Your headset is a part of the bike you probably don’t think about too much. That is until it doesn’t work. If your bicycle is too hard to steer, you might have a problem with your headset. Don’t worry yet, though, there might be a simple fix that you can do yourself to get your bike back on the road fast.
If your bicycle is too hard to steer, your headset is probably too tight. You might have an issue with your bearings being dirty, upside down, or they may have lost their grease. Of course, if you ride indoors, sweat in your headset can cause corrosion and stiff steering.
In this article, we’ll look at a few different causes of stiff steering. We’ll talk about how to identify the problem and what you can do to fix it. But first, we’ll talk about why your headset is important.
What Is a Headset?
The headset on your bike isn’t the most glamourous part, but it is definitely one of the most essential parts of your bike.
The head is the part of the bike that keeps the fork attached to the handlebars. It’s made up of a bearing assembly, and in more modern bikes, these bearings come in a small round cartridge. The headset allows you to turn the handlebars and steer your bike in the right direction.
A problem with your headset is the biggest reason you’ll have difficulty steering. If the steering is too loose, your bike will wobble and might even come apart while you are riding. But if the headset is tight, it will be hard to steer.
Headset too tight
If your bicycle’s headset is too tight, there is an easy way to tell. Pick up the front of the bike and lean the bike so that the handlebars flop from side to side. If the bars don’t flip to the side and touch the frame, your headset is probably too tight. The bars and fork should turn pretty easily.
If the bars don’t turn easily or they don’t turn at all, then most likely, your headset is too tight. This happens when you over-tighten the top cap. This is a common problem and relatively easy to fix.
- First, you’ll need to loosen up the bolts on your headset and stem cap a little bit. Make sure the fork and handlebars are aligned correctly. If they aren’t, your steering will be crooked.
- Use a torque wrench so that you can put the correct amount of tension on the bolts. First, tighten the stem cap to preload the tension. Next, tighten the headset bolts, being very careful not to overtighten them.
- If the bolts are too loose, you’ll feel a knock or vibration in the headset. If the bolts are too tight, it will be difficult to steer. With a little practice, you’ll be able to get it just right.
Headset bearings have dirt in them
If dirt or debris managed to work its way into your headset, you might have trouble with your steering. If you’ve already checked that you didn’t tighten your stem cap too tightly, the next thing to do is check your bearings for dirt. Any debris in there can get in the way of good steering. And besides, a good cleaning never hurts!
- You’ll need to remove your front wheel, then loosen the stem cap and headset bolts to release the fork. It’s a little easier if you have a bike stand to work on. Once the fork is removed, you’ll have access to the bearings.
- Clean the bottom bearing with a rag and wipe off any old grease, dirt, or debris that might be on it. Make sure you also remove the bearing from the top of the headset. You’ll need to wipe off any dirt or grease from this one, as well. Also, clean the inside of the steerer tube and the part of the fork that goes inside it.
- Check to see that your bearings aren’t rusted or misshapen. If they are, you’ll need to replace them while you’ve got the bike taken apart. Apply fresh grease to the top and bottom races as well as to the bearing cartridge.
- Replace the bearings, fork, and wheel, and tighten the stem cap and headset with the proper tension, as mentioned above.
Not enough grease in the bearings
If your bike is not steering well, it might be because there isn’t enough grease on your bearings. Over time, grease can dry up or get washed out. More likely, though, if you have power washed your bike with a high-pressure stream of water, you could have washed the grease right out. If this is the case, you’ll need to replace the grease to get your bike steering nicely again.
- Essentially, you’ll follow the same steps as mentioned above. You’ll need to remove your front wheel and loosen the stem cap and headset bolts so you can remove your fork. Clean the bottom race, the top race, and the inside of the steerer tube.
- Remove the bearing cartridge and clean it off. Make sure the bearings are clean and in good working order. If they don’t need to be replaced with new bearings, then reapply a generous amount of grease to the cartridge.
- Reassemble the bearing cartridges, fork, and wheel. Tighten the stem cap and headset bolts with a torque wrench to get the right amount of pressure. Check to make sure your headset isn’t too tight or too loose.
- Next time, make sure you don’t use high pressure to wash your bike clean. Otherwise, you’ll need to clean and grease your headset bearings all over again.
Bearings were replaced upside down
If the steering becomes stiff after you’ve already serviced your headset, it might be because you replaced the bearing cartridges upside down. If this is the case, the only way to tell is to take the headset apart and put it back together again.
You’ll need to remove the front wheel. Loosen the headset bolts and stem cap so that you can remove the fork. Remove the cartridge bearings and carefully replace them, making sure they are put back correctly. Reassemble all of the parts of the bike and gently retighten your stem cap and headset bolts.
Headset is corroded from sweat
If you use your bike on an indoor trainer and then find the steering is too stiff when you take the bike outside for a ride, you may have corrosion from sweat. Most people sweat much more on indoor trainers than they do outside. The sweat can pool, drip onto the bike, and run into unfortunate places, like inside your headset, where it can cause damage and corrosion over time.
The only way to tell for sure is to take your headset apart and look inside. However, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on if you have been using your bike on the trainer a lot and find that it’s stiff when you take it outside to ride on the road.
If you do find corrosion inside the headset, you’ll probably need to replace the cartridge bearings. Contact your local bike shop if you need help – they can at least help you order the parts and even install them for you if you prefer. Once you’ve replaced the corroded parts, you can put your bike back together as detailed above.
Finally, remember to tighten your headset to just the right amount. A headset that is too loose will wobble, vibrate, and could even fall apart while you are riding. A headset that is too tight will cause stiff, rough steering. When in doubt, your local bike shop can help you get your headset just right.
My favorite bike commuting products
Here are some of the products I love using for bike commuting. They make riding so much more fun and enjoyable.
Ergon GP5 Bar End Grips: These are super comfortable, ergonomic grips that offer me two extra hand positions on my flat bar bicycle. They also offer a much more comfortable grip that helps distribute my weight on the handlebar better.
Bar end mirrors: If you ride much among cars then a bar end mirror can make riding much safer. You don’t have to turn around every single time to check on the traffic coming from behind.
Bike lights from Cateye. This is essential year round. I recommend going for a more powerful light than just a to-be-seen light. I like the 800 lumen ones from Cateye because they are affordable, portable and still give out plenty of light so I can see where I’m going even in pitch dark. The battery lasts for a long time too, and it’s USB rechargeable.
Bike rack. This bike rack from Dirza is great because I can put it on almost any bicycle regardless whether they have mounting points for racks or not. I can leave it on my bike for commuting or take it off for weekend rides or whenever I don’t need a rack.
If you want to check out my full list of recommended products, you visit my recommended gear page.