Gnashing Of Teeth

No matter how well something works, the bicycle industry seems determined to reinvent it. Consider the quick release, an utterly reliable component which allows you to attach and release a wheel in seconds that has now all but vanished from the performance bicycle, only to be replaced by the thru-axle…which for all practical purposes works the same way as the old nut system that inspired Tullio to invent the quick release in the first place. Whew!

However, one standard that has thus far resisted this “innovation”–or at least continued to thrive in the face of it–is the humble English threaded bottom bracket shell. Sure, there are all manner of press-fit systems out there today, but people hate them, and so even a $13,000 S-Wanks comes with a traditional threaded bottom bracket:


But while right-minded people know that the threaded English bottom bracket shell was, is, and always will be the best way to attach a crank to a bicycle frame, there are still various bearing systems to choose from, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. The “classic” one uses square taper spindle, which can be either be part of a sealed cartridge system, or else it can run on the older free-ballin’ setup:

Either way, it’s good because it’s reliable, it’s ubiquitous, and if you’re a tinkerer or kludger you can mix and match tapers and lengths and all the rest of it to mess with your chainline or “Q-factor,” the latter of which is important to some people, but which I’ve decided I don’t even notice. The main drawback is that bearing installation can be a bit time consuming–free-ballers require various tools and need to be adjusted carefully, and cartridge ones have recessed splines that can be a little annoying. On top of that you generally need a crank puller on top of whatever other bearing-related tools are necessary for your particular bearing set-up, and if your crank is under-tightened or over-tightened or installed and removed frequently you can mess up the crank arm hole, and potentially ruin the crank.

I like square taper cranks–they work, bottom brackets are cheap, and more importantly, they look good on steel bicycles. However, from a purely practical standpoint, I don’t think you can beat the Shimano Hollowtech II system:

Yes, by the time Shimano introduced it, the cranks themselves had become ugly, and only got uglier. (See above.) However, they’re incredibly easy to install and adjust, they never make noise (unless you don’t tighten the bearing cups or something, though pulling the crank and snugging them is about a five minute job), and as far as I can tell the bearings last essentially forever. If you want classic looks and/or the ability to fine-tune your chainline, by all means, go with square taper. But if you want boneheaded simplicity that even a ham-fisted idiot like me can’t seem to mess up, go with the Hollowtech IIs.

Of course, there are also other outboard bearing crank systems out there, and while I’ve come across some that suck, I’ve also encountered some that work quite well. Generally, the ones that fall under the latter category work like Shimano, and use the same spindle size and non-drive pinch bolt setup. (The DUB crank that came on my Jones works differently from Shimano, but it has also been perfectly fine, and I’ve never had to remove or reinstall it…though because of that I don’t know if it’s as easy to work on as the Shimano system.)

Then there’s Campagnolo, and their “Ultra-Torque” system:

I remember when Shimano introduced Hollowtech II; apparently they did so after a patent owned by this company expired, and having coveted those cranks in my youth I was predisposed to embrace the concept on my road bike:

[Photo from here.]

Furthermore, I saw right away how simple it was, and as someone with poor mechanical skills and an extremely low tolerance for creaking and/or ticking bottom brackets I found the design very promising.

Meanwhile, Campagnolo was still using a square taper, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. I know this because I was using it at the time, and as much as I liked the look of the Hollowtech II I was perfectly content with my lovely hidden-arm 10-speed Record crank. Nevertheless, Shimano had forced Campy’s hand. Moreover, square taper bottom brackets are almost completely invisible when installed, so nobody could tell Campy’s was crabon!

[Photo from eBay. Why the Sharpie? Is it to show scale? Does anybody shopping for a bottom bracket not know how big they are? “I hope that’ll fit in the truck of my car!”]

When Campagnolo answered with Ultra-Torque I was horrified. Being Campy, they didn’t do an external bearing crank the easy way; instead, it seemed like they made it as complicated as possible. That weird joint in the middle in particular really freaked me out, but there was also a retaining clip and a wave washier, both of which also troubled me, as it seemed like the system might be prone to developing noise and play. My concerns seemed to be borne out, too, since after they’d been out awhile I’d often see people complaining about just that, and even that Mavic parts guy sells a shim kit for this supposedly common problem. So I resolved to stay away from it, because like any uptight person I tend to reject things out of hand.

Alas, fate had other plans, and in 2019 my Litespeed came to me with an Ultra-Torque crank. Between the weirdo spindle and the crabon I was ready to change it at the slightest provocation, but of course it turned out to be perfectly fine, so I quickly made my peace with it. One day early on it did start squeaking during a wet ride, so I took it apart and put some grease in there; actually working on it cured me of my fears for good, and it was perfectly quiet for the next four years. Then this past Sunday I got caught in a heavy rain, and yesterday I heard a faint chirping sound. So I stopped and removed the chain from the chainring:

Unfortunately I didn’t have a Swiss Army Knife:

Nevertheless I persevered:

Spinning the crank, I confirmed the sound was coming from the bottom bracket:

Sounds like a whimpering puppy.

As I say, despite being a slob, my tolerance for noisy bottom brackets is quite low. So upon my return I immediately set about remedying the situation, and I’m documenting it here for anyone out there who would like to know what’s going on inside these things, even though there is no shortage of instructional videos out there made by people who actually know what they’re doing, as well as by Campagnolo themselves, who may or may not know what they’re doing. Regardless, if you’re wondering how these things come apart and go back together, I’m gonna tell you how to do it. First, make sure you have an Ultra-Torque crank. If your crank is beautiful, it’s not Ultra-Torque:

If it’s ugly and it says “Ultra-Torque” on it then it’s definitely Ultra-Torque:

If it’s ugly and it doesn’t, it may still be Ultra-Torque…though it could be Power-Torque, in which case God help you.

Anyway, once you’ve determined it’s an Ultra-Torque, first you remove that retaining clip by pulling it out of the bearing cup with needle nose pliers:

Here it is:

If there’s one thing Campy’s good at, it’s making stuff that requires lots of tiny spare parts.

I know people love Campagnolo because it’s rebuildable and there are spare parts, but it’s important to keep in mind that Shimano doesn’t need rebuilding or spare parts. (Though all this is now moot, as they both need batteries. In five years they’ll each be judged entirely by their apps.)

Next, you undo the bolt that holds the spindle together:

Always use a torque wrench, and remember when removing a bolt that you want to torque it all the way down to zero or else it won’t come out:

It it’s at a torque of -1 N-m you’ve turned it too far.

After you get the bolt out it’s a simple matter of pulling the two halves apart:

Besides the retaining clip and the deeply recessed bolt it’s not really all that much more complicated than Shimano. However, the real difference is that Shimano’s bearings are part of the cup, whereas Ultra-Torque bearings live on the crank, and if you need to replace them they have to be removed with a special bearing puller from Vicenza or something:

Fortunately, these are still smoother than a marble countertop coated in olive oil, so I doubt I’ll have to worry about that anytime soon. They’re also noticeably smoother than Shimano’s, though I doubt that matters in practice. Overall, Shimano’s setup is a lot simpler, though I suppose it’s somewhat convenient that on the Ultra-Torque you never need to bother with removing the cups. And yes, in the spirit of being rebuildable, Campagnolo allows you to swap the bearing and keep the cups, whereas Shimano treats it all as a single disposable unit. This would appear to work out in Campagnolo’s favor, until you consider that the bearings alone cost way more than a complete Dura Ace bottom bracket, and that’s not even including the special tool. (Though in my case it doesn’t matter, as these bearings remain good as new.)

Here’s the wave washer on the non-drive side:

It’s Campy spare part #841851871/1171/4181.

Also, on either side, between the bearing and the crank itself, you can see a little rubbery seal:

I’m guessing this is probably what was responsible for the whimpering puppy noise, since there’s still plenty of grease everywhere else:

Yes, there’s a little grit in there, but that only happened after I removed the crank.

Anyway, once everything was apart I wiped it down, re-greased it, and put some of this stuff on the rubber seals:

In retrospect I probably could have just dripped some in there without removing the crank at all, but sometimes it’s good to get in there and see how things are doing.

Then I put everything back together using the appropriate amount of torque:

That zoomed-in photo is not for your benefit; I’ve officially reached the point at which I need to use my phone as a magnifying glass at least several times a day, and it was the only way I was able to read the numbers on the bolt.

I’m guessing the Ultra-Torque design is less tolerant of frame imperfections than the Shimano system, but it seems perfectly happy on this bike, and overall it’s pretty easy to live with. Also, it’s smoother than Shimano in a way that doesn’t matter, while being slightly more complicated in a way that does–which is ultimately what Campagnolo is all about.

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