The gravel bikes, meaning my wife’s and mine, have been through one full season of dirt road riding. My wife came to me the other day and asked me to look into a pretty nasty creak in her headset that had just started on a recent ride.
I dutifully pulled out the tools expecting a minor creak requiring a cleaning of the headset and bearing outer surfaces. These things do need to be cleaned from time to time, after all. I put on my mountain bike shoes and took her bike out for a quick spin to see what I was dealing with.
The first pedal stroke told me it wasn’t going to be a normal fix. There was something definitely, unmistakably wrong with the headset.
I headed in and got to work.
Modern headsets are exceptionally easy to tinker with. Loosen three bolts, pull the stem, pop the fork out of the headset, pull the bearings and the miscellaneous washers (remembering the order in which to replace everything – you cannot mess this up or your headset won’t work right when you put everything back together), clean the dirt out, lube everything back up, put everything back together, front brake test, tighten headset (stem) cap, tighten bolts, Bob’s your uncle.
So that’s what I started to do… until the bottom bearing fell apart when I popped the fork out. Folks, not just “fell out” of the headset, fell apart. Into pieces. A one year-old sealed headset bearing in pieces (upper race, lower race, seal, bearing assembly). There was so much grit in there, I almost pitched everything before heading to the shop.
Instead, I thought better and took the parts and the good upper bearing with me (they’re both the same on my wife’s Diverge).
Long story short, the shop had to order the bearings and it was going to take upwards of a week to get them. I figured may as well do both, even though the upper bearing was in excellent shape (the lower bearing gets most of the wear because it’s exposed to the most grime from riding). I figured out how to put my wife’s lower bearing back together even though the seal was broken in two. If the seal is broken or ripped, the bearing is no good. It’ll stay together temporarily, say until the new bearings show up, but it’s not wise to think that’ll be a permanent fix. I cleaned out the old bearing assembly of grit and lubed everything up while the shop manager was ordering the bearings. I got the bearing back together, thanked Steve and left.
On getting home, I put my wife’s bike back together putting the good bearing on the bottom and the bad on top (hoping it would last better on the top, out of reach of the road gunk).
Well, I went in to pick up the headset bearings the other day and ran into a case of sticker shock. I figured maybe $20 for both, right? Try $30. Each. And the bottom bracket bearings, especially press-fit BB-30’s, can get up to $50 a piece, a cool $100 or more each if you go ceramic.
My friends, I learned a hard lesson the other day. Mind the bearings – especially on the gravel and rain bikes. Those babies ain’t cheap.
UPDATE: Just for grins, I took my steering assembly apart. The upper bearing was pretty clean, but look at the mess the lower was sitting in… fortunately, I got to it in time. The bearing is okay: