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The Bearing Story: Part 2

So in The Bearing Story: Part 1 I managed to do nothing but provide a ton of background to the actual story I wanted to tell.  That included some more commentary about equipment, another brief look at the nature of ice speed skating training and how we set up our track and how we trained on it.

Today I’ll actually get to the real part of the story, as I mentioned in The Bearing Story: Part 1 only Caleb and I were at summer training consistently for the most part.  Other skaters came and went but they were usually so much further behind he and I that, for all practical purposes, he and I skated together.

And for the first 3 years or so of skating endless lap on/lap off with him, Caleb just handed me my butt.  Either he’d drop me entirely or I’d just absolutely kill myself to stay with him (all while he seemed to be barely working).  In the first two years this made sense, my corners were awful and since that’s where you get most of your acceleration and speed on the ice, it made sense that he’d drop me on our track.

But about year three, my corners were at least starting to come together.  But he was still just murdering me in workouts.  At slower speeds I could stay with him if I just gave it my all; with anything faster, he’d just keep dropping me.  It was made all the more irritating since I had come from an inline background (he came from downhill skiing, but that meant he knew how to lean into corners); I was supposed to be the one who was good at this.  And I was getting killed.

At the time, I think we were skating something like a minute and five seconds or a minute ten for the lap with a full circle.  Anything faster and I’d get dropped and he could pop off sub minute laps without effort. As I mentioned, even if i stayed with him, it’d take everything I had.  Like I said, really frustrating.

Going into year four, things got strange with our group (well, stranger).  Caleb had moved up north and did a good bit of his inline training on his own because the drive down into the valley was so long.  So realistically I was skating all of my inline workouts by myself (at best the other skaters in our group might make 10 total minutes while I’d be up at an hour).

My corners were at least passable at this point (this was the first year that winds wouldn’t stop me in my tracks) and certainly better on my inlines, where I felt more comfortable, than on the ice.  And my lap times were still stagnant.  No matter what I did I was still doing a minute 5 or a minute ten on the work laps and it just wouldn’t budge.  And we couldn’t figure out why.


Of Inline Skate Bearings

Inline skates, like quad style roller skates and even skateboards, use small bearings, with two going into each wheel (with a spacer in between).  While there was a brief design with a single bearing in the center of the wheel back in the 1990’s it never caught on.  To break up the dense text, here’s a picture of a standard skate bearing.


Skate Bearings.

Each bearing has two dust shields on it (you pop them off by getting that little C-ring thing out which tends to be a huge pain in the ass involving a safety pin and multiple stab wounds to your fingers) which gives you access to the bearings.  There are actually unshielded bearings but they are cheap in every sense of the word: they don’t cost very much but they don’t turn for crap.

Now, in that skating isn’t really a heavy equipment sport (certainly not compared to something like road cycling where you can drop as much money as you care to on gear), bearings were always a place where a bit of silliness went on.  There wasn’t much to apply to boots or frames (there was minor silliness) and wheels only got nuts in the last few years but that left bearings as the place where the real stupidity took place.

Now, Bearings are rated by something called the ABEC (Annular Bearing Engineering Committee) and rankings exists from ABEC 1 to ABEC 9 (with no even numbers, it’s ABEC 1,3,5,7,9).  It’s really important to realize that bearing ratings primarily exist to define tolerances for high-speed machinery.  Case in point, ABEC 9 bearings are rated up to something stupid like 10,000 revolutions per minute.  Just insane levels of tolerances for machines spinning at roughly a zillion (give or take a million) times faster than they would EVER spin on skates.  EVER.

But that didn’t stop people from pushing high-end bearings for skating performance.  Back in the day, you had to spend a pretty penny to get ABEC 9 bearings, now they are reasonably inexpensive and most recreational skates come with at least ABEC3 (rec skates used to come with unshielded bearings and you had to pay extra for even ABEC 1).

I can still remember when ceramic bearings (they take a small block of ceramic material and compress it) came out for bikes.  They were just some stupid price although you can get them cheaper now.  Basically you’re paying for higher tolerances on the machining along with supposedly less friction.

For the most part, in my opinion, it makes little difference for at least two reasons.  As noted, the highest end bearings are rated for spin speeds that no human will ever achieve and there are other factors of far more importance to performance than a bearing rated to spin that much faster than you’ll ever go.  Small differences in friction matters at 10,000 RPMs.  Not so much at 20-22mph on skates.

Another issue is that these bearings are made for linear loading (that is to spin along their rotational axis) and skating actually puts a weird angular loading on them because of how you push; that’s on top of the bearing on ‘top’ of the wheel being subjected to different loading than the bearing on the ‘bottom’.  I can’t be bothered to try to explain this any further because I’ll do a terrible job anyhow.  Just please take my word for it: the nature of the skating push means that the bearings can’t be run at optimal speeds anyhow because they are being loaded in a way that they simply aren’t designed for.

Which doesn’t mean that bearings don’t matter, just not in terms of whether you’re running ABEC 3 or 9 or Bones or ceramics.   You’re paying for miniscule differences in machining along with miniscule differences in frictional resistance.  Both factors that are far more overwhelmed by other factors.  Such as when your bearings get dirty.


Servicing Bearings

Know how I mentioned a dust shield on bearings?  It’s there because crap gets into the bearings.  This is especially true for skating where you’re outdoors and all manners of dirt and dust and other crapola can get into the bearing assembly and gum things up.  Rain/water is deadly, not only does it remove the oil from the bearing, but they will rust if you don’t dry and oil them shortly after you skate.

For this reason, skaters will clean or service their bearings.  Or, if they have tons of money or sponsorship, just get new ones sent out.  I’d note that even new bearings are typically cleaned/serviced since the manufacturers tend to use a heavier oil than you’d want for most skating applications.  I imagine this is a heat issue, a bearing spinning at 10,000 RPMs generates a ton of heat and you need heavy oil.  For skating….

In any case, servicing bearings means popping the C-ring off and prying up the dust shield (again, a huge pain in the ass).  Then you use some type of solvent to clean the gunk (either original oil or dirt and stuff) out of the bearing; if you’re an eco-type you use one of the natural solvents, if you don’t care you use something like carboreutor cleaner.

Then you oil them with the oil of your choice (and there’s lots of different kinds available).  Some people replace the dust shield and C-ring; for inline skates you can actually just face the open part of the bearing into the wheel.  Very little is getting in there and this saves you the headache of dealing with the C-rings over and over again.

As you can probably imagine, I never paid more than basic attention to my bearings.  I remember skating in my 20’s and a teammate telling me that the Muse brothers (two of the top skaters of the time) would service their bearings until they would spin freely for a minute.  If they couldn’t get that, they’d reclean/oil them.  I always thought it was a bit silly.

But can you see what this is all sort of leading up to?


WTF is Up with Those Bearings?

So back to the story, we’re in SLC, I’ve spent 4 years mired in this annoyingly slow lap time on our skating track and we just can’t figure out why.  Until one day, for whatever reason, Rex picked up one of my inline skate wheels and spun the wheels.  Let me note again that these are the same skates I had raced on in my 20’s.

The wheels made some horrible noises and ground quickly to a halt.  He asked me gently when the last time I had serviced the bearings was.  I told him that not only could I not remember but, realistically, it was probably around 1995 or so.  Keep in mind that this was like 2010.  So 15 years give or take.  With no guarantee that they had been serviced well back then.

To put it mildly, he was a bit taken aback.  He described his specific cleaning method to me (developed over 3 decades of trying different stuff) with instructions to get it taken care of before the next session.   I dutifully did this and showed up to the next inline session not really knowing what to expect.

We went through the normal routine and then finally moved to lap on/lap off.  Neither of us knew what to expect so I just launched on my first lap.  As I recall, there was a distinct improvement, my lap times dropped quickly to the mid to high 50 second range (I’m thinking 56-57 seconds).  So damn near 10 seconds over 200-300 meters from just a basic cleaning.  Clearly the bearings had been holding me back.

But, for whatever reason of his own, he wasn’t satisfied.  At our next workout, he presented me with a brand new set of bearings, serviced by his very own hand with instructions to mount them for the next workout.  Which, once again, I dutifully did.

Again we went through the normal workout and then it was time for lap on/lap off once again.  He said he was expecting maybe a 50-51 second lap or so.  Whether he was guessing or what I don’t know.  So I launch off on my first lap, up the first straight, around the corner, back down the second straight. I’d mention that our lot wasn’t perfectly flat and there was a slight downhill into the full circle.

I hit that thing and, well…I nearly shit my pants.  As Rex describes it, there was a high pucker factor.  It took all I had to even hold the corner and when I finished up the lap he called out something absurd like a 46-47 second lap. With the full circle.  So with nothing more than a new set of super cleaned and serviced bearings, my lap times dropped 20 seconds off of a minute five/minute ten lap which is something stupid like a 28-30% improvement.  I can’t do the math on the actual speed increase but it had to have been multiple miles per hour.

I’d note before finishing up that the next time Caleb joined us at inline practice, it was a bit of a shock for him when we went to the main set of the workout.  He had been pretty used to just piddling along with me for slow laps; instead we spent the better part of an hour hammering one another with repeat 46-47 second laps.  But that’s a different story.


Summing Up

Yeah, I know it was a lot of background for not much of a story. But it let me update the site twice; I told you it was mainly space filler. So what’s the point of all this. Like I said, the main point is that I am often an idiot who gets in his own way. That’s not really news.

I think the real point I’m trying to make is that there are times where equipment not only matters but can make a pretty considerable difference. This was obviously one of them. Certainly most situations won’t be quite that extreme, the above is what happens when you correct a serious problem (I’d mention that part of the impetus for writing this up was a post to the power training group about a guy who cleaned his bottom bracket bearings and got a 20 watt bump on his power outputs).

To get a further improvement from equipment would mean investing a lot more time, energy and/or money and the return would be far far smaller. I still don’t try to achieve the 1 minute free spin that the Muse’s used to use though I am more attentive to bearing maintenance and function. If I can get all my wheels spinning for 45 seconds I’m happy. If one of them grinds to a halt after 10 seconds, I’ll switch out bearings until I get them spinning.

And that’s the bearing story.


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