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Cartridge Bearings - High Performance, Low Cost

by John Neugent

Tech articles | Commentary articles

John Neugent probably knows more about bicycle wheels than anyone else alive. Maybe more about bikes as well. He's spent his life in the bike business, at every level. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price. If you are in the market for a set of wheels, please, check out John's site. He really knows his stuff. —Chairman Bill

John Neugent

John Neugent

Bicycle History

James Witherell's book Bicycle History: A Chronological History of People, Races and Technology is available in both print and Kindle eBook formats. To get your copy just click on the Amazon link on the right.

John Neugent writes:

They get little respect but offer amazing performance at a very low cost. This is not a story about ceramic bearings. That a totally different story. This is about the common garden variety cartridge bearing. When I first got into cycling in the early ‘70s, bikes came with standard ball bearings. A cup and cone and loose bearings. Headsets, bottom brackets and hubs all used them. Campy was the undisputed leader in quality components and everything they sold use cup and cone bearings which performed well.

Then a funny thing happened. A couple of US hub makers started using cartridge bearings. I remember the first time I got my hands on a Phil Wood hub. It was amazingly smooth.

A set of early Phil Wood hubs. Photo: eBay

Looking only at the hub bearings, with a cup and cone hub, you adjust it trying to get out any play in the bearings. Almost always you could still feel a little bit of roughness. When you put the wheel in the frame and tightened the skewers it would also tighten the bearings and you never knew exactly what the bearing adjustment really was because twisting an axle with fingers gives you a much better feel for the bearing adjustment. With the wheel in the frame that option no longer existed. Another point is that I would guess that 95% of bike shops were not aware this was happening.

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It should be noted that even with cup and cone bearings the performance was and is extremely high. But the cartridge bearing was and is noticeably smoother. Not only that, they are easy to remove and install and when you do, you are installing the cup, cone, and bearings. With a hub with loose ball bearings you typically change out the bearings and sometimes the cone and almost never the cup so even after servicing them they are not that smooth.

But what makes cartridge bearings so good and so inexpensive? Anything that turns uses a bearing. Electric motors, fans, engines, and anything else that turns uses bearings and the vast majority of them use cartridge bearings so they are made in the millions. The entire bike industry uses only a tiny fraction of the bearings made and the sizes that bikes use are available off the shelf. They don’t require specific sizes made only for bikes.


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The process used to make them I find interesting and explains why they are such high quality. The ball bearings are first forged and ground to a tolerance of .000138 inches. That for a typical Abec 5 level bearing which is common in bikes. They are then measured and grouped. There are always differences in sizing but by grouping them so that only the members of one group go into an individual cartridge bearing, it makes them effectively even smoother. The upper and lower races are then polished to a mirror finish. Typically the bearings are fitted with plastic dust shields on both side and the bearing is filled with grease. Most are also tested for noise which isn’t a factor on a bike but is on a machine turning 1000 RPM. For this reason, it’s typically common to get 10,000 miles or more out of a hub bearing without any maintenance.


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It took the industry about 15 years before the necessary tools were readily available. There were a few companies who sold them but they were priced too high for most consumers. Now an Amazon search of “cartridge bearing presses” will get you a nice set of presses for under $40.  An Amazon search of “cartridge bearings” will give you cartridge bearings for under $5. The Abex 5 level will cost a little more but not that much.

There is really only one thing you do not want to do is to wash them with a power hose. That will shove all of the grease out of the bearing.

As an added benefit, because of the fact that bearings are a major component of hubs, it reduces their cost. The hub is basically a shell with bearings and an axle. The rear hub also has a cassette body that rides on two bearings. So a major part of the hub comes in a prepackaged form at a very low price. It’s seldom we get such high performance at such a low price.

John Neugent was was one of the first to establish quality hand building in Taiwan around the turn of the century. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price.