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Technical Tuesday: How To Check And Adjust Your Headset

May 4, 2010
by Mike Levy  
For today's Technical Tuesday we're going to show you how to check and properly adjust your bike's headset. Inside you'll find both step by step instructions and a great How-To video running you through the process.

Read on...An ill adjusted headset can be detrimental to your ride, not to mention possibly damaging the headset itself or even your frame. Too loose and you'll feel a constant knocking sensation through your bars and quickly begin to damage parts. Too tight and your bars won't turn freely enough and you'll go through headset bearings like Al Gore through global warming excuses. Adjusting your bike's headset is quick and easy enough to do that there should be no reason for it to ever be ridden while too lose or too tight. Below you'll find step by step instructions on how to properly make these adjustments.

Watch the video to learn how to properly check and adjust your headset:
Views: 80,890    Faves: 112    Comments: 17

Step By Step Headset Adjustment Instructions

Tools needed: Folding allen key set (or separate allen keys depending on sizes needed)

Before we start using tools, let's make sure you know the function of the parts we'll be adjusting. On top of your stem you'll find the top cap with the headset preload bolt at its center. The function of the top cap and bolt is to apply the correct amount of preload to the headset bearings. If it's too tight your bars will not turn freely, too loose and your headset will have play and knock back and forth. This bolt usually fits a 5 mm allen key, although it can be a 4 mm for certain models.

These are your stem steerer clamp bolts

You'll also need to loosen and retighten your stem's steerer tube clamp bolts as you work through this task. There are a few different ways that stems can clamp onto the steerer tube, although the most common place to find these bolts is at the rear of the stem. Steerer tube clamp bolts can come in 4 mm, 5 mm, and 6 mm varieties. If you're unsure if you have the right tools, or aren't confident in your ability to do this, be sure to take your bike to your local shop to have the work done correctly.

1. Let's start be figuring out if your headset is too tight or too loose. To do this, place one hand over where your fork crown and lower headset cup meet and use your other hand to hold your front brake on. Now gently rock the bike front to back. If your headset is loose you'll feel a knocking through the hand that you're holding over the lower headset cup. If you have a dirt jump bike without a front brake, you can turn the front wheel 90 degrees and check for the same knocking with your hand. To check if your headset is too tight lift just the front of your bike off the ground an inch or two by holding onto the top tube. With the front tire off the ground check to be sure that the wheel flops from side to side without your hands on the handlebar. A headset that's too tight will hold the bike's steering in place or slow it down as it flops back and forth.

Place your hand over the fork crown and lower headset cup to feel for any slop from a loose headset

2. Once you've figured out whether it's either loose or too tight, you'll have to fix it! We'll start by adjusting a loose headset. With the bike on the ground, loosen the stem clamp bolts a few turns each (if your bike has a double crown fork you'll need to also loosen all of the upper crown bolts) Once the stem is loose on the steerer tube, turn the top cap bolt clockwise a half turn at a time, stopping to recheck if it is still loose by placing your hand over the lower headset cup and checking for knocking as you rock the bike back and forth. Once any free play is gone, lift the front end off the ground a few inches and check to be sure the wheel still turns freely.

Adjusting the headset's bearing tension to either take up slop or to loosen it so it will turn free

3. If you've discovered that your headset is too tight, you'll need to loosen off the top cap bolt that preloads the headset bearings. Start by loosening your stem clamp bolts a few turns. Now turn the top cap bolt counter clockwise a half turn at a time. After each time be sure to check if you've loosened off too much by putting your hand over the crown and lower headset cup and rocking the bike back and forth. If you feel knocking you'll have to add bearing preload by turning the top cap bolt clockwise until it goes away.

Hold the front wheel off the ground and check to be sure the steering turns freely

4. Once you are positive that you've correctly adjusted your headset, you'll need to realign the stem before retightening the clamp bolts. The easiest way to do this is to straddle the bike's top tube and sight from above to line the center of the stem up to the centerline of the tire. If there are any straight lines on the ground, even the edge of a floor mat, you can use it to help you align the tire and stem. When the stem is straight you can retighten it to the manufacturer's specifications. If you're not positive that you've done all the above steps correctly you should take the bike to your local shop for them to check it over before you hit the trails.

Align the stem with the centerline of the tire

Technical Tuesday #1 - How to change a tube.
Technical Tuesday #2 - How to set up your SRAM rear derailleur
Technical Tuesday #3 - How to remove and install pedals
Technical Tuesday #4 - How To Bleed Your Avid Elixir Brakes

Have you found this tutorial helpful? Share any of your hints or tips below!

Author Info:
mikelevy avatar

Member since Oct 18, 2005
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  • 9 0
 the next tech tues should be on hub/bearing adjustment... you know when the axle is slightly wobbly?
  • 1 1
  • 2 1
 yes please! i realy need to know that stuff
  • 5 1
 or how to service your rear shock
  • 27 7
 or how to adjust your seat heighth.
  • 40 1
 Seat height can be adjusted?
  • 1 3
 if you can wiggle your wheel side to side with your hand then your hub is loose and you will need a set of cone wrenches to tighten it
  • 4 0
 i done that few times but it still wobbles think my bearings are fukt
  • 1 0
 Good, I think I have some play in my hubs, will need a tighten.
  • 1 0
 yeah then the internals must be fucked or the hub could just be worn out thats what happened to me after a while grooves will start to form on the cups and you just need a new hub
  • 1 0
 my mate thinks i just need new bearings, i hope...
  • 1 0
 needs a new hub or to have your existing one rebuilt, had hub play in two of my other bikes
  • 3 0
 Another way to align your bars even if your shit is bent is to line it up with the axle. Think about it, if your wheel is out of true or there is dirt on it, it can throw off even the sharpest of eyes. Just a lil moto tech for ya.
  • 4 0
 I look down over the bars and align them up with the stanchions on my fork. I think this is easier than trying to go off of the tire or the stem.
  • 2 0
 yes, stanchions or the crown are good to sight with the bars. I like the front axel idea i will have to try that.
  • 1 1
 You can line your handle bars up one day and just never get them quite right. Generally after a three hour drive to a spot. Still adjusting stuff an hour later. Two words. Car rack (sorry got random there)
  • 7 5
 great article. also, if you have integrated headset i'd suggest knocking it a abit with a piece of wood before tightening the cap.
  • 9 6
 I'd recommend a proper rubber mallet rather than a block of wood, though I guess the latter would do if you don't have the means for the former.
  • 7 3
 I pick the bars up and ram the wheel into the ground pretty hard a few times and then re-check preload - I like to simulate trail conditions. Works out on the trail too.
  • 5 1
 rubber hammer is good to have for everything at home and costs nothing. Whenever I mess around the headset i.e. changing stem I always take the allen keys with me for the first ride in case something gets loose. I actualy take them to nearly every ride...
  • 7 8
 forgive me for being negative but i think everyone knows how to do this?
  • 6 1
 wow, seraph, ur very well spoken ha, latter and former, not many people use those words on pb ha
  • 2 2
 hahah i just learned those in english today.
  • 1 0
 Hey, "Mike with pinkbike.com" You kinda look like the guy from the "Gingers have souls video" lol. Thanks for the video though. It's pretty useful for people who don't know how to tighten a headset.
  • 1 0
 hopefully, thanks to Cane Creek and others in the industry, headset adjustment became intuitively clear to make it all by yourself. moreover, better wash a bike before cam shooting.
  • 3 0
 Next tech tuesday on how to true a wheel please...I go through wheelsets like a boss
  • 2 1
 These tech tuesdays are good but lets get some stuff thats useful like wheel trueing, replacing the seals/oil in your forks, or trueing your brake disks things that your going to run into more often.
  • 2 0
 Can you true a disk?
  • 1 0
 no, id love to learn.
  • 1 0
 it is possible, done it at the bike shop few times when i was there
  • 1 0
 How is it done? They are tempered steel? I thought that once they had warped you would have to replace them.
  • 1 0
 thers a propper tool, its like a mini trueing stand, has a big fork thing and youjust pull it to the side to straten it pretty rare though
  • 1 0
 ye thats exactly it ^ thers also a machine that can fit the disc on, like actualy bolt it
  • 1 0
 Thats amazing. You learn something new every day. Might have to get on I have just been replacing rotors. Never thought to try to bend them.
  • 1 0
 yea wheeltruing would be cool. How about how to tune initial/final rebound speed adjust on a boxxer team. Lotsa people have them but i have no clue how to set that portion of it up
  • 1 0
 perfect u totaly helped me with my forks i have a dual crown sand wasnt loosening the top crown thats why it wasnt getting tight
  • 1 0
 my headset is too tight yet i can still feel a knocking when i move the bike back and forth. and this is a new headset i am talking abt. any ideas out there?
  • 1 0
 your fork is probably bent same appened to me
  • 1 0
 I think these vids are great. When I first got involved in riding I didn't know jack and these basic, detailed guides really pushed along the learning curve.
  • 3 1
 Great article and very helpful!
  • 2 1
 i wouldnt mind seeing a "how to rebuild a boxxer fork" now that i need to know
  • 1 0
 Wheelset truing and bearing adjustment would be awesome, seing as I don't know how to properly perform either of them.
  • 1 0
 I replaced my marz fork with a fox shock and now it has play AND it wont spin freely??? my marzch for did not do this
  • 1 0
 Brilliant and simple, often the most effective approach. Many thanks. Mr Prius
  • 1 0
 hahahahahah kitty sounds hungry lol
  • 1 2
 finelly how to vid ,can be very usefull
  • 2 4
 I didnt know that bolt tightens the whole headset!
  • 1 4
 I don't have this problem! in my Cannondale is SI headset and lefty fork. I don't need adjust and checkWink
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