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Bikebiz | For every rider

Chapter 11 - Bearing with it all

Kym Liebig

How’s your bike bearing up? 

‘Ride sharing’ is not a new thing - bikers practically invented it!

You know, those days when you’re out for a ride with a handful of mates and someone suggests a bit of swapping around. Bikes, you understand…let’s leave partners out of this for the moment…

So this scenario might be familiar to you. Everyone’s having a good time sampling different bikes. Needless to say, the various makes, models and capacities feel very different as each of you jumps from one to another. Everyone’s having a blast. Then perhaps you notice something odd. There are two standard bikes, same make and model, same age, set up similarly for similar riders. Even the tyres and pressures are the same. But everyone who rides both of them comes back and says the same thing; “Bill’s bike feels awesome! Like new! But Ben’s feels like a worn out bag of crap!”

Needless to say, this leads to some introspection for poor Ben. Why, indeed, does his bike feel like a bag of crap? While there’s always more than one possible prognosis, quite often the problem is in the bearings. 

Bearings are that invisible component that just happens to be everywhere on your bike. You can’t see them, so if you skimp on servicing or maintenance, they suffer. And the end result is often a bike that looks to be in great condition but feels – in a way that’s hard to define – old and baggy. The steering is odd, the suspension harsh, there might be an odd weave in corners. It’s sometimes due to just one shot set of bearings…but more often it’s all of the buggers.

Most bikes have bearings in the head stock or ‘steering stem’, in both wheels, the swing arm pivot and the suspension linkages. While these are often sealed ball bearings, sometimes you’ll find needle roller bearings, thrust bearings and now and then you’ll even find shims. They all wear out, slowly but surely. And what many riders ignore is that they are ‘consumables’ in the same way that, say, tyres are consumables. They get old, they wear out, you replace them. Or you don’t, and your bike starts to feel like Ben’s.

There’s a knack to torquing up head stock bearings so that steering is not too stiff and not too loose. Because most bikes spend a lot of time moving in a straight line, bearing races left a bit loose will make tiny dings in their races and the steering will start to feel vague and maybe even notchy. Corners are no longer a joy.

Worn wheel bearings make your wheels harder to spin and left to get really bad can even overheat and collapse. Needless to say this is pretty dangerous.

Swing arm pivot bearings that are poorly adjusted or loose (or both) don’t allow your suspension to operate smoothly and also add to handling woes. A standard check for wear is to have a helper hold the bike upright (or even get the bike up on stands with the rear wheel off the ground), grab the gear wheel and see if you can move it from side to side. Properly adjusted swing arm bearings will allow virtually zero movement sideways. Worn bearings will give themselves away with plenty of sideways slop and a nasty, loose feeling.

The final piece in the puzzle is suspension linkage bearings. (Hang your head in shame if, having just checked, this is the first time you’ve noticed that your bike has suspension linkages…). They can be harder to check for wear but dry or worn bearings or bushes here will stop your suspension working smoothly through its full range and they might even squeak. Mmmm, squeaky suspension. Way to make your bike sound like a worn out old bed! It’s amazing how many people will pay big cash for a brand name aftermarket shock absorber and fit it to a bike with shagged suspension linkage bearings – not even Rossi’s race shock absorber could make up for suspension linkage bearings that are worn, dry and stiff.

If any of this has you feeling pangs of guilt you’re no doubt wondering what can be done about it. Well, it can all be set right, but you might not be able to take care of it all yourself.

  • Wheel bearings are easiest to replace. Of course you’ll need to be able to safely raise your bike up on stands, and feel competent to remove your old bearings and fit fresh ones. Know that tapping out old bearings can risk marking the wheel’s bearing surfaces and that while fitting new bearings can be done with a hammer and drift, a workshop press is a better option.
  • Swing arm and suspension bearings are a challenge. The bike must be safely raised so that the wheel and swing arm can be taken off, then the bearings removed. Swing arm linkage bearings can be a bitch to remove. This job is really best left to a professional workshop.
  • Head stock bearings are, plain and simple, a pain in the arse. Again, the whole front end has to be off the ground, wheel and forks removed. Removing the old bearings is not for the faint hearted and fitting new ones is ideally done with a special tool. Then there’s setting up the new bearings at the right torque. A job best left to the pros for sure. 

Summing up – life’s too short for bad bearings
The points above probably go some way to explaining why bearings on bikes are so often neglected...for a lot of home gamers, bearings are a challenge. But as part of normal professional workshop servicing they are just routine jobs and by no means prohibitively expensive.

If your bike has started feeling rubbish and it’s hard to pinpoint why, it might just be bad bearings that are to blame. If you want to see just how great your bike could feel again, book it into a workshop and treat it to some fresh bearings. Chances are next time you and your mates do some ‘ride sharing’ everyone will be raving about it.

Until next time, enjoy the ride!

Click here to read Chapter 12 - Fuses, Bulbs and Fireworks