Headset Headache Turns Into a Migraine

When a headset falls apart like this, you'll notice play that can't be eliminated.


Sometimes a bike problem starts out as a minor irritant but with time gets worse and worse until you finally say, “Enough already. I’m taking it to a shop.”

As one who does his own bike maintenance, that’s a hard pill to swallow. It happened to me recently and it taught me some hard-learned lessons.

I was new to the 1-inch threadless headset on the Bianchi Castro Valley commute bike I purchased in 2005. It wasn’t long before I noticed the headset was loose. I figured out how to make the adjustment, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t remove the play. It was either too tight or too loose.

Over the years I lived with it this way, too lazy to take it to where I bought the bike (a car drive away) and besides, it was my rain bike. It just had to get me to and from work on rainy days, and that’s not often around here.

With time the headset problem got worse. I kept putting it off. What could be wrong? I had tried everything but take apart the headset. I knew that was a hassle and besides, it’s a sealed-bearing cartridge.

Recently, after a lot of rain and riding on a lousy headset (not so fun coming down Redwood Gulch Road), I had enough and disassembled the headset. Much to my surprise the upper head-tube cup was disintegrating!

Had I just taken it in to the shop that sold me the bike, they could have fixed it. But not me. I made the second big mistake (delay, delay was #1) and bought a new headset from another shop, mistake #2. When dealing with a defect, take it back to the shop that sold you the bike.

I replaced the Cane Creek with one as good, if not better ($40). Although I have the headset tools and I’ve replaced four or five headsets, this one was problematic. For some weird reason the crown race that fits onto the steer tube didn’t match up with the upper cartridge-bearing and fixed cup. I couldn’t eliminate the headset play!

I had installed everything properly. Was it a bad race, a mismatch? The package had not been opened. In despair, I finally took the bike back to where I bought it. I’m sure had I taken the bike to the place that sold me the headset I would have gotten no love there. “You should have let us install it.”

Anyway, yet another brand new Cane Creek headset later, the bike is back in business. It rides as well as it should for a bike in this price range. Sometimes the “do it yourself” route pays off big – in frustration.

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