27 June 2012

Ceramic bearings? No thanks.

Every so often a disease infects cycling and it spreads like an epidemic. Of course by 'disease' I mean fad and by 'spreading like an epidemic' I mean people seem insistent on shelling out tons of cash for no reason (or just because of effective marketing).

Ceramic bearings was (is?) one of those fads.

On the one hand I am a huge fan of anything that gets people out on bicycles and that pumps up the cycling industry in general but really, how bad do we need things like ceramic bearings? That's rhetorical, we don't.

My own personal experience with ceramic bearings goes something like this.

Some time ago I purchased a new set of wheels. The upcharge for ceramic bearings was minimal so I figured why the hell not! Right? I mean if everything I was reading about these miracle balls was right I was going to be saving some serious watts.

In the shopping process I discovered that cartridge bearings with ceramic balls seem to come in two flavors for the most part.

  1. ceramic balls with steel bearing races
  2. ceramic balls with ceramic bearing races

The former was reasonably priced - and it's what I got - the later was outrageously expensive.

After only a handful of rides on my new wheels the bearings went from smooth as the proverbial baby's bottom to utter shit. I replaced them with traditional steel bearing cartridges and did some research to find out what the heck happened to my dream wheels. What I discovered is the following.

  • The ceramic material in the bearings is MUCH harder than the steel bearing races. Of there is any amount of incorrect load on the bearing cartridge or if the cartridge gets contaminated with even the least bit of dirt the bearings (which are practically indestructible) will grind the races into dust. Figuratively that is. What happened in my case is they wore a grove around the entire race. Not so smooth…
  • The seals on these ceramic bearing cartridges did not keep out the water and dirt nearly as well as the seals on the steel bearing cartridges.

One of my favorite newsletters of late is from Neuvation Cycling. John Neugent has been in the cycling industry for ages and in addition to being a talented sourcer of products he has recently discovered some writing aplomb. He always has a 'deal of the day' and it's accompanied by some wit or tech tidbit industry insider news. I love reading it. Here is his newsletter from today and guess what… he agrees with me when it comes to ceramic bearings.

I get asked about ceramic bearings all the time and at one time sold them.  They are still one of the buzz words although the buzz is dying pretty fast.

Ceramic bearings in bikes came about when some Northern Europeans started putting them in pro’s bikes.  Virtually all sealed cartridge bicycle bearings are stock bearings.  I don’t know of any that were created specifically for bikes.

Contrary to popular belief, ceramic bearings gain their performance advantage not from being rounder or harder, their advantage comes because they use a thin grease or oil instead of standard grease and a contact seal that has less contact.  If you take a stock cartridge bearing and change the grease to oil and use the same low contact seal you would have essentially the same performance.

Because of this, we just switched our contact seals to have less contact in all of our wheels..
Steve Hed, of HEAD wheels said it perfectly and I paraphrase “We could find no measureable performance advantage in ceramic bearing wheels in the real world, but we do notice that if you take a wheel and spin it with your fingers that the ceramic wheels will spin better.”  I guess what he’s saying is that if you spin wheels rather than ride them buy ceramics.

Now I know about half of my newsletter readers have ceramic bearings and are not that thrilled with me right now.  All I can tell you is that I sold them too and that there is a lot of advertising out there saying they are better. And yes, the pros do use them but they also take off all of the seals on the TT bikes to gain every single possible advantage.

Thanks for reading – John Neugent


The only bummer now is that it appears ALL of the wheels from Neuvation Cycling will come with what I think are inadequate contact seals. Bummer. Especially if you live in the Pacific NW like I do. Or go mountain biking.

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