Weighing up the hybrid bearing debate

Written by: Chris Johnson | Published:

The best cyclists have a very special mindset, which allows them to focus on the bike and the road, without distraction, ignoring tailwind, overlooking the rain, appreciating the uphill. These escapes from reality are often beneficial, but there are some misconceptions in cycling that aren’t as helpful. Here Chris Johnson, managing director of bike bearings specialist, SMB Bearings, reveals a few home truths about hybrid bearings

Truth number one: Hybrid bearing terminology is confusing. Often cyclists will attribute their advantage to ‘ceramic bearings’. This phrase implies that the bearings are made entirely from ceramic material. However, cyclists would not benefit from a full ceramic bearing because the material is too brittle to handle the inevitable shock loads of road riding although they can be used on an indoor circuit. Instead, the hybrid bearing has chrome or stainless-steel rings and ceramic balls.

Confusion aside, a good quality Japanese hybrid bearing is an engineering masterpiece. These bearings can rotate at very high speeds, with very light balls and incredibly easy spin. Their efficiency is second to none. It is these bearings that have made hybrid bearings a ‘must-have’ accessory in highly competitive arenas.

Truth number two: Hybrid bearings are a competitive differentiator. Interestingly, some argue that hybrid bearings do not make any difference to cycling performance. They don’t doubt that ceramic bearings run with less friction, which offers significant advantages in high speed industrial applications, such as machine tool spindles, but believe slower applications may not reap the same benefits.

However, data from Schaeffler shows the friction reduction of switching from steel to hybrid ceramic bearings at low speed is three per cent. That’s huge. Three per cent was the difference between third and ninth place in the Olympics men’s road time trials. Even an increased performance of just one and half per cent would have meant the difference between first and second place.

Of course, this comes at a cost. Good quality hybrid bearings aren’t cheap.While the very top professionals are willing to pay for them, many people cannot justify the price; instead they resort to cheaper Chinese hybrid bearings.

Truth number three: By opting for cheap Chinese hybrid bearings, the advantage of using a hybrid bearing over a stainless-steel bearing is lost. The cheap hybrids simply aren’t as good quality, which impacts the rollability of the bearing. In these instances, a good quality steel bearing would provide the same, if not better performance than the Chinese hybrid, often at a lower cost.

Japanese hybrid bearings have earned their reputation, but the cheaper Chinese bearings market has benefited from the hype. However, if a cyclist wants to maximize their budget, a cheap hybrid bearing is not the way to spend it. It will cost more in the long run, both in terms of bank balance and personal performance.

Truth number four: For a ceramic ball bearing to out-compete a steel ball bearing, the bearing must have a suitable low-torque lubricant. A high viscosity grease will increase rolling resistance and obliterate the advantage. Running a hybrid bearing without grease is not a good idea and isn’t ideal for a bicycle expected to cope with a vast range of conditions, rain and dirt. Ceramic balls are very hard so they will abrade the steel bearing raceways more quickly without adequate lubrication, further making the argument to choose a good quality steel bearing with high speed lubrication if the budget is limited.

A good quality bearing cage is also important. Ceramic hybrid bearings may have steel cages or polyamide snap-in cages. Steel cages have good low starting torque while polyamide cages reduce fluctuations in running torque due to their excellent sliding properties. A poor-quality cage can increase torque and vibration so even with the three per cent reduction in friction attributed to switching to ceramic balls, the net friction of the cheap hybrid bearing could be more than that of a quality steel bearing.

Good quality steel bearings will still allow cyclists to get the best out of their training and their bike, taking on the supreme mindset of a pro-cyclist, without falling prey to delusions about cheap Chinese hybrid bearings.


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