Wheel bearings for adventure bikes - Avoiding the pitfalls

The next time you go to change the wheel bearings on your adventure bike and you are potentially lured into considering low-priced or unknown brand name wheel bearings, this article will hopefully make you think twice as it may save you a lot of grief.

So firstly, what is a quality wheel bearing?

If you ask any qualified engineer/mechanic to write a list of high quality precision bearings then you'll most likely get a list similar to this:

  • NSK
  • SKF
  • FAG
  • IKS
  • NTN
  • Koyo
  • Timken
  • Nachi

Why? Because these are some of the most reputable bearing manufacturing companies with the highest quality machinery producing precision products to the highest standard of quality control. Now ask that same qualified engineer/mechanic what he thinks of low priced Chinese bearings and he'll probably say that unless it was intended for a low use, low load and unimportant item such as a wheelbarrow he wouldn't touch them in a million years.

So what's the deal with Chinese bearings then?

We are all well aware that there are a lot of low quality products that come out of China, however on the flip side China also has companies that manufacture high-quality products. The problem is trying to identify which bearing brands are good and which bearing brands are not. For example, the city of Wafangdian is known as the bearing capital of China and has a whopping 700+ bearing manufacturers!  

Problem #1 - quality of the source material
The source material used to produce bearings has a significant importance in the quality of the end product. The chemical composition of steel will vary based on the country that it is produced, China is renowned for low quality steel. The question is, what is the material used in the production of these low cost bearings? Often times it is the cheapest material available.  

Problem #2 - manufacturing equipment
Many of these bearing manufacturers that produce low cost bearings use old technology machinery and inferior heat treatment equipment. It cannot be stressed enough that heat treatment is such a critical stage in the manufacturing process and inferior heat treating equipment makes it an almost impossible task to produce high precision bearings at high volumes with consistency. In short, poor quality equipment = poor quality bearings.

Problem #3 - research and development / product monitoring
Many Chinese bearing manufacturers simply design and build bearings based on a customer’s supplied specifications. There is commonly no focus on exhaustive R&D and there are even more commonly no longevity tests on the products they produce. Many of these companies are simply producing a product to supply a customer's request with the focus on making the sale rather than building a brand name around quality service and quality products. Many of these companies are here today, gone tomorrow.

Branding and marketing - the hype can be impressive, but it is only hype

Many low to medium priced bearings on the market are sold by companies with great sales and marketing skills peddling white-labelled (rebranded) low quality Chinese bearings with wildly exaggerated claims about their level of quality.

An example of this is All Balls Bearings. These are in fact just rebranded and repackaged cheap Chinese bearings that are actually manufactured by a company called KML in Kowloon, Hong Kong, China. There are many other new brands popping up all the time that also rebrand KML and other inferior Chinese brand bearings. KML have both a high and sporadic failure rate, if you're adventure riding and travelling to remote places I couldn’t stress enough to avoid KML or any other low quality cheap Chinese bearings. They are not suited to handle the prolonged stresses adventure riding puts on bearings, especially if your bike is setup to carry heavy loads for extended periods.

Are all Chinese bearings poor quality?

No. There are reputable Chinese manufacturers that produce good products, some of these manufacturers are 100% Chinese owned, some are Western backed and some are Japanese backed. The problem is trying to find these quality bearings in a sea of inferior products. If you know what you are looking for you will be able to find quality Chinese produced bearings, take Peer Bearings as an example, this is a Chinese company that is backed by SKF and produces a good quality and reputable bearing.

So how do you go about finding the best bearings for adventure riding?

The advice of most engineers, mechanics and seasoned adventure riders is to either:

a) Purchase OEM bearings from a local dealer. Reputable brand bikes such as Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, KTM, Husaberg etc all use bearings manufacturers that are found in the above list of quality bearings. They have too much at stake to use cheap inferior bearings.

b) Purchase from a reputable bearing supplier that supplies high quality bearings found in the list above and avoid the cheap or unknown brands.

Paying a few extra dollars for quality bearings, it's worth it

Previously working as a mechanic installed me with high standards for vehicle maintenance and the use of high quality parts. Personally I will not buy cheap Chinese bearings when I know that I can buy quality bearings like NSK, SKF etc and have complete peace of mind that it is a quality bearing that will last thousands of kilometres without any issues.

If you're talking about putting bearings in an adventure bike that is loaded with gear, doing speeds of 100+kmph and heading off-road into remote places, installing poor quality bearings that have a high chance of failure (in the middle of nowhere) is simply asking for trouble. Worse yet, it could endanger your life in a high speed failure scenario.

Spare bearings in your toolkit

Even the best quality bearing doesn’t give you a 100% guarantee it won’t fail, rate of failure exists no matter how high quality control is. Packing spare bearings in your toolkit for long trips is a great way to achieve peace of mind. You only need to carry one of each size. For me, on a DRZ400 that means carrying three bearings. One size bearing for the front wheel (front wheel runs 2 bearings of same size), and two different size bearings for the rear wheel (rear wheel runs three bearings, 2 the same, 1 different). The weight of carrying three bearings is minimal.