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A cyclist embarks on a ride, unaware of the challenges that await. As the rain pours down, mud and slush splatter onto the handlebars, stem, and headset of his road bike. Unfortunately, the dust covers are no match for these liquid gravel invaders, and soon the grit makes its way into the headset bearings. The cyclist notices the rough turning of the handlebars, a clear sign that the bearings have stiffened due to the accumulated debris.
Even if you don’t encounter extreme weather conditions, the accumulation of dust over time combined with light rain events can lead to similar issues. So, how do we prevent this problem or deal with it when it arises? Let’s take a closer look at road bike headsets to determine the best course of action.
3 Types of Bearings
To understand headsets, we must first familiarize ourselves with the three main types of bearings used in road bikes.
Loose ball bearings are placed between the inner and outer races, making direct contact with them. The ingenuity of these headset designs lies in the methods used to secure the steerer to the inner race. To maintain proper functionality, these bearings need to be tightened to the right degree, ensuring there is no play in the steerer while still allowing for easy handlebar maneuvering.
In caged bearings, the balls are fitted into slots on a circular rack, also known as a cage. This design allows for easy cleaning and re-greasing since the cage can be lifted clear of the race or removed when the fork is taken out. No need to worry about loose balls causing unnecessary complications.
Considered the pinnacle of headset bearing evolution, sealed bearings offer exceptional efficiency and minimal maintenance requirements. The caged balls within the sealed bearings rotate smoothly against precisely machined races, and the seal on one side helps keep dirt out. Nowadays, the focus is on maintaining the health of sealed bearings on road bikes.
Types of Headsets
The type of headset installed in a bike is not determined by the bearing type it contains. Headset types have evolved independently, regardless of the progression from loose to caged to sealed bearings. Here are the main types of headsets commonly used:
Threaded and Threadless
Threaded headsets feature a nut and lock ring that tighten down on loose, caged, or sealed bearings on a threaded 1″ fork steerer. On the other hand, threadless headsets eliminate the need for threads and the quill stem. The threadless fork is cut to length, and the stem slides over the top. Tightening the stem bolts secures it to the steerer.
In integrated headsets, sealed bearings fit into lips molded into the top and bottom of the head tube, replacing the previously used cups. This design offers efficiency and a sleek appearance.
Tapered headsets, a variation of integrated headsets, are specifically designed for overdrive or tapered head tubes. These head tubes are wider at the bottom than the top, accommodating a 1 1/8″ dimension at the top and 1 1/2″ at the fork crown. Tapered headsets require sealed bearings both top and bottom.
Internal and Semi-Internal Cable Housing
With the rise of internal cable routing, internal and semi-internal cable housing headsets were developed. These headsets allow for threaded cable housings from the stem to the head tube and into the down tube. However, they are prone to water and grit intrusion, making sealed bearings the preferred choice.
Now that we have a solid understanding of bearings and headset types, let’s delve into the maintenance and replacement procedures.
Maintaining Road Bike Headset Bearings
The maintenance requirements for headset bearings depend on the type of bearing setup installed. Older designs, such as loose bearings, require more careful and meticulous attention compared to newer designs that incorporate sealed bearings.
Loose Bearing Maintenance
Loose bearings demand meticulous care when disassembling the headset. As the name suggests, these loose balls can easily slip away, especially if the grease has thinned out or was applied sparingly during the initial assembly. When disassembling the headset, lay out each piece in reverse order to ensure a hassle-free reassembly process. Wipe the cups clean of old grease and dirt, using kerosene or a similar degreaser. Wash the balls in degreaser and re-grease them before reinstalling in reverse order.
Caged Bearing Maintenance
Maintenance for caged bearings follows a similar process to loose bearings. However, the difference lies in the fact that the balls are housed within a cage, which can be removed as a single piece. Soak the cage in degreaser to remove any dirt or grime, re-grease, and reinstall. It’s a straightforward process that ensures your bearings function optimally.
Sealed Bearing Maintenance
Sealed bearings are the easiest to maintain. These universal bearings can be used in various threadless headset designs and are commonly found in integrated headsets. The main question when it comes to sealed bearings is whether to clean and reuse them or replace them entirely. If you choose to clean them, pry the seal out with an awl, soak the unit in degreaser, wait for it to evaporate, and then re-grease. Alternatively, replacing sealed bearings is a simple process since they easily lift out and drop into place. Considering their affordability and durability, replacement is often the preferred option.
Removing and Installing Headset Bearings
If your headset does not have an integrated design, it will have cups that require a cup remover and a headset press for removal and installation. To remove the cups, use a flanged tool and insert it into the head tube. Draw it through until the flanges snap out against the inside of the head tube and the cup’s inner edge, then hammer it out. Installing new cups requires a headset press tool to ensure proper alignment. Select the correct section of the cup mount, and follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer for a smooth and accurate installation.
Semi-Internal Cable Routing Headsets
The advent of semi-internal cable routing headsets was a significant innovation in response to the shift towards internal cable routing on road bikes. While these headsets make it easier for water and grit to enter, they typically use sealed bearings that are designed to resist such intrusions. The challenge lies in the initial installation of the cable housing, which can be more complicated and time-consuming. However, once installed, maintenance is similar to that of other headsets using sealed bearings.
In conclusion, maintaining headset bearings for road bikes is crucial for a smooth and enjoyable riding experience. The type of bearing setup and headset design will determine the specific steps required for maintenance or replacement. By following proper procedures and dedicating the necessary care, you can ensure your headset bearings remain in optimal condition for many miles of cycling pleasure.
To learn more about headset maintenance and explore high-quality headset designs, visit NokiaMA Headset Design.