I was surprised to find myself riding my $150 Schwinn just one day after it arrived, half-disassembled, in the mail. But I was also not particularly surprised that I had it taken apart before that day was over, sidelined by an interesting old part I can’t seem to find online.
Part of what drew me to getting this 1987 Schwinn Cimarron was that it was a top-of-the-line bike when it was new. If you wanted a complete mountain bike from Schwinn and you wanted to spend as much a possible, you rode home on a Cimarron. To justify the price, it came with some interesting top-tier kind of stuff. The frame was both lugged and fillet-brazed, kind of like what you’d find on low-volume, specialty mountain bikes of the time. The running gear of the bike was the best stuff that Shimano was producing for mountain bikes in the era, complete Deore XT from the brake levers all the way back to the derailleur. It’s not like this is necessarily the lightest, fastest, best-performing gear a little over three decades later, but it was built to last. I valued that in a bike I was sure to beat up, jump, and ride the shit out of.
Another strange part on the bike was the headset, in a very ‘80s black and gold, labeled “TANGE G MASTER — JAPAN — TAPER ROLLER MECHANISM” looking like something that would come off of a megazord.
The headset is the set of bearings and races that hold your bike’s fork to its frame. The headset is what lets your bike steer smoothly, and your headset suffers the load you put on the bike and the impacts of bumps you hit.
Most old bike headsets have little ball bearings that are greased and trapped in place. These are fine. Most new bike headsets have sealed cartridge bearings, which work like the old bike bearings, but they are sealed away from dirt and debris and don’t require you to take your headset apart to clean and re-grease your ball bearings. You can see what that’s like on this lovely video of another contemporary fillet-brazed mountain bike of the time:
But there is a third kind of bearing, one that is rarer, and is, of course, what I am tasked with replacing on my bike.
These are roller bearings, sometimes called “needle bearings” because of their shape. Instead of spherical little ball bearings, needle bearings are little cylinders. They roll instead of spin. What’s the point of having little rolling cylinders instead of little spinning spheres? Well, they’re tougher. At least theoretically.
I will quote from the late great internet bike genius Sheldon Brown that roller bearings have “greater bearing contact area, reducing the pressure of the bearings against the races. In practice, roller-bearing headsets are quite reliable, though they don’t turn as freely as a good ball-bearing headset.”
I could spend a great deal of time quoting from random bike sites and experts about how great roller bearings are at taking a pounding from rough roads, or how durable and long-lasting they are, but the truth of the matter is that new bikes meant to tackle the toughest of roads don’t come with roller bearings, that they are somewhat obsolete versus good current sealed bearings. As far as durability is concerned, well, mine is busted.
Again, I didn’t think that riding this bike would come so soon into my period of bike ownership. I got the thing in the mail with the pedals off, and the handlebars and stem off. One of the tires was flat, and it was mounted backward. The rear derailleur, which changes those six speeds, was thick with grime. The six-speed cassette was so grody I was surprised to find that it was actually silver not painted black. Same with the inner and middle chainrings on the crankset upfront. I scrubbed, I disassembled, I degreased, I regreased, I reassembled over the course of a warm morning and afternoon on my porch, and was surprised that when the bike was all together, it seemed to be in rideable condition. The brakes, ancient or not, were strong enough to lock the wheels. The bottom bracket didn’t have excessive play. The shifters worked smoothly. The bike, I couldn’t believe it, worked.
But the very first time I turned the corner on my block, something felt very, very off. The bike felt drunk.
I thought, at first, maybe I just wasn’t used to riding around on mountain bike tires. These old Panaracers (branded Mach SS, now sold as The Homage) are fairly smooth in the middle but have chunky knobs on their shoulders. Maybe it was just that?
No, it was like the headset was loose. The front of the bike wobbled even when standing still. Every time I took a turn or hit a bump, the front wheel and fork of the bike were going one way, and the frame and the rest of the bike were going another. Not good.
I’ve had a loose headset on an old bike before, so I went home, tightened up the headset, and went back out. Same problem. No matter how tight I got the headset, the thing still felt loose. I stopped to look at the headset itself and, ah, the thing didn’t look like it was on straight.
I loosened the whole headset again, tried to hold the fork straight in line with the frame, and cranked things back down once more. Still, the bike felt sloppy, and I resolved that I would do something I had always wanted to do but was scared to tackle. I was going to disassemble the headset.
I was glad I did. Loosening the top nut all the way off the threaded fork was easy, revealed two sets of cracked bearings. These roller bearings sit on cone-shaped races, and they were crushed as well, along with clamped-down rubber-and-metal grease guards. My shit was toasted.
Here are the top bearings, which have seen better days:
And here are the bottom bearings:
You can see the cup-shaped race that the bearing sits on is real busted:
One thing that’s nice about working on old parts like these is, of course, that they are serviceable. I figured I would just look up some replacement parts, order them up, and re-assemble my shit. I have not been particularly lucky in this regard.
Tange no longer makes this particular headset and does not sell replacement parts for it. Finding replacement bearings is a bit of a crapshoot, also, as the only listing for them I’ve been able to find as a pair is from a very sketchy-looking Amazon link from “BICYCLE.” God knows if it’s legit, or if it’s worth risking $13.77 to find out.
I’ve been able to dig up a few pages on eBay claiming to sell roller bearings for Tange headsets, but they’re actually originally made for a different headset from a different French company called Stronglight. I do not know if they are compatible. This page, at least, has some measurements that seem to line up with mine, but I can’t say I’m sure.
Now, if I wanted to get a new and different headset from Tange that has roller bearings top and bottom, it would cost me $100, and I’m not sure even it follows the same standards of mine. A new Tange DoubleRoller uses an ISO standard thread. I don’t even know what thread my G Master has, though I suspect it follows the same kind of English/JIS threading as on the rest of the bike. Looking up my component on VeloBase, a sort of Wikipedia for these kinds of things is no help.
My buddy thinks I should get a new top-of-the-line headset to end all of these questions. Spend top dollar and get a Chris King headset. These are fully modern, made in America, and even though they’re as good as headsets get, they still will only run you about $150. But this leaves out a question of stack height, as the only threaded headset Chris King sells is too short (mine is 45mm versus Chris King’s which is 33-38), and I’d need to get an out-of-production adapter to make it fit my bike for another $30 minus shipping, and that is really racking things up.
I can’t say I’m mad. I got this bike specifically so I could take it apart, figure out how it works, and put it back together. I just wish I didn’t have a sinking feeling like it was my own overtightening that borked my headset—what else could it be?—and forced me down this road.
On the plus side, other than the headset the bike has ridden great. It fits wonderfully, it is comfortable, speedy, and a real joy.
And most importantly, the humongous Cat Eye bike light still works.