'Matter'

Matter: Kogel’s Ceramic Bottom Brackets (BBRight and BSA 24)

A bit of history

Ok, full disclosure: I’m a bit of a retro-grouch. I rode 8-speed on my mountain bikes well after 9-speed became the new normal. I have thumb shifters on my fat bike, and it’s rear hub was fresh in 1995. New for the sake of new isn’t my thing.

When it comes to bottom brackets, I remember the good ol’ days when Shimano’s UN72 ruled the roost, delivering incredibly smooth function and durability at a low price. Square-taper bottom brackets like these were elegant and effective. As axles grew in diameter to deliver ‘more stiffness,’ the industry moved to threaded external-bearing designs, which were generally lacking in durability from the start. Sure, the XTR unit for mountain bikes was pretty reliable, but not as reliable as a UN72.

The next ‘evolution’ was to encase the bottom bracket’s bearings within the frame, via the press-fit format. This approach dropped threading in favour of a pressed-in fitting, just like BMXs. Boom! Dimensions proliferated, ‘standards’ expanded, and we wound up with a panoply of bottom bracket formats across the industry. Hardly a picnic for bike shops, manufacturers or cyclists….it’s the Wild West out there!

Moving on

I only have one new-ish road bike at the moment, my Cervelo S5 Team. This aero carbon frame is built with Cervelo’s BBright design, which sees the non-drive side cup press flush into the frame. This allows them to use a 79mm wide bottom bracket shell, 11mm wider than the 68mm used for threaded bottom brackets and PF30 press-fits. I started out with a Rotor bottom bracket in the bike, with Enduro bearings. Over the course of the 13,500kms I spend on that bottom bracket, I replaced the bearings a couple times, and more than once found the non-drive bearing seized after wet riding. I can only wonder how long I rode around with nasty bearing drag.

In early 2016 I took an interest in Kogel. Following their Instagram feed, I was impressed by their no-bull approach to marketing: rather than leaning on a rainbow of colours to sell their products, their focus seemed to be on sound engineering, offering a broad range of configurations to fit just about any modern crank to any modern bottom bracket standard, along with some great looking derailleur pulley options. Drivetrain issues on my road bike let me to acquire their narrow-wide ceramic bearing pulleys for testing, after which I was keen to find out how their bottom brackets would hold up. Kogel  was kind enough to provide me two: a BBRight unit for my Cervelo and a threaded 24mm axle unit with cyclocross seals for my cyclocross bike.

I’ve heard from a lot of people since I started using Kogel’s parts who’ve reported bad experiences with ceramic bearings: poor durability. On this front, the devil is in the details. There are all sorts of ‘brands’ out there trying to capitalize on demand for ceramic bearings at low prices, and I get the sense the bad rap ceramics have for some riders has more to do with use of low quality parts, not offerings from reputable brands. Here’s what Kogel says about their silicon nitride (ceramic) bearings:

Silicon Nitride combines a set of material properties that make it perfect for bicycle bearings. The material is hard, resistant to wear, can be made into perfectly round balls with super tight tolerances and can be polished smoother than any metal. On top of all that, the material does not rust or oxidize.

Our races are made out of hardened steel and are polished to a mirror finish. These steps are necessary to make a perfect match between the smoothness and hardness of the balls and the races.

I figured cyclocross would reveal any strengths or weaknesses of Kogel’s bearings.

BBRight 24 for Shimano Cranks – 189.99 USD

Kogel conscientiously leaves out printed instructions from their packaging, and directs mechanics to their website, where one can find humorously written step-by-step instructions for installing and servicing their parts. I was really impressed by the quality of these resources, both for their thoroughness and tone. I mean, ‘Installing bottom brackets like a Boss‘; love it!

Instead of using grease between the press-fit interfaces, I used Loctite’s 638 retaining compound (Kogel recommends marine grease, I didn’t have any) when I pressed the cups into my frame with my vice. Yeah, I know, vice. This is one of the reasons I am not a fan of press-fit bottom brackets. The reality is, as Kogel recommends in their manual, it’s really important to avoid compressing the bearing races when pressing the the parts into the frame. I used a couple cone wrenches against the BB to protect its finish and avoid the bearing races.

What to say? My first ride was markedly different than those of late: my bike was virtually silent. Ahhhhh.

But then it wasn’t! A couple rides later I was feeling clicking on the drive side, and I was doubting my installation. Had I crushed a bearing?! I bet I had! I emailed Sem Gelegos, my contact at Kogel, and he figured my suspicion was likely correct. Fortunately, he was generous enough to send me another drive side cup, saving me the challenge or replacing the bearing itself. Just before it arrived, however, the click disappeared! What the? Sem confirmed that bottom brackets sometimes work in mysterious ways, and perhaps mine settled in just right. Both bearings spin without a hint of brinelling (the damage that occurs when a bearing is pressed into a bearing race, leaving a dent/s). Since ‘settling,’ the bottom bracket has performed flawlessly, and spins noticeably smoother than my previous unit (Rotor with Enduro bearings). Following 610kms on the bike, I just removed the crank, and each bearing feels perfect.

BSA For SRAM GXP Road Cranks (with CX seals) – $159.99 USD

The threaded unit I installed on my cyclocross bike has been a real treat. I ran a Chris King and a couple other threaded bottom brackets in the bike over the years, with the expected range of results. My King has taken a pretty extraordinary amount of abuse, and is in decent shape after a grease purging 3 years in, but it’s bearings are due for replacement.

The Kogel bb was built with cyclocross seals for better anti-fouling at the cost of a little extra drag. Kogel recommends cleaning and re-greasing their bearings once each season, at which point these $10 USD seals should be replaced. Mounting the part was a breeze, and I was impressed by the utter precision of the threads and fitting: perfect. The provided SRAM GXP axle step-up spacer meshed snugly with the 24mm inner diameter of the non-drive side bearing. Mounting the left arm, I was careful not to overtighten and excessively load the bearings. Ready to ride!

Strava’s gear tracker indicates I’ve logged over 2,300kms on my cyclocross bike’s Kogel. After installing the unit, my cyclocross bike saw a full cyclocross season followed by a winter of snirt – which might or might not continue, depending on whether we continue to see temperatures above freezing on the weekends. The bike was powerwashed at Nationals after each lap, and subjected to plenty of abuse. Yet, the bearings feel 100% smooth, and there is zero lateral play in the system.

So far, I’m 100% happy with the performance of the Kogel bottom brackets I’m riding. I’m fortunate to have Kogel sponsoring me this season, so I will have the privilege of using their PF30 bottom bracket in my new gravel/cyclocross bikes, which I will post about soon.

As a rider/racer on a tight budget, I understand that the value proposition of ceramic bottom brackets is a bit nebulous. I am not personally drawn to these bearings because they are ceramic, but because I believe Kogel makes their components to a very high level of quality. If they felt they could get equal performance out of steel bearings at a lower cost to consumers, I suspect they would do so. But the material science doesn’t seem to support that approach. For certain, there are really well designed and fabricated steel-bearing bottom brackets out there, but in my experience, they are ancient ones like the Shimano UN72 square taper. For outboard bearings, there are some that are good, like Chris King. How much do they retail for? The model that would fit my CX bike retails for $154 USD, and requires a couple 24mm axle adapters that add $21. So that’s $175 total.

I can’t speak to bearing drag, nor do I think spinning the cranks with the chain off tells us much in terms of the difference between one bb and another, unless one is in horrible condition. Drag under load is what we’re actually interested in, and nobody is feeling that while fiddling with their bikes in the repair stand.

Press-fit bottom brackets require the best installation, alignment, and thus, bearing quality these days. If you can source a very well designed and fabricated steel-bearing unit, expect to get good durability out of it if it’s installed well. If you ride wet conditions, expect to have to service your bearings, unless they use some sort of magical seals. The same applies to ceramic, service will be required, there is no wizardry going on here. From a longevity perspective, which encompasses the desire to avoid using disposable components, I think the initial investment in ceramic bearing parts will often drive a virtuous cycle of maintenance, which ought to translate into longer lifespans. I can’t say ‘even longer,’ because I can’t quantify the durability of these parts in a scientific way. But I can say that I will maintain them and am optimistic about their durability, based on what I’ve seen so far.

In order to determine whether a bottom bracket from Kogel or any other ceramic bearing brand is a good option for you, I suggest you dig in some more. Kogel has a series of blog posts up that are really well written, breaking down the value proposition of ceramic bearings in a simple, straightforward way. You can find the series of posts here.

Please don’t hesitate to ask questions addressing anything I might have missed!

Next post: The Dynamic Dirt Duo is Born!

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