Riding season is here, and it’s time to hit the road (or trail). But is your bike ready? When was the last time you checked your bearings? Here’s a brief guide to help you determine if your bearings need service or replacement.
When you think of it, it’s kind of scary how much your bike relies upon its bearings. Everything that spins – from pedal to wheel to derailleurs – relies upon bearings. Even your handlebars are able to turn thanks to bearings.
Unfortunately, bearings can wear out over time. This is especially true of the ones that bear the heaviest loads – the wheel and bottom bracket bearings. So we’ll look at those specifically, because, let’s face it, you’ll probably never need to replace your head bearings (turning/handlebars).
Your ears are actually the simplest way to detect a failing bearing. By listening closely as you ride, you may hear a slight scratching or grinding sound. This can indicate that dirt or grit has made its way inside a bearing, but it can also mean that the balls inside the bearing are breaking down.
Also, if you turn your bike over and spin the wheels slowly, you may also hear a clicking sound. This is the sound of the balls falling on one another, which means that, at a minimum, the bearing probably needs some grease.
In either case, you should remove the bearing in question and either clean and re-grease it, or replace it. Most people find it makes more sense to just replace bearings after you’ve gone through the effort to remove them.
Let it Roll!
Another simple test for your bearings relies upon gravity.
Ideally, your wheels should spin easily and freely, without resistance. And although your tires are pretty much evenly weighted all the way around, you can expect the part with the air valve (or a spoke reflector) to be the heaviest part of your tire. Knowing this, you can elevate your front wheel and raise the valve to about 3 O’clock (about halfway to the top). Then just let it go and see if gravity spins it down to the bottom. You can do the same with the rear wheel, but you should remove your chain first. You should also check if any brake calipers are impeding the free spin of either wheel.
If your tires won’t spin freely, then you should probably again remove and clean or replace the bearing.
Play it Sideways!
One further check you should do regularly is to look for any play in your bearings. Ideally, you want your wheels and pedals to spin tight and straight, without any side to side wobble. So if you can wiggle your wheels or pedals back and forth laterally, this probably means that your bearings have loosened up due to wear. Examine them closely to make sure that the play is occurring at the bearing before replacing.
Depending on what kind of bearings your bike has, it may be possible to repack loose or worn bearings, but it is probably best to simply replace them in order to be sure. Quality bearings that have been well-maintained can last for thousands of miles, but bearings can also break down relatively quickly without proper care.
If you want to try servicing your steel bearings, here is a step-by-step guide: https://www.bocabearings.com/general/bearing-maintenance
We recommend our new C-HIP ceramic hybrid bearings for on or off-road riding environments.
If you’re looking for inexpensive replacement bearings, see below.