The BEST Headset

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The Best

The finest, greatest performing headset that I have ever owned is also one of the best values, the Cane Creek S-3. Commonly available for less than $30.

Why not a Chris King headset?

Back in the day of threaded 1" steerers, only two real performance options existed for bicycles, the Campagnolo Record HS-01OR Headset or the Chris King Two Nut headset. Both were fantastic options for both on and off road.

Then came threadless and oversized threadless steerers and other new developements. Chris King was one of the first to adopt the new systems, but Dia-Compe USA (now Cane Creek) made key developments in the threadless headset (AheadSet®) and holds the patent on the design using a split compression ring (U.S. Patent #5095770). This split compression ring is how the system is able to maintain concentricity among the mating parts.

The biggest initial problem with the Dia-Compe parts was overall percived quality. Others followed and improved their designs, but for many years, the Chris King NoThreadset headset was the only quality choice available, but things have changed.

The real Achilles Heel of the Chris King design is the way that the top plate is held concentric to the steerer tube to avoid tresspassing on the Dia-Compe patent. An o-ring is used to hold the top plate centered. The problem with this design is that when strong enough forces are introduced to the fork, the o-ring gives a little and the steerer is pushed off center of the headset.

Many people will see:

  • Wear marks on their aluminium steerers
  • A wear pattern on the taper of the base plate
  • A wear pattern on the taper of the top plate
  • Wear between the top plate and the first spacer or stem if the delrin shim is not in place (you were wondering what it was for?)

King headset problem.jpg

One possible argument for this is that the o-ring acts almost like a shock absorber for the bearings, transfering wear to more cheaply replaced parts. This is probably why the bearings of a King last so long, but I don't buy that this is a good thing.

King's solution for all these problems; replace the o-ring annually. While this may help with some of the symptoms, it does nothing to solve the real problem. King needs to change their design and pay Dia-Compe USA so that they can use the patent.

Keep in mind that I have a lot of respect for what King has done for cycleing and the quality and products that he has brought to market. I just wish that the design for the headset gets fixed.

Pure Speculation

George Hincappie crashed out of the 2006 Paris-Roubaix due to a broken steerer tube at the top of the tube. Many blame the fracture to a previous crash in the day, but the presence of the king headset and a look at where the brake happened, I question all that.

Hincapie's bike.jpg

What is so great about the Cane Creek S-3?

The cheaper option to the Cane Creek S-8, the Cane Creek S-3 is about the greatest value and performer on the market.

  • First, the price. This headset is commonly available for around $26, 1/5 the cost of a Chris King headset. An S-8 will set you back around $55, twice the cost.
  • Second, the materials. The S-8 uses stainless steel races (Cane Creek Part #HSS20131, SAE 51440C Stainless) rather than the S-3's "bearing steel" races (Cane Creek Part #HSS20130, SAE 52100 steel), making it a finer headset in some ways, but at a cost. The S-1 claims to use "steel" races to imply a downgrade, but the part number on the bearing is the same as in the S-3. SAE 52100 is a much stronger bearing matirial than SAE 51440C Stainless steel. The hardness of SAE 52100 is 60-64 HRC, compared to SAE 51440C's 58-62 HRC. The advantage to SAE 51440C Stainless Steel comes when dealing with corrosive environments. This may be a problem for some riders in some terrains, practiceing particular maintanance routines. To find out, run the SAE 52100 bearing headset and see if corrosion can be avoided, if not, go to SAE 51440C stainless. It is a $25 gamble that the better steel will be just fine. The King headset is supplied with SAE 51440C stainless steel bearings. The Cane Creek bearings are made by the same company that makes FSA bearings, Tien Hsin Industries Co., Ltd.
  • Third, the performance. This headset like the King, use quality sealed cartridge bearings to function, but rather than use an o-ring, the cane creek (like many other competitors) use a compression ring to hold the steerer in line with the headset. See Schematic. This design holds solid and does not move like the King design. The increase in performance is noticable.

These three points make the Cane Creek a hands down winner for best headset.

The only thing that is a drawback of the headset is the promenent logos and the lack of color choice.

The Bearings

The bearing is a 45 degree angluar contact configuration with 25 0.1250" bearings per assembly.

Cc bearing 1.jpg

Cc bearing 2.jpg

Cc bearing 3.jpg

Cc bearing 4.jpg

Cc bearing 5.jpg

Additional reasons for the S-3's rule

A recent problem experience by the off road cyclist is that frame and fork manufactures are not on the same page all the time and forks will sometimes hit the down tube when spun in a crash. This damages the fork, usually, and sometimes the frame.

Cane Creek has recently released the S-3 Plus 5, The same design as the S-3, but with 5mm more lower stack height to give the forks more clearance.


Chris King has done nothing about this problem.

A word of caution

The Interlok spacers provided with the Cane Creek headsets are total garbage. The only choice in headset spacers should be lathe cut aluminium or carbon fiber. Both Chris King or Wheels Manufacturing will be happy to provide you with what you need.

Avoid saw cut spacers at all costs. The faces are not parallel to each other nor are they perpendicular the the axis. These details reduce head bearing performance dramatically.

Proper Torque

Cane Creek is very vauge regarding the proper torque of it's high end headsets, saying "Apply only enough torque to remove all play from the headset while ensuring it still rotates freely." but elseware they recomend "22 in/lbs" but this may be refering only to the open ball bearing headsets.

Chris King is more specific with; "4-10 in/lbs"

More info on Headsets

TH Industries manufactures the majority of the headsets and head bearings used in cycleing. Some will know them simply as FSA. TH also holds patent # 5319993 regarding headsets. Their catalog is one of the best sources of information on headsets.

The FSA book

The Future

In time, we will end up using more headsets similar to the FSA C-40, CF-40, and C-33. With a 1.125 top hole and a 1.250 bottom hole and an integrated design. This is as close to a modern motorcycle style as bicycles have gotten.

FSA C-33.jpg


  • As road bicycles use more carbon forks designed more for actual loads rather than existing standards, the crown will increase in diameter.
  • As more downhill and freeride bikes are spec'd with longer travel single crown options, lower head tube diameter and bearing strength will need to increase as well as fork crown area.

A new contender

Stronglight Light 'in Gold is an integrated headset using TIN coated races and ceramic bearings. Can't wait to try some of these bearings. Since the bearing geometry is the same as those used in the Campy/Itailian headset products (45/45), they should be exchangable.