Shortly before making the big move back to Portland, OR from Nashville I ordered up a ceramic bearing kit for my beloved Bontrager Race X Lite Aero wheels from some of my favorite people on earth; parts distributor The Hawley Company in South Carolina. I opted for the budget offering from Enduro - a well respected cartridge bearing manufacturer - instead of the current gold-standard FSA cartridge bearings. After all; I am a 1) father of a 19-month-old 2) measly sales-person in the bike industry and 3) making an expensive cross-continental move. The Enduro bearings offer nearly the same performance at a slight reduction of the cost of the FSA bearings.
So; first - what makes these things so special? Why have ceramic bearings been getting all this buzz lately?
Stainless steel ball bearings - the industry standard for decades - are strong, relatively light, relatively hard (durable), and relatively corrosion resistant. They can also be created within a respectable degree of roundness - the measure of the precision of the bearing's shape (a rounder bearing is a more perfect sphere and therefore creates less friction and drag because it is not constantly overcoming it's imperfect shape in order to roll). Stainless steel ball bearings; whether in a cartridge (like pictured above) or the traditional cup-and-cone configuration are found in nearly every wheel hub, headset, bottom-bracket and many of the shifters, derailleurs, and brakes on the road today. But, as a mentor of mine is famous for saying: "if better is possible, good is not enough."
Ceramic materials technology allows engineers to take the desirable qualities of the steel bearings and, in layman's terms: bump them up a notch. Ceramic ball bearings are harder, stronger, more durable, marginally lighter, more corrosion resistant, capable of being rounder, and when coupled with a special ceramic-specific lubricant in a cartridge; exponentially lower in friction than conventional steel ball bearings. Less friction equals more speed with less energy expenditure and greater durability. For more detailed information go to FSA's website's ceramic bearing page and download the PDA titled "Ceramic Revolution" available near the bottom of the page. This is one of the better explanations (although a little heavy on "engineering-eze" - consider yourself warned) I have come across.
So, now what have I found in my short time of using them? Well, most manufacturers are quite clear that ceramic bearings do take a little while to "wear-in" and are not an instant "speed-injection". This is actually not really different from most cartridge bearing systems as initial usage allows seals and races to become properly lubed and for drag to be reduced naturally. And, while ceramic cartridge bearings are noticeable lower in drag right out of the box; they get better with time.
So, my busy schedule has allowed me to get about 300 miles in on them since I got them and I have to say that I'm impressed. It's not necessarily a serious "wow-factor" difference; but some of that may have to do with the fact that my wheels were already pretty fast wheels considering. However, the whole drivetrain does seem to have a smoother, "lighter" feel to it with less resistance all around. This almost magnifies the efficiency of the already stiff and efficient Dura Ace 10-Speed parts on my Waterford.
Where I really noticed the reduced friction and improved bearing performance was on a ride about a week ago. I had ridden a loop from our house out along NW Skyline Blvd which involved about 35 minutes of climbing (ah, yes; hard to find that in Middle Tennessee) into the "West Hills" area (yes, the one referred to by the band Everclear) to one of the high points above Portland. The climbing was not the most noticeable arena for the improvements of the bearings; however I did feel a little more light-footed than usual. It was the descent down from the top of Skyline and then down NW Springville Rd. back to our neighborhood that impressed me. My wheels accelerated effortlessly down the descents and out of the corners. In fact - almost too effortlessly! The road was far too curvy and with the early October morning fog still hanging in the air I didn't want to push the speed too much. These already fast wheels had become fearfully fast on a steep curvy descent that I was unfamiliar with which involved dew-slickened shaded corners. I have no doubt that I would easily have broken my previous speed record of 58 mph had I been back in Brentwood and descending Longstreet. 60 mph plus with no problem I'm sure.
So, the verdict is this: Yeah; they're fast. And in the flats they'll save some measurable energy or grant some measurable speed - you choose. But, for the remainder of the winter at least - with the climbing and descending that I'll be doing around here - I'll be entirely honest: These things are scary fast! I'm changing to my hand-built 32 spoke Dura Ace/Bontrager 445 wheels with good-ol' conventional stainless steel cup-and-cone bearings. That should give my brakes a rest too!
Thanks for reading.