Saturday, February 13, 2010

Equipment - "Bearings"

Before aerodynamics became the in-vogue thing, rolling resistance was a big thing. The original Campy Super Record hubs were modified to allow harried mechanics to inject oil into the bearings, dissolving the grease, and letting the bearing sit in a nice, light oil bath.

The perception back then was that a free spinning hub, like one with oil in the bearings, was faster than a slower spinning hub, like one that had grease in the bearings. The oil port in the Nuovo Record and Super Record hubs were meant for "record" attempts.

(The Super Record just added a fragile titanium axle to further advance your "record" attempts.)

Campy also put loose bearings in their derailleur pulleys in order to keep rolling resistance down. Again, loose bearings felt faster than the brass bushings normally used in pulleys.

Note the emphasis on the word "felt".

At some point someone started putting sealed cartridge bearings in bike parts. I distinctly recall Suntour's Superbe Pro rear derailleur being the only OEM derailleur with cartridge bearings. I think they were one of the first ones to put cartridge bearings in their hubs too. Initially everyone turned their noses up at them. Real hubs had real bearings, and real bearings were loose. Cartridge bearings were simply a manufacturing ploy to reduce costs, and any real bike part didn't have such cheap bearings.

Cartridge bearings, though, work. They work well, they're cheap, and they're very predictable.

Eventually the bike companies caught on. A few companies started doing a lot of business with cartridge bearing pulleys, for retrofitting onto rear derailleurs without such pulleys.

Some purists clung to the belief that oiled loose bearings were faster than the "draggy" sealed bearings. At some point someone did an experiment testing the rolling resistance under load, a critical difference compared to spinning a pulley while totally unloaded.

Their findings?

The sealed bearing pulleys were better under load than the round bearing ones.

(For a more recent test, check out this article)

What this taught me was that "feel" didn't correlate to "performance". To compare products fairly, they had to be tested under working conditions. Pulleys, for example, don't spin unloaded - instead, they rolled while supporting a substantial amount of chain tension.

Then, with the advent of index shifting, the whole cartridge bearing pulley thing kind of died off. Shimano didn't like cartridge bearing pulleys, and their auto-centering pulley use an extra wide bushing, giving the pulley a few millimeters of controlled slop. No one else's pulleys worked as well, as evident by the fact that the "tilting" pulley (Campy) is gone. I can't even remember what Suntour did.

However, probably in interest of manufacturing ease and cost, almost all hubs (and bottom brackets) became cartridge bearing devices. Shimano, surprisingly, led the way for the major manufacturers, with cartridge bottom brackets.

Fast forward a few years.

I have a friend who worked at one of the boutique wheel companies. Like all wheel companies at the time, their product was a result of both marketing and engineering.

Alone, engineering or marketing gets you only so far in the hyper competitive wheel market. Wheels are arguably the most expensive thing most people buy for their bike, and they're the only things that riders buy in multiples. You may own one bike but you probably have two or more wheelsets.

Many people upgrade their wheels before their frames because they believe (rightly so) that wheel upgrades improves speed better than, say, frame upgrades. Wheel upgrades are also easy to install - no more difficult than swapping out a wheel.

As a wheel company you can market all you want, but at some point you have to show that you're producing a wheel that's actually better than the others. You know that saying, right? "Better, Faster, Cheaper. You can have two of the three - tell me which one you don't want."

("Faster" refers to delivery time, not to wheel speed.)

At first there were some minor attempts at proving aerodynamic differences between different wheel sets. I did my own set of experiments and came to my own conclusions, but that was a really rough thing, measured in half mph increments. Still, though, I could see some differences.

Anyway, like any other industry, a wheel company may choose to sacrifice some part of their engineering in order to satisfy their marketing (or budgeting or something else). You know, make "Cheaper" and "Faster" a bit more important than "Better".

I mean if Microsoft got away with it for all these years then so can other companies. I was going to say certain car companies but now that they're paying the piper I decided not to give them a dig. Anyway...

Said wheel company used sealed cartridge bearings. Cartridge bearings are great for a small wheel company - you decide the grade, you pop them into the hub, and presto, the bearings are done. No cup and cone adjustments, no proprietary bearing race configuration, races and cones are built in and replaced each time the customer replaces a bearing unit, none of that labor intensive stuff.

As I mentioned before, nowadays you'd be hard pressed to find a new (and smooth) bottom bracket without the cartridge bearings. They are that much easier to deal with.

The problem came when this wheel company's reps started reporting back from the field that the wheels "felt" slow.

"Felt" slow?

Pray tell.

The reps described how a potential customer would come into a well equipped LBS, pick up their wheel, spin it in their hands, then pick up a competitor's wheel, spin that in their hands, and decide that the competitor's wheel was better.

All this based on a "spin".

Engineers at the wheel company did tests and could prove unconditionally that the seals weren't affecting performance. But they affected perceived performance, and therefore they affected sales.

And sales, as you know, rule the roost.

The seals came off and the wheels sold again.

Ironically, because the bearings lacked seals, the wheels were worse than before. They wore a bit quicker, the bearings got contaminated quicker, and the rolling resistance didn't change any significant amount until the bearings got bad - and then it got much worse.

CyclingNews did a review on Williams Wheels. I read the review with intense curiosity because I'd contemplated the wheels. Ultimately I didn't buy them, but I did recommend the wheels to a best friend.

The review was generally positive. It's hard to find fault with a 1200 gram set of wheels (okay, 1222 grams) that costs a dollar a gram, shod with carbon rims, using double butted spokes.

But, interestingly enough, the review mentioned something about "lower grade bearings".

Say what?

This sounded a lot like the whole bearing discussion I had with my wheel company friend, and prior to that, the whole cartridge bearing pulley thing.

Bearing grade and smoothness and seal tightness have an imperceptible effect on drag. It's common knowledge that a beautiful grade bearing, if dropped or damaged, immediately becomes a less-beautiful grade bearing. Get your ultra smooth ABEC-10-zillion bearing equipped wheels, blast through a big pothole, and you have... less than ABEC-10-zillion grade bearings.

Those high zoot bearings are meant for high rpm applications, like hard drives or DVD players. Wheels, unless you're inhumanly fast, are low rpm devices.

So why use them?

So that the wheels feel smooth in the showroom.

It's useless to have better bearings in such equipment because, frankly, it doesn't make a difference. But the review stated otherwise.

"Williams also includes hybrid ceramic bearings in the hubs but we've no indication of their quality (as with any bearing, hybrid ceramics come in various grades). While these were nicely smooth out of the box, we've sampled more premium bearings that seemed a little speedier perhaps due to higher tolerances and lower-drag seals. Even so, they're probably at least as good as a decent stainless steel bearing (or so we hope) and replacing the stock units with more reputable units would still leave these wheels firmly planted in the 'super high value' category."

The wheel "review".

So what's all this mean to you and me?

Well, take reviews with a grain of salt. And any time the reviewer steps over a given line, like one where the reviewer can perceive differences in bearing quality "by feel", you should make a note of it.

And if you feel like your wheels have a bit more drag, well, consider the overall picture before you make any changes.

Just a thought.

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