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Inline Skating Newsletter Article

Bearing a Little Left

By Dan Kibler
The skate world seems to place a lot of emphasis on bearings. You'll find all sorts of advice about which ones are best. We are often told how to disassemble, clean and lube them. It's understandable to be concerned about bearings because we have a bunch of them. A pair of four-wheel skates has sixteen bearings. If they aren't working well, skating is a lot harder. If just one goes bad, it's definitely noticeable. So it makes a lot of sense to spend some time maintaining them, right? Not necessarily. Here's why.

What's in Those Donuts?

First, some background. Ball bearings such as those used in in-lines are precisely made, but simple devices. Ball bearings consist of polished steel balls that ride in polished ball races. This is where the friction occurs-the balls rolling in the race. The more precisely a bearing is made, the less friction and wear occurs. But no matter how precise the bearing, metal moving against metal under pressure will result in damage to the surfaces, increasing friction. Therefore, bearings are lubricated with some type of oil or grease. The lubricant forms a thin film between the ball and race, preventing damage as they move against each other. Most bearings intended for recreational use are shielded with seals covering the ball-race area, and are permanently lubricated. These shields aren't intended to be removed.

The Dirt

There is not much that can go wrong with a bearing. Most problems come from contamination-dirt, sand, and water-getting past the shields into the ball-race area. This either directly damages the surfaces or causes the lubrication to fail. The lubricant can also escape. In the worst case, moisture intrusion and loss of lubrication can cause bearings to rust. If your bearings came with non-removable shields, they are at greater risk of contamination if you remove the shields to facilitate regular maintenance.

To Lube?

Looking for any possible advantage, many racers install freshly cleaned and lubed bearings just before a race. For easier access to maintain the moving parts, they purchase bearings that have removable shields. They may even leave the inside shield off to make frequent maintenance that much easier.

Racers also lubricate with oil. This gives a slight friction advantage, but for long-term use, oil has a short life and is much more vulnerable than grease to "spin-out" or to being displaced by water. Therefore, the cleaning and lubrication has to be done religiously. It's one of the many prices racers are willing to pay to win.

Or Not!

But, if you're a recreational skater like me, you skate more religiously than you work on your skates. I barely have enough time to skate, much less give my bearings a regular shower and shave. I've never removed the shield from a skate bearing, let alone lubed one.

So I must go through a lot of bearings, right? Wrong. I've had the same stock bearings in my skates for three years. They've been caught in the rain and walked through sand. They still spin fine.

Here's what I recommend for recreational skaters. Start with good bearings. ABEC-1 bearings are OK; ABEC-3 bearings are the best most recreational skaters need. Whenever you rotate your wheels, or if you get your bearings wet, wipe down the exterior of the bearings with a damp cloth. That's it. You'll probably wear out your skates before the bearings go.