard threaded steerer. The only thing you might need to watch is that older alloy handlebars came in either 25.4mm or 26.0mm diameter and this is a 26.0mm, like the vast majority of European alloy handlebars, especially those made by the Italians like 3T and Cinelli. Nitto are pretty much the Japanese masters of quill handlebars and stems and have enjoyed something of a mini-boom with the renaissance in classic fixie bikes but of course the handlebars and stems work just as well on classic road and touring bikes. Just so you know, we fitted a Nitto Noodle bar at the same time as this stem and there will be a review along on that, as well.
The stem is made from two custom-drawn chromium-molybdenum steel tubes hand-brazed together and reinforced with a traditional finely-shaped lug. There are exquisite little reinforcing ribs and the whole is plated in a satin-sheen nickel finish that looks thick and durable. Certainly more durable than we have any reason to criticise in the fitting and first few hundred miles of use. All the bolts including the long threaded expander are well-plated chromed steel.
The Nitto lugged steel stem has an air of the permanence about it; you sense it will outlast pretty much every over component on the bike.
The Nitto lugged steel stem weighs 367 grams which is exactly 98 grams or 3.5 ounces more than the 269 gram 3T alloy quill stem it replaced. In the context of a sturdy steel bike that's nothing considering the additional comfort or lovely looks. You choose.
The Nitto's particular 'tall' attribute should enable a 10/10 for comfort.
It's either a very expensive stem or a very inexpensive way of getting your bike to fit without changing the frame. Appearance wise, you can decide whether the lugged steel construction floats your boat for the money. Otherwise, there are geometrically identical alloy stems made by Nitto for a lot less cash.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Perfectly. We identified that with our existing classic lugged steel frame we needed a good few extra centimeters in rise at the front end for comfort. Faced with the prospect of finding another frame to replace our otherwise perfect model and to which we felt all sorts of personal attachment, it was a no-brainer to chose which of the lengths 8-12cm would do the job and we went for a 10cm to bring our handlebars back by 1cm and up by 4cm.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Apart from the comfy position, we felt that the lugged steel appearance perfectly complemented the frame it was mounted on.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Hardly dislike, but a chrome or even just a shinier finish would have looked a bit more bling but fully accept that might overdo it.
Did you enjoy using the product? Absolutely insofar as you can 'enjoy' a stem. If it does the job of putting the handlebars firmly and strongly in the correct position, you're going to love it. It it was as ugly as sin, you'd wince every time you saw it, as it is it's a perfect complement to a classic hand built steel frame. And the responsiveness, the stiffness was a welcome bonus.
Would you consider buying the product? Yes and indeed I did.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes, assuming they had a frame with a 1in headtube
Anything further to say about the product in conclusion?
Lovely, and nice that there are still places to buy special products like this when there is a particular requirement. Let's hope Ms Yabashi is happy to carry on brazing her stems for many more years.
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