In Memoriam: Loose Ball Bearings

My only remaining hub with loose ball bearings.
My only remaining hub with loose ball bearings.

The darker months bring out the macabre in each of us; for Gianni it was the extinction of his beloved Park Tool adjustable clamp. For me, I found myself mourning the fact that I recently purchased a headset press. Ignoring the fact that a Velominatus of my stature didn’t already own one, the mourn behind the mourn is where the interest lies.

What could possibly compel anyone to grieve over buying one of the most remarkable tools a person could own? I once installed a headset using only a wooden staircase, a two-by-four, and a hammer. My dad was surprised I managed to get the cups installed properly; my mother was surprised at the state of the steps. Using a press to install a headset is a beautiful process but it also doesn’t surprise anyone the way installing a headset with a hammer and a block of wood does.

In my life as a Cyclist, I have rarely required my own headset press; my dad owned a press when I was growing up and by the time I lived far enough from my dad’s workshop to merrit buying my own tool, headsets had evolved to the modern sealed cartridge bearing which only requires opposable thumbs to install. The headset press was running down the same trail upon which the whippoorwill was last seen right until some bright spark decided that screw-in bottom-bracket cups were too expensive to manufacture and that it would be a good idea to seat them directly into the frame. At which point the headset press made a surprising re-entry into the Velominatus’ toolbox on the same terms that my former headset installation technique impressed my mother.

I mourn this for two reasons. First, BB30 (and its relatives) are based on a sound principle where one increases the support to the fulcrum to keep it from flexing under load while simultaneously increasing the diameter of the crank’s axle to reduce flex there as well. The result is pretty obvious to anyone who has ridden a bike using this system; it’s like riding without a chain the first time you use one. The point missed is that the BB shell is made generically to a loose standard instead of specifically to a manufacturer’s requirements, and the tolerances aren’t nearly tight enough to keep the system from creaking without the application of Loctite or the like, which is an abomination in itself. A bicycle should not require Loctite, ever.

Second – and more concerningly – it brings into mind the point that we have strayed far from The Path.

There was a time when the adjustment of a bearing against its races was an art mastered by the great artisans of our sport. Bearings are designed to reduce the friction between two surfaces that need to rotate around one another and consist of a system of two races (a cup and a cone) and a set of metal or ceramic balls which sit between the races. Each of the races are attached to the rotating surfaces, and the chief business of the balls is to facilitate expedient movement between the two, mostly because balls are good at rolling, and not much else besides chasing if you ask my dog. How effective the bearing is (how much it reduces the friction) is a function of how smooth the surfaces of the races are, how round the balls are, and how little tension exists between the three.

Art is about expressing perfection in a world of flaws; within this definition, adjusting a set of bearings is perhaps the most perfect example of art. No surface is perfectly smooth and no ball is perfectly round, which means that all bearings are flawed. To combat this, we add lubrication which helps smooth out the imperfections but also increases resistance. The master artisan balances these flaws to achieve the state closest to perfection.

The first time I rebuilt a hub, I spent hours adjusting the system; first teh bearings would be so loose that the axle would rattle. Then I’d tighten it to where the bearings felt rough. Back and forth the pendulum swung until the bearings spun smoothly. My pride brimmed over at my own success. The Master takes that as a starting point and works from there until they find perfection. This is the sort of skill that, in the past century, not only demanded the highest pay among mechanics, but secured their reputation and fixed their place in the industry.

Today, we adjust bearings with an allen key. We press them in with a headset press if our opposable thumbs can’t do the trick, and then we use a hex key to tighten the sucker just enough that we can stand how it functions. Its no way to live, although I admit it is a practical way to live.

But we aren’t professionals; we are disciples. I don’t care about practical, I care about the experience. My Campa Record hubs still have loose bearings, but that’s the only bicycle I own which still holds this relic. And I don’t even own the tools to properly adjust them. So for 2015, I set for myself the following goal: I endeavor to rebuild at least one of my bikes with a full compliment of adjustable, loose ball-bearings – the headset, the wheels, the bottom bracket. That is my mission, that is my rite. I shall embrace the cartridge bearing as part of the modern bicycle, but I will journey down the path to maintain my skill in adjusting a true bearing.

Vive la Vie Velominatus.

 

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113 Replies to “In Memoriam: Loose Ball Bearings”

  1. Shimano hubs still have cup and cone and adjustable bearings. Still roll the fastest downhill of anything else I know.

  2. Being more mechanical about my bikes is something I would love to do, but never quite seem to manage.

    Bottom brackets are on a similar level of mystery to me as lady-parts were to my 12-year-old pre-internet self. The subject of much speculation and will but also with the horrific risk of getting it wrong.

    According to my mechanic I seem to have a negative bearing field around me. He accuses me of taking my bike to a sand-blaster with the sole purpose of injecting granules under high pressure, for the enjoyment of grinding them into a greasy paste.

    This allowed him to convince me to spend a ludicrous amount of money on Ceramic Speed bearings for the BB, and he is also trying persuade me to put them in my hubs and pulleys. I need to learn how to remove and clean them or this could be a very expensive path.

  3. Someone needs to post video of the mechanic overhauling Ole Ritter’s cup and cone bottom bracket from the time trial scene of stars and waterrcarriers.

  4. Yes, I have spent many an hour trying to find that sweet spot with a cone wrench etc.  One thing I learned is that as a 15 year old when you rolled your bike into the LBS and told them  what you were up to or how you got yourself into whatever mess you did they would more often then not get you sorted out and on your way very quickly.  I remember a few times rolling the bike in the shop so scared about what they might say or how the mechanic would respond to the nearly stripped bolt, broken chain or frayed cables, in reality those guys loved me coming in and let me hang out behind the counter and gave me the blow by blow on the repair…  I could watch those guys for hours.  Just like this – which I never get sick of watching

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ktTXjSqvJc

  5. @Nate

    Someone needs to post video of the mechanic overhauling Ole Ritter’s cup and cone bottom bracket from the time trial scene of stars and waterrcarriers.

    I was trying to find just the clip but I couldn’t. The best I could do was the whole video.

  6. It is posts like this that get me back here day after day….

    @Nate

    Someone needs to post video of the mechanic overhauling Ole Ritter’s cup and cone bottom bracket from the time trial scene of stars and waterrcarriers.

    I was trying to find just the clip but I couldn’t. The best I could do was the whole video.

  7. @Tony

    Shimano hubs still have cup and cone and adjustable bearings. Still roll the fastest downhill of anything else I know.

    I’m happy to admit I know almost nothing about modern Shimano hubs, but I do know Campa hubs still use loose balls as well.

    I doubt either still uses classic steel (iron?) cones and axels though, as the weight would class them out of the market. Still, I’m eager to hear more on this – or otherwise do some research (*shudders*)

  8. @ChrisO

    Being more mechanical about my bikes is something I would love to do, but never quite seem to manage.

    Bottom brackets are on a similar level of mystery to me as lady-parts were to my 12-year-old pre-internet self. The subject of much speculation and will but also with the horrific risk of getting it wrong.

    According to my mechanic I seem to have a negative bearing field around me. He accuses me of taking my bike to a sand-blaster with the sole purpose of injecting granules under high pressure, for the enjoyment of grinding them into a greasy paste.

    This allowed him to convince me to spend a ludicrous amount of money on Ceramic Speed bearings for the BB, and he is also trying persuade me to put them in my hubs and pulleys. I need to learn how to remove and clean them or this could be a very expensive path.

    Well, I think your gullibility has been established. Good for you; for a second there I thought you were all head.

    My main question is, how does he suppose your new ceramic bearings will perform against your established deliberate pressure-injected sandblasting regimen? Its more about the oil change than it is about the engine.

  9. @frank Ah, well there is a bright side.

    In response to his taunts about the inner-cleanliness of my bike I now drop it down to the workshop most weeks and have them do it.

  10. [dmalbum: path=”/velominati.com/wp-content/uploads/readers/rfreese888/2014.12.09.02.03.34/1//”/]

    I have total Bearing-bone for my classic Record hubs and would only trust my LBS to work on them as I am a total neophyte in these matters.

    These have been rolling for about 8 months on weekend spins. How often should I get them checked out and adjusted?

    I think the bearings and races are like the V-Locus of the V-Locus. VV-Locus? The smoothness of these and the joints where the guns meet the torso are where all the action is.

  11. My lovely 11speed Dura Ace hubs have cup and cone, loose balls and are cheap to service.  

  12. As I young boy, I sat on my haunches in awe of my father as he wiped the thinnest of vasolene films to the polished outer cup, how he placed each stainless sphere one by one into place with deft touch, and magically they stayed there defying gravity, “now son, don’t fill the cup, there needs to be one space” then came the moment of truth, delicately lowering (or raising) the axel, fork, crank axel, into place trying not to disturb the equilibrium lest you have to start from scratch re-cleaning each ball individually because it had rolled away and gathered dirt, these were the days of ankle smashing cotter pins, and I miss them.

  13. @frank Thanx. Reminded me to check bearings in the rear hub. Always keep a sleeve of extra bearings on the shelf, next to the extra polished chainrings.

  14. There are lots of cup and cone hubs still out there. They may not be brand new, but they’re worth rebuilding. I’ve rebuilt two mid ’90s hubsets recently.

    I have an old Dura-ace 7700 bottom bracket that’s been in service since 2000. Loose balls and needle bearings with soft alloy lockrings make for delicate rebuilds, but the smoothness is so worth it.

    It makes me sound like a grumpy old Luddite, but most of my favorite bike parts are well over 10 years old. And I love riding them too.

  15. Great article. I remember doing hubs with loose bearings back in the day. I always enjoyed it the best of all the maintenance tasks I did.

  16. out of curiosity – would one ever use ceramic bearings in a classic hub like the Record ones shown in this post?

  17. Frank – I never considered using a staircase to fix my bike! Hmm…

    My commuter has some cheapo Axel wheels (did you hear that SantaVelomihottieClaus?) and they were knocking a few weeks back. I pulled them apart to find, to my surprise, loose bearings. I was sure they’d have cartridge. My second surprise was that the seal is simply a metal cap. Not a rubber seal and cap like the 105 hubs I’d worked on, just a metal cap. Huh. Was easier than I remembered to pull it apart and put it back together, but I’m years passed my last experience, and much handier at fixing bikes.

    I still have yet to sort out how much play Mavic Ksyrium wheels should have. The play feels different to me than Shimano hubs. Instead of a wiggle movement, it’s more like a here/there back/forth. (yes, not very descriptive, sorry).

    Loctite – the NDS bolt on my FSA crankset likes to work itself out every few months. I tighten it down, eventually I’ll look down when riding and see it’s not flush against the crankarm. Not sure how to sort it.

  18. I love the IDEA behind press-fit bottom brackets but good god the current implementations are terrible.

  19. @rfreese888 they shouldn’t need much adjustment once set.  The bigger thing is keeping the innards clean, which depends on the conditions you ride in.

  20. @frank a clip of that scene used to be on youtoob. Couldn’t find it on my phone so I punted. Now the narration is stuck in my head: “a quiet garden. Along toward noon…”

  21. @rfreese888 I haven’t heard of loose ceramic replacement bearings, only ceramic cartridge bearings. I am no engineer but I can see at least three potential issues (1) the ceramic bearings would be harder than the steel races and destroy the races in short order; (2) ceramic bearings I believe tolerate contamination less well and cup and cone bearings are more exposed to the elements than cartridges; (3) when fussing with loose bearings magnetism is your friend.

  22. @rfreese888

    @rfreese888

    out of curiosity – would one ever use ceramic bearings in a classic hub like the Record ones shown in this post?

    That depends greatly on the level of ceramic bearing. The CULT bearings that Campy use in their current wheels required them to develop a special steel alloy bearing race because the bearings tore up the standard steel and alloy races they were using in the hubs.

    The current Super Record BB using those bearing( albeit it in cartridge form) is the only external BB I have ever found to come close to spinning as smoothly as the nearly 30 year old C-Record bb I have in my old DeRosa. It’s worth noting..most of the top level track racers still use old square taper bb’s( mostly Sugino 75) for the ultra smooth spin. It’s one place where the smoothness is still rated higher than the stiffness.

  23. I get that the Park frame clamp has sort of a cult standing in most bike shops, as well as those of us who have one at home.  But lamenting loose ball bearings!  You can have them if that’s your wish for Nirvana. As much as I love Campy Record hubs, BBs, and headsets, I will stick with the new world on this one. Why? First and foremost, cartridge hub bearings are just plan faster. I need all the help I can get now, too! Second, my time is way more valuable than when I was a twenty-something bike racer bum. Since I was without entanglements of a career and responsibility, I rode a heck of a lot more than now except for a November break. I rode pretty much all year ’round, regardless of weather. That riding was here in the Northwest, too.  As some of you may have heard it rains here sometimes.  Rain, lots of miles, plus loose ball bearing hubs/BBs/headsets equaled time spent maintaining the bike.  A lot. As in once a week sometimes if the weather was really crappy. As in go through a tub of the mystical Campy grease over a winters worth of riding.  Granted there was sort of a pay-off in this experience for I could tear down a hub, clean it out, repack, and reassemble very quickly.  And I learned the right “feel” to setting up the bearings to run just right, not too tight, not too loose. Great skill to have for a bike shop mechanic during the 80’s.  Not so much now. I might be wrong headed here and overly enamored by the ease of maintenance of my current #1 bici. But the old days are sometimes just left in the dustbin.

  24. @Nate

    @rfreese888 they shouldn’t need much adjustment once set. The bigger thing is keeping the innards clean, which depends on the conditions you ride in.

    Cheers Nate – I mostly use them in good weather, but in Ireland that can still mean getting caught in the rain, and occasionally Noah’s Ark conditions. I aim to get the whole bike serviced in Feb (my current level is weekly cleaning, fixing flats, and replacing brake pads) so will have the hubs checked out too.

  25. As chance would have it the front wheel bearing on the V-bike completely seized after Sunday’s ride in bracing apocalyptic conditions.

    With the application of the LBS, some marine grease and £21.00 it’s as good as new – loose ball bearings I’d still be working on…

  26. @rfreese888 sure. You might ask your wrench about periodic lubing based on local conditions. Those little clips on the hubs come off to allow access to a grease port.

  27. @Bruce Lee

    I get that the Park frame clamp has sort of a cult standing in most bike shops, as well as those of us who have one at home. But lamenting loose ball bearings! You can have them if that’s your wish for Nirvana. As much as I love Campy Record hubs, BBs, and headsets, I will stick with the new world on this one. Why? First and foremost, cartridge hub bearings are just plan faster. I need all the help I can get now, too! Second, my time is way more valuable than when I was a twenty-something bike racer bum. Since I was without entanglements of a career and responsibility, I rode a heck of a lot more than now except for a November break. I rode pretty much all year ’round, regardless of weather. That riding was here in the Northwest, too. As some of you may have heard it rains here sometimes. Rain, lots of miles, plus loose ball bearing hubs/BBs/headsets equaled time spent maintaining the bike. A lot. As in once a week sometimes if the weather was really crappy. As in go through a tub of the mystical Campy grease over a winters worth of riding. Granted there was sort of a pay-off in this experience for I could tear down a hub, clean it out, repack, and reassemble very quickly. And I learned the right “feel” to setting up the bearings to run just right, not too tight, not too loose. Great skill to have for a bike shop mechanic during the 80’s. Not so much now. I might be wrong headed here and overly enamored by the ease of maintenance of my current #1 bici. But the old days are sometimes just left in the dustbin.

    Ouch…Cartridge bearings are faster??….sorry..you got that one wrong. Loose ball systems have far less friction than cartridge bearings. Even the ceramic ones. The ceramic (sealed) bearings came along to try and compete with the smoothness of loose ball but still fall short. There is a reason that the upper end Campy and Shimano hubs and wheels are still loose ball…faster rolling!

    BB’s made the switch to cartridge style for ease on maintenance, hubs followed suit. Then hub manufacturers realized they could make stronger hub shells and therefore stiffer wheels( needed for suspension forks to help stabilize the legs) with cartridge bearings. The upside on the BB side of things was that larger bearings could support larger spindles and therefore add stiffness. But smoother rolling is NOT part of the equation. As I posted earlier…the top level trackies, a breed eternally seeking stiffness to lay down the V, still use cup and cone bottom brackets…why? When doing 200+ rpm…friction is a bigger enemy….

    And sadly..working on cup and cone is a dying art as @Frank mentioned. It pained me to be at Interbike this year and see that Park Tool had to have a seminar that taught current mechanics how to properly adjust cup and cone systems. I was horrified to see that a clinic like that was needed at an industry event. I can assure you…the shop I work at…all the young guys have been taught how to work on cup and cone!

  28. I love how an article on ball bearings instantly reminds people of Ole Ritter and his Giro TT. One of the most sublime cycling films ever.

  29. I love the sentiment of this article.  The winter months are there for contemplation.  Christmas marks the approach of a new year and a chance to receive what you most covet for your Bel Mezzo.

  30. Faaaaack. I ruined a few Stronglight bottom brackets in my day. Too loose and it would be ruined, too tight and it would be ruined. Too wet and it would be ruined.

    My Campa Record hubs still have loose bearings, but that’s the only bicycle I own which still holds this relic. And I don’t even own the tools to properly adjust them.

    Who doesn’t own cone wrenches? Oh right, anyone that is not an old fuck. I’ll loan you my campa cone wrenches when you want to fulfill your destiny, luke.

  31. No forgetting free ball bearings in the pedals too.  Which reminds me I need to service mine.

    Though the thing that always seems to get me is carefully removing forks and making sure the bearings don’t drop out but there is always one from the bottom set that sticks in the head tube race just till your back is turned as you put the forks down and……ping….tink….bing.  One bearing always seems to drop out and miss your carefully placed catch pan and bounce unseen across the floor.  Lost count of the times I have spend ages finger tip and torch searching the conservatory floor for the darned escapee.

    @ChrisO I do wonder about ceramic and sand.  Doesn’t sound like a good combination.  Ceramic is hard but hard things almost by definition are brittle.  Silica is also hard and so has similar characteristics.  Could a shattered bearing be more likely than with steel.

  32. Dura Ace and Record hubs are still a premium buy and they do come with great ball and cone bearing set ups. Do not discount the sealed bearings in many other brands, it is just a different way to do the same thing. Both sealed and ball bearings can be replaced and rebuilt by anyone that has the gumption to learn how. But nostalgia, which this is all about, dictates that ball and cone rocks. And it does if you know what you are doing.

  33. @Teocalli

    No forgetting free ball bearings in the pedals too. Which reminds me I need to service mine.

    Though the thing that always seems to get me is carefully removing forks and making sure the bearings don’t drop out but there is always one from the bottom set that sticks in the head tube race just till your back is turned as you put the forks down and……ping….tink….bing. One bearing always seems to drop out and miss your carefully placed catch pan and bounce unseen across the floor. Lost count of the times I have spend ages finger tip and torch searching the conservatory floor for the darned escapee.

    Can still see said bearings stuck between the floorboards in the shed at my folks. See them can’t get them.

    Pedals with free-ball bearings. Had more of a hard time getting them done over the other free-balls.

    As a kid working at my LBS, once we got the hubs running nice, we then balance the wheel with thick solder around the spokes. When you hold the wheel in your hands and spin them, there’s none of the bouncing sensation.

  34. @Teocalli My Speedplays were never quite the same* after the London Cogal. Fortunately, for my patience and skill levels, the cartridge bearings are fairly easy to replace.

    *never quite the same can be translated from the Queen’s English to murican as “completely fucked, wouldn’t turn and only really worked after replacing the bearings seals and spindles”.

  35. @piwakawaka

    Haven’ t had a problem with Dura Ace hubs on the C24 wheels no adjustments in 8500km… unlike the cassette….

    What breed C24’s ?   DA9000 ?    If so watch for delamination, had to send mine back for warranty and word is its a known issue with the clear coat !

  36. Frank, there is something comforting in the rituals we maintain as cyclists, especially when it comes to the maintenance of our machines. Repacking bearings perfectly is certainly one; like applying oil to the chain, link by link. They can bring us serenity and be quite meditative in their process.

    That said, there’s an outside chance I may have sounded like an R-rated Yosemite Sam the last time I dropped the bearings out of mine.

  37. As for me, I will stay with modern sealed/cartridge bearings and focus my attention on my pedal stroke and making deposits in the V bank.

  38. @Barracuda

    @piwakawaka

    Haven’ t had a problem with Dura Ace hubs on the C24 wheels no adjustments in 8500km… unlike the cassette….

    What breed C24’s ? DA9000 ? If so watch for delamination, had to send mine back for warranty and word is its a known issue with the clear coat !

    Is that the same with their alloy/carbon layups as well (RS81 or whatever?)

    @Dan_R

    Dura Ace and Record hubs are still a premium buy and they do come with great ball and cone bearing set ups. Do not discount the sealed bearings in many other brands, it is just a different way to do the same thing. Both sealed and ball bearings can be replaced and rebuilt by anyone that has the gumption to learn how. But nostalgia, which this is all about, dictates that ball and cone rocks. And it does if you know what you are doing.

    It does concern me that the cone shape supports the bearing vertically and horizontally, while oftentimes the cartridge bearing is only supported vertically, and then tensioned horizontally by the axles/QR. Sideways forces on the wheel push the cartridge out of its supported direction.

    I haven’t seen or heard of any additional failures or anything because of this, but is just something that keeps me awake at night. Even though I have no hubs with cartridge bearings.

    @Teocalli

    One bearing always seems to drop out and miss your carefully placed catch pan and bounce unseen across the floor.

    Get a cheap rug or towel in a contrasting colour, I always work over one for this very reason, it stops those runaway fuckers dead in their tracks! And keeps chain spooge off the lounge carpet..

  39. Oh, and one day I am going to own me some of those Campa quick release levers, they are delish!

  40. @Beers

    Not sure re RS81.  But my DA C24’s went pair shaped, a friend who has DA C35’s is starting to show signs also.

    To Shimano’s credit there was a no questions asked return, I assume due to being well inside warranty period and also the known issue that my wheels presented with.

    That being said Ive had no problems thus far with my replacement DA9000 C24’s.  Touch wood.

  41. Roughly half of my bikes are rolling on loose bearings: hubs, headsets and bottom brackets anyway. I actually enjoy the maintenance, and I’m enough of a purist to keep the vintage ones period correct. I just rebuilt a set of 60s Record pista hubs which are slightly older than me and probably have just as many kilometres on them. They came to me gritty and filthy but the races are still mirror smooth. Clean, polish, repack and they spin like tops again.

    Plenty of high end loose ball technology still out there for Japanese Keirin racing too — Sugino, Hatta, Shimano, etc. There are NJS-certified sealed bearing models but tradition and serviceability mean it’s still ball-centric (and yes, in that sense too, but women’s Keirin racing was reintroduced a couple years ago).

    I don’t agree that sealed bearings are simpler or cheaper to service. Some sealed hubs and bottom brackets need proprietary tools to pull and replace bearings properly. And with some it’s just as easy to put too much or too little preload on them as with cup and cone, meaning too much drag or premature wear.

  42. @Teocalli

    One bearing always seems to drop out and miss your carefully placed catch pan and bounce unseen across the floor. Lost count of the times I have spend ages finger tip and torch searching the conservatory floor for the darned escapee.

    @Ccos

    That said, there’s an outside chance I may have sounded like an R-rated Yosemite Sam the last time I dropped the bearings out of mine.

    I don’t even bother trying to clean and reuse them. New balls are cheap and you don’t risk putting grit back into the bearing. Just make sure to get Grade 25 or better and more than you need (so when you drop one in reassembly you can grab a clean one).

  43. @Jay

    As for me, I will stay with modern sealed/cartridge bearings and focus my attention on my pedal stroke and making deposits in the V bank.

    Years of auto racing have taught me that it is ALWAYS beneficial to have your excuses lined up beforehand. Now I have a new one: damn cartridge bearing drag!

  44. Mentioned already but DA hub run old school cup and cone. I have a pair of 11speed C24’s. It costs something like $30 for a set of new ball bearings and grease to service them. Awesome.

  45. As to bearing drag with sealed bearings… take out the seal.

    I have a german vintage track disc, a “666” and it runs cartridge bearings, no seals, no grease, just a drop of oil = low drag. That was back in the 80’s.

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