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Pretty soon, I plan to replace the bottom bracket on my early 90's Sakae Litage road bike. It takes a standard, English-threaded bottom bracket. Right now I think it contains loose bearings--I was planning to replace it with a decent-quality cartidge.

I see a lot of external bottom brackets when I am looking at my LBS's website. I have replaced many sets of loose BB bearings and several cartridge BB's. I know nothing about these external things. Why do there seem to be more of them for sale than cartridge bottom brackets? Do they have larger, longer-lasting bearings? Would it benefit me to consider one as opposed to the cartidge BB's that I have been using recently?

I ride pretty seriously for fun, commuting, and errands... I built this bike specifically for doing really hilly weekend rides. But I'm not a racer.

Curious. Many thanks.

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Just for the record--it didn't contain loose bearings. It contained most of a UN53 BB--the installer had broken the plastic non-drive-side cup and replaced it with the cup from an old loose-bearings set. The result was a BB that was very difficult to remove. It's out though, and will be replaced with a new cartridge this week. Thanks for advice! – DC_CARR Mar 21 '11 at 23:44
up vote 10 down vote accepted

External bottom brackets allow you to have both large bearings and a large, hollow bottom bracket spindle. A large hollow spindle can be designed to be as stiff as a small solid spindle for less weight. Smaller bearings reduce the longevity of a bottom bracket, so the typical bottom bracket design allows a narrow range of suitable spindle sizes and bearing sizes - to get the weight savings from a larger spindle you need to sacrifice durability. Moving the bearings to the outside effectively removes this tradeoff.

There is an additional performance factor in situations where high stiffness is required in that the distance between the cranks and the bearings is reduced, lessening the torque on the axle.

For commuting, errands, recreational riding and other "normal" purposes a cartridge bottom bracket is almost always going to be more than sufficient. If you are particularly concerned about durability, the SKF bottom brackets are engineered for 10 years / 100,000km of riding, but for the price a $25 Shimano cartridge will usually last what feels like forever.

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I think they're easier to work on too. – jimirings Jun 19 '12 at 23:12
lantius' answer is incorrect regarding the torque. It is unimportant whether the crank is close or far from the bearing, for torque what matters is the length of the pedal itself (the distance perpendicular to the axis of rotation). – leosenko Oct 18 '14 at 14:20
@leosenko: I believe lantius is describing the torque normal to the rotation axis, i.e. torque bending the axle as opposed to twisting it. If the axle deflects significantly as it rotates, it will unevenly wear the bearings and cause other trouble. – whatsisname Oct 19 '14 at 5:17

The main benefit is weight - because the axle is now a pipe it gains strength from diameter and hence can use less metal. Bicycle frames are made of tubing rather than solid rod for the same reason.

One disadvantage is that the balls in the bearings have to be smaller because there's less space to fit them in, so all things being equal they will wear out faster. But things are not equal, and what's made it practical to have external bottom brackets is improved metallurgy and precision manufacturing. So an external BB should last as long as a similarly priced internal one. (edit) And as lantius pointed out in the comments, the balls in an external BB will be close to the same size as the ones in a cartridge BB anyway, the "smaller" comment is mostly relevant to a comparison with open bottom brackets.

Shimano had problems with the seals in their external bottom brackets that was causing a lot of premature failure but I believe those have been solved now. We've stopped seeing them coming in for early replacement, anyway.

You will also need to change your cranks to fit an external bottom bracket. Rather than a square taper external BB's all use a splined system. Which is an improvement over the square taper but there are several types. Make sure you can get a BB to match whatever cranks you buy.

They have also changed the sizing, from memory there are only a couple of lengths of external BB available rather than 10 or more. This may mean that you end up with your chainrings slightly offset from their current positions, but with a derailleur system that shouldn't be a problem. On a singlespeed it will give you a bent chainline which is bad.

Personally I don't see the point in upgrading an existing bike. If you needed new cranks and were focussed on weight it might make sense, but it's an expensive risk (things might not work the first time) for a very small gain. For the same price you could get a Phil Wood BB that will last forever, or save money by buying cheap cartridge BB's as you need them.

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Are the balls in external BB bearings appreciably smaller than those in internal cartridge systems? Traditional is 1/4" (6.4mm), the SKF uses 4.5mm, and Jan cites a normal cartridge as being 2.8mm. The one dissasembly I found of a Race Face Type-X outboard bearing claimed 1/8" bearings, which would be 3.2mm. FWIW, I'd still run a cartridge bottom bracket over three-piece. – lantius Mar 15 '11 at 23:29
I've only seen the bearings in failed Shimano externals and thought they were smaller than the cartridge ones. I admit to not having done any research at all because they're not something that I've had to service. – Мסž Mar 16 '11 at 0:34

This is a mighty old posting that I am responding to almost 5 years later, but I thought it would be helpful for those who are looking to overhaul their BB and thinking of moving to the external.

For the most part that is captured here, External hubs are at least 30% lighter than the internal hubs. Because the bearing cups are outside the BB shell, it provides more leverage on riders who ride hard on the pedals, hammering away. The bearings are indeed LARGER than the internal hubs which means longevity of the BB. When they do wear, the bearings can be replaced without chucking the entire unit, saving you time and money. However you will need to purchase a BB Exit Tool ($15) to make it happen.

Replaced my internal hub twice and then tried the external hub, so far it has lasted me more than double the life expectancy of my two internal hubs.

So in a nutshell, external hubs are 30% lighter and 40-45% percent longer lasting than your internal hub.

Hope that helps.

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Hmm. My experience of square-taper internal BB (usually UN54) is that they lasted about 10 000 miles before starting to wear and get noisy. External bearing BB (Tiagra) last about 5000 miles and fail very suddenly, with the first symptom being 'wobbly' cranks. I'm on the third BB on a bike from new; the bike has done about 11 000 miles. – user21321 Aug 28 '15 at 7:47

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