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How to adjust headset bearings

Joseph Delves
31 Aug 2020

The Cyclist guide to diagnosing problems with headset bearings.

Playing havoc with your bike’s handling, a poorly set-up headset isn’t just annoying, it’s potentially dangerous. Luckily, getting yours back in order needn’t be tricky.

While there are now many different designs, all headsets are still just a pair of bearings that sit between the frame and fork. Supporting it at the top and bottom of the head tube, when working correctly they allow it to turn independently of the rest of the bike.

Whether loose or cartridge-style, all bearings will eventually wear out. However, stiffness or unwanted wobbling can often be solved with a few simple tweaks.

So, if something seems amiss with your steering, follow our tips to get it back on track.

How to adjust headset bearings in six steps

1. Loosen the stem

Headset bearings - Loosen stem bolts

 

Whether your headset seems too wobbly or too tight, you’ll first need to loosen the stem in order to get the whole assembly moving.

To do this, partially undo the bolts on either side of the stem (no need to remove them completely), to allow it to move independently of the fork.

2. Cap off

Headset bearings - Undo top cap

 

Use an allen key to loosen the bolt in the top cap. This will release the pressure on the bearings (known as ‘preload’). Check that the top cap is pressing against the top of the stem (or a spacer) and not the end of the fork steerer tube.

Retighten the top cap, using a minimal amount of force.

3. Test the headset bearings

Headset bearings - front brake

 

Holding the front brake on, place your hand behind the stem and rock the bike back and forth. If you can feel any rocking or hear any knocking in the head tube, you’ll need to slightly increase the tension on the top cap.

Once you’re happy there’s no movement, move on to the next step.

4. Swing test

Headset bearings - swing test

 

Lift the bike so the front wheel is off the ground, and allow it to swing from side to side. Check that it is moving freely (if it doesn’t, return to Step 3 and loosen the top cap slightly), and feel for any grittiness – if there is, it may indicate that the internal bearings need replacing.

5. Straighten the stem

Headset bearings - straighten stem

 

If the wheel swings freely with no unwanted movement, you’re sorted. Ensure your bars are correctly aligned with the front wheel and tighten the bolts on either side of the stem.

Be careful not to over-tighten them if you have a carbon fork, as this can cause damage.

6. Diagnosis

Headset bearing diagnosis

 

If you can’t get the fork turning smoothly without the headset rocking or rattling, check the bearings. To do this, pull the fork out of the bike and pop the bearings from their cups.

Roll them between your fingers – they should feel buttery smooth; if not, it’s time to replace them. On older loose-bearing style headsets, look for balls that are nice and shiny.

Any dull or pitted surfaces mean its time to replace the headset. With everything apart, now is a good time to give it all a clean and refresh the grease.  

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