Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Lowly Quick Release

Most serious bicycle fans are familiar with this story. On a cold, snowy November day in 1927, a young racer named Tullio Campagnolo was ascending the Croce d'Aune pass in the Dolomites when he wanted to change the gear on his bicycle, which in those days meant loosening the rear wheel's wing nuts and flipping the wheel around for a different gear. With his fingers numb from the bitter cold, Campagnolo was unable to undo the frozen wing nuts. As he lost valuable time to his rivals, he said these legendary words: "Bisogno cambiá qualcossa de drio," or "Something in the rear must change." It's one of those great stories of inventive inspiration that, if it weren't true, would have to be created.

Although this is widely said to be a photo of Tullio
Campagnolo on that very fateful day in 1927, the
skeptic in me says it was more likely a re-enactment.
That event led to the creation of the first bicycle quick release lever, as well as Campagnolo's first derailleur system. More than 80 years later, the quick release lever remains one of bicycling's great inventions. It is lightweight, simple, effective, and very hard to improve upon -- therefore, it is very likely doomed.

Today, mainly because of the rise of disc brakes, the shift seems to be towards thru-axles. Some have even been predicting (perhaps even calling for) the demise of quick release skewers on all but the most lowly entry-level bikes. That would be a sad day, if you ask me.

The lowly quick release skewer -- one of those little things that means a lot. Easy to overlook, but a truly important part of a good quality bicycle.

Any frequent rider knows (or should know) that all quick releases are not created equal. Let's take a look at the quick release skewer before they go away.

Exposed-cam quick releases like this are unfortunately
all too common today. Cheaper to make, possibly
lighter, but less clamping force, and less durability.
First off -- The Good and the Bad (and Ugly): Enclosed cam vs. Exposed cam. For decades, all quick releases were of the enclosed cam variety. The mechanism was inside a metal (usually steel) housing, protecting it from the elements. Not that it needed it very often, but it was also more than easy enough to get a couple of drops of oil into the mechanism to keep it lubricated. Some time around the mid-80s, manufacturers started "improving" the simple quick release lever, introducing the exposed cam design -- making it a couple of grams lighter, and making it cheaper to produce (though sometimes selling for a premium price). It was a classic case of the industry marketing an inferior product as an "innovative upgrade." Unfortunately, these exposed cam skewers have become the norm. What's wrong with them? The larger, exposed cam applies less clamping force for the same amount of hand effort, so it is much easier to ride off with them not being closed tightly enough. On the rear of a bike with horizontal dropouts, this can be a real problem, as the torque applied in pedaling can pull the wheel out. Also, to cut weight, many of these have aluminum clamping faces which don't necessarily hold as well against the dropouts. Many of them also have aluminum shafts, which can easily become stripped if too much force is applied. No, the traditional enclosed cam quick release skewer is worth any extra grams it might weigh compared with the security and longevity it provides.

Some Good Ones:
Campagnolo -- the original and the best. This particular style, with the straight lever and the conical acorn nut on the other end, was available throughout the 60s and 70s, up until CPSC-mandated changes in 1978. Earlier ones have some visual differences, but are functionally quite similar.
After 1978, due to mandates from the CPSC, the levers were curved slightly -- doubtless, saving many lives. The acorn nut on the other end (where you can't see it in this photo) is also rounded more, rather than being conical. Otherwise, though, the components were quite similar, and most of the parts were still interchangeable. One thing I liked about these classic-era versions (whether straight or curved) is that the lever is held in place with a small acorn nut, making them super easy to disassemble. Later versions would use a small circlip to hold the lever in place -- not quite as handy. Yes, that's a hard-to-find High-Low hub, and it needs a little bit of polishing.
A later model of the Campagnolo skewer. Not sure exactly which model, but note the circlip holding the end of the lever instead of an acorn nut. It still works fine, but it's a little harder to disassemble. Then again, they don't often need disassembly, so most people probably never noticed or cared.
Many, many companies essentially copied the Campagnolo quick release lever design. Ofmega, Miche, Gnutti, Zeus, Shimano, Sansin/Sunshine, and more. These ones were from SunTour. Many (like these SunTours, most likely) are even part-for-part interchangeable with the Campy versions.
Among the more modern quick release skewers with enclosed cams, it's hard to do better than the ones from Shimano. These ones are the Dura-Ace model, though functionally, the less expensive models are about as good. The levers on these are large and smooth, so they have a good "feel," while holding much more securely than the open cam varieties. Note also that the acorn nut on the end might be aluminum (or plastic on the less expensive versions) but the serrated part that actually "bites" into the dropout is steel for toughness and better grip.
At only $19, these new enclosed cam skewers from Velo-Orange are a great deal -- cheaper than a lot of vintage examples, cheaper than a lot of the exposed-cam levers, and the styling looks good on any bike, new or old. If your classic-looking bike has exposed cam quick releases, do yourself a favor and get a pair of these.
Quick release skewers are proof that little things can mean a lot. A person can save a few pointless grams with some "boutique" exposed-cam quick releases, but for safety and durability sake, one needs to ask "why bother?" The quick release, as designed by Tullio Campagnolo, is simple, effective, durable, and darn near impossible to improve upon, which means you should probably stock up on a few before they go away.


  1. I am with you, with one unfortunate exception. Some dropouts do not have a completely flat profile. My Ritchey Breakaway have large flanges, making traditional (enclosed cam) quick release skewers very difficult to use. The external cam versions have a built in spacer, enabling the levers to easily clear the flanges. They are definitely not as secure.

    1. I was not aware of that exception -- then I looked at some photos of the dropouts you mention -- I have seen other styles like that, too. I suppose they could pose a problem -- you'd probably have to get the handle oriented just right to work. Thanks for the comment!

  2. "Lance" might be an insult and a slur, especially giving his competitive history, but I still attribute him getting me on a bike and riding for the past ~18 years.

    1. Hi Sean -- sorry, I didn't realize your Lance comment was on the wrong article. Anyhow, I think the Lance thing is kind of insulting regardless of the revelations -- mainly because it is used in the same way as any racial or ethnic slur -- reducing all minorities to one stereotype. BTW, you're not alone when it comes to being influenced to ride by LA -- lots of people were, which is definitely a good thing that can't be changed by later allegations.

  3. Jan Heine bursts the "Tullio trapped on the snowy mountain" story as marketing myth:

    Still, they made great skewers!

  4. "After 1978, due to mandates from the CPSC, the levers were curved slightly -- doubtless, saving many lives."

    How did the curved design saved lives?

    1. Actually, I was being ironic when I said that. The CPSC was apparently concerned that riders could be impaled or otherwise injured on the quick release, which was such an unlikely possibility that it seems ludicrous to mandate the change. When I say that the change saved "many lives" - I really mean that it probably made no difference whatsoever.

    2. Oh... I'm famous among my friends for not getting irony / sarcasm. And now, not even in print!!