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I have a 2010 Specialized Tricross Sport. I've just take the stem, top cap, and spacers off and removed the fork from my bike for the first time in the 12 years/ 20,000km I've owned it. It's never had any maintenance done on this area.

This is what I'm seeing:

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I took a look at the bottom side and realized I could actually see all the lower bearings:

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Then, while wiping excess grease out of the way, the lower bearing set just popped out in my hand. So I decided I may as well clean up the area (track?) the bearings sit in in the headtube, and pop the upper set out and do the same thing.

So now I've got the two sets of bearings out, and I degreased them as best I could with dish detergent and dried them out. IMO, considering the lack of maintenance ever done on these, I think they both look OK, though not great. One set looks a bit better than the other.

Here's the better looking set:

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And the worse looking set:

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Unfortunately I lost track of which is which after taking them out, but I'm assuming the worse looking one is the lower.

About 1/3rd of the worse looking set is visibly pitted up close but still rolling reasonably smoothly. The worst bearings look like this:

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And most of the rest of the bearings look like this:

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So, not spotless but still clean and smooth enough to catch a hazy reflection of myself on the surface.

My questions are:

  1. Does this more or less look right? I wasn't sure if that ring that's sitting partway up the streerer tube is meant to separate from the bearing assembly. After removing the fork, that ring settled back down inside the bearing assembly.
  2. Does the overall state of the innards here look OK?
  3. What, if any maintenance should I do while I have the steerer out? I have a decent collection of bike tools, but nothing bearing-specific. I'm also in Zambia right now so don't have access to a good supplier of replacement parts or tools.
  4. I do have bike grease (Phil Wood), and straight up dish detergent and hot water for de-greasing. Should I make any attempt to de-grease the bearings, or should I just wipe off the excess old stuff, push some new grease down on top of them, and put it all back together?
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    Remember bearings are cheap - these have done 20k km, if you have any doubts, fitting new bearings is practical.
    – Criggie
    Apr 2, 2023 at 23:15

3 Answers 3

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  1. It looks normal. The silver ring that lifted away is the compression ring. Almost all threadless headsets have that or something like it. It has a wedge shaped outer face and a slit. It receives pressure from the parts above and is driven down such that it centers the upper bearing race with its wedged face.
  2. It looks dirty and in need of maintenance and/or new bearings, but not like it's going to blow up tomorrow. We can only see the upper in your picture, and uppers lead much gentler lives than lowers, so it wouldn't surprise me if the lower was crumbling where the upper just looks like it needs attention.
  3. The bike's headtube takes an integrated headset. Integrated headsets are most commonly associated with cartridge bearings that don't really come apart in the way yours is trying to in the first picture, unless they're broken. The first picture shows that what you have is the type of bearing that goes in an integrated headset but is able to be disassembled, and does not have a rubber seal. This is basically a type of low-end integrated headset bearing that acts like a hybrid with a traditional non-integrated headset. The ideal thing would be drop in two new cartridge bearings that have the correct height and face angles to mate with the crown race, compression ring, and other parts. That sounds like it's probably difficult where you're at. This type of bearing uses a large number of very small balls, probably 3/32" or 1/8". Getting apart the bearings for cleaning without loosing some would likely be difficult. You'll have to decide for yourself whether you're in the kind of low-resource situation where attempting to do so anyway is worth it for the sake of maximizing the life of the parts, versus the kind where the risk of making the bike inoperable outweighs the potential benefit.
  4. The lower is likely to fall apart and spray tiny bearings everywhere the moment it's taken apart, more so than other kinds of headset bearings. Since the fork is in the way, rigging up something to catch them all is tricky. You could try using something like a large plastic bag. If you really wanted to maximize the life of this set of bearings, this is probably necessary. Once they're out, hot soapy water will remove old grease, but something like brake cleaner or another harsh solvent will make it much easier. Put them on a clean rag, spray them, fold the rag over and roll them around. Alternatively, leave the assemblies together and get fresh grease squirted in. That's not as good as cleaning them out properly but is a lot better than nothing.
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  • Thanks for the response! After initially posting, the lowers actually popped out and luckily they did not fall apart. I've posted some more details and close up pics above. I think your advice still applies. I got them pretty clean with just soapy water. I'll let them dry overnight and see if I'm able to find any of the types of cleaners you mentioned. I do have grease with me so worst case I can let them dry out and regrease them and that will probably do until my next opportunity to get replacements.
    – SSilk
    Apr 1, 2023 at 16:54
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This won't answer every question asked. I'll focus on bearing maintenance.

You see a lot of dirty grease. It can be wiped off. However, it's probably not necessary to service your bearings. If you poke around, you should find the bearing cartridges and you should notice a rubber seal. If you carefully removed that seal with a pick or a penknife, you'd see the bearings themselves. That seal keeps grit outside of the bearings.

Eventually, depending on the riding conditions, time exposed, and quality of the seal, you might have dirt intrude into the bearings themselves. This would act like a grinding paste, damaging the races and/or bearing balls. If you were servicing cartridge bearings, you would want to remove the old, contaminated grease, and replace it with new grease. In cartridge bearing systems that do require servicing, like Chris King bottom brackets or Kogel bearings, they will tell you to do something like flush the bearing out with degreaser or WD-40, i.e. remove the old grease and get it out of the bearing, then add grease.

If you can't do that to your headset bearings, I don't see the point in servicing them. Again, most cartridge bearings are treated as sealed units until they feel gritty when you rotate them. That's a sign of damage from dirt intrusion. Then you'd replace them.

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  • Thanks for the response! Having never taken the fork off a threadless setup before, but having read a bit about the types of bearings used therein, I was just surprised to be able to see the bearings at all, as in the first picture. (If you look closely at the left side of the inside of the headtube, you can see the bearings. Or I think those are bearings). That threw me off and made me worried I'd disassembled something too far, or that something had broken.
    – SSilk
    Apr 1, 2023 at 14:45
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When removing the fork from the head tube, the most important thing to do is to remove all dirty grease and put fresh grease in.

This is important not only when you have loose bearings / ball retainers, but also when you have bearing cartridges.

With loose bearings or ball retainers (you seem to have ball retainers), the bearings run unsealed in the cups. The grease there becomes contaminated, and you need to remove it and put fresh grease in to allow the bearings to have a long life.

This old style bearing that uses loose bearings or ball retainers, suffers from an "indexed steering" flaw where eventually the bearings develop a "home position" when the front wheel points directly to the front. This is not dangerous, but it's annoying to feel the notch at this "home position".

If you have cartridge bearings with conical 36 or 45 degree seats, the 36 or 45 degree interface between the bearing cartridge and the cup absorbs those motions that would develop the "indexed steering" flaw in the older style of bearings. This is a compound bearing: it consists of a plain bearing and a ball bearing. However, this interface does that only if it is maintained: it must at all times have fresh grease.

So, even though with cartridge bearings you won't lubricate the bearings themselves (they are sealed and not intended for opening), you must lubricate the surfaces of the bearing cartridges to allow the plain bearing part of the compound bearing to work. If you do that, you won't develop indexed steering.

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