I've just cleaned and regreased my headset (which is the stock Cane Creek headset on my bike). In doing it I've noticed that the bearing retainers are out of shape; they are not perfectly circular or flat. I have reassembled but now struggling to get the headset tightened appropriately; it's either too loose such that it knocks (wobbles when front brake applied and bike pushed back and forth), or too tight such that the steering is very stiff. I've followed the protocol for (dis)assembly in Zinn, and checked out the headset problems discussed here and here. I've also performed this job with no problems a few times before, but I guess I was just too heavy handed when cleaning the old grease off.

Could this problem be linked to the retainers being out of shape? What is the appropriate course of action?

If it could be the misshapen retainers: I'm not tempted to leave it loosely tightened, I think that has the potential to cause damage and make the bike unsafe. What problems, other than stiffer steering, do I face if I leave it too tight (both short and long term damage and safety considerations)? Is there a good way improve the shape of the retainers myself?

Or should I just get down the local shop and have them replace the retainers? Or would it be better to replace the entire headset, bearing in mind that it's seen 6 years of all weather usage over several thousand km's per year. I'd like to have an idea of what needs to be done to fix it so the shop doesn't try to rip me off (I just moved to this city and haven't found a bike shop I really trust yet).

  • 5
    Either too tight or too loose usually indicates the headset has worn out (either the balls, or the cones, or both) or is severly knocked out of shape (e.g. elliptical cones instead of round after a crash) to the point it is not really usable anymore. Or that you assembled it incorrectly, but that's hard to tell. Proper solution: replace it. Leaving it to tight will only wear it more, faster.
    – stijn
    Apr 4, 2016 at 9:30
  • This sounds as though it should be a duplicate question, but I can't find one.
    – Móż
    May 5, 2016 at 4:02
  • I've successfully used threadded rod, some nuts/washers, and some thick wooden scraps as a pseudo-press. Worked fine at the time. Finding a LBS you can trust - that's almost a separate howto question by itself.
    – Criggie
    May 5, 2016 at 23:35

2 Answers 2


should I just get down the local shop and have them replace the retainers? Or would it be better to replace the entire headset

Replacing the bearings and retainers is cheap and easy (you should be able to do that yourself), you just need to work out what size you want. Since you have all the parts, measure the size of the ring and the bearing diameter and match it up with what you see online. Then you have two options - take just the bearings to the shop and buy matching new ones (if you can get there easily without your bike); or ride down and buy replacements that match your measurements. I would try that first.

If you want to pay the shop to do it, it's not a complex job but fundamentally anything a mechanic does takes half an hour because of the time to get the bike up and look at it, then test ride and return it. So you're looking at half an hour times whatever they bill mechanics out at, plus the $10-$20 cost of the new bearings.

The counter-argument is that a whole headset is only $40, and you could upgrade to a sealed bearing one for little to no extra cost. If you have a few tools that's relatively easy, although a length of threaded rod and a few nuts that fit it makes pressing the new cups in easier. Some shops don't bother stocking replacement bearings because the price difference to the customer between just bearings and new headset is small, and the cost of someone coming back and saying "still ugly, new headset" is more than the profit on the job. Viz, the mechanic time is, say, $50 either way, but the bearings are $20 and the headset is $40. Is it worth paying an extra $50 if you're wrong to save $20 if you're right?

That equation changes dramatically if you're doing the work and the bike shop is easy to get to. Then it's purely $20 vs $40.

(edit) I disagree with the comment. Modern frames and headsets are designed not to need a viciously tight fit into the frame, so removing the old headset should take a few gentle taps with a drift rather than any real force. Older steel frames with steel headsets were often designed to be very tight and required considerable force to remove. With those it was sometimes necessary to re-ream the head tube to fit a new headset in. These days, especially with an aluminium frame, while it's easier to dent or bent the aluminium, you also need much less force to remove or insert the headset.

Doing the work yourself should be straightforward. I find that often I can twist the headset cup and work it out just with my hand, or tap it out using a drift just working round and round tapping the drift with a small piece of wood. Similarly, inserting the new one can often be done just by pushing on a piece of wood resting on the cup, but it's safer to use a length of threaded rod and some big washers or a couple of bits of wood drilled appropriately. The point of that is to make sure you're pushing the headset in exactly true so you don't deform the cup or score the frame.

This is another time when "if you find yourself using a hammer on a bike, you're doing something wrong". The hammer is essential if you have a proper headset removing tool but a bad idea otherwise.

enter image description here http://www.parktool.com/product/head-cup-remover-rt-1

  • 2
    While you're correct that replacing the headset can be done without the "proper" tools, it's not something I'd recommend to a relatively inexperienced bike mechanic. Reaming the old headset isn't exactly trivial without the proper tool and a homemade headset press is a finicky pain to use. If you don't have the tools, this is one job that I think it's worth paying the shop to do. On the flip side, if you plan to do a lot of your own maintenance, the proper tools are expensive, but totally worth it.
    – jimchristie
    May 5, 2016 at 13:36
  • 1
    @jimirings you shouldn't need to re-ream the head tube when replacing the headset, especially on a modern frame. Reaming tools are something I've never felt the need to have at home, and something I rarely used in the shop. I've even managed to avoid needing them after having frames painted, just sanding back the paint where the cups sit. The rest of it is no harder than replacing any other bearing that needs a drift and press.
    – Móż
    May 5, 2016 at 23:04
  • My bad, I mis-typed. I meant removing, not reaming. I full agree that reaming hasn't been necessary for a long time.
    – jimchristie
    May 6, 2016 at 12:44

I would be inclined to replace the headset. It's a simple fix, guaranteed result.

  • 2
    Welcome to Bicycles SE. We're looking for answers with more detail. Please consider expanding your answer to explain why the OP should replace the entire headset rather than just the bearing retainer. Also, the OP asks what the possible consequences are if he/she continues to use the existing headset. Please address this as well. A short, one-line answer like this is likely to get downvoted, flagged for moderator intervention, and possibly deleted.
    – jimchristie
    May 5, 2016 at 13:28
  • Pretty much, best bet is to replace the whole lot. Plus, makes the headset feel nicer, too. I replaced my headset because it started coming loose very often, and I ended up replacing it, made it work better! :D Also, funny how jimirings mentions the "OP asks what the possible consequences are if he/she continues to use the existing headset" to you, yet not to the person who posted beforehand..... Any risks for this, if any, is if they have Carbon Fibre steerer, in which it could start getting crushed with that star-shaped bit on the inside of the steerer tube. (Forgotten the name, whoops!)
    – yollooool
    May 5, 2016 at 17:11
  • 1
    @yollooool The other answer comprehensively answers one aspect of the question, this one doesn't. Since Guzziben is a new user (you too), jimirings is trying to help them learn how to write better answers. Better answers score better. It's not Us vs Them. It's just us trying have the best answers we can on the site.
    – andy256
    May 6, 2016 at 0:11

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