Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What a difference a properly adjusted headset makes

A while back I remarked on how I replaced the headset on my Elephant. I mentioned how the headset had a weirdo pinch bolt thing that made getting the perfect adjustment basically impossible. Too loose and you get that unsettling rocker-motion when you brake. Too tight and everything binds up. But if you have to choose, you should err on the side of tight.

So for nearly 3 months, I've been annoyed at the stiffness of the steering in the Elephant. What's worse, is that I also got super sick and always tired at about the same time I swapped out the headset.

So for the last few months, every time I rode the Elephant, it sucked. Which is NOT how it's supposed to be on any of my bikes, let alone the Elephant. I internalized this and was secretly afraid that maybe the magic had left the Elephant. Every time I rode it, it just sucked the life out of me. It was almost as bad as Pat's tamper.

A couple months ago, a guy in Seattle bought a big box of NOS Stronglight roller bearing headsets. They were made for tandems (hence the 1 1/8"). He was selling them on the Rawland google list. They're perfect for standard-gauge tubing bikes where you want to haul stuff in the front. Such bikes like to light up a bit (that is, shimmy) under certain conditions and roller bearings make a big fat difference.

Incidentally, the guy I bought the head set from is name Fred (a perfect name for any cyclist). I met him at my Ebey hang last month. He's one of those slightly nuts young guys that rides everywhere on any bike with silly loads at any hour of the day. He's also deeply nerded out in his exotic knowledge of technical bike minutia. He's got that look in his eye. A perfect storm of good Fredliness.

Anyway, the point: I finally got Glen to swap out the headset (I only change flats now). He said it was a non-standard, slightly screwy set-up, but he approved of the design.

And the bike rides like new. I took it on our S24O the other night and I could tell already it was way better. No hands with a load at normal speeds was easy and shimmy-free. But it took a standard commute to work this morning to reveal just how wonderful that bike is to ride (again). Bunny hops, jumps, descents, climbing, easy track standing. It's all back.

The lesson here is that these little seemingly inconsequential tweaks matter a lot. A properly adjusted headset totally matters. Here endeth the lesson.


rory said...

my recent wanker moment was forgetting to put the lower bearings in the headset. i was reusing the headset, so i was blaming that on the roughness/play situation with the headset. then, took it apart, and low and behold, no bearings.

I is smart.

alex wetmore said...

I like how you only fix flats, and take everything else to Glen.

Except for building racks of course.

Good man. I approve.

alex wetmore said...

Note that Fred is long out of the Stronglight headsets, but you can buy a similar Miche from Rene Herse:

jim g said...


So do you think this headset really cured your shimmy problems? I was considering buying a headset from Fred, but it seemed that the black models actually had some sort of cartridge bearing in the lower headset cup, that may or may not have contained roller bearings. I bought a similar FSA headset a while back that supposedly had roller bearings, but when I received it, it actually had "36-degree angular contact cartridge bearings". I'm using the stock cartridge-bearing headset in my Kogswell, and cheap Ritchey ball-bearing headsets in my other two low-trail bikes. All exhibit some sort of shimmy.

John Speare said...

Hey Jim,

I'd never declare that shimmy is fixed. My gut says that every bike shimmies, some are more prone while others have a very small window of specific variables you must hit just right to light them up.

I know the epic lengths you've gone through to figure out and crush shimmy on your Kogs.

Here's what I know: with the original headset (some basic cartridge headset, maybe an origin8?) I got a surprisingly wild no-hand shimmy at about 10-15 mph. Resting my thigh/knee on the toptube would stop it instantly, so I could've gone my whole life living with it. But I was curious to test Jan's/other's assertions that roller bearing headsets made a difference.
With this hs, there's a thought of a shimmy at no-hands, moderate front load at around 15mph. I've not really spent a bunch of time trying to find the shimmy -- which I think is still there, but it's much less pronounced and that field of variables is becoming more specific I think.
At some point I'll go out and spend a 1/2 hour or so and report back the exact conditions that light it up.

Fred Blasdel said...

Jim, the black Stronglight Headstrong models do have cartridges, but they're needle cartridges, top and bottom.

Really they're just like any of the other Stronglight needle headsets — all the fitted parts are aluminum with separate floating flat steel races on both sides of each plastic needle retainer.

The difference with these headsets is that there's a simple rubber seal that connects the steel races on the outward-facing sides, forming a "cartridge". They're easy to disassemble to overhaul, just pick the seal out with a sharp implement. It goes right back in again afterward.