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?


5 Answers 5


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.

  • 1
    Or count the ones that are there now.
    – Móż
    Jul 17, 2014 at 5:16
  • 3
    @Mσᶎ: counting the bearings present won't be accurate if he is in fact missing any. Jul 17, 2014 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, 2014 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.)

  • +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). Jul 18, 2014 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. Jul 18, 2014 at 15:08
  • Oooh that's not good. Definitely a freak failure though... perhaps the cart was installed slightly askew at the factory? Jul 18, 2014 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. Jul 18, 2014 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. madegood.org/bikes/repair/service-a-cup-and-cone-front-hub step 7)
    – armb
    Jul 18, 2014 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.

  • If you pack in too many bearings the hub will not 'roll' properly. They will either seize or wriggle.
    – Carel
    Jul 17, 2014 at 14:21

If you are buying new, then sealed would be a great way to go because there will be almost zero maintenance and the free roll is not comparable. Loose bearings can do very well but may require periodic maintenance for normal road use and more maintenance if ridden in dirt or weather.

Either one depends on how you setup and mount the wheel. Most people tighten hubs too tight, thus binding the bearings and that defeats the purpose. If you snug up the wheel hub nut, mount the wheel and tighten the wheel nut. Almost ALWAYS, the hub nut will get a little extra tension on the bearing and then the bearing is in a bind and does not roll as well and can even not free roll at all.

YOU SHOULD snug up the hub nut and turn it back a quarter turn on one side only (becsue the axle is free between these two nuts with the hub in the middle). Mount the wheel and check the roll out on the wheel. feel if there is any binding (or slack) on the bearings.

Binding will cause premature wear and you WILL have to replace them eventually. This goes for sealed cartridge bearings as well!

If they do not roll freely or you feel binding, loosen the wheel and loosen the hub nut 1/8 turn at a time and tighten wheel again. You want to have the bearing just snug but no slack! That will be the sweet spot when doing either bearings. If it is too loose, the you can wiggle the wheel and feel it. Tighten it up just a bit same as described above but opposite direction.

Bearings will wear if you ride a lot. Sealed bearings will last a lifetime of the wheel for most average riders just keep the dust and dirt off them.

Have fun and ride Rad!

Cheers, Mate

  • 1
    Welcome to Bicycles @Rad. Thanks for answering one of our questions; you obviously have knowledge to contribute. Unfortunately, your post doesn't answer the question, see How to Answer. As you'll see from the tour, this is not a chat site. Looking forward to your next post
    – andy256
    Jan 9, 2017 at 1:37
  • Don't be disheartened - my first answers were dreadful. Stick with it!
    – Criggie
    Jan 9, 2017 at 4:20

Now I disagree with an answer that said if you have free bearings or even caged bearings with the cup and cone. Which I think almost every major department store bike has, that you can not use sealed bearings. Well I beg to differ because I have now switched them out front and back on 3 different bikes that I have motorized and have not had a single problem. I have also put sealed bearings in the bottom brackets. Matter of fact I'm about to do that each switch on a front wheel hub. After I get the measurements and order the new sealed bearings. I'll take photos and post them here.

  • 1
    Photos or did not happen.
    – ojs
    Jun 14, 2021 at 6:30
  • 2
    Not sure if we're all on the same page here. Could you be referring to caged bearings instead of cartridge bearings? Looking forward to a photo please - this could be an excellent method, if you can show us what your process. Is there a lathe involved ?
    – Criggie
    Jun 14, 2021 at 7:47
  • Wow i’m surprised this thread is still going! I was definitely referring to caged bearings at the time. Now that i’m thinking back to it… the bike I was curious about had loose ball bearings placed inside the hub of the bike, which were compressed by a lock washer. I haven’t learned a lot about bikes since posting this but I have learned a lot about mechanical engineering and this does not seem like a practical locating feature. Maybe this is specific to Apollo bikes? Jun 15, 2021 at 6:16
  • The loose balls are really quite common. As far as I know, all Shimano hubs have loose balls and it doesn't seem to be a major problem for them.
    – ojs
    Jun 15, 2021 at 10:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.