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I own a Trek 1.5 road bike, purchased new around June 2012. The headset (original, never replaced) has recently been experiencing some interesting issues:

About 4 weeks ago, the headset began squeaking much more than normal and became stiff to the point that turning the front wheel was very difficult. Wrenching it from side to side would free it for a little while, but then it would resume the behavior fairly quickly (10 minutes of riding or less). I took in in to my LBS, they said "huh, odd," checked alignment, lubricated it, and said I ought to be good to go.

Things worked well for about two weeks of light riding, but then the behavior resumed- first the headset started squeaking more, then the steering stiffness returned. After turning the front wheel side-to-side for a little bit, the stiffness left and was replaced by a very loose feel. This loose feel and non-squeaking behavior stuck around for about 10 days, and then a few days ago, the headset started tightening up again and squeaking very obviously.

I'm interested in potential explanations for the symptoms observed and potential fixes. The reason I'm coming here first is because I'd like to have some more information before going in to the bike store for the second time- I'm after a permanent fix, not just a check/lube/out the door. My guess is that something's wrong with the bearing unit inside, but I'm not sure.

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    One possibility is the bearings have worn to the point not all balls are round anymore, which can result in any of the problems you describe. In fact most problems with headsets I've seen were always due to this: worn out, loose headset, balls start wearing out even more, cones start wearing because of that, vicious circle of destruction. Can be made worse by over tightening as it seems to temporarily fix the problem. Were the bearings/cones checked at the LBS? (I'm not sure what 'check alignment' means). – stijn Dec 8 '16 at 9:04
  • @stijn I'm fairly certain the bearings/cones were not checked at the LBS. I'm not sure what they meant by "checking alignment" either. Thank you for your suggestion. – KReiser Dec 8 '16 at 10:13
  • At basic level "check alignment" means the front wheel is parallel to the frame when the handbars are orthogonal to the frame. At a higher level it means they've checked that the tines are not bent out of position relative to each other and are not bent backward relative to the steerer tube. Both checks are irrelevant, given that the problem is turning the bars is hard/squeaky/crunchy. – Criggie Dec 8 '16 at 10:58
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    Do not ride a bike that has steering problems for ten days. – David Richerby Dec 8 '16 at 13:17
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STOP RIDING THAT BIKE

I'm concerned that your bike has internal problems and that something may fail rapidly (ie, you're experiencing the warning now)

You need to inspect the front steerer tube and head tube looking for anything wrong.

  1. Firstly, clean and inspect the frame area around the headtube. You're looking for cracks or any damage.
  2. Take photos of how its assembled before starting, as a visual guide.
  3. Start by removing the stem, either quill stem if its an old style or the top cap and stem if its more modern.
  4. Hang the bars out of the way so there's no pressure on the brake/gear cables.
  5. Remove any spacers, or undo the lock nut and crown nut.
  6. pull out the bearings. They may be in a cage (easy) or there may be dozens of tiny loose ones. Put them aside to wash in degreaser.
  7. Drop the fork down and out the bottom. Be aware there's more tiny ball bearings in the bottom, again may be caged or loose.
  8. Clean grease off, and inspect the
    • steerer tube - the "handle" of the fork. It should be straight, with no cracks or deterioration. You should have a good look under a bright light, and use a steel ruler to look for any bends
    • fork crown - the bit that joins the tines/legs/blades of the fork to the steerer tube.
    • Ball bearings (look for non-round ones, discoloured ones, or chipped ones)
    • Bearing races - the running surface that the balls roll on. These should be clean, smooth and bright. There should be no dents or dips or damage. There will be four, two in the bike's frame, one on the bottom of the fork, and one on the top big nut.
    • Head tube - use a torch/flashlight, and look down inside the frame for anything wrong.

If everything seems fine, clean and grease and reassemble in the reverse order. You might like to fit new ball bearings at this time, they're pretty cheap from the nearest LBS. Getting the tension right on the bearings can be a bit fiddly, but it should be smooth with no play when fully assembled.

You might benefit from removing the front brake or its cable. Removing the front wheel will make it easier too.

Once completed, it should be perfect steering, provided there's no damaged parts gone back in. If you find damaged parts please update your question with clear photos.

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  • Oh the squeaking may be a lack of lubricant, or it may be powdered bearings doing more damage, or that the whole thing is overtightened to compensate for other damage. ie, the squeak is a symptom, not a cause. – Criggie Dec 8 '16 at 11:00
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    Bearings are well and truly wrecked. Ordered replacement parts. – KReiser Dec 8 '16 at 22:29
  • @KReiser Great work - it sounds totally fixable, will just take time and effort. If you have questions, ask a new question. – Criggie Dec 9 '16 at 1:08

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