Wheel bearings are a low maintenance part, but they do go bad after a while. Whether they will fail gradually, or suddenly and catastrophically, largely depends on a variety of factors that will be explained below.
Luckily, you can avoid the latter by looking out for the right signs and symptoms of wheel bearing failure. You will be surprised by how many signs a failing wheel bearing will give you before it really goes out.
Why Wheel Bearings Fail Prematurely
Before we go any further, let’s first get a quick overview on why do motorcycle wheel bearings fail prematurely in the first place. Wheel bearings are designed to last around 100,000 miles, however, their lifespan can be shortened significantly by the following:
- Impact Damage. Wheel bearings are under HUGE pressure at all times even when you’re riding normally, however, if you hit a big pothole or land the front wheel too harsh after a wheelie – that pressure can be multiplied 10x at the point of impact. While wheel bearings are more or less designed to withstand these impacts, with each one you are decreasing their lifespan.
- Rough Driving conditions. While the inside of a wheel bearing is sealed from the elements, with enough wear, water and dust can find their way in. Once water and dust particles mix with grease inside the bearing, the grease will no longer be effective enough to keep the metal surfaces from wearing out and will lead to premature wheel bearing failure.
- Incorrect installation. Wheel bearings can only be pressed in by their outer edge to avoid internal damage. Bearings that have no dust seals need to be packed with grease before installation. Failure to do this will shorten the lifespan of your wheel bearings significantly.
- Defective/poor quality bearings. Wheel bearings are priced differently for a reason. The cheaper ones most likely had poor heat treatment and were made from low-quality materials, while more expensive ones are made properly and will last significantly longer.
Motorcycle Front Wheel Bearing Failure Symptoms
1. Humming/Howling Noise
A howling, humming, or rumbling noise that does not change with different road surfaces and with the clutch in, is probably the most reliable early indicator of a failing front wheel bearing.
With that said, do not forget to check your front tire pressure, as a tire that’s low on air can make similar noises as well.
2. Excessive Wheel Play
The front wheel of a motorcycle should not have any side-to-side play at all – this is one of the best indicators of a bad wheel bearing. When the front wheel bearing is going bad, the worn-out ball bearings inside it allow the wheel to move just a bit.
Unfortunately, this extra play can be felt through the handlebars. In some cases, you can feel the vibration with your hands, in others, the steering feels off and is quite jumpy.
3. Heat Around the Bearing
When a wheel bearing starts going bad, it usually produces heat due to extra friction. The area around the bearing can get pretty hot if the bearing is worn enough. If you noticed that the bearing is making noise, then it’s very likely that the area around it will be hotter than on the back wheel.
How to Diagnose a Bad Motorcycle Front Wheel Bearing
Diagnosing a bad front wheel bearing is pretty straight forward, here’s how I it:
- Check the tire pressure. Tires can make a lot of weird noises when underinflated, so let’s rule out the tires first.
- Ride the motorcycle on different road surfaces with the clutch in. This way you’ll eliminate the engine from the equation. If the noise persists, then a bad wheel bearing is very likely, otherwise, the noise might be coming from the tires or the engine.
- Check the temperature near the wheel bearing. After you’re done riding, it’s time to check the temperature of the area around the wheel bearing, and compare it to the rear wheel. There should be no difference and the area shouldn’t feel warm or hot. So, get your infrared thermometer out or simply place your hand on the area around the bearing and feel the temperature. If the area around the front wheel bearing feels warm and is noticeably warmer than the area in the back wheel – it’s very likely that the bearing is going bad.
- Grab the front wheel and feel for play. We ruled out the engine, tires, and even noticed that the wheel bearing is getting hot. At this point, you could make the call and replace the bearing, but we will be raising the front wheel off the ground anyway – might as well do the final check. So, lift the front of the motorcycle, make sure it’s secured and won’t fall. Grab the wheel at 9 and 3 o’clock, pull with one hand and push with the other. There should be no movement relative to the forks, and no clicking or clunking.
Can You Ride With a Bad Wheel Bearing?
Since a bad front wheel bearing will usually just “inform” you about its poor condition with an annoying howling noise, many people either do not notice it at first or decide to keep on riding for a while. It is very rare for a wheel bearing to fail catastrophically and lock the front wheel up
Because of that, riding with a failing front wheel bearing is a bad idea. You can probably do it in an emergency situation when you need to ride back home, but even then, you’re taking a risk. It’s always best to get the bearing replaced, especially since they are cheap and easy to replace.
Motorcycle Wheel Bearing Replacement Cost
The cost for replacing the front wheel bearings on a motorcycle depends on a couple of factors, but if you’re willing to take the front wheel off yourself and bring it to your local mechanic, you can expect to pay somewhere between $100-150. Why take the wheel off yourself? It’s pretty easy to do and will save you around $20-30.
With that said, I highly recommend replacing the front wheel bearings yourself. There are tons of great how-to’s on YouTube and you can even find free service manuals for most motorcycles.
In most cases, wheel bearings do not fail catastrophically. They start to produce an annoying howling noise while riding, which gets worse over time. If you do not address the issue and keep on riding, the bad wheel bearing might seize, which will lock the wheel up.
Luckily, that rarely happens and if you know what to look for, you can diagnose a bad wheel bearing and get it fixed in under an hour.
Jake is the site’s primary contributor.
Motorcycles and automotive repair have been a big part of his family for generations, therefore it’s only natural that he decided to become a heavy-duty diesel tech.
Outside of work, you’ll find Jake restoring and riding rare street bikes and ATVs.