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I have a vintage road bike, at the moment there are loose metal bearings in the hubs. Some of the bearings are missing. Can I buy cartridge bearings or do I need to buy loose bearings?


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up vote 4 down vote accepted

To use cartridge bearings, the hubs must have been designed to use them (absurd kludges aside).

Your hubs will almost surely be classic cup-and-cone hubs, and those will need replacement bearings.

However, do note that the proper number of bearings for a hub is not necessarily a number that completely 'fills' the cup bearing race. You might not be missing any. 9 is typically common, with a little bit of space where it looks as though you could fit a 10th or 11th. Check with your LBS for how many you'll need for your particular hub.

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Or count the ones that are there now. – Móż Jul 17 '14 at 5:16
@Mσᶎ: counting the bearings present won't be accurate if he is in fact missing any. – whatsisname Jul 17 '14 at 14:39
Though if you count the ones that are there now and get a different answer left and right, that's a pretty good sign at least one of them is wrong :-) – armb Jul 18 '14 at 16:33

Generally when new there is room for about half a ball additional in the bearing race, but very quickly wear of the cup makes it look like a ball is missing. And a ball bearing assembly can function reasonably well with 2-3 balls actually missing (though this will cause faster wear).

The usual technique, when you don't know for sure if any balls have been lost (or how many) is to go for "full minus one" -- enough balls to fill the race, then take one out.

The balls are cheap and any decent bike shop will have them. (Take a ball or two with you for the shop to measure.) If you replace any balls, though, replace all of them, since the old ones will be worn and not have exactly the same diameter. (And always get 2-3 more than you need, since you'll always drop one or two and not be able to find them.)

I've found that normally there is an odd number of balls -- 9 or 11, eg. But there's no theoretical basis for this rule.

To use cartridge bearings you'd have to replace the hubs, or at the very least get a machine shop to machine the hubs to accept the cartridges (thought there's likely not enough "meat" to allow this).

I've had cartridge hubs in the past and they're not necessarily trouble-free. Cartridges were "the in thing" back maybe 1985, but now you only see them in cranks (where there is room to place a cartridge with no compromises). But if you want cartridge hubs, I believe Phil Woods is still the go-to company to get them (or was last I checked). (And note that the cartridge hubs will not look like standard hubs.)

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+1 for "cartridge hubs [are] not necessarily trouble free". Even my Phils need new bearings after 18 months. The only advantage is that while the cartridges wear, the hub shells pretty much go on forever. With cups and cones, once the cups are damaged the hub is usually toast. However, they will go on and on and on provided you clean them out every 6 months. My gripe with cartridge bearings is that they offer no lateral support under side loads. Cups have a lovely curved profile that provides strength and rigidity even at extreme lateral loads (think: cornering on a heavily-loaded tourer). – headeronly Jul 18 '14 at 13:49
@headeronly - My experience was with no-name cartridge hubs on a Nishiki bike ca 1985. One of the cartridges apparently seized and turned in its seat, wrecking the hub. This after maybe 500 miles. – Daniel R Hicks Jul 18 '14 at 15:08
Oooh that's not good. Definitely a freak failure though... perhaps the cart was installed slightly askew at the factory? – headeronly Jul 18 '14 at 15:12
@headeronly - I don't really know. I eventually replaced the wheels with another set I built myself (though they were also cartridge bearings). Those gave me no trouble. – Daniel R Hicks Jul 18 '14 at 15:14
"very quickly wear of the cup makes it look as if a ball is missing" - sorry, but that's just rubbish. Well maintained cups take years to wear, and the amount of wear that makes a bearing unusable is far less that the amount that would let you fit half an extra ball in. It's just that when you put the balls in and grease holds them into position, they aren't always pushed fully into the position they finally take up when you do the cones up. ("One less than you could squeeze in" is right though. e.g. step 7) – armb Jul 18 '14 at 16:24

If you have a cup-and-cone hub, you need the loose bearings. These are some good directions on doing the replacement. See these links as well for some useful tips.

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If you pack in too many bearings the hub will not 'roll' properly. They will either seize or wriggle. – Carel Jul 17 '14 at 14:21

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