Remember last year when you overhauled your headset? No? Ok, the year before that then. No? Have you ever overhauled your headset?
It’s ok to admit it if you haven’t. The headset is one of the unsung heroes on the bicycle. Thanklessly rolling back and forth thousands of time without the rider ever stopping to think, “Man, that headset is working great!” And unless you have to do something with the fork, there’s a good chance you’ll forget to take everything apart periodically and make sure everything still looks good.
I’m guilty of this. I just had to send my Fox fork in to be serviced, and had the opportunity to get a look at the headset bearings. Luckily there was no corrosion, but there was very little grease left. I haven’t always been so lucky on other bikes.
My bikes all have the standard threadless headset with the bearings in a retainer ring. This is probably the most common type of headset found on modern mountain bikes, and the discussion here will be about this style. If you have the sealed cartridge bearing type, you may want to refer to any specific instructions from the manufacturer.
To get to the headset, loosen the stem bolts, unscrew the steering tube cap, and then slide the stem off the steering tube, being careful that the fork doesn’t fall out of the frame, dumping the parts to your headset all over the ground. As you carefully remove the fork, make a good note of how all the pieces of your headset are assembled. You can make a mental note, write notes, or even take some digital pictures. It’s easy to forget how it’s all assembled if you take pieces off to clean them. Many times the bottom bearings will remain in the lower cup when you remove the fork, so make sure you pull them out and notice the orientation of the bearings in the retainer.
Clean all the bearings with a degreaser, and wipe all the parts down, including the bearing cups. Inspect your bearings for corrosion, excessive wear, or pitting. If everything looks serviceable, proceed with the regreasing.
Put grease into the bearing cups, and rub some grease into the bearings. Put a little grease on the other parts that will be rubbing against each other. Replace the dust seal on the steering tube (over the crown race), slide the bearings down the steering tube, making sure of the right orientation…you took notes, right? Slide the steering tube back into the frame until snug, and check that it rotates freely. You should be able to tell at this point if you put the bearings on right. Next put the top bearings in the top cup, and lay down the rest of the pieces of the headset in the opposite way you disassembled it, finishing with the compression ring.
Finally, put your spacers back on (if present), and slide the stem onto the steering tube. You should be able to let go of the fork without it falling out now. Screw in the steering tube top cap, being careful not to over tighten. Its primary purpose is to snug up the headset, not to hold the forks on. Align the handlebars with the front wheel, and then retighten your stem bolts. Make sure you finish this last step before you test ride. I’ve forgotten before with poor results. If you apply the front brakes and feel play in the front end, loosen the stem bolts, snug up the headset by tightening the top cap bolt a little more, and then retighten the stem bolts.
There! Wasn’t that easy? If you ride your bike often, it is recommended that you inspect and overhaul your headset once a year. Possibly more if you ride frequently in adverse conditions where your bike is exposed to a lot of water and mud.