Ask a Mechanic: Headset Adjustment

Question: I can’t seem to dial in the correct headset bearing tension.  How much do I turn that top bolt? From: Rex

Answer: Dialing in your headset adjustment is something that takes a little bit of practice to get right. There is no precise torque spec but generally speaking, a torque in the 2-3nm area is usually sufficient; but it comes down to feel.

Whether you have a road bike or mountain bike the process is the same. To start, your stem steerer clamp bolts need to be loose. Use your front brake to see if your headset is loose by pulling the brake and rocking the handlebars forward and back. If you feel a knocking sensation, the headset needs to be tightened. Torque the bearing preload adjustment bolt on your stem cap just enough so that the knocking goes away. If no amount of tightening eliminates the knocking, add a two or five millimeter spacer under your headset top cap to increase the available range of adjustment.

If the steering feels rough after tightening down the headset bearing preload bolt when turning your handlebars from side to side, you’ve over-tightened the headset. Back it off an eighth or a quarter of a turn and check it again by turning the handlebars from side to side and by pulling the front brake and rocking the handlebars front to back to feel for any knocking.

Once you get a smooth steering feel without any knocking when performing the front brake test, your done with the adjustment and it is time to tighten the stem steerer clamping bolts back down to the manufacturer’s recommended torque spec.

Welcome to our Ask a Mechanic column where our expert mechanics Daniel Slusser and Greg O’Keeffe answer your bike maintenance questions. If you have a question for us, please post it on the Art’s Cyclery Facebook Wall or e-mail Daniel directly at To see more great how to videos click on the highlighted link to subscribe to our YouTube channel and stay up to date on each episode of the Art’s Cyclery/VeloNews Ask a Mechanic Series.