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Why Your Bottom Bracket and Headset May Need Replacing (And How To Avoid It)

For a cyclist, there’s not much better than that first ride on a brand-new bike. Everything is squeaky clean, all the cogs are turning smoothly, and all you hear is the sound of the wind whipping in your ears as you zip down the road.

But, inevitably, that sweet spot is short-lived. Before long, you’ll start to notice a loose brake here or a squeaky gear there. Sometimes, the noises can be hard to pinpoint, and you’re left to wonder what’s happening — and what problems may be just around the bend.

One particular problem is especially common, and if it’s left unaddressed, will quickly lead to issues with your bottom bracket and headset. Longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie has seen it many times, and he’s got the details for you in this article.

Strange Noises After Wet Rides

One particular set of noises is especially common after wet rides. If you recently pedaled in heavy rain, you may first notice the results around your seat post. Coach Darryl frequently encounters it when making adjustments for bike fits — an abrasive grinding noise that happens when he moves the seat height up and down. 

When you hear it, your ears should perk up immediately. That noise may seem innocuous, but it portends something serious if you don’t address it. As Darryl puts it, it’s “an expensive noise.”

It all started with that wet ride, but it’s what happens next that matters.

Why Your Bottom Bracket and Headset Are at Risk

The problem here isn’t just that you got your bike wet — it’s what that water brings with it. 

“Water on the street is very dirty,” Darryl explains. “It picks up dust, sand and grit from the road. Your proof is your dirty legs after riding in the rain. That water runs down your legs into your socks, which often turn black and end up in the trash after a wet ride.”

Now, that same water that turns your legs and socks black is splashing all over your bike. And when it lands on your seat post, it has nowhere to go but down. If your bike doesn’t have a strong seal between your seat post and the seat tube, that water’s going to drip inside your frame. 

That entry point explains why the first sign of trouble is noise where the seat tube and seat post meet. But that’s not the problem. Water, as it does without fail, will find its way to the low point — in this case, the bottom bracket where your pedals connect to the bike. 

Although most bottom brackets these days are sealed, that seal sometimes fails. And when that dirty, grimy water sits in there long enough, it will inevitably begin to gum up the bearings and other mechanisms inside your bottom bracket. Over time, rust and corrosion can occur. The next thing you’ll notice is noise, not just in your seat post, but when you pedal. If that continues, your bottom bracket and crank will eventually seize up.

Really, though, once you hear noise in your bottom bracket, it’s “toast,” as Darryl says. And the same thing can happen with your headset, where the handlebars and steering tube meet. 

How to Prevent Damage

Bottom brackets and headsets aren’t necessarily the most expensive components to replace, but they’re not cheap. Good ones can cost you north of $200. But the real hassle is that you’ll have to take your bike to the mechanic and be without it for a while. All in all, it’s better to dodge this entirely avoidable outcome.  

“As they say, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’” notes Coach Darryl.

So how do you avoid this unpleasant situation? You can’t always steer clear of riding in the rain, and if your bike is susceptible to this problem, getting caught on wet roads will ultimately lead to headset and bottom bracket problems. What can you do? 

The first thing to do is to check for water in your bike after a heavy rain. With your ear close to the frame, give the bike a good shake to see if you hear any water sloshing around. If so, it’s time to take further action. 

At this point, you need to get that water out of your bike, and the simplest way to do it is to remove your seat post. But wait! Before you take the seat post off, be sure to mark its position with a piece of tape (that way you’ll know exactly where it should be when you put it back on). Now, turn your bike upside down and let the water run out. If possible, leave it upside down for a few days to ensure it dries thoroughly. 

Do this quickly enough, and you just may avoid any further issues. Give it a try, but be sure to pay close attention to any noises after you get riding again. If you hear that squeaky headset or bottom bracket, it’s probably time for a replacement.

You may not be able to avoid every wet ride, but it’s possible to head one off when you see it coming. Learn the best route to pedal when the weather looks ominous. 


You can find more of Coach Darryl’s thoughts over at his website.

Photo by Toby Hall on Unsplash