Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Inline Skating or Cycling and Ceramic Bearings in Sport Equipment or How Some 30 Year Old Advice Is Still True Today

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Once upon a time I was having a conversation with Tom.  Tom was on the Inline Skating team in Philadelphia at the time, and Fairmount Park was an amazing place to get in a workout and get tips from others in your sport of choice.

My sport of choice was Inline Skating because I had become too muscular through weightlifting to be able to run the kind of distances my body really wanted.  Inline Skating offered a way to get in that cardio buzz everyone knows and loves without shocking your knees into a powder.  It is non-impact, as long as you don’t fall.

The conversation was about Skate Bearings.  It stuck with me.  You see there were three kinds of bearings available.  There were also different grades of bearings that were more or less processed to be smoother or less smooth.  The smoother the bearing, the faster they would spin.  In those days the top end was something called an ABEC 5 bearing, and today you can find vendors who would sell things like an ABEC 9 bearing – which does not really mean anything since the official scale only goes up to 5.  Marketing garbage.

Anyway, Tom was telling me a few things, at the time a new skater who was starting to get better at this sport than I was when I started.  I was beginning to transition to Distance Skating which was what he did and he noticed.  He also noticed that I blazed through a puddle just before parking on the bridge over the Schuylkill River overlooking Boathouse Row near the Art Museum.

Truly a beautiful spot.

First and foremost, never get your wheels wet.  Never.  Water will displace your lubricating oil or grease, and rust out the steel in the bearings.

Then it was a discussion on the construction of the bearings themselves.  Back in those dark ages, 1995 or so, bearings for the Inline Skater were almost always made of steel.  They would call it “Stainless Steel”, and I think the quotes had to be there because Stainless Steel won’t normally rust.  So if your bearings rusted, they were either garbage or they were not really a high quality Stainless.

There were other materials used but for a mid distance, non Sponsored skater, they were a rare and expensive thing.

Tom spoke of “Ceramic Bearings”, and back then they were what we now call Hybrid Ceramic because “Pure” Ceramic Bearings were almost impossible to source.

Hybrid Ceramic bearings were a world apart from even the best stainless bearings.  They were constructed from an inner ring, outer ring, and 7 ceramic ball bearings set in between usually with a teflon or nylon crown to keep the bearings separated from each other.  These days those expensive high end Stainless bearings are running about a quarter a piece.  $20 for the set if you can find them in bulk.  This is the basis for the attitude from some Currently Sponsored Skaters that it is not worth your time to clean and re-lube your bearings.  But back when a single bearing cost about $5 and a full set of 20 was as much as $100, the old timers were absolutely rigid about keeping things dry and lubed.

These days, a Hybrid Ceramic bearing tended to be made of better quality steel for the two rings that the races were made from in a conventional one.  I had gotten caught in a downpour once and radar told me that it would continue to rain for at least an hour.  I was 2 miles/3 Km from the car so I skated slow and hoped for the best for my Hybrids.  I was lucky.  When I got home, I immediately washed out the set, dried, relubed the bearings and am still able to use them a year later.  They are a little slower than the newer set I tried yesterday but not by much.

But about those “Pure” Ceramic Bearings?  Tom never saw a set.  He got out of the sport before they became available.

At this point, the costs have dropped on “Pure” Ceramic bearings to the point where I could justify getting a full set.  20 bearings for $65 or so on a sale.  My own Sponsorship came and went just after the turn of the century and the collapse of the sport so these are on my own dime.

Pure Ceramic Bearings are where all parts are ceramic.  The outer race and inner race rings are ceramic.  All 7 ball bearings and the crown are ceramic.  White Zirconium Oxide (ZrO2) if you must know, and there are other materials used in this market.  

Pure Ceramic Bearings don’t need lube to keep them going, and you can de-grease them to get rid of the road grit, then run them through the dishwasher (if you can get away with it) so getting caught out 2 miles from the car in a downpour won’t kill them.

They are lighter, but for an Inline Skater that isn’t really important.  But for the most important part, they are more durable, lasting as much as 20 times longer than a steel bearing set.

I finally got my hands on a set and I will say I am impressed.  They glide smoothly and silently, and strangely they sound like a wind chime when you hit them just so on the pavement.  It implies that within the Skate Frame, they’re moving around a bit, but I am still figuring out how to use these things.

Mind you I have to rework my skate boots.  They are brand new, and there’s a spot inside the boot itself that has to be heat-molded to my own ankle geometry.  That’s another story for another day.

But Tom, you were right.  You were always right when it came to Skate Technology, and while I’m still in the sport, and it has changed, you helped me in ways you will never know.

On Yer Left!

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