Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
We received an SOS the other day from a reader named Barb. It came in the form of a comment to one of our Quick Tips titled Learn to Ride a Straight Line, which appeared over a year ago. You can read that here: Learn to Ride a Straight Line.
There were already a few helpful comments to the original Quick Tip. But Barb’s comment was a call for help. We’ll take a crack at assisting her today and you can weigh in with your advice, too, by leaving a comment.
“Can someone help me understand why on my new bike I seem unable to control my front wheel? I have barely missed striking a parked car. Our streets often have bike lanes and I wobble around in them. The bike makes very wide wobbles.
This is new. I have ridden bikes for years but never had this problem. I feel amateurish.
It is a new Bianchi bike with a step-through frame. It has flat handlebars with ends upturned. It’s a steel and alloy bike weighing about 28 pounds (12.7kg).
The bike shop supposedly tightened the handlebars. That was no help.
I am now very slightly but not visibly tremulous. Is it me or possibly a bike problem?”
From what you described, Barb, I believe it’s a bicycle problem. You said that the bike makes very wide wobbles, that you almost hit a parked car and that the shop tightened the handlebars.
The glitch that can make any bike very difficult to steer and control is a problem with the steering mechanism, which is called the “headset.” If the headset is assembled incorrectly or if it’s adjusted too tightly, it can bind and a binding headset (think of it as “sticky” steering) can definitely cause the issues you’re experiencing.
Bicycles Self Balance
In order for you to steer and control a bicycle naturally, the front end (handlebars, stem and fork) must be able to freely swing from side to side. That lets the bicycle essentially balance itself.
In this YouTube video you can see a riderless bicycle steering itself. It demonstrates the importance of the bicycle’s front end to be able to move freely.
So, I think that either the headset on your bicycle was assembled wrong and because of that it’s not allowing the bicycle to self steer. Or, that the headset was adjusted too tightly. You wrote that the shop tightened the “handlebars.” If you meant that they tightened the headset, then that might be the problem – it might now be too tight.
If you have a friend you ride with you could let them try your bike. If you feel the issue I’m betting they will too and that will reassure you that it’s the bike, not you.
It should take hardly any force to steer a bicycle. Mostly you lean and the bike turns on its own. But, when a headset is too tight (adjusted that way or from damage or wear and tear), it can turn steering into a wrestling match and that can be disconcerting and dangerous.
There can be lots of things wrong with headsets to cause tightness and that includes on new headsets. So you may need to get a mechanic’s help to fix the issue. It could be for example that a bearing is missing or a part is assembled wrong and causing the headset binding. I would expect that on a new Bianchi any issues like these would be repaired at no cost to you.
The reason I’m not suggesting you try to fix it yourself is because headsets have gotten complicated and it’s not easy to diagnose and repair them without knowing everything about the headset you have on that bike. Plus, it’s a new bike that’s likely still covered by Bianchi’s warranty.
I hope this is helpful and that your shop finds and fixes the issue. Please let us know if so.
10,088 Daily Rides in a Row
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.
Barbara Passman says
@Forgive being such a dummy but what is the headset?
The bikeshop fellow used a large Allen wrench to tighten a bolt which sits in the middlle of the handlebar. I assume this tightens the attachment of the handle bar to the bike. Is that the headset?
Or, it looked like he adjusted the bolt. The two fellows in the shop seemed to think the problem is me getting used to my bike
But I have never had a problem like this. Three times the bike “threw me” by the front wheel turning sharply so the bike tumbled. I have never been thrown by a bike or fallen off since learning how to ride.
I am going to talk to the bike shop manager.
I can’t find any email address for Bianchi, USA but will keep trying. Possibly the bike was damaged in shipping. Or it’s a lemon
Chuck Procner says
The headset is a collection of two sets of rings with bearings that are located in the top and bottom of the head tube. The head tube is the short piece that connects the top and down tubes. It is the place where the shaft from the fork attaches to the bike. The stem attaches at the top of the head tube to the fork shaft (it keeps the fork from falling out). The assembly is attached with a large nut. The handlebars attache to the stem. When the headset is properly adjusted it allows the assembly of fork, stem and handlebars to turn from side to side without being too floppy or too tight.
This is not particularly difficult to do once the mechanic has some experience for the proper “feel”. However, because of the potential safety aspects, it’s not something a shop manager should allow rookies to do without supervision. Any work done on the steering aspects of a bike requires a test ride before releasing the bike. One has to have the utmost confidence in the steering.
If done improperly the bearings and races can be slightly damaged during installation or adjustment so that under load might become loose causing the situation where your bike threw you. This may or may not be seen when the bike is on the repair stand in the shop.
I’d return to the shop and demand the manager have their most experienced mechanic install a brand new headset. This is probably what Bianchi would have them do under warranty.
Given their experience it’s pretty hard for a company like Bianchi to produce a”lemon”.
Jim Langley says
Sorry, I should have explained that, Barb. It’s an important part on all bicycles but it’s almost hidden/invisible so it’s hard to see and can be taken for granted.
The headset is the part that allows the fork and front wheel to turn from side to side for steering. It is installed by the factory when the bicycle is built. It is comprised of a few important parts that attach to the fork and frame that both hold the fork/front wheel in the frame and allow it to turn for steering.
If you stand next to your bike and turn the handlebars and look closely at where the fork disappears into the frame you might be able to see some of the headset parts attached to the frame or fork that allow the steering to work. Sometimes they’re tucked into the frame and not visible, but if so they’re still in there doing their job.
It sounds the shop may have tightened your headset. I’m concerned that you said your bike threw you three times. Please go back to the shop or find a better shop if the first isn’t helpful.
Or contact Bianchi USA here:
BIANCHI USA INC.
2536A BARRINGTON CT.
HAYWARD, CA 94545
United States of America
PHONE: +1 510 264 1001
EMAIL: [email protected]
Please let me know if you need more help,
Brandon Bilyeu says
Maybe the fork is mounted backwards, this would definitely cause steering instability. Any competent bike shop employee would notice this right away, but I’ve seen new bikes roll out of shops with backwards forks. Look up your exact model on the Bianchi website and compare the fork angle to your bike, it should be clear if something is wrong.
Dave Le Fevre says
My immediate thought was fork rake. A couple who I once knew had a tandem, and they’d replaced the forks. The replacement forks had more fork rake, and thus the tandem steering had no trail.
I tried riding it briefly once, and I had to keep a tight grip on the bars and fight the steering all the way. Most unpleasant.
(I had a tandem of my own, which rode well. So it was nothing to do with tandem versus solo.)
Barb is apparently not extremely familiar with the workings of bicycles (few are – they just ride them), and the shop was very unhelpful. Apparently she could only describe symptoms, and the shop has the (poor!) attitude of “this fixes this symptom”. She should have insisted the mechanics take rides of a mile or so (ie, more than circling the parking lot) to test the bike.
Barb apparently has a defective bike, and the shop is reluctant to admit that.
I would love to hear from Barb again when the problem with her bike is corrected.
–Three times the bike “threw me” by the front wheel turning sharply so the bike tumbled.
Do you mean the front wheel turned independently of the handlebar? If that’s the case I would not ride the bike again until it is fixed.
D. L. says
I suggest that if you can’t get this problem resolved at the shop where you bought it then maybe as a last resort take it to another shop and see if they can diagnose the problem and present the repair bill to the other shop for reimbursement.
Tim Cunningham says
Jim and Barb, Could you please give us an update on Barb’s issue when she gets it figured out. I’m sorry you had some serious sounding safety issues. No one needs those, especially from a bike that sounds like it was not set up properly. Shame on the shop for letting this happen. Tim
John S. Allen says
Likely explanation: the step-through frame has low torsional rigidity,. Barb is experiencing steering shimmy,
Explanation by Jobst Brandt:https://www.sheldonbrown.com/brandt/shimmy.html
Explanation with me, with video of the incident: https://www.sheldonbrown.com/shimmy.html
Shimmy or incipient shimmy can happen at a low speed if the frame is flexible enough.