The ultimate guide to headsets

Everything you need to know about this key bike component

The headset might be an overlooked component on many bikes, but it performs an essential function. Subjected to abuse day in and day out, it’s the part that lets you steer a bike and holds the fork in place. In other words, it’s worth looking after.

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Here’s our guide to help you get to grips with the humble headset.

What does a headset do?

The headset connects the fork to the bike frame, holding it securely in place while allowing it to rotate to steer.

While the interface requires lateral stiffness to withstand riding loads, including cornering, braking and potholes, it also needs to be rotationally free for steering.

What are the parts of a headset?

There are a few different types of headset available, but they all function in a similar way.

The two bearings at either end of the head tube are what make things work. Traditionally these have been held in pressed cups, but modern bikes also see bearings fitted directly into the frame.

The cups (or integrated assembly) provide the interface that locates the bearings in the frame.

Older loose bearings rolled directly on the hardened steel race
Bearings generally sit with a sliding fit in headset cups
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

The fork steerer slides into these bearings, but requires fittings to be held securely. A crown race at the base of the steerer mates with the bottom bearing.

The conical shape of the race is centred on the fork steerer. This means it is self-centring on the bearing and, when preload is applied, the angled shape ensures it supports both axial and lateral loads. A top race performs the corresponding duties for the upper bearing.

Almost all the axial load experienced by the fork during riding will be carried by the lower bearing, because this is effectively sitting on top of the fork. The top bearing carries only the axial load exerted by the preload that’s applied to hold the fork in place securely.

Incidentally, the interface between bearing and fork is called the race (crown race and top race) because it originally acted as the raceway, with the bearing balls in the headset rolling directly on it.

You'll find threaded headsets on older or more traditional builds
Older loose bearings rolled directly on the hardened steel race
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

However, describing this component as a race on modern bikes is, strictly speaking, incorrect. The ubiquity of cartridge bearings (sealed units that contain all the rolling elements) means it should be more correctly defined as a ‘seat’ or ‘mating surface’.

Because the cartridge bearing comes as a pre-assembled unit, the crown race doesn’t have to support the ball bearings, these are contained inside the bearing assembly itself.

Finally, preload must be applied to the bearings to ensure everything is secured and remains in place. The general rule is that preload should be enough to prevent any rocking or movement of the steerer tube, while still allowing the fork to rotate freely.

— Read more about crown races further down

What type of headset do I have?

Threaded headset

These days you’re unlikely to find threaded headsets outside of budget bikes, some track and touring bikes, or on retro builds. However, given they were the standard for many years, they’re still worth talking about.

The bung at the bottom of the stem expands to hold the stem in place
You’ll likely find a threaded headset on older or more traditional builds
Thewinch / CC / Wikipedia

On a threaded headset, the bearings sit in cups that are pressed into the top and bottom of the head tube. A race sits on the fork crown, completing the bearing assembly at the bottom of the head tube.

The steerer tube of the fork is threaded and a threaded race is screwed into the top of the fork to snug up against the top bearing.

The top race will generally incorporate a bearing cap with seals to shield the bearings from debris and the elements. Tightening this allows you to set the preload. This assembly is then secured with a locknut, holding the fork in place.

This schematic shows how a threaded headset works
This schematic shows how a threaded headset works
Thewinch / CC / Wikipedia

Wikipedia Creative Commons Thewinch

The stem — known as a quill stem — attaches separately, sliding inside the steerer tube. It is secured by tightening the top bolt, which engages an expanding wedge at its base to clamp the stem in place.

Depending on the length of the quill, you can adjust the height of the stem easily by sliding it further up or down inside the steerer and fixing it in the correct position.

The bearing cups hold the bearings in place in the frame
The bung at the bottom of the stem expands to hold the stem in place
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

However, the threaded design brings with it a few complications.

The fork must be matched precisely to the head tube length of the frame. It’s important that the steerer of the fork is just long enough to provide enough engagement for the threads of the locknut, without the locknut bottoming out on the top of the steerer.

The adjustment of a threaded headset also requires specific spanners sized to (the large dimensions of) the threaded race and locknut — not something you would necessarily want to take with you on rides.

Threaded headsets can sometimes have an annoying tendency to undo themselves due to a phenomenon known as precession. Regular care and maintenance can combat this, but still it can be an issue.

Because threaded headsets comprise multiple overlapping components they have an increased weight over modern threadless designs, which are now more commonplace.

However, you’ll still get a few misty-eyed romantics lamenting the loss of the elegant lines of a threaded headset. As a result of this nostalgia, threaded headsets are going through a bit of a resurgence in the custom-bike market.

Threadless / A-headset

The threadless headset is a much simpler and arguably superior design. It’s quicker and easier to service, which can be done with standard tools  — Allen or Torx keys in most cases.

A traditional external headset
The bearing cups hold the bearings in place in your frame
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

As with the threaded headset, bearings are fitted at the top and bottom of the head tube. A crown race sits at the bottom of the steerer tube and mates with the lower bearings.

But, unlike the threaded design, the fork is not captive to the headset and is only held in place by a stem clamped to the steerer extending through the head tube.

This schematic shows how a threadless headset is put together
This schematic shows how a threadless headset is put together
Thewinch / CC / Wikipedia

Wikipedia Creative Common Thewinch

The stem is clamped to the outside of the steerer tube, and its height can be adjusted with spacers.

Before tightening the stem, preload must be applied through the top cap, with a bolt that ‘pulls’ on a star nut or bung fixed inside the steerer tube.

Star nuts are only really used with metal steerer tubes. The two rows of ‘star-shaped’ teeth are curved so they bend back when pressed into the steerer, but bite into place when a preload is applied, pulling against the direction of the teeth.

A star nut on the left and an expander on the right
A star nut on the left, and an expander on the right
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

For carbon forks (with a carbon steerer), an expander (also known as a bung) is installed, which spreads the load across a wider area inside the steerer.

Expanders also mitigates against crush injuries of the carbon steerer, as they provide a ‘solid’ element to support the carbon when the stem is clamped in place.

The preload force is transmitted via the stem (and spacers), which sit slightly proud of the steerer tube at the top (around a 2–3mm gap is ideal), ‘pulling’ the steerer tube up, applying preload and seating the fork properly in the bearings.

Tightening the top cap applies preload to the headset bearings
Tightening the top cap applies preload to the headset bearings
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

The conical crown race locates the steerer with respect to the lower bearing at the base of the head tube.

The top bearing interfaces with a slotted conical compression ring. As preload is applied, the compression ring effectively gets wedged between the top bearing and the steerer tube, tightening around the steerer as preload is applied and the slot closes.

This secures the steerer tube with respect to the top bearing. Unlike the threaded steerer, where the threaded race provides a direct connection with the steerer tube, here the compression ring is required to take up any ‘slop’ between the steerer and the bearing.

The split compression provides the interface between steerer and top bearing
The split compression provides the interface between steerer and top bearing
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

On high-end headsets, the compression ring is often a captive element of the headset cap that sits on top of the headset to seal it from the elements. With preload applied, the stem can be tightened, clamping things in place. Once the stem has been tightened, the top cap doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s just there to apply the initial preload before the stem secures the whole assembly.

There are a few different types of threadless headset available, but they all follow the same basic assembly principle. The differences are mainly in how the bearings are fitted into the frame.

What is an external threadless headset?

This is the original threadless design. The bearings sit in external bearing cups, and the bearing cups are pressed into the top and bottom of the head tube.

Bearings generally sit with a sliding fit in headset cups
A traditional external headset
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

The bearings are generally a transition fit inside the headset cups. That means that while they can still be removed by hand with some force, they sit snugly inside their seat.

The bearings generally have a conical interface with the cup, which helps secure and locate the bearing inside the cup when preload is applied.

Some manufacturers (such as Chris King) choose to press fit the bearings inside the headset cups. This improves the security of the bearing and prevents movement, but does mean the bearings can’t be removed for servicing and have to be cleaned and serviced in situ.

What is an internal / semi-integrated headset?

As above, the bearings sit in cups, but these in turn sit inside, rather than proud of, the head tube, with only a small lip protruding to locate the cup and prevent it being pressed all the way inside the head tube.

A semi-integrated headset sits inside the top tube
A semi-integrated headset sits inside the top tube
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

In order to accommodate the bearings inside the cup, the head tube has a larger overall diameter.

A side-effect of this is that larger diameter tubing can be used, resulting in increases in stiffness of the frame in this area.

What is an integrated headset?

An integrated headset does away with the bearing cups, with the bearings dropped into pre-shaped seats at either end of the head tube — the head tube takes over the duties of the bearing cups.

An integrated headset creates a clean look
An integrated headset creates a clean look
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

The bearings actually sit loose within these seats — they aren’t fitted with the press fit that you might expect from components, such as press-fit bottom-brackets.

Instead, the head tube is bored with conical seats. When preload is applied, these angled seats result in the bearings self-aligning, as well as securing them in place, creating a rigid assembly.

It has been claimed this configuration is a cost-saving measure on behalf of manufacturers. Rather than pressing a bearing cup into the frame, the bearing can simply be dropped in during assembly.

It also appears to allow slightly more relaxed manufacturing tolerances, though it is critical the two bores are machined concentrically and on the same axis for good fitting of the headset.

The bearings just drop in preformed seats, and are held in place by the preload
The bearings just drop in to preformed seats, and are held in place by the preload
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

The standard angle for the conical bore is 45 degrees. 36 degrees is now considered obsolete, but may occasionally be found on older frames.

In some cases, the seats may be machined out square with respect to the head tube and inserts can then be pressed in with the required contact angle.

Conceptually, the zero stack and integrated bearing arrangements could also be adapted to threaded headsets as well.

Mixing headset standards

Some head tubes use a mix of different designs, for example, an external cup at the bottom and a semi-integrated design at the top.

Manufacturers will often choose to mix different types of headset
Manufacturers will often choose to mix different types of headset
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

What is a crown race?

Apart from the interface with the frame, the headset must also interface with the steerer tube.

Forks have traditionally been fitted with a crown race near the crown of the fork. Originally, loose ball bearings were used for the headset, and this provided a hardened and precisely machined surface for the balls to roll on.

The crown race supports the cycling load
The crown race supports the cycling load
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

As mentioned, nowadays, with the common use of cartridge bearings, this part is strictly speaking a seat (given that the races are integral to the cartridge bearing). However, the term ‘race’ has carried over, in this case it means a surface for the bearing to mate with.

Crown races are often headset specific, with many different variations of the precise dimensions and interface with the bearings. Therefore, if you are swapping a headset, you will probably need to swap the crown race on the fork.

A split fork race is easier to install and remove
A split fork race is easier to install and remove
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

Cartridge bearings also allow for split crown races to be used, easing installation. Because the crown race acts as a seat, it can be slotted without negative impact, allowing it to be opened up to loosen the fit when installing or removing it.

The use of cartridge bearings has also allowed for the development of integrated crown races. Because the load is spread by the outer seat of the bearing (rather than hard bearing balls rolling directly on the seat), softer materials, such as carbon fibre, can be used to construct the ‘race’.

An integrated crown race (this one isn't removable) interfaces directly with the headset bearings
An integrated crown race (this one isn’t removable) interfaces directly with the headset bearings
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

An integrated crown race is simply a steerer tube that has been shaped to mate precisely with the outer race of the headset bearing. This takes over the duties of the crown race that would have been installed before.

Integrated crown races typically come in two different angles of 36 or 45 degrees.

What are the common steerer diameters?

The other key part to consider is the steerer diameter. The standard sizes are 1 inch, 1 1/8 inch, 1.25 inch and 1.5 inch steerers.

You may occasionally come across a 1-inch threadless steerer, but you’re more likely to find a threaded steerer in this size. 1 1/8 inch threaded steerers are, however, quite common.

Tapered steerer tubes are the most common arrangement on modern bikes. This attempts to provide the best of both worlds, with a wide crown that provides improved steering stiffness, with a tapered top section that saves a little weight. This is found on mountain bikes and road bikes.

Tapered steerers are widespread on modern bikes
Tapered steerers are widespread on modern bikes
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

The corresponding shape of the head tube (known as a ‘frustum’ in engineering circles) also allows frame design to be optimised, with the larger lower section providing a larger surface area to connect with the down tube.

This allows designers to increase stiffness here, with the top tube kept relatively skinny to improve riding comfort.

SHIS Standards: ZS, IS, EC. What does it all mean?

So there are plenty of options then. Thankfully, there is a standard of sorts to help navigate you through the array of parts, and moreover the names of parts on the market. If you’re shopping around, you’ll notice different brands have different names for the same headset type.

The SHIS (Standardised Headset Identification System) describes headsets in a way that makes it easier to find what you need.

The identifier starts by describing the headset type with a two letter code. “EC” stands for external cup, “ZS” for zero-stack/ internal headset and “IS” for integrated headset.

The number following the headset type denotes the head tube bore diameter (or bearing/cup outer diameter). The number is given in whole millimetres, but does not always correspond exactly to the dimensions of the bore.

It should be considered as a code for the different sizes, with each number uniquely identifying a head-tube diameter.

SHIS for external cup (EC) headsets

Legacy name SHIS name Bore ID (mm) Cup OD (mm)
1in JIS EC29 29.85–29.90 30.00–30.10
1in Pro EC30 30.05–30.10 30.20–30.30
1in BMX EC33 32.60–32.70 32.80–32.90
1-1/8in external EC34 33.90–33.95 34.05–34.15
1-1/4in external EC37 36.90–36.95 37.05–37.15
1.5in external EC44 43.95–44.00 44.10–44.15
1.5in external EC49 49.57–49.61 49.70–49.75
1.5in external EC56 55.9–55.95 56.00–56.05

The bore depth for an external headset should be at least 15mm.

SHIS for semi-integrated/zero-stack (ZS) headsets

Legacy name SHIS name Bore ID (mm) Cup OD (mm)
1in semi-integrated ZS41 41.35–41.40 41.45–41.50
1-1/8in semi-integrated ZS44 43.95–44.00 44.05–44.10
1-1/2in semi-integrated ZS49 49.57–49.61 49.70–49.75
1-1/2in semi-integrated ZS55 54.90–54.95 55.05–55.10
1-1/2in semi-integrated ZS56 55.90–55.95 56.05–56.10

The bore depth for a zero-stack headset should be at least 12.5mm.

SHIS for integrated (IS) headsets

Legacy name SHIS name Bore ID (mm) Bearing OD (mm) Bore depth (mm)
1in IS (Cane Creek) IS38 38.15–38.25 38 3.1–3.2 (top) / 6.9–7.0 (base)
1-1/8in IS (Cane Creek) IS41 41.10–41.20 41 3.1–3.2 (top) / 6.9–7.0 (base)
1-1/8in Italian, Campagnolo Hiddenset IS42 41.95–42.05 41.8 2.8–3.0 (top) / 6.6–6.8 (base)
1-1/4in IS (lower only) IS47 47.0–47.10 47
1-3/8in IS (lower only) IS49 49.10–49.20 49
1-1/2in IS (lower only) IS52 52.05–52.15 52 7.3–7.5 (base)

SHIS terminology for integrated bearing refers to a 45-degree contact angle with the head tube. 36 degrees is now considered obsolete.

SHIS for the steerer

The dimension of the headset is further defined by codes identifying the diameter of the fork steerer at the top and bottom of the head tube.

The upper section of the steerer is identified by its diameter, and in the case of threaded steerers by the thread used for that steerer.

Legacy name SHIS name Steerer diameter (mm)
1in French threaded M25-1.0
1in threaded (English, Italian, JIS, BMX etc.) 25.4-24tpi
1-1/8in threaded 28.6-26tpi
1-1/4in threaded 31.8-26tpi
1in threadless 25.4 25.25–25.40
1-1/8in threadless 28.6 28.45–28.60
1-1/4in threadless 31.8 31.60–31.75
1-1/2in threadless 38.1 38.074–38.202

SHIS for the crown race — common crown race standards

The lower section is identified by the diameter of the fork crown race, which is another number code corresponding approximately to the crown race inner diameter in mm.

Legacy name SHIS name Crown seat diameter (mm)
1in Pro 26 26.43–26.49
1in JIS 27 27.03–27.09
1-1/8in 30 30.015–30.075
1-1/4in 33 33.03–33.09
1.5in 40 39.79–39.85

The crown race angle may further be identified by an angle specified in brackets. This is particularly relevant for integrated crown races, where the angle is fixed at either 36 or 45 degrees.

Legacy name SHIS name
1-1/8in Cane Creek standard 30(36)
1-1/8in Italian standard 30(45)
1-1/4in 34(45)
1-3/8in Cane Creek standard 37(36)
1-3/8in Taiwan standard 37(45)
1.5in 36-degree 40(36)
1.5in 45-degree 40(45)

All this can be combined to define the precise specification for the upper and lower bearings of the headset.

As an example, a traditional 1-1/8in external threadless headset with a straight steerer would be defined as follows:

  • The upper cup would be EC34 with a 28.6 steerer. This is written as EC34/28.6.
  • The lower cup would also be EC34 but with a 30 crown race. This is written as EC34/30.
  • These two codes are combined as EC34/28.6 | EC34/30 to fully define the upper and lower stack of the headset.

Headset manufacturers may also choose to specify the stack height for the upper and lower bearing stack by adding an ‘H’ followed by the stack height in millimetres.

In our experience, this measurement is unlikely to vary much between headset designs, and any differences are likely to be negligible.

Special and unusual headsets

Defining the SHIS code will tell you what kind of headset will fit the bike, but there’s also some additional choices you can make.

Special-purpose headsets can significantly change your ride and are becoming more popular in mountain biking as a cheaper way to tune your geometry.

Angle headset / AngleSet

The Cane Creek angleset angles the steerer in the head tube to modify your geometry
The Cane Creek AngleSet angles the steerer in the head tube to modify your geometry
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

Popularised by Cane Creek under the AngleSet name, this headset allows you to tune a bike’s head angle.

Instead of the steerer tube running vertically through the head tube, an angled headset makes use of the ‘spare space’ inside, to angle the steerer by up to 2 degrees.

Slackening the head angle in this way can lead to improvements in the handling of a mountain bike and doesn’t affect the seat angle and bottom-bracket height as it would with offset shock bushings.

Reach-adjust headset

Similarly, a reach-adjust headset allows you to fine-tune the reach of a bike. Rather than adjust the angle of the steerer, the whole steerer is offset within the head tube.

ViscoSet

The ViscoSet uses keyed washers, which together with a fluorocarbon grease offer steering damping
The ViscoSet uses keyed washers, which together with a fluorocarbon grease offer steering damping
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

One interesting headset we’ve come across is Cane Creek’s ViscoSet. This offers damped steering, and BikeRadar’s Jack Luke is currently testing one in the hope it will cure the terrifying speed wobble of his tandem.

What makes a quality headset?

There is definitely a point of diminishing returns where investing more money in a headset isn’t going to buy you that much extra.

As you go up in price, the quality of the bearing increases and the level of sealing improves, but at a certain point you don’t need to pay more for significant performance gains.

Look for decent sealing in the top cap to protect your bearings from the elements
Look for decent sealing in the top cap to protect your bearings from the elements
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

Some manufacturers offer overbuilt headsets for heavy-duty use, but even for mountain biking we feel this is overkill. Suspension provides more than enough damping to reduce the forces going into the headset.

With that said, you should look for ample sealing, good availability of spare parts and, if it’s important to you, low weight.

All about bearings

Bearings come in two flavours. In the past, loose balls were sometimes held in place in bearing cages. That has changed, with the majority of headsets now using cartridge bearings.

Cartridge bearings contain all the bearing parts in one unit, making assembly quite a lot simpler
Cartridge bearings contain all the bearing parts in one unit, making assembly a lot simpler
Benedict Pfender / Immediate Media

High-end cartridge bearings can also be serviced, but in many cases it’s just as easy to swap them out for new ones.

Because the bearing assembly in contained in one unit, it’s an easy drop-in replacement.

Because the headset has to deal with complex loading, with force transmitted along the axis of the steerer as well as laterally, it should be fitted with angular contact bearings that are able to support load in both these directions.

How to maintain and fix a headset

Headsets deserves some attention from time to time, but you’ll know when it’s gone too far because the steering will start to feel gritty and horrible.

Generally, manufacturer’s suggest a recommended service interval. At that point, take the fork out of the head tube and check the bearings. They may need replacing or cleaning and regreasing. It’s an easy-enough job that doesn’t require many tools.

You should also regularly check headsets for play, which could indicate wear or a loose headset. We recommend applying the front brake and rocking the bike back and forward while grappling the crown of the fork.

If there’s any play of the fork in the steerer tube or any knocking or clunking noises, then check the headset for tightness. If that doesn’t rectify the issue some servicing is likely due.

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And that’s just about everything covered. As always, leave your thoughts in the comments below.