Intend is a tiny brand from Freiburg in Germany. Most component brands start small and work up, but Intend made a one-man charge from the outset, producing their own upside-down fork, in addition to the funky stem, and stiffness-increasing headset we review here. Now, they are working on cranks and disc rotors - all designed and engineered in Germany.
In this review, we take a look at two products: the Grace EN 35mm reach and the Stiffmaster headset. The stem in question is a work of art, and the headset is industrial, chunky, and promises to increase the stiffness in your cockpit. Neither of these products are cheap at €149 and €79 respectively, but for a brand who produces high quality and small batches, the MSRPs are not astronomical.
Grace EN Stem Design
Grace EN Stem Details
• 35mm length
• 31.8mm handlebar diameter
• EFBE "E-Gravity" tested
• 35.5mm stack height
• Max. handlebar rise, 25mm
• Weight: 83g incl. titanium bolts (actual)
• Price: €149 EUR
Stiffmaster Headset Details
• 13mm stack height
• Suitable for ZS44 head tubes
• Spacers: 20, 13, 7, 1.5mm
• Weight: 75g (w/o spacers, actual)
• Made in Germany
• Price: €79 EUR
The Grace EN stem was designed with a light-weight to strength ration in mind. Weighing a measly 83 grams including titanium bolts, the 35mm long stem (for 31.8mm handlebars) is probably the lightest on the market, the second lightest I can find that is designed for aggressive riding is the Renthal Duo at 105g, but I can't be bothered to check all the weights of the stems (I checked eleven in total) out there so let me know in the comments which is the lightest.
All four bolts are 4mm (M5 thread), with two to clamp to the steerer tube and two for the handlebar. The wraparound style of the handlebar clamp is said to improve stiffness and cut down on weight. This does make handlebar installation more difficult and limits bar rise to 25mm. The height limitation became an issue with the bike used for testing, as my bar height was too low with the precut fork steerer. So, if you so plan on purchasing one, make sure you are already happy with your bar height.Stiffmaster Headset Design
How did the Stiffmaster come to fruition? It was after a conversation with Intend last year. We were discussing his single and dual-crown forks and I stated that I thought the main difference between riding two types of forks was the steerer stiffness. When swapping between downhill and enduro bikes, regardless of how similar they became in terms of geometry, suspension, tire choice etc, the DH bike with a dual crown fork and direct mount stem was always more accurate and confidence inspiring.
The Stiffmaster headset uses a standard radial bearing commonly found on most headsets, on top of that is an axial needle roller bearing. A sleeve is pressed through the headset cup, both bearings,
and the top cap, which is then clamped to the steerer tube (after preloading the top cap) with a 3mm bolt (M4 thread) – this essentially locks and connects all of the upper headset to the steerer tube. There are then four options of conical spacers in 20, 13, 7, or 1.5mm heights which distribute some force from the stem into the headset.Performance
Intend say that the Stiffmaster can increase stiffness at the grip area of the handlebar by 38% – this is measured 30cm away from the stem centre, using a 27mm stack height with the Stiffmaster versus a 26mm stack height of a standard headset and spacers. The test involved adding 5kg of weight to the bar and measuring the amount of movement/flex on each setup. You can read Intend's own lab results here.
Test One: 31mm Renthal Apex and Stiffmaster headset.
So I set out with grandiose plans to capture the stiffness of the headset on video while riding, but it turns out that it ain't that simple. So, this is not a scientific test, but here you go: I did three tests. The first with a 31mm long Renthal stem and the Stiffmaster headset. The second, was with the Grace EN 35mm stem and Stiffmaster. The third trial was with the Grace stem and a standard top headset cup from Hope. I leaned against a wall and flexed the handlebar with my hands, I also did a car park test of railing imaginary corners and thirdly, I did two laps of my local test track on each setup. The test track is around eight minutes of singletrack, including gnarly rock sections, short sprint climbs and fast corners, it was also SS4 of last year's EWS in Finale.
Test Two: Grace EN 35mm stem and Stiffmaster headset.
Test Three: Grace EN 35mm stem, Hope top headset, with Trickstuff stem spacers.
The first nicety I noticed when swapping components is the bolt on the top of the Stiffmaster clamps to the steerer tube, which means if you are a serial bar/stem/height fiddler (yes, that's me), then you can remove the stem without the fork falling out or losing the headset preload.
Secondly, is the headset actually made a noticeable difference to stiffness in the cockpit. You can feel it when standing and pedaling hard on climbs, and rolling between fast berms. I went for back to back test rides with each setup and there was a noticeable difference in the feel and accuracy of the bike, mostly noticeable in the smaller movements when standing climbing or gentle direction changes. It also gives more confidence when hitting really gnarly sections, where it was somewhat easier to hold a line.
Downsides? At €79 for half a headset, after buying a lower cup you will probably be spending over €100 in total. Preloading the headset is more fiddly because preloading the axial needle roller bearing is a fine line between too loose, and over-tightening and binding and the headset. At correct preload, the axial bearing does add some drag to the headset, like a slightly over-tightened headset, but this is not noticeable when riding. The Stiffmaster will also need more servicing, due to the unsealed axial bearing, (there is an o-ring, which keeps most dirt and water out).
So, is the Stiffmaster something you need to rush out and buy? Probably not. Is it a good idea next time you need a new headset? Yes, if you are looking for subtle improvements in your bike's handling and don't mind some fettling. If you just go out and ride and don't want any extra hassles, then no. The gains are also variable, Intend says the Stiffmaster gives a 38% increase in stiffness at the handlebar with a certain setup, but there are many factors to consider in the real world: head tube length, steerer length, stem height, bar width, rider weight, rider speed and trail type are among them.
Is there an easier way to solve this problem? If you are a heavyweight rider with a long-travel bike and wide bars who thinks steerer stiffness is holding you back, just go for a dual-crown fork and send it. That said, single-crown forks have gone through a number of evolutions. After we had straight 1-1/8" steerers, the next step was a 1.5" straight steerer tube, which must have made a huge difference in stiffness. (I never had the chance to ride a 1.5" steerer). Tapered steerers took over, arguably offering the best of both worlds, with 1.5" at the bottom for strength and 1-1/8" up top for weight saving. Giant had a crack at a new standard back in 2011 with their OverDrive-2 steerer
, which literally got shouted off the stage by journo's crying, "no more new standards!" So, there are other ways to fix this issue, which could resurface in the future. At this moment, the Stiffmaster system is available and works with standard components.Pinkbike's Take: