Ceramic Bearings: Eight things to know
When thinking about upgrading a bike there are numerous things to consider,
here's eight things to know about upgrading to ceramic bearings.
When thinking about upgrading a bike there are numerous options available,
with frame, wheels and groupset just three possibilities that can really help
performance. But for the rider seeking every possible advantage, an upgrade to
ceramic bearings can bring tangible performance rewards. And in a sport where,
thanks to Team Sky, "marginal gains" are now the watchword, for a serious racer
they could just be the difference between a glorious win and a finish in the
So if you're a rider looking to make the very most of your ability, here's
eight things you need to know about ceramic bearings.
1. Just what are ceramic bearings?
Traditionally bearings used in a multitude of applications, including bicycles,
have been made of steel. Ceramic bearings first started to become utilised in
high tech industries such as aerospace and performance cars and motorbikes. In
recent years they have been used by professional cycling teams. As ceramic
bearings have become more available and as costs have come down, they are now
accessible to the serious amateur racer.
Bearings come as either sealed or unsealed. Unsealed ceramic bearings are
single balls made of a ceramic material whilst sealed ceramic bearings can be
divided into two categories - hybrid or fully ceramic bearings. Hybrid ceramic
bearings retain steel rings, or races, but have ceramic balls. This contrasts
with full ceramic bearings which have ceramic races as well as ceramic balls.
2. What are the differences between ceramic and steel bearings?
Ceramic bearings are mostly made using ceramic silicon nitride (Si3N4) which is
both lighter and harder than traditional steel bearings, although zirconia is
also sometimes used. The website
Livestrong states that steel bearings have a hardness of around 30 million
lbs per square inch. Ceramic bearings by comparision measure 47million lbs per
Thanks to silicon nitride being less dense than steel the bearings are up to
a third lighter than comparable components made from steel. In addition due to
the extra fine finish they are less prone to friction and therefore create less
heat. They also require less lubrication.
3. What performance benefits do ceramic bearings offer?
One of the main obsessions of the serious cyclist is of course weight so any
component that reduces the weight of the bicycle is naturally welcome. However,
the performance benefits of ceramic bearings are not chiefly down to the weight
savings they offer, but rather from their hardness and surface quality. These
combine to create reduced levels of friction.
Neil Flock of Cycle Monkey, who
offer ceramic bearing upgrades, explains: "Ceramic balls are smoother, so they
roll with less friction. Most companies offering hybrid-ceramic bearings are
using a harder steel alloy for the races (compared to all-steel bearings), which
will polish into a smoother surface and compliment the hardness of the ceramic
This reduced friction means that the bearings offer less resistance and so
require less energy to roll. In a test report on bicycle.net, wheels fitted with
ceramic bearings were spun and were said to have "just kept spinning and
Riders using ceramic bearings can also expect a smoother riding experience.
Fitting ceramic bearings will make the bike feel like it is rolling smoother. If
a cyclist has ridden a bike fitted with ceramic bearings and then returns to
steel bearings, it is likely that slightly more vibration will become
noticeable. Jonathan Day of Strada
Wheels, says that whilst diffcult to quantify, a possible benefit to this
reduced vibration could be less fatigue felt in the legs over the course of a
long ride or race.
4. Is there any information available on the extent of the performance
Yes there is data available but it comes chiefly from the manufacturers
themselves. According to the bicycle.net report, the manufacturer CeramicSpeed
stated that ceramic bearings can offer power savings of between 10 -12 watts and
bring heartbeats down by 2 - 5 beats per minute.
Other reports found by the dailypeloton claim that power savings at 25
mph equate to two watts and that on an 8% climb the reduced friction is
equivalent to a stationary weight saving of 340g (zipp.com). BikeRadar.com
meanwhile report a claimed advantage of between one to four watts, again at
None of this might seem particularly significant, indeed Neil Flock from
Cycle Monkey, says that ceramic
bearings offer "marginal time benefits over the course of a race". But for a
serious performance cyclist those slender, marginal gains can combine to result
in a potentially significant advantage.
5. What are the cost of ownership benefits do ceramic bearings bring?
The relative hardness of ceramic bearings results in increased durability over
comparable steel bearings. Ceramic material does not rust, unlike steel, meaning
exposure to moisture is less of a concern, particularly for full ceramic
bearings. They require less lubrication and do not suffer from pitting.
However, there is a risk of chipping, particularly where they are located in
areas that are susceptible to water or grit ingress. So whilst ceramic bearings
can last between 5 and 20 times longer than steel bearings it is important that
they are fitted and maintained correctly. If so, Jonathan Day says that the
increased wear resistance means that an initial investment in ceramic bearings
should be paid back over time.
6. To what areas of the bike can ceramic bearings be fitted?
Ceramic bearings can be used to upgrade any steel bearing currently in situ on a
bicycle. Primary areas are wheel hubs, bottom brackets and headsets, although
jockey wheels containing ceramic bearings are also available.
Neil Flock from Cycle Monkey, says,
"Putting ceramic bearings in hubs offers the rider the biggest perceived
improvement due to the above mentioned change in rolling vibration, but the
performance gains of this location are usually fairly small. Putting the
bearings in an external bottom bracket is typically cited as offering the
largest improvement in performance...I have read claims of up to a 4% increase
in power by swapping out the BB bearings.
"Ceramic bearings are typically used in applications where high rotational
speeds generate high heat, but this does not happen on a bicycle. However,
rolling resistance is highest at lower speeds, so the reduced rolling friction
of harder, smoother balls is what ceramic bearing companies are targeting.
Therefore, using ceramic bearings in a highly loaded area like a bottom bracket
will produce better results than using them in say derailleur pulleys or
7. How much can I expect to pay for ceramic bearings?
The price depends on the manufacturer, what type of bearing, its size and
application and whether it is a hybrid or a full ceramic bearing.
For example Boca Bearings has
ceramic ball bearings from $2.95 each. Hybrid sealed bearings range from $9.95
to $69.95, whilst full ceramic bearings start at $69.95.
8. Can I upgrade my bearings myself or do I need to call a professional?
Bearing upgrades can certainly be carried out by the user, especially if
mechanically minded and already used to carrying out bike maintenance. Although
in some cases specialist tools are required these are easily bought, often from
the bearing manufacturers themselves. For example Boca Bearings has a range of
There are a number of on-line tutorials available to assist those that wish
to carry out an upgrade themselves. Two of the best that the Daily Peloton
found are at
Wiki Books and at
Active.com. There are also a number of video tutorials available including
this one which
demonstrates how to replace the bearings in a front wheel hub.
However, it is finally worth restating Jonathan Day's point that, in order to
provide the best benefits in terms of durability, it is important that ceramic
bearings are installed correctly.
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