I recently went through the process of getting a warranty replacement for my SON dynamo hub due to bad (worn or corroded?) bearings. At the time I was dealing with the problem I couldn’t find much information about anything similar, so I figured I’d post my experience here for anyone else who needs to hear it.
SON hubs are known for being extremely reliable, which is why I chose one for my new Chumba Stella bikepacking rig in 2022. This bike was a big step up and a major splurge, and I figured what the heck, may as well get the dynamo hub while I’m at it. I enjoy long remote tours and dabble in bikepack racing, so I figured it would serve me well.
My hub is a SON 28 15 110, and it powers my kLite Ultra light and charging system. Overall I’m very happy with this setup, especially for bikepack racing and the many hours of night riding it entails. These hubs are a favorite of long-distance bike travelers, a group with high standards, so it seems I got unlucky. I’m not the only person to experience this problem, as I’ll explain down below, but it’s since been resolved in current production hubs.
My goal here isn’t to knock SON hubs or discourage others from choosing them. Rather, I’m sharing my experience to help anyone who might be in a similar predicament. I was in the middle of a remote tour in Morocco when my bearings really went south, and it was a bit stressful. I would have loved a post like this to help me understand what was happening and what I could do. Happily the warranty process was smooth and I had a new hub waiting for me when I got home, which is now working great.
First Hints of the Problem
Looking back, the first hint of the problem arose during my Western Wildlands section ride in southern Idaho, Utah, and northern Arizona. I had about 3000 miles on the hub so far, mostly bikepacking in the USA and Central Asia on a mix of gravel, rough dirt roads, and trails. The hub had seen some rain and a few creek crossings, but to my knowledge hadn’t ever been fully submerged.
The earliest symptom: after a day of not riding I noticed that my wheel felt oddly hard to spin. Once I pushed through the resistance and got it spinning freely, it seemed good as new. I finished that ride, about 1200 miles, with no further issues except occasional light resistance when spinning the wheel first thing in the morning.
After returning home from that trip I completely forgot about the problem. My bike mostly sat in the garage through one of the rainiest California winters in recorded history. In March, as I started prepping for a trip to Morocco and Portugal, I swapped the wheel over to my Fargo and once again noticed the resistance when spinning the wheel. Too late to do anything about it now – oops! As long as I spun the wheel a bit, it was fine, so I packed up the bike and flew to Marrakesh.
Upon unpacking my bike in Marrakesh I was alarmed to find that my SON dynamo hub had locked up almost entirely. It took a fair bit of force to get the wheel turning again, but once I spun it for awhile it moved freely. I spent a lot of time nervously test-spinning the wheel in the courtyard of our guesthouse, trying to pretend it was fine (it mostly was). Perhaps in denial, and with no better ideas, I started the trip.
At this point it had been well over a thousand miles since the first signs of the problem. As long as I was riding daily the hub never locked up again, but the problem did progress. Spinning the wheel while on the bike sounded grinding and irregular. When turning it by hand with the wheel removed from the bike there was a gritty feeling and a gritty sound.
Dynamo hubs always have a discreet “notchy” feel and unique sound, but mine was obviously worse than usual. It’s normal to feel like the hub wants to snap into discreet positions as it turns, but it should do so smoothly, mostly quietly, and uniformly around the entire revolution. My husband also has an identical SON dynamo hub on his bike (fewer miles on his, but so far no sign of similar problems) and his felt and sounded much better by comparison.
The other symptom was increasingly obvious bearing play. It’s hard to quantify the amount, but when pushing the wheel side-to-side while on the bike there was obvious wiggle back and forth. With the wheel off the bike I could move the center back and forth and hear a squeaking / grinding sound inside.
As we navigated some incredibly rough, rocky, and sandy desert roads in Morocco, I developed a nervous habit of checking my wheel for bearing play at every stop. Was it getting worse? Maybe just a little…? I knew there wouldn’t be an easy way to deal with the problem while in Morocco, so we simply finished our route. Thankfully the hub held up and didn’t really cause any problems, other than stressing me out.
Throughout this whole period I was using my kLite USB charger to top up my power bank. I didn’t notice any change in the hub’s ability to generate power, though we were riding relatively short daily distances on slow terrain so the charging output wasn’t great anyway.
Once in Portugal on smoother roads, it seemed that the hub stopped getting worse. I figured I could limp through Portugal but worried about what to do once home, since I had some bikepacking races on the calendar. At this point I started researching how to get the hub fixed or replaced.
Making the Warranty Claim
SON hubs come with a five year warranty. I had put about 5000 miles on my hub in just over a year, and while that’s a fair amount of riding it’s not crazy by bike travel standards. SON hubs are known for their reliability and loved by long-distance bike travelers, so I figured this amount of wear couldn’t possibly be normal. Time to get in touch and see what could be done.
I live in the United States and my hub was purchased there, so I emailed Peter White Cycles, the official US distributor for German “Schmidt’s Original Nabendynamo” (SON) hubs. Linda White responded immediately and helpfully, asking for some information and a video showing the bearing play as best I could.
Below are the videos I sent them from Portugal. Though the side-to-side movement is hard to see in the first video, you can see the hub moving by hand in the second video, and if you turn on the sound you can hear it squeaking.
Linda sent these videos to Schmidt for them to authorize the warrantee replacement. She came back to me right away with an approval to replace the hub. She needed the old hub before providing the new one for free, but offered me two options: either she would send the new one after I sent her the old one, or she could charge me for the new one and then refund it later once I sent the old one.
The old hub needed to be cut out of my wheel before sending, and I was currently in the middle of a tour in Portugal. I figured it would be cheaper and easier to have a bike shop cut out the old hub at the same time they laced in the new one, so I opted to pay for my replacement and get a refund later.
The old hub, to its credit, survived that entire trip (about 1200 miles) without causing any practical issues. And I have to thank Linda at Peter White Cycles for her calm and helpful communication, which made the whole process much less of a headache than it could have been.
Replacing the Hub
My replacement hub was waiting for me at home after the tour. I took it and my wheel down to my local bike shop, asked them to cut out the old one and save it for me (so I could mail it in for the warranty claim), and build the new one in.
The wheel build cost $150, plus new spokes, nipples, and rim tape for $98, plus tax for a total of $256 (California prices, probably on the high side). Plus I had to pay shipping, don’t remember how much, to send the old hub to Peter White Cycles in order to get a refund on the new one.
So, though I got a replacement hub for free thanks to the warranty ($463 value) the whole incident still cost me a fair bit of money, unfortunately. This has been my experience with upgrading to more expensive bikes in general: maintenance and repair costs are higher too.
So What Went Wrong?
SON hubs are supposed to be the most reliable and durable dynamos on the market, often lasting the entire lifetime of the bike. From the SON website: “Normally they run maintenance-free for many 10 thousands of kilometers and need neither lubrication nor adjustment.” They’re a favorite in the bike travel community, a group of people that generally takes no BS, so I know they must live up to their reputation.
I asked the folks at Peter White Cycles if they had any clue about the cause of the problem. They said a recent bearings problem had arisen for some of the thru axle hubs, perhaps due to a bad batch of bearings (this part seemed to be speculation), and that some of them are failing in the way mine did. They said the issue has been resolved for current production models.
SON hubs use sealed cartridge bearings — “high-end bearings sealed on both sides from SKF”. I could see how a manufacturing defect in these bearings could cause the problem I experienced. They did replace my entire hub, not just the bearings, so I’m not sure if that speaks to other problems or perhaps the bearing issue had caused wear on other parts.
The replacement hub has about 700 miles on it so far. It shows no signs of the same problem, but this is also sooner than I started noticing it on the old hub. Fingers crossed! Assuming this replacement doesn’t have the same issue, I expect it will run for a very long time.
Hopefully this little story is helpful to anyone experiencing the same issue. If you’re noticing unexpected issues with a SON hub, do get in touch and ask about the warranty (5 years I believe), as it sounds like this is a known issue. Unfortunately it will still cost you some money to remove the hub from the wheel for a replacement or repair, but in the end you’ll hopefully have a highly reliable hub that can last for tens of thousands of miles.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you found this post helpful, you might also like these:
- How to Choose a Bikepacking Bike Based on Your Riding Style
- Pedals for Bikepacking: Top Picks for Every Style
- Riding The Legendary Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more.
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