Ceramic bearings?

After a couple of weeks of commuting on my Cube with one day riding home in biblical conditions, it was looking a bit worse for wear so I gave it good clean yesterday taking time on the transmission as normal.

TIP: Screwfix NoNonsense Degreaser. Save yourself £££.

The bike is just over 3yrs old now and is still on its original transmission having done 6000km+. Not bad and a testimony to what a bit of TLC can do if you look after things. Anyway, after checking the chain and rings (I’d say the’re about 80-90% worn)  I started thinking about the bottom bracket and wheel bearings and what I do when they need to be replaced. This lead me onto thinking about ceramic stuff and whether it was worth it. So I sat down yesterday afternoon and this morning and did some research….

Ceramic bearings have garnered a lot of attention in the last few years, particularly in the pro peloton where the pursuit of ‘marginal gains’ has benefited companies like CeramicSpeed, offering upgrades to bottom brackets and wheels but at a vast cost. Is it worth it for me though?

The first thing I did was identify what I needed. My bottom bracket is a Shimano PressFit which has few names like BB86, BB91 or BB92. All the same with a 41mm inner shell diameter. BB86 is the ‘road’ version so we’ll call it that. My wheels have Novatec hubs. A bit of googling (the model number is very clear on them!) identified my front A271SB needs 2 x 609 bearings and the F432SB rear has 1 x 6001 and 1 x 6901. My jockey wheels are just simple Shimano 11 speed.

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The model number is very obvious on Novatec hubs

First up the wheel bearings. I checked out a few websites. Wyche Bearings in Bromsgrove, local to me. Aire Velo bearings online and Kinetic Bike Bearings who I used to use when I owned my cycle shop. They all stocked the Hybrid Ceramic type (ceramic balls on steel races) which I decided to look at. Kinetic were the cheapest @ £14 each for the rear hub and £8 each for the front. Not a massive investment but still £40+. Worth it though?

Ceramic bearings are rounder than steel. The theory is they reduce friction, essentially roll more freely and require less effort to overcome drag, hence a wattage saving (less effort!)

The bottom bracket was a much BIGGER outlay. I looked at a few brands and settled on C-Bear who offered a nice simple solution backed up by a decent warranty. They are used by the Wanty team who ironically ride Cube bikes too! Their bracket retailed at around £100 which is not bad for a ceramic one but I could get 25% staff discount off that through work too. My idea was if I’m going to do it, I’m going all in so I had to convince myself it was going to make a difference, worthy of the investment.

Finally, the jockey wheels were pretty easy to find. There are loads on eBay and you can pay a stonking amount for stuff like Ceramicspeed but BBB do a set for around £35 which I settled on. So all in I was looking at nearly £200 parts + labour to get them fitted or fork out £60-£70 on tools to do it myself. £250 all in.

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its a very common size

Next up was to research whether its going to make a difference. I probably should have done this first but I think if it had been a fraction of the cost you’d do it anyway or if it was double I wouldn’t even consider it but £250 isn’t a lot for on a posh bike is it? so research was the next step.

Without getting too bogged down in numbers, given what I’ve read, there are a few ways of looking at ceramic bearing upgrades. First up, companies like CeramicSpeed will always push the numbers to convince us that the cost/benefit is worth it. My opinion is that if you listen to them its very easy to be sucked into the need to upgrade through their marketing hype. Secondly, how you use your bike is very important. Commuting and racing for example are vastly different in the time spent on the bike and the conditions the bike is used in. Thirdly, test data vs real world data are different. Anyone can fit a ceramic bearing jockey wheel and spin it up and watch in awe at it just keeps going and going. Thats great but will it do that with a chain on, under load in the pouring rain or covered in mud?

I spent a bit of time googling the benefits and right on cue, CeramicSpeed were justifying the numbers, the watts saved and ultimately the cost. Interestingly though, Hope and a guy from Reynolds wheels didn’t see the advantage for cyclists. They argued that in an industrial environment where bearings can rotate at 20,000rpm+, ceramic is a definite advantage but on a bike with bottom brackets only doing 100-120rpm max most of the time and wheels spinning 500-600 times per kilometer the gain is so minimal it doesn’t justify the cost. Furthermore, when you start adding grease and seals the benefits are eroded even more. It was interesting to see these two big names in the industry who could have so easily jumped on the ceramic band wagon selling ceramic upgrades with massive mark ups, pouring scorn on them. Hope in particular saying it just wasn’t what their company values were about and I liked that. I continued to read some real life anecdotes of riders that had made the switch. One or two claimed benefits but nothing quantifiably outstanding but the theme I got was don’t bother. At best it doesn’t feel any different and at worst one rider who had fitted exactly the same type of bearing I’d looked at said they only lasted him a month which ultimately helped me decide what to do. Another thing to consider was impact damage to the steel races. Over time, the small dents the balls run on, can make them feel graunchy quite quickly if used on bikes that sustain regular impacts from rough road, pot holes or offroad in particular.

I believe there is a benefit to be had from ceramic bearings but in very specific scenarios. If you race only and relatively short distances, it can help. For your average Joe like me that commutes and rides the odd event or does a long ride, any gain is undone by the type of riding and conditions I can potentially face. Any longevity gains of riding in dry conditions can’t be guaranteed so the need for grease and seals on the bearings counters any benefit. My conclusion is I will save my money and simply invest in high-quality, high ABEC rated steel bearings when I need them. You can keep your ceramic stuff, there is a lot of unfounded hype around them which won’t benefit the majority of cyclists like me.

Its a NO from me…..

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