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 may have you thinking twice and potentially 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.

What's The Deal With Chinese Wheel Bearings?

We are all aware that there are a lot of low quality products that come out of China, however it is fair to say China also has companies that manufacture high-quality products too. 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 to the quality of the end product. The chemical composition of steel will vary based on the origin of the source material. China is renowned for low quality steel so the question is, what is the source material used in the production of low cost Chinese bearings? Oftentimes 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. 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. In many cases there is no focus on exhaustive R&D nor is there any 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.

Wheel Bearing Marketing - The Hype Can Be Impressive

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.

Example of KML while-labelling by Moose Racing Products
The image above is from an online shop selling Moose Racing Products. These are simply KML bearings marketed as Moose Racing. A common giveaway is the blue coloured seals as most KML bearings have blue seals

Below is my experience with KML bearings when used in an adventure bike.

First use of All Balls Racing Products bearings
Photo 2 of Wheel Bearings for Adventure Bikes
As part of good preventive maintenance practice I removed perfectly fine wheel bearings at Suzuki's stated maintenance period on a DRZ250. I then installed an All Balls bearings and seals kit only to have them fail just four weeks later not long after the start of a local adventure ride (photo of me on the forecourt of a fuel station)
Second use of All Balls Racing Products
Photo 3 of Wheel Bearings for Adventure Bikes
In all honesty I had no interest in using All Balls Bearings again after the first premature failure and once I researched the company and found out All Balls simply rebrands Chinese KML bearings. However, when I ordered a new cush hub wheel set from RAD MFG, although the cush hub itself had a quality NSK bearing, I had involuntarily been supplied two KML bearings preinstalled in the rear hub. I thought since they were already installed I would run with them but ensure I regularly monitor their state. After only two trips and a total of 1,800 km both KML bearings were slogged-out and shot
Second use of All Balls Racing Products (part 2)
Photo 4 of Wheel Bearings for Adventure Bikes
KML bearing removed from the hub after 1,800 km
Second use of All Balls Racing Products (part 3)
Photo 5 of Wheel Bearings for Adventure Bikes
Water crossings are a frequent occurrence for the type of riding I do. The KML dust seals and bearings seals are simply not up to the task of keeping water and contamination out. Both bearings suffered from water penetration, corrosion and as a result; failed. By comparison, the NSK bearing in the cush hub (operating in EXACTLY the same environment) was still in perfect condition and still running beautifully smooth and snug 8,000 km later

Are All Chinese Wheel Bearings Poor Quality?

No. There are many reputable Chinese manufacturers that produce good products. Some of these Chinese manufacturers are 100% Chinese owned, some are Western backed and some are Japanese backed. The problem is trying to identify quality bearings in a sea of inferior bearings. 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 very good quality bearings.

So How Do You Find The Best Wheel Bearings For Adventure Riding?

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

a) Purchase wheel bearings from a reputable bearing supplier that stocks wheel bearings found in the list above of high quality bearings. This will give you access to the high quality bearing brands that OEM manufacturers use.

b) Purchase OEM bearings from a local motorcycle shop or dealership. Reputable brand bikes such as Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, KTM 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 and jeopardise their reputation. Sourcing wheel bearings through a motorcycle dealership will guarantee you get quality wheel bearings noting that you will pay slightly more than sourcing them directly from a bearing supplier due to the specialist packaging and extra processes bearings go through to become available as OEM bearings.

Paying A Few Extra Dollars For Quality Wheel Bearings Is 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 and have complete peace of mind that they 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) can be asking for trouble. Worse yet, it could endanger your life in a high speed failure scenario.

Spare Wheel 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 and ensure you don’t get stuck somewhere far from help.

Author of this article: RMOTO