Praise be the longer evening light and lifting of the dark, dank veil of the northern winter. Not only do we northern-hemisphereans have an extra hour (and building) of daylight at the end of the day, we also (hopefully) have several minutes less of bike washing to do after our rides. That is assuming that conditions where you live will dry up a bit… Regardless, if you live anywhere north of the 39th N. parallel, chances are you are thinking about more ride time, dry or wet, and therefore a much needed ‘spring cleaning’ for your trusty two-wheeled friend who ushered you through the last four or five months of muck.
The best option for a spring clean is your favorite bike shop. Second to that, some of us have the time, interest and ability to do the full deep clean of every single moving part. If neither of those apply to you, then it’s likely that your simpler D.I.Y. checklist will include: a little polish (mmmm), fresh set of cables and housing (for sure), drivetrain parts (that fit the budget), and brake pads (if you haven’t changed them a few times already). Here’s one more, especially for you mountain bikers (and anyone else who doesn’t ride with full wrap fenders): Replace your headset, too!
If you are riding the same headset that you rode in all of last summer, give it a test to see if it is worn out. To test, remove your front wheel and place your bike in a work stand, or balance vertically on the rear wheel. Rotate the fork by gently holding one hand on one end of the handlebar. Do you feel any crunchy-crunchy? How about a “notch” when your handlebars are facing straight forward? If you feel any of these things, then your steering and bike handling are being affected. This is likely coming from the lower bearing, which gets blasted with gallons of filth all winter (not to mention higher loads). Some servicing is certainly possible (clean out with solvent, re-pack w/ new grease, etc.), but if it’s been as long as most people go without servicing their headsets (12+months), then $40-ish+ will be well-spent on a new one, and it will have your bike feeling extra nimble and precise for spring. Think of how good a “new” bike feels. Much of this comes from all of the bearings/pivots being at the lowest friction state of their lifespan.
Extra nimble you say? Consider this: the headset is what actually allows a bicycle to be balanced. Take away a bike’s ability to steer and it becomes unrideable. All of the micro-steering (rotation) in the headset is what enables controlled riding at any speed. Therefore, any crunchiness in a headset, or worse, pitting or notching, takes away from a bike’s innate stability, agility and precision. A bicycle is balanced by steering in a left-right direction while rolling forward (even with no conscious steering input from the rider). This steering accelerates the support of the bicycle laterally, enabling the gyroscopic force of the rotating wheels to change heading and stay upright, thus assisting a rider to balance.
So, there you have it. Add a fresh headset to your “spring cleaning” repertoire, a small cost for a (likely) big improvement in that “fresh” bike feeling. Happy spring riding!