Bearing Up: ABEC = HYPE?
By Tony Chen
"What can I do to skate faster?"
That's one the most common questions that every skater asks, and truth be told, there are lots of things that affect your skating speed. Since the question is usually asked in reference to upgrading one's skates, the answer you'll most often hear is, "Get faster bearings."
Is it really true? Or is it just hype passed down from the companies that sell them?
The ABEC rating
The term that's generally associated with bearings is "ABEC". ABEC is the acronym for Annular Bearing Engineering Council, the standards committee of the Anti-Friction Bearing Manufacturers Association (an industry group) that determines the requirements for each level of bearing precision. The higher the ABEC number, the stricter the manufacturing tolerances and the more precisely the bearing is made.
ABEC-1 and ABEC-3 are the most common bearings stocked on production skates. But with the growing popularity of speedskating and the general desire to go ever faster, ABEC-5 bearings are showing up on more and more models, and one or two after-market companies are pushing ABEC-7 bearings. On the flip side, however, many low-end skates come with "precision" bearings, which almost certainly means that they're of lower quality than ABEC-1 bearings.
Bearing ratings and speed
Now, the common misconception is that the higher the ABEC rating, the faster the bearing. That's not entirely true. Back up two paragraphs and re-read the statement that a higher ABEC rating means more precise manufacture. Because bearings have long been used in industrial applications, the ABEC ratings provide critical information on how fast machinery may safely operate. A slight wobble at, say, 10,000 rpm could shake a machine apart in a hurry. But then, do skaters need bearings which can spin at that rate?
The real question is: do inline skates depend on this precision as much as industrial machinery?
The question is a hotly debated one. Certainly, bearing companies would love to convince all of us to buy their more expensive, higher ABEC-rated bearings. And of course, any of us who have bought ABEC-5 bearings would love to think we got faster bearings. After all, didn't we pay more for them?
If someone wants to conduct a scientific test, here are some numbers to consider. On flat terrain, the average skater doesn't skate faster than 20 kmph (12.4 mph). Many pro racers can maintain speeds of 35 kmph (21.7 mph), usually by drafting. If you have 80mm wheels and you're skating at a respectable 20 kmph, the rotations per minute (rpm) for each wheel/bearing is 1326 rpm. At 40 kmph, it's 2652 rpm.
All else being equal, does an ABEC-5 bearing spin better (with less friction) than an ABEC-1 bearing at 1300 rpm? How about at 2600 rpm? What about in real skating conditions? That's what needs to be answered in order to settle the ABEC debate, and as yet no convincing arguments seem to have been made.
All the ABEC stuff aside, shopping for bearings is mostly going to be based on price. Bearing companies love to quote technical details about their bearings (the new design, the "precision" down to the .0001 inch), but for inline skating there's not much to distinguish one ABEC-3 bearing from another. This is why you see more "value packs" in stores now. These packs typically include bearings, hop-up kits (or spacers), some lubricant, a handy container to hold your bearings, and maybe a lubricant applicator (i.e., a syringe-type device).
The one thing that you may need to decide is whether you want bearings with removable shields or not. Removable shields are meant to let you open your bearings for easy cleaning. Most high-end bearings have this feature, although if you can only get non-removable shields it's not a big deal. (The Bearing section in the Skate FAQ goes into some detail about dealing with shields while cleaning bearings.)
In general, buying bearings via mail-order is still cheaper than retail prices. There's no good rule of thumb to go by, although you probably don't want to pay more than $1.25 per ABEC-1 bearing. For each higher ABEC, the price may go up 25-50 cents per bearing, depending on the brand and store. I know of at least one company selling eight ABEC-3 bearings for $7.95, so definitely shop around on the Web and at your local stores.
To my knowledge, there hasn't been any real scientific studies on lubricants for inline skating either. On the market you'll see oil-based lubricants, grease-based lubricants, teflon-particle (PTFE) based lubricants, and on and on.
In the end the lubricant may not matter all that much. The only difference is that oils will be slightly faster than greases, but require more maintenance, as they're (1) more likely to seep out of the bearing and (2) less likely to reject contaminating dust and grit. Also, grease may require one or two skating sessions before it is "broken in" and your bearings spin as freely as possible.
What may be the real factor is how you lubricate your bearings. Too little lubricant, and your bearings may overheat, chip or flake. Too much and your bearings may attract lots of dirt. Apply just enough to coat the ball bearings and along the races where they roll. Three of four drops per bearing should be ample if you're using an oil-based lubricant.
Last thing to consider
Even if it's shown that ABEC-5 bearings are faster than ABEC-1's, it's unclear if they would stay at that precision for the duration of their use. How long do you think a bearing with tolerances in range of .0001 inch (that's one ten-thousandths of an inch) would remain that precise after a few months of skating, cleaning, and relubing?
Not only that, but consider all the other factors that affect your speed as much, if not more than, your bearings:
|misaligned axles||hop-up kits|
|over tightened axles||hop-up kits|
|worn wheels||rotate wheels; new wheels; taller wheels|
|skill level||practice, practice, practice|
So my advice is, unless you're racing and want every conceivable edge, just get the most affordable ABEC-1 or ABEC-3 bearings you can find, relube them with oil if they aren't already, and you should be just fine.