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Old 05-20-06, 11:45 AM   #1
peripatetic
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headset bearings-fixed retainer or loose balls?

If I'm cleaning/greasing my headset bearings, should I swap out the retainer for loose bearings, or can I just leave it? Obviously, the retainer is easier to deal with, but is there a cost in terms of durability? Do retainers need to be monitored and re-greased more frequently?
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Old 05-20-06, 03:26 PM   #2
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Originally Posted by peripatetic
If I'm cleaning/greasing my headset bearings, should I swap out the retainer for loose bearings, or can I just leave it? Obviously, the retainer is easier to deal with, but is there a cost in terms of durability? Do retainers need to be monitored and re-greased more frequently?
Headsets are probably the best place to replace caged bearing with loose bearings. By using loose balls you virtually eliminate the chance that you'll get an indexing problem with your headset by introducing an element of randomness (as far as the distance between balls is concerned). If it's a 1" headset, you will probably need 50 5/32" bearings (25 for the top bearing and 25 for the bottom). This is a couple less than you could get in there, but 25 is the number you want to use. Make sure and get Grade 25 bearings. They are the hardest and have the closest tolerances. Always replace them as a set - never less. This is because bearings that are produced at the same time will be very close to each other in tolerance. If you replace just a couple of balls at one time, then you risk having a couple of smaller balls that do nothing in the bearing.

Anyone who is serious about maintaining their bike gets rid of caged bearings and replaces them with loose balls - in all cases. This means the headset, the hubs, and the BB. It's easy to do it yourself and if you are taking the bike to the LBS for service make sure and specify that you want loose balls installed.

Here is a list of the common ball bearing sizes and numbers required. This is taken from the BikeToolsEtc catalog :

" Component Loose Bearing Sizes (Exceptions Exist)
Components..................Size..........................Bearing Count
Bottom brackets.............1/4".........................11 each side
1" headset.....................5/32".......................25 per cup
1 1/8" headset................5/32 or 3/16"............20-28 per cup
1 1/4" headset................5/32 or 3/16"............26-31 per cup
front hub........................3/16"......................10 per side
rear hub.........................1/4"........................9 per side
pedals............................5/32 or 1/8".............10-15 per side
SPD pedals.....................3/32".......................lots
If in doubt, fill space with bearings and remove one.
It is possible to replace the balls in a bearing retainer that's in
good shape. Just pop 'em out and pop in new ones of the same
size. "

As they say, "exceptions exist". I just worked on a Dutch bike
that used 1/4" bearings in the hubs. So, measure and count.
It's a pretty good list for the most part.
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Old 05-20-06, 05:05 PM   #3
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Thanks a lot for the info. Exactly what I was wondering. Does it matter if I put in all but two balls? My Parktools repair books gives that number--fill the cup, then take out two.
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Old 05-20-06, 05:19 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by peripatetic
Thanks a lot for the info. Exactly what I was wondering. Does it matter if I put in all but two balls? My Parktools repair books gives that number--fill the cup, then take out two.
Yup, that sounds right. I think that, for a 1" cup, 25 is "all but two". Hubs and BB's should be "all but one". You can actually buy 5/32 balls in cards of 25. They are just a couple of bucks for that.
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Old 05-20-06, 05:42 PM   #5
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Any reason not to replace a cupped BB with a sealed?
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Old 05-20-06, 06:05 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by geo8rge
Any reason not to replace a cupped BB with a sealed?
I would not do it just for the sake of doing it. If the races are in good shape,
the $20, or so, that you'd spend for a new cartridge BB will buy a lot of loose
balls. If you get any pits in the bearing races then it's a no-brainer.
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Old 05-22-06, 05:34 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cascade168
Yup, that sounds right. I think that, for a 1" cup, 25 is "all but two". Hubs and BB's should be "all but one". You can actually buy 5/32 balls in cards of 25. They are just a couple of bucks for that.

Thanks for the quick rules-of-thumb, Cascade.
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Old 05-22-06, 06:06 PM   #8
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Hey Cascade168, good response. Thanks. That said, I didn't follow this bit. . .

>>>By using loose balls you virtually eliminate the chance that you'll get an indexing problem with your headset by introducing an element of randomness (as far as the distance between balls is concerned).

Can you expand? What's an "indexing problem"?

Thanks.
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Old 05-22-06, 06:39 PM   #9
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One front hub exception I know of is Dura Ace front hubs require 11 3/16" balls per side. All other Shimano hubs I've worked on use 10.

As to "indexing problem" with headsets. Since headsets have very limited rotational movement in normal riding and the impacts are quite harsh, the balls in the lower race tend to "pock mark" the crown race and lower cup race. The mechanism of how they do it is complex but the end result is that there are depressions in the races spaced the same distance apart as the balls. The balls fall into these depressions and give a ratcheting action to the steering as the fork is turned. Hence, "index steering".

Modern cartridge bearings are designed to prevent this and using loose balls instead of retainers delays the onset since the load is distributed over more balls. A loose ball headset will eventually fail this way even without retainers. It just takes longer.

BTW, one way to get another season out of an Indexed headset is to replace the retainers with loose balls. That way the balls no longer line up with the pock marks and the steering is temporarily smoother.
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Old 05-22-06, 06:49 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Coyote!
Hey Cascade168, good response. Thanks. That said, I didn't follow this bit. . .

>>>By using loose balls you virtually eliminate the chance that you'll get an indexing problem with your headset by introducing an element of randomness (as far as the distance between balls is concerned).

Can you expand? What's an "indexing problem"?

Thanks.
Indexing is a common problem caused by balls being in the same place all the time. This is caused by caged bearings always returning to the same spot when you are going straight ahead. Eventually, this causes dents, or pits, in the bearing races and when you turn the wheel you can actually feel it clicking into place at certain intervals as you turn the wheel. This is called "indexing". A good headset should turn smoothly all the time. Indexing is usually caused by less than adequate maintenance. Caged bearings work, but they need regular inspection and maintenance. If you end up with an indexed headset you can sometimes fix the problem by installing loose balls in place of the caged bearings.
When you install loose balls, this does two things. First, you will end up with more balls than with a caged set and this spreads out the load. This is a good thing. Second, the balls will move randomly with respect to each other and this will prevent indexing from occurring. All cage balls do is make it faster to install the headset. And, on the flip side, the only bad thing about loose balls is that it takes a little longer to install them. Trust me, it's worth the extra time.

Here's a cool reference (complete with movie !) from Sheldon Brown and Damon Rinard:

http://www.sheldonbrown.com/rinard/index_steering.htm
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