Exploring (and Maintaining) the Humble Cup and Cone

If you run Shimano hubs, you should read this

Video Courtesy of Global Cycling Network
Words by Vernon Felton

There's a sense out there in the cycling world that cup-and-cone hubs are about as technologically advanced as the horse and buggy, and that the only reason this bearing system isn't used on more hubs is that the ‘sealed’ cartridge bearing is an inherently better system.

Not true. It's more complicated than that.

Once up on a time, all hubs featured bearings that were sandwiched between the ‘cup’ of the hub shell and a conical nut or ‘cone.’ Then in the 1970s, companies such as Phil Wood began to make ‘sealed’ bearings that were captured neatly inside a cartridge. They were called ‘sealed’ bearings because the ball bearings themselves were no longer visible to the eye.

In truth, the seal on a cartridge bearing isn't really any more effective than the seal on most cup and cone systems. And then there's this: cup-and-cone hubs can roll for nearly an eternity before giving up the ghost. Ever seen a Shimano hub outlast the frame it was affixed to? I have.Countless times. Cup-and-cone hubs can be incredibly robust.

There are other benefits to the cup-and-cone, but I'm probably already strolling into annoyingly wonkish territory, so I'll get to the point: most companies spec cartridge bearings because it's a less expensive system to work with and it doesn't require that they forge a cup and cone interface into their hubs.

Oh, and cartridge bearings are really easy to work on. Pull a set out. Press a new set in. Done. Bearing cartridges are the ultimate use-and-toss technology (I'm not praising that, just noting it). Cup-and-cones have to be unpacked and rebuilt, which is why some consumers want nothing to do with them.

If, however, you have a set of Shimano hubs, you should be paying attention right now, because you are rocking cup-and-cones.

This video from the Global Cycling Network does an excellent job of outlining the cup and cone overhaul procedure.

There are a few common sense details that bear repeating:

Using a magnet to extract the bearings is key; bearings have a way of slipping down the middle of the hub and the magnet makes retrieving them much easier.

Once you've cleaned the bearings and cup of all the fouled grease, pay close attention to the surface of those items. Ball bearings that look scuffed, dull or scratched are toast. Keep one, take it to your shop and get a full complement of bearings in that size. New bearings are crazy cheap--there's no point putting a crap bearing back into a freshly packed hub; you'll just be shortening the life of your hub (and that is expensive).

Likewise, if the cup is pitted or marred, you're basically screwed. It's time for a new hub. Those imperfections in the surface of the cup will eventually chew up whatever new bearings youthrow in there. Depending on how often you ride and the conditions you ride in, you should repack your hubs once and perhaps twice a season. It's better to be a little OCD and wring 10 years out of a hub, than to neglect a 15-minute overhaul and only get a season out of that component (which then necessitates an entire wheel rebuild or a new wheel and a massive ding to your bank account). Prevention is the best medicine.

The video's host explains that you should do the overhaul over a pan. Yeah, that's a must--trust me, if you just try and catch the bearings in your hand, you're going to lose some eventually. He also recommends segregating the drive-side and non-drive side bearings (they may be of slightly different sizes, so they need to always go back from whence they came). To keep those bearings apart, the host puts them in opposite corners of the pan. I suggest going one step further. Put one set of bearings in a separate cup or pan that you've labeled ("drive side" or "non-drive side"). It's been awhile since I knocked my work pan and sent a bunch of ball bearings rolling into a bearing orgy, but yeah, I've made that mistake in the past and it just adds headaches to the whole affair.

Being a bit obsessive is always a good thing when working on hubs, cutting fork steerers and facing bottom bracket shells. Do it once. Do it right.