James Bracey assesses whether ceramic bearings are a worthwhile upgrade for non-elite, self-funded cyclists

We’ve all done it: been to the bike shop and spun the wheels to see which feels the fastest. Inevitably, discussion ensues as to which bearings the wheels have, and whether they are ceramic or not.

There has been a lot of coverage and many tests over the past few years on the benefits of ceramic bearings over standard steel bearings. The majority of the professional peloton advocates the advantages of ceramic bearings as offering an edge over the competition.

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CyclingCeramic, the premier French bearing manufacturer, claims that nearly half of the 2014 Tour de France riders were unofficially using its bearings in wheels, bottom brackets or jockey wheels.

A quick look at CyclingCeramic’s video of Matthias Brändle’s (IAM Cycling) Hour Record wheels shows how incredibly smooth they are.

Faster, lighter, and more durable?

According to research, a well-made ceramic bearing will roll faster, saving you energy and allowing faster cruising speeds compared to an equivalent steel bearing. This is because the properties of ceramic allow the creation of rounder, smoother bearings.

CeramicSpeed, another well-known aftermarket bearing producer, claims that its wheel bearings save six to nine watts over standard steel — a not insignificant amount of power, and effectively free speed.

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They are also lighter than equivalent steel bearings, so swapping to ceramic bearings will reduce the weight of your bike. The other apparent advantage of ceramic is that it is a harder material, so shouldn’t break down as quickly, and is resistant to corrosion. In theory, ceramic bearings should be faster, lighter and last a lot longer than steel bearings.

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Why aren’t we all rolling on ceramic bearings?

Ceramic bearings are not cheap. A full set of CyclingCeramic bearings starts at £80, and CeramicSpeed wheel bearings cost from £240. You can find cheaper examples, but cheaper types offer minimal gain over steel bearings.

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The lovely ‘spin forever’ feeling of ceramic bearings is in part thanks to very low-friction seals. The downside, in some cases, is that these seals do a rather poor job of sealing the bearing from outside contaminants.

In the real world, cleaning our bikes and riding in typical British weather can mean that pretty soon those super-fast wheels are reduced to feeling like a cheap pair of training hoops. Of course, you can carefully strip out the bearings, clean and re-lubricate, but they will never feel the same.

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Chris King has built its enviable reputation on the quality of its in-house-made steel bearings, as the firm’s Brandon Elliott explains: “Our bearings are manufactured to a tolerance few can match, and we’ve developed our own system of seals that not only protects them from the elements, but also means they’re easy to service. With proper care our bearings actually get faster and ‘wear in’ rather than wear out.”

The advantages of steel are not the only argument against ceramic bearings. Quite a few wheel manufacturers state that the use of aftermarket bearings in their wheels voids the warranty.

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Our take

Fitting ceramic bearings on your bike may be a bit like fitting a Formula One gearbox in your Ford Fiesta and expecting it to perform as well after 100,000 miles. Ceramic bearings are fitted to provide a short-term marginal racing gain; they are not a magic bullet for years of super-slick service.

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If you are a pro rider and don’t pay for your equipment, looking
to shave a handful of seconds off your 10-mile PB, go ahead. You won’t be disappointed… until they need maintenance.

For the rest of us mere mortals, the obvious downsides of costs and increased maintenance to keep them running at their best make ceramic bearings an impractical, unaffordable upgrade.

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Do you need ceramic bearings? We asked the experts

Yes: Gary Anderson, Technical manager, Chicken CycleKit/Campagnolo

Campagnolo chooses to put ceramic bearings in all of its wheelsets from mid-range upwards. They are more corrosion-resistant, harder, and last longer in everyday use.

In our higher-end CULT bearings (ceramic balls and races), lighter lubrication is needed, so they roll much quicker with less drag than standard steel bearings. Ceramic deals with heat better, so less friction is a bonus. Plus, they weigh less — always good!

No: Maxime Brunard, Mavic Road Product Line manager

The original bearings we spec are already high-quality steel ones. Replacing them with low-quality ceramic bearings doesn’t make sense, as they will very soon be worse than the original ones.

If only high-quality ceramic bearings are used, marginal gains will be achieved. But here at Mavic we have high expectations for tolerances and clearances — and this comes at a price (around €300 per wheelset), and we feel too few of our customers want it.

  • Ja Son

    i have a pair of mavic r-sys wheels on my avanti quantum team.can you suggest a good replacement bearing?

  • David Jack

    This article is shot with bollux. £80 for a set of Cycling Ceramic bearings – means they come from China. the tolerances so poor that they seize up under load. “EB” is right – rubbish ceramic bearings are worse than steel. What this article fails to mention is that Ceramic bearings from say CeramicSpeed ( who actually stump up cash to sponsor Tour winning teams), can last longer than steel if maintained properly, but no one but pro’s and wealthy chaps, could afford to train on them. They are race kit. And they will last longer, and they will save lots of watts if set up right. Voiding warranty’s – ha, if your LBS changes steel for steel, that must void them too. The side seals on CeramicSpeeds bearings , and others , are known as non-contact seals ( or RS) – and are this for a reason. To save un-necessary drag. Sure, if you wanna train using them, expect to maintain them. Not bitch when they get wet and you’re too lazy to give them some love. Get your facts right James Bracey.. I’ve been using ceramic bearings for over 10 years and never had a failure, and I know hundreds of people who can say the same.

  • Andrew Bairsto

    Mavic front wheel bearings are notorious for failing replace upteen of these for friends and relations.The beauty is they can be bought for peanuts at most bearing wholesalersand so can those used by Campag.

  • elliott

    I have fsa bb30 ceramic bearings and those babies spin so much better than normal steel.but only for races I couldn’t afford to keep them in all year around.my bank manager won’t let me.

  • hhdfhsafssf

    ‘Chris King has built its enviable
    reputation on the quality of its in-house-made steel bearings, as the
    firm’s Brandon Elliott explains: “Our bearings are manufactured to a
    tolerance few can match,…”‘

    Yeah, Blah bla blah blah blah. “Few” being Campagnolo, Mavic, Shimano and just about every other company that matters. Campag and Mavic steel bearings also last forever and are a doddle to maintain. And spare parts are easy to get hold of if something does actually wear out.

  • Andrew Bairsto

    I have used ceramic bearings in my bottom bracket as they are standard on Campag super record they lasted all of 1000km and were well and truly shot reverted to steel bearings no problem since,but on another bike they have lasted without any trouble so there seems to be good ones and poor ones.Both bikes have never been ridden in the rain so you pays your money and trust to luck.

  • Martin P. Hoff

    The side covers/seals of ceramic bearings (at least those from CeramicSpeed – I know, I’ve mailed with them on this issue) do not entirely cover the bearings. They therefore are more prone to water leaking into the bearing – and therefore, if not cleaned properly, wear out much quicker than steel bearings when cycling in bad weather. I had two sets of Cermic Speed bearings that wore out last year after about 1500km cycled (not much at all… but in a lot of bad weather here in Norway). I got them both replaced on warrenty since the manual says to clean after 2000km, but I have since installed steel bearings and really cannot notice any difference at all.

  • EB

    The sphericity (is that a Word?) of bearings is graded and the two groups (steel and ceramic) overlap. Eg. A rubbish ceramic bearing is worse than a good steel bearing. I’d like it if, as well as saying what they are made of, the grade was given.