Headset question from an inept mechanic

I was recently giving my bike a good spring clean, and decided to remove the fork and regrease and reseat the headset bearings.

The upper is an IS style bearing and looks fine. I was expecting the lower to be a similar sealed cartridge style affair, but all I could see when I removed the fork was an exposed ring of ball bearings still on the steerer tube above the fork, not the sealed bearing I was expecting.

Is it actually a thing to have these types of exposed bearings, or have I done something horribly wrong?!

I’d really appreciate any help you could give me!

For reference, my frame is a Merlin Malt G2X.

It’s normal and nothing to worry about.

Were the exposed bearings in good condition? As long as when you rotate the bars the bearings feel smooth and there’s no play in the headset nothing to worry about. Check play by holding the bike bike frame between the headset bearings and pulling the front wheel backwards and forwards. Just make sure your front wheel is tight.

When you’re re assembling your headset don’t over tighten the top headset bolt and also to ensure no play in the headset. stand the bike up on its back wheel. The aim is to ensure the wheel and bars can drop to either side without delay.

Just for the sake of adding to a thread about headset bearings, this is what I found inside my Canyon Ultimate CF SLX about a week ago :

So, a huge shout-out to https://www.airevelobearings.com/ who had the correct replacement bearings in stock and shipped immediately to the USA (DHL). Super easy transaction. Upper bearing, lower bearing, and compression ring – all for about the price of a Strava membership (but only in certain non-European countries).

I had them in about 3 days here in the USA, and replaced without fuss. And heck, since I love a good shopportunity, I also bought new headset bearings for my Pinarello, which will be installed shortly too.

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Usually it started as a sealed bearing, and has exploded as it’s so rusty/worn and the outer bits are stuck to the fork/frame so you rip it in half checking it. As such if I see a grindy headset with rusty liquid running down the fork I’ll check if the person needs the bike before ‘checking’ the bearing, as that often ends up with the tiny balls pictured above all over the floor and the bike off the road until the new bearing arrives!

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Thanks for the helpful replies everybody.
At the moment the bars seem to move freely without any strange noise. But if it is in fact a sealed bearing that has 'exploded ', I should fix it sooner rather than later.
I’ll need to take it apart one more time, set my bike up upside down in the stand, and see if I can see the upper part of any exploded bearing stuck inside the headset.

Thanks again everyone! I’ll comment back when I’ve resolved it.

I was surprised to find caged bearings the first time I looked at the lower headset bearings on my Pivot mtb. You can often find a sealed type replacement headset, to press in, fyi. Pivot even calls out the proper Chris King No-thread set in their FAQs for my bike model.

That’s a definite possibility here I think: possibly a cost-saving option by the manufacturer?

Bearings are cheap; if you’ve dropped the fork out it’s a no brainier to replace them whilst you are there. You don’t want them like in that picture above, they are well gone. Most lower bearing go as a lot of people don’t use mudguards (fenders) and all the dirty water from the road is fired directly at them. If they are truly loose, and the cup is still smooth and bearings shiny after a quick wipe; then some fresh grease and you are good to go. If the headset cup isn’t smooth, and is pitted, then it requires a new headset which is more involved as it requires specialised tools to press a new one in place. More modern headsets built into the head tube like IS you just replace the sealed bearings when they go.

In summary, bearings are like chains, cheap consumables and it’s better to replace them early than a more expensive job later after damage to the more expensive components they interact with.

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No kidding! The vacuum cleaner sounded horrible as those little balls got sucked off the floor.

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Just to update all the kind souls who chipped in with help for me, I’ve fixed the issue.
The bearing had, in fact, ‘exploded’! I reached out to the frame manufacturer to get the bearing spec, and ordered it from amazon here in Japan.
The upper part of the exploded bearing was stuck in the headtube pretty well, and had to be asked very nicely with some JP equivalent of WD40 and a large screwdriver for leverage before it finally gave up and popped out. After a good clean and a thorough greasing (I suspect the original mechanic forgot to grease the outside of the lower bearing), the new bearing popped in nicely, I reassembled everything, and I’m good to go.
It sucks when bike parts break, but it’s really great to learn some new skills as a result!


I had something similar happen when I rode through a flood a bit deeper than I thought. Lower bearing went underwater. I stripped and cleaned and regreased the wheel bearings but forgot to do the lower headset bearing. I had to take to bike shop in the end and they managed to get stuck part of bearing out.

Always worth checking headset bearings once a year and cleaning up and re greasing if necessary. Otherwise if you’ve been through a rather deep flood then check your bearings then as well!

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