By Marc Sani
Capistrano Beach, California- When it comes to ceramic bearings Rick Schultz is a disciple, and proselytizing about the benefits of ceramics is almost a full-time job.
How many people are given a Cervélo R5ca from the company's Southern California skunk works and told to put 12,000 miles on it this year to test ceramic bottom bracket bearings?
Ceramic bearings aren't new technology. Campagnolo has offered them in some wheelsets since 2004. Zipp has spec'd Swiss-made Si3N4 bearings for years, and FSA has made them standard in its K-Force line as well as in some Vision and Gravity products.
Ceramic bearings has been an aftermarket sale item at least since 2003, with several prominent websites selling them as OE replacements for hubs, bottom brackets, jockey wheels and headsets. Problems apparently plagued early ceramic bearings, but that has changed.
Still, for most consumers switching to ceramic bearings may offer a psychological lift, but so would losing five pounds. One former supplier who had offered them as an upgrade dropped them last year. "They just weren't worth it he said.
But there's no denying that cranks spinning on a bottom bracket outfitted with ceramic bearings is a silky smooth experience.
Schultz, a one-man entrepreneur, has his own website selling them as well as high-grade steel bearings at ThepartsShoppe.com. He has plenty of competition, including VCRC bike, F1 Ceramic, Enduro Bearings and Boca Bearings.
Still, it's a market that Schultz said dealers, particularly pro-level ones, should pay attention to. Why not sell ceramics as an upgrade with the purchase of a new wheelset or as an upsell when replacing bottom brackets or repairing hubs? he asks.
Schultz, 55, is an electrical engineer by training. He earned an MBA while working for McDonnell Douglas and then added a doctorate as well. He has written computer code for the B2 stealth bomber, Boeing's C17 Globemaster and the F/A-18 Hornet and he continues to work as a consultant in the industry.
But switching from computer code to wrenching bikes requires old -fashioned tools, and Schultz appears to have every item in the Park Tool catalog—all tucked in a stainless steel rolling cabinet.
And stacked nearby are enough ceramic bearings—sorted by size and function in plastic containers—to keep half the cyclists in Southern California spinning effortlessly.
At the highest level of international racing, ceramic bearings are standard equipment. And a number of studies find they can save up to 3 watts of energy depending upon conditions. Campagnolo, for example, claims that its CULT ceramic bearings can save between 0.8 to 1 watt of energy at 25 mph and on an 8 percent grade will reduce friction equivalent to 340 grams of weight.
Matt VanEnkevort, FSA's managing director in the U.S., said the company has been using ceramic bearings in its high end products for years. But VanEnkevort said more and more OE Manufacturers are spec'ing them. "But it's the sort of upgrade that has pretty elite-level appeal," he said.
So what "grade" should dealers look for when ordering ceramic bearings? Grade 3 is the best. These bearings are round to three-millionths of an inch and made from SiN4 (silicon nitrate)—a hard, heat resistant and lightweight material.
When it comes to bearings of any type, the lower the number means the higher the quality. For example, most steel bearings used in the industry are typical Grade 25.
Ceramics also have an edge when it comes to hardness. The balls stay round without deforming or cracking. And when installing grade 3 bearings, most experts say use light oil instead of grease.
However, Grade 3 ceramics are expensive. Websites list consumer prices, and those figures are all over the map. But typically, ceramic bearings have a 50 percent margin and dealers can decide whether to tack on additional cost for installation.
For example, Shultz said his BB86 bottom bracket retails for $155 but dealers can buy them for $77.50. "I've worked with dealers to figure out the best pricing and this gives them the margin they need to pay for rent, employees and operations," he said.
Marc Sanil – Bicycle Retailer Magazine, March 2012. Retrieved from http://read.dmtmag.com/i/58709/25