The recent buzz in the industry is bearings. Steel or ceramic? Stainless or “standard”? Why choose one or another? What bearings should I replace or upgrade first? These are the questions that go through a cyclist’s head. Some people obsess over it. Some never think about it till something just won’t turn. Laugh if you like but I see this too often in my workshop. Let’s dive into these unsung heroes of your bicycle and make sense of all the nonsense.
First let’s discuss the importance of regular maintenance. An annual tear down and inspection of your bike can save a lot of money in the long run. By opening up the bearing groups in your bike every year you get a better idea of how much wear each gets and how often you need to replace them. I call them bearing groups because they never work alone. Multiple wheel bearings in each hub. Two bottom bracket bearings. Two headset bearings. If you have suspension there can be 10+ bearings here. Two jockey pulley bearings and let us not forget the often ignored pedal bearing group. That is a lot of bearings. Each group is doing a different and equally important job to get you from A to B. Some of these inherently last longer than others depending on multiple factors. Some also have a bigger impact on how easy it is for you to make your rig roll along. The basic thing to remember with maintenance is how often it gets done should be directly proportional to the conditions the bike is being ridden in. A beautiful and pristine, fair weather only ridden bike can get away with less frequent maintenance than your mountain bike that gets thrashed in the mud or gravel bike that gets a lot of cold , wet weather exposure. This should be common sense, but maintenance is not nearly frequent enough for most bikes in the world today. Most rigs should get a minimum of 1 tear down per year. If you neglect your bike and want to replace parts more often just ride it in crappy conditions and after a couple of seasons you might just have to replace it anyway. Sometimes there is no fixing, only replacement. Bicycles have a lifespan much like the rider, treat it like garbage and the lifespan will be shorter for sure.
There is no bearing on the bike more important than another. However when clients ask what should I upgrade first or pay the most attention to, the answer is almost always wheels first. These are always working when you ride the bike. The smoother and less resistance they have the easier it is for you to roll. Simple right? That is where the simplicity ends. There are literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of hub designs with every conceivable bearing application. But bottom line, the best place to invest money first is in your wheels. Often the stock bearings in your wheels are of lower quality to keep cost down. They work well enough and manufacturers expect you to replace these bearings more often because they will not last as long as some other options. Inexpensive replacements in a steel option are only 10-20 bucks each. These disposable bearings are commonly replaced every season with several of my clients. Some folks choose to spend more for a stainless steel version at about 30-40 bucks and might get 2 or 3 seasons out of them. Even with good annual maintenance these don’t last as long as some might hope. This is where ceramic bearings shine. A high quality ceramic bearing (properly maintained) can last for years and years. Some are even guaranteed for life. Chris King stands behind all their products for life. Enduro has ceramic bearings that will stand the test of time and claim to get smoother over the life of the bearing. If you are planning to keep your bike for many years this can be a great investment. However, the thing people don’t seem to understand about these high quality bearings is you can’t skimp on the maintenance. You still need to service these with the same frequency in relation to conditions of exposure. If you submerge your ceramic bearing hubs in that beautiful stream crossing they will need to be serviced more often but will still outlast other cheaper bearings with similar exposure.
Suspension and headset bearings are very similar in what they do. These bearings don’t rotate a full 360 degrees in most cases. Some suspension bearings only rotate 20-40 degrees at most and most of the time much less. But these bearings transfer a great deal of load to the frame. Headsets transfer every bump the front wheel encounters to the frame and generally only rotate about 180 degrees and often much less as well. These bearings need attention just like all the others but are treated a little differently. These can be higher in friction with better contact seals, “increased drag” and more often have many more balls to distribute the load over more surface area than a hub bearing for instance. But neglect these bearings and bumps are more harsh and steering is hindered. In some extreme cases I have seen headset bearings refuse to turn at all. Not fun to ride, let me tell you. Finally these bearings can be packed with thick grease to keep things moving and contaminants out.
Drivetrain group bearings include bottom bracket, derailleur jockey pulleys, pedals and last but not least the chain. Yes, even the chain on your bike is like a hundred little bearings all working to put power to the ground. More on that in a minute. The bottom bracket is a very stressed bearing and needs special attention. Here is where a ceramic upgrade can make a big difference. Especially if you have a needy bottom bracket like a BB30. These 30mm internal diameter bearings are notorious for wearing out more often than many other bottom bracket bearing types. Some bottom brackets like Shimano and Sram are not serviceable and are designed to be replaced when they go bad. These are all wanting to be inspected and serviced (if not replaced) every year. Some BB30 bearings don’t even make it a whole season in bad conditions. Ceramic upgrades here can save a lot of money (and energy pedaling) and service labor dollars in the long run. Pulley wheels are hanging out there exposed to the elements and on mountain bikes and gravel bikes often get encased in mud. These are another great place to invest in higher quality bearings in order to save time and energy. I must stress again the importance of frequent inspections and perhaps more frequent service with these particular bearings. Because they are so exposed they often get ugly sooner than other parts of the bike. Last on this list are the most neglected bearings in my experience. Pedals turn every stroke on the bike. You mash your feet on them all the time and most of the time they are disgustingly dirty. Many mechanics while performing a “tune up” don’t even consider pedals let alone the bearings they contain. While bearing upgrades here are rarely available, consistent maintenance and proper lubrication can keep these working for years, but ignore them and they will ruin a great ride experience.
Bearings are the heart and sole of a bicycle. They need your help to work for many years. Washing your bike is great but this simple act often does more damage than good. You wash dirt into the bearings of your bike and fact is everybody does this all the time. I am not saying to stop cleaning your bike , but please do some annual maintenance and ensure it will keep working as you want for years to come. Now let’s touch on the chain. Clean this more often people. Lube it half as often as you do now. A clean chain is a happy chain. It will last longer and shift better and save you energy. Measure the wear several times a year and replace when needed. Use whatever kind of lube you like but wipe it off more often to get dirt off. Keep up on these things and your bike will thank you. Your mechanic will thank you. I thank you.