Friday, February 8, 2008

Cheap Bearings and Imports

Last fall I bought a Easton Vista SL wheelset. It was a bargain at Performance, or so I thought. After a few good weekend rides on normal New England winter roads, I started to notice a bit of play in the rear wheel. I thought perhaps just the axle end caps needed to be adjusted in some. Nope. The cartridge bearings were not the adjustable type. The play was in the bearings themselves.

The play got rapidly worse, and then I noticed my effort for a given speed was going up. There was so much play in the left bearing that the bearing cap was beginning to rub metal to metal with the hub body. I took the wheel out of service and put on an old Rolf wheel. I noticed an immediate improvement in speed.

Cartridge bearing with Shimano ball bearingI should have tried to see if I could send them back to Performance. I only had them a few months, put less than 1000 miles on them in some pretty messy conditions. But I ordered replacement bearings instead. The rear hub uses four bearings, three small and one slightly larger. Two are in hub, two are in cassette body. They are all quite small in my opinion, hardly any bigger than standard skateboard or roller blade bearings.

Sure enough, when I removed the left hub bearing, the inner race had tons of radial and lateral play in it. This explained the nearly 0.25" of play in the rim at brake pads. The outer cassette body bearing had some play too, but it was packed with grit and hard to turn. Both outer bearings lacked any kind of hub seal system. They relied only on the snap-in plastic cover in the cartridge bearing itself. This cheap design invited immediate contamination.

I replaced only the outer two bearings, since the inner ones still felt smooth. I smothered the entire inside of cassette body, axles, and bearing end recesses with heavy bearing grease in the hopes of staving off contamination as long as possible. On my first ride with the repaired wheel, the bike still felt sluggish. It was very messy out. My sprinter friend was even dropping me on the hills, something that is extremely rare. I was quite confident the wheels were behind my sluggish performance, as I was recovered for the hard training ride. Perhaps the other two bearings in the rear hub or the front hub bearings are also bad.

Doing a little research on the web, I see that most wheel companies have their low end wheels built in China. I think that's the only way they can get the price down to $200 range. I notice even Mavic has their introductory Aksium wheels fab'd in China, with what appears to be the same skate board bearings. I can't determine for certain if Easton fab's their Vista's over the pond, but I'd bet a Dean Ti bike on it.

Skateboard bearings do no belong in bike wheels. Period. Way too much is going on there. You have only two wheels and huge lateral force transferred down to narrowly spaced bearings. In the photo, note how tiny the actual balls are in the worn cartridge bearing. The balls are pitted too. And this is a new wheel. Then note the size of a standard Shimano ball bearing. It is 2.5-3 times the diameter, which means it has 6-9 times the surface area. That is a huge difference. To this day, all of Shimano's hubs use loose ball bearings with adjustable cone nuts. I have never had a Shimano hub fail, and I've ridden a lot of them off road. They say this on their 2008 website:

"While the grade of materials and the surface treatment of the races may change between groups, one thing is constant.

Shimano hubs exclusively use a cup and cone bearing system in all of its hubs. Cup-and-cone bearings offer greater strength than sealed cartridge bearings due to their ability to displace lateral and vertical loads more effectively for super smooth rotation in real world riding conditions."

I agree. I just custom ordered a replacement set of wheels from Colorado Cyclist. The funny thing is, they actually cost slightly less than the "bargain" price I paid for the Easton's at Performance. The CC wheels will use Shimano Ultegra hubs laced to Mavic Open Pro hoops. Heavy, but hey, they're winter training wheels. My original wheels from my winter bike have side walls worn too thin to be safe anymore. Those Shimano 105 hubs have ridden every winter since 2000. I just remove and clean the bearings each spring, repack with grease, and they work like new.

One of these years I'll learn my lesson. There's a reason manufacture's blow out inventory through places like Performance or Nashbar (same company). Maybe it was a market flop, or maybe it had a reliability flaw. It's harder to return online product, and most folks ordering from Nash-formance are probably recreational riders that are not riding 8,000 to 10,000 miles per year in all conditions. They can get away selling product with a problem, whereas a bad part on a new bike will create nightmares for bicycle manufacturers and shops. Be wary, very wary, of buying deeply discounted components from online stores.


ceramic ball bearing said...

Easton Velomax Vista SL Wheelset Sucks.

So a few posts ago I talked about the Tirreno Razza 900 bike I got from Performance. I still love my bike, everything is great, except for the wheels. Now I know that I am 250 lbs, and I know that I ride a minimum of 75 miles a week. I ride hard. All of these thing shouldn't matter for a good aluminum wheelset.

So what happened? It all started a few months ago. I was riding to work and I hear this loud noise. I figured I had just rolled over a rock and it plinked off my frame. No biggie, just a little chipped paint. But then I heard a sound like plinko, the spoke had broken. These are beefy looking spokes, but the nipples are not double butted, that doesn't matter. The spoke had broken about 10 mm above the nipple. Not at the bend, and not in the middle. I took it in, the guys at Performance were great, they suggested that maybe there was a defect in one of the spokes. OK I thought, stuff happens. They replaced the spoke and off I went.

jason_ssc1 said...

I bought Mavic Ksyrium Equipes for my winter/rain beater bike. I think they're only one step above the Aksiums. Do you know if my model also has this kind of lousy bearing system?

Hill Junkie said...

Jason - seems most modern wheels have crappy bearings these days. Differentiators are in auxiliary seals, such as a low friction labyrinth that provides first line of defense against infiltration. I've owned a pair of Mavic MTB wheels and the bearings held up well.