To be clear, there are a few levels of “had it” when we are talking about headsets.
We have everything from “completely pooched” to “clean it, lube it and put it back together”.
I’ve had the range.
So let’s get into this. A quill stem, threaded headset will act a little differently from a threadless setup when it goes bad. Know this right off the bat. Typical enemies of the headset are wet weather, the dreaded turbo (indoor) trainer – especially if you use a trainer thong that covers the headset/stem and leave it there after you’re done riding. All of that salt and sweat gets sucked right into the fork and bearings. If you’ve read more than one or two posts, you know how meticulous I am about maintaining my bikes. This is my fork after a few years on the trainer without taking the headset apart to clean everything up… you know what, it’s too gross. I’m not going to post it. It’s terrible. There was rust and salty crust everywhere. And the funny thing is, Chris King components are so good, the headset wasn’t acting up in any way whatsoever.
Now, had I left that go a little longer, the bearings would have worn out. Once the bearings start going you’ll feel a catch in the steering. Shortly after that you’ll notice some play in the headset. You’ll try to tighten it up to take the play out but when you tighten it up the “catch” worsens. It’s at this point the lack of maintenance will start causing “speed wobbles”. Bombing down a hill at 40+ mph, the bike will start to shimmy and it will scare the ever-loving $#!+ out of you. Well, sparky, it’s time for a new headset if you’re still alive.
Point is, and I should know better by now, clean the headset whether it needs it or not once a year. Two or three (or more) times if you’re riding in wet or dusty conditions. And if you’re leaving your bike on the trainer, take your sweaty stuff off the headset after your ride. You don’t want to see what sweat does to aluminum races on a full carbon fork.
That’s a worse case scenario, though. What about something a little less “terrible”?
It just so happens, my Venge was in need of some service… yesterday. This bike sees zero trainer time, rare, if ever, dusty conditions, or even rain. It’s been through just a few light rains that I got caught out in, one damp morning on DALMAC that was fairly epic during a 100-miler and one three minute downpour when the rain hit me on the final mile sprint to my house trying to beat it… in the seven years I’ve owned the bike. I still clean and lube the headset at the end of a season whether it needs it or not.
So I’d just recently (the day before yesterday) developed this weird knock when I went over a fairly large bump or crack in the asphalt. It sounded like it was the sealed cartridge bearing clunking in the frame. I could have tightened everything up and made it go away, but I could have done some damage over time (press fit headset bearings aren’t exactly cheap – nor is a cracked frame from overtightening the bearings to get rid of a clunk). There was no “play” in the headset, either. I could be going 30-mph and hit the brakes and it’d slow down just like it should. The old “brake and rock” technique to check to make sure the headset is tight? Just as it should be. The light coating of lube had simply worn out.
That evening I pulled everything apart, cleaned everything meticulously, checked the bearings (they operated perfectly, as good as new, no slop, no binding points or catches). I lubed the bearings and put it back together and took it for a test ride. And just like that, twenty minutes is all it took, my bike is back to normal and quiet again.
To put a bow on this post, maintaining the headset is just as important as the bottom bracket bearings. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the boys on GCN have video guides to help you or you can take your bike to the local shop if you’re not mechanically inclined. The headset is what allows the bike to steer. It should be tended to at least once a year – more if you ride in conditions that warrant it. The last thing you want failing catastrophically when you’re bombing down a hill at top speed is the steering. Catastrophic is the right word. If it needs special care, as mine did, your bike will tell you what it needs if you know what you’re listening for. If you don’t, when your bike starts making weird clunks or noises, that’s bad. They should be quiet when properly maintained. Even old bikes. Take it to the shop and let them sort it out.