They sit there, hidden away, quietly getting on with the business of easing us through corners & helping to ensure that our forks don't snap, catapulting us into a ditch or under the wheels of that van which has graciously conceded us 150mm space while passing. We forget about them, reduced down to the level of 'minor accessory', not in the same league as wheels, crankset, or even a stem (ffs).
Over the last few weeks I have noticed an increasing flow of headset issues. Crunchy headsets. self-centering headsets, headsets with mysterious brown gunge leaking out, loose headsets, seized headsets. All of these are the symptoms of a winter of hard abuse, often unprotected even by the flimsiest of mudguards (yes, Crud minor, we are talking about YOU!).
Let's give the headset the credit it deserves. In truth, they are not all anonymous integrated, concealed components. Some are flashy & downright expensive (yes, King major, we are talking about you & your cronies Creek & Hope). When properly adjusted & maintained even the humblest of headsets will smooth our progress, allow us to sweep through corners, ever faster, to look cool as we pedal hands-free swapping all manner of gels, gilets & smartphones between pockets, those micro-adjustments keeping us from running into that wheel to which we are clinging with increasing desperation...
So, you say, what can I do to absolve myself of this sin? I'm glad you asked!
Firstly you can pick up thy bike and walk. No, sorry, that's supposed to be in the bit about cobbled climbs!
Pick up your bike & give the bars a waggle. Nice & smooth? No grittiness evident? If you tilt the bike down slightly (easier with a workstand) & push the bars away do they rock into the straight ahead a bit too quickly? Next, back on the floor. Hold the front brake tight & rock the bike forwards and backwards. Any clunkiness? There shouldn't be anything beyond the faintest flex from the forks (just in case you are riding disc brakes, this might not be so easy). If these are all good, then carry on riding. If not, then read on!
Your bike will have two headset bearings. One at the top of the headtube, one at the bottom. These are compressed lightly together by the top cap on the stem. The procedure is 1: loosen stem bolts 2: loosen the top cap. Then, the mildly skilled bit 3: tighten until you feel the resistance increasing, then back it off 1/8-1/4 of a turn. Over tighten and your bearings are crushed (or bearing races irreversibly scarred), too little and there is play in the bearings. Then 4: retighten the stem bolts. Check for crunchiness or over tightness. If you have any doubts about the results, repeat the above. If you are still not happy, bring it to me!
Three things to note. Almost all bearings are sealed cartridges. Save for applying grease to the outside to stop water penetration, there's not a lot you can do once they deteriorate. Secondly, those of you with full carbon steerers will be 'blessed' with some form of expanding bung to create a locating point for the top cap. Sometimes when tightening the top cap, these move. Often they move when you hit a pothole. Best to be careful with these, don't be heavy handed because... Thirdly we have torque ratings. Please note these are maxima. If it says 5, do not exceed 5. likewise 7, 4.5, 9 etc.
So, there you have it. All you wanted to know about adjusting headsets. Bet you're regretting it now, eh?