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Mike’s Theories On Bearing Maintenance

(A small disclaimer with regard to the following -- This is my own point of view on bearings based on my experience. Many dealers and "skate experts" may disagree with some of my opinions, but, what fun is a sport without its controversies?)

Over the years, many people have asked two main questions -- "What kind of bearings should I use?" and "How should I maintain them?" I have seen a lot written on this subject; some good information, and some really bad information. But my response always boils down to one question: Which do you want -- speed or longevity?

I have been skating on the same bearings that came on my skates almost 5 years ago. I’m on my third set of wheels, but my bearings just keep chugging away. Obviously, you can tell what my answer to that question is; but what if all you care about is speed? Well, that answer is pretty simple -- buy the highest ABEC (Annular Bearing Engineering Committee)-rated bearing you can. I believe this is currently ABEC 11. But let me stress one thing here -- MAINTENANCE. With speed comes a price; actually three prices. What makes an ABEC 3 or 5 bearing so much faster is precision. This costs more to manufacture, so that cost is passed on to you, the consumer. The second price is time (yours). Most high precision bearings are designed to be serviceable. This means they can be torn down by you, the consumer, so you can clean them and polish them on a regular basis. I think they assume that, since you want the fastest bearings on the planet, skating must be your religion. Therefore, you will tear down your bearings every 50 miles. If you enjoy this kind of relationship with your skates, bonus for you. Because of this, they come packed with thinner grease for less drag. This also means they dry out faster, thereby requiring more maintenance. The third price is actual bearing life. I am convinced that, even if you do tear down and clean your bearings every 50 miles, they will never last as long as sealed, non-serviceable bearings. Which leads me to the next part: longevity.

I prefer to spend as much of my time as possible skating, and as little time as possible maintaining. It is for this reason that (most of the time) my wheels contain good old sealed, non-serviceable ABEC 1 bearings. When I say non-serviceable, I mean factory crimped-on shields. And I always avoid shields held in place by little circlips; this seems to be a compromise. As far as maintenance goes, I rarely remove them from my wheels. When I rotate my wheels (you do rotate your wheels, don’t you?) I just brush the dust off, then give them a spin in my fingers to make sure there’s no grit in the race. I have read that wiping down bearings only pushes dirt into the races; therefore when I can I use dry compressed air. Once clean, I do nothing else -- no oil of any kind. A coating of oil on the outside will definitely attract more dirt. If you spray them with something like WD40, you’re likely to compromise the viscosity of the grease packed at the factory. It may make your bearings faster, but I guarantee they won’t last as long. I have heard of racers in the past who would take brand new sealed bearings and soak them in thinner the night before a race. This thins the factory grease and makes them really fast; it also makes them really disposable.

Ever get your bearings wet? Until somebody comes out with stainless steel bearings, this is a no-no. Whatever kind of bearings you’re using, always do this: Get them out within 1/2 hour after skating. Either wipe them off and let them set to dry or, better yet, put them in front of a dehumidifier. If they’re serviceable, tear them completely down, put them in some kind of solvent like Gunk or lacquer thinner, then reassemble and lube them the way you do every 50 miles.

I may not have the fastest bearings in town, but I don’t worry much about what’s going on down there, and I save a lot of money. I do confess that I have a set of high precision Swiss speed bearings that I put on just for the occasional wild ride, though...

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