The bike’s headset is essential because it helps you steer and control the bike smoothly. Sometimes, though it can start having problems like looseness, roughness, or rust, which can mess up how your bike works. In this article, we’ll show you how to check and change the bike headset on your bike so it keeps working great.
Inspecting a bike headset for wear
Lift the front wheel. The steering should move freely. If it doesn’t or it feels rough or clicky then the headset is too tight and the bearings might be crushed.
If the steering moves freely then it’s time to check it for play. Press the front brake lever with one hand and place your other hand over the top seal. Move the bike back and forth. If you feel movement then the headset is too loose. This might wear bearings unevenly and attract dirt and water inside.
Now inspect the headset visually. If there are any signs of rust coming out of the headset then the bearings might be corroded.
If you find any of these symptoms then your headset will more likely require adjustment, service, or even replacement.
Tools required to replace a bike’s headset
- Set of allen keys. 4mm and 5mm sizes are necessary for threadless headsets to remove the stem from the steerer tube. These sizes may also be needed to remove the cable from the dual caliper brakes or to detach the hydraulic brake caliper from the fork. A 6mm Allen key is required to loosen the stem bolt on threaded headsets.
- Flat-head screwdriver. Not essential but it can be useful when removing the crown race from the steerer tube.
- Headset wrenches (typically 32mm or 36mm): These wrenches are needed for loosening and tightening the lock nut and top bearing race on the threaded stem. Having two of these wrenches makes headset tightening easier.
- Large adjustable spanner: Can be used as an alternative to a second headset wrench.
- Grease: Necessary for lubricating bearings, headset cups, and crown race before installing them.
- Cloth or paper towel: Useful for cleaning and wiping off excess grease or dirt.
- Crown race removal tool: Needed when removing the crown race from the fork’s steerer tube.
- Crown race setter: Essential for pressing the crown race onto the fork crown.
- Headset cups removal tool: Necessary for removing the headset cups from the bike’s head tube.
- Headset press: An essential tool used to press new headset cups into the head tube.
- 14, 15, or 17mm spanner: Can come in handy when removing the front wheel with wheel nuts.
- Degreaser: Great for removing old grease, dirt, and grime from headset parts and the head tube.
- Velcro or toe strap: Useful for securely attaching the handlebars to the bike frame.
- Put the bike on a stand
- If you have rim brakes then release the calipers at the front. For drop bar bikes with dual caliper brakes remove the cable from the caliper.
- Remove the front wheel
- If the brake levers on flat bars are connected with a brake cable then remove the cable from the front brake lever.
- For hydraulic disc brakes remove the caliper and the hose (if required) from the fork.
Bike headset removal
First, define whether your headset is threaded or threadless.
If there is a lock nut at the top then this is a threaded headset.
If there is no lock nut at the top then this is a threadless headset.
- Use a 6 millimetre allen key to loosen the top bolt on the quill stem.
- If the bolt comes up whilst unscrewing this means that the stem is wedged in and needs to be loosened.
- Gently tap the bolt with a mallet or a hammer until it drops.
- Now remove the stem and attach it to the top tube.
- Undo and remove the lock nut and put it aside.
- Remove the lock nut washer
- Now, loosen the top-bearing race. Once loosen, hold the fork with one hand and remove the top bearing race with the other.
- Slide out the fork and put it on the side.
- Loosen the bolts on the side of the stem.
- Undo and remove the bolt and the top cap.
- Remove the stem and, using a cable tie or strap, attach it to the top tube of the frame.
- Remove the spacers.
- Once they are removed hold the forks with one hand and tap the steerer tube with a mallet until the forks come out. Be aware that, while doing this some parts like the seal, the dust ring, and the compression ring might fall on the floor.
- If there are bearings sitting on the crown remove them and put them together with other headset parts.
- Remove the bearings from the cups or from the frame.
- Clean the bearing cups, the crown race, and the bearings.
- Inspect the bearings, the cups, and the crown race. If they are worn or damaged then you will need to fit a new headset.
Removing bike headset cups
- Fit the headset cup removal tool by sliding the narrow end first through the top headset cup until you hear a click.
- Place one hand on the top of the bearing cup.
- Use a mallet to hit the headset cup removal tool until the top bearing cup comes out.
- Now, fit the headset cup removal tool by sliding the narrow end first through the bottom headset cup until you hear a click.
- Place one hand under the bearing cup.
- Hit the headset cup removal tool with a mallet until the bearing cup comes out.
- Clean the walls inside the head tube where the bearing cups sit.
Replacing the crown race
- Use a crown race remover to remove the crown race.
- If there’s a slot under the crown race on the fork then you might be able to praise the crown race with a flathead screwdriver.
- Clean the crown and grease it slightly.
- Slide the new crown race onto the steerer tube.
- Now fit the correct size insert on the top of the crown race and fit the crown race setting tool.
- Hit the crown race setting tool with a mallet until the crown race is pressed all the way in.
Installing the new bike headset
- Grease the walls inside the head tube where the bearing cups sit.
- Place the top bearing cup on the top of the head tube and slide the headset press through it.
- Now place the bottom bearing cup onto the step bushing cup adapter and slide it through the head shaft.
- Fit the sliding cup assembly and press the bearing cups into the head tube by turning the handle.
- Remove the tool.
- Make sure that you have all the headset parts and tools in reach.
- Grease the bearing cups and fit the bearings.
- If applicable, place the bottom dust seal. Make sure that it’s the correct way around.
- Grease the cap bolt slightly.
- Slide the fork into the head tube.
- For threadless headsets fit the top dust seal, compression ring, and seal.
- You can now fit the spacers and the stem.
- Fit the top cap. Don’t over-tighten the bolt as this may damage the headset bearings.
- For threaded headsets first screw the top bearing race until it’s hand tight.
- Now fit the lock nut washer and screw the lock nut until it’s hand tight.
- Fit one headset wrench or large adjustable spanner onto the top bearing race on hold it with one hand.
- With the other fit the second headset wrench and tighten it clockwise.
- Slide the stem into the steerer tube. Make sure that the stem sits above the minimum insertion mark.
- If you have a cable brake on a flat bar then reattach the brake cable into the brake lever.
- Refit the wheel.
- Align the stem with the front wheel.
- Tighten the bolts on the side of the stem a bit at a time ( for threadless stems) or a bolt on the top of the stem (for threaded stems).
- Check if the handlebars move smoothly but there’s no play in the headset. If required repeat the process until you’re happy.
- For drop bar bikes with dual caliper brakes refit the cable and adjust the brake. Our article about rim brakes adjustment will help you with this task.
- For hydraulic disc brakes refit and adjust the front caliper.
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