Headset Adjustment

It’s the bane of any sensitive cyclist, and often the first thing to go wrong on a poorly maintained bike – get your headset adjustment wrong or don’t keep an eye on it and you could be looking at an expensive repair bill, or worse, a written off frame.

So what’s the secret? In short, there is none – it’s one of the most simple adjustments to make. Some folk may have slightly quirky devices here which can introduce complications – Look and Time have their own adjustable headset designs for example, and the bods at USE developed the ‘Ring-Go-Star’. I’m going to stick with the bog standard basic stuff!


With your front brake on (and only your front brake), gently rock the bike back and forth – if you feel a knocking your headset needs adjusting. Lift your bars and turn them side to side – any grinding or notchiness (I’m sure that’s not actually a word, but we’ll go with it) means your bearings are too tight, or possibly pitted. If pitted, your headset needs replacing, and if you’re not sure on this bit get your local bike shop to check and confirm.

To adjust those bearings, here’s the drill:

  1. Loosen your headset cap bolt

  • Loosen your stem bolts

  • Move the front end about to loosen it all up – gently bouncing the front of the bike can help here.
  • Now, re-tighten the headset cap bolt – gently pinch it up until you eliminate that knocking when the front brake is applied
  • If you begin to feel any tightness but you still haven’t eliminated the knock there’s a problem – potentially with headset assembly, but also possibly shot bearings
  • Once that knock is eliminated, check for tightness and bounce the front of the bike to check for rattles (this will also help re-settle the headset)
  • Repeat until there’s no knock, no tightness and no rattles
  • Align your bars and stem to ensure they’re dead straight – I tend to align the bar either side of the stem with the front hub flanges
  • Pinch up your stem bolts, preferably with a torque wrench to the correct torque settings (in fact always with a torque wrench if you have a carbon steerer)
  • Et voila. Done.

    If you have cartridge bearings and are confident changing them yourself then make sure you buy the right size with the right face angles (there will be an etching on the old bearing that’ll be something like ’45/45′). Instead of just loosening the headset cap and stem bolts, remove the headset cap, pull them stem off, drop the fork out and (carefully taking note of the order it all comes apart in) slip the new bearings in (lightly coated with grease to prevent them fusing to the frame surface) and re-assemble. Then follow the steps above to adjust it.

    If I bang on too much more about different headset types this post will go on forever. If in doubt, send me some pics via the ‘Ask’ button up there ^^ and I’ll see what I can tell you.

    Or of course, visit your trusty local bike shop!