Join Date: Jul 2008
Location: Grid Reference, SK
Bikes: I never learned to ride a bike. It is my deepest shame.
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Perhaps the hill got steeper while you were climbing?
The need for cone wrenches depends on the hub design - I have a set of sealed bearing hubs that do not need cone wrenches, and a set that do need cone wrenches. Generally, cone wrenches are used to hold the bearing tension adjusting component (in cup and cone hubs it is the cone) while you tighten a locknut against it. If the hub is designed to use cone wrenches then, yes, you 100% need cone wrenches. You can make a 'cone wrench' by grinding a standard wrench very thin on a bench grinder, but actual cone wrenches are usually $6 - $10 so it is much easier to just buy the purpose-built tool. Offer to mow an old ladies lawn for the extra $6 if money is tight.
As for bearings needing replacement, take off the wheel and spin the axle - is there excessive drag? Is there a bearing that is obviously not turning with the axle? To be sure if they need replacement you really need to remove and inspect and check for play or roughness.