Condensed answer: The main reason why BMX riders put tennis balls in their spokes is fashion. Or in other words, they simply like the look.
Having said that, there are also some technical motives behind this tradition.
The initial motivation for this phenomenon was the belief that tennis balls make the wheels stronger by increasing the tension on the spokes.
And since BMX riders need wheels that can handle massive impact, people followed along.
Are There Any Downsides To This Practice?
Below is a list of problems that tennis balls in the spokes can create:
Tennis balls have a fuzzy surface which adds drag when the ball is moving through the atmosphere.
This effect is considered beneficial in tennis but has a negative impact on a wheel’s aerodynamic properties. Or in other words, the upper layer makes it harder for the wheel to spin.
Of course, the effect is small, but in the world of cycling similar details matter because they cost you energy.
2. Interference With The Spokes
Jamming a tennis ball between the spokes affects their natural flex. For that reason, some consider the practice harmful to the wheel, although it’s difficult to measure the extent of the negative effect.
3. Extra Weight
A tennis ball weighs 50-70 grams. If you add 4 of them to each wheel, your bike will gain 400-560 grams. That’s a lot of extra weight for a bicycle that has to be thrown around.
4. Social scrutiny
You may face criticism from other riders. Some may even call you a “poser” for putting tennis balls in your spokes.
Of course, in the best-case scenario, you shouldn’t care about others’ opinions, but we are always affected by social criticism even when putting a stoic facade.
The Benefits of Putting Tennis Balls In The Spokes
If people didn’t like the appearance of this set-up, the trend would have never formed. Those who do it aim to gain style points.
2. Speed maintenance
By putting tennis balls in the spokes, you are making the wheel heavier and therefore increasing the rotational weight.
An increase in rational weight has the following effects:
- Slower acceleration.
Heavier wheels require more energy to reach a certain speed. Thus, they accelerate slower.
- Speed maintenance
Heavier wheels require more effort to get them moving, but they have greater kinetic energy and spin longer.
How does this affect the BMX scene?
1. You would never see BMX race bikes with balls in the spokes due to the extra drag, weight and slower acceleration.
2. In the world of street BMX the situation is a bit different. Slower acceleration hurts primarily when the spot is too tight and doesn’t allow you to get enough rotations of the cranks.
In other cases, the slower acceleration caused by slightly heavier wheels has a negligible effect.
The slower deceleration of heavier wheels is considered beneficial for long lines. Thanks to it, the rider doesn’t have to add extra crank turns to get the bike up to speed in the middle of a line.
Having said that, I don’t think there are engineers planning to do control testing of this effect by using tennis balls in the spokes.
- Extra Visibility From The Side
Standard tennis balls come in a “screaming” high-visibility green or yellow color. When you put them on a bike, they attract attention.
- Judging Speed When riding a Freecoaster Hub
A freecoaster hub is silent when you’re riding backward. Thus, it becomes a little harder to know how fast you’re moving.
Some people claim that a tennis ball in the spokes of the front wheel helps them judge their speed a little better when riding a freecoaster hub. If the ball is rolling fast, so is the bike.
Other Uses Of a Tennis Ball
Below you will find a list of additional situations when a tennis ball in the spokes can be of some use.
Note: Some of the scenarios are overreaching and maybe a bit humorous, but it’s worth mentioning them for a more complete analysis of the subject.
1. Transporting Tennis Balls
If you’re a tennis player and a BMX rider, you can transport some extra tennis balls by putting them in your spokes.
Of course, you could also use your pockets, but stuffing your clothes with tennis balls will make riding uncomfortable.
Moreover, you won’t be able to fit many tennis balls if it’s summer and you have pockets only on your jeans.
2. A Storage Unit
You can use a tennis ball as a hidden storage compartment for light items such as:
Putting coins in the tennis ball is out of the question since the rattling noise will be annoying. But you can easily slide a small banknote and use it in case of an emergency.
- Losing your wallet and having no other money to pay for a bus ticket back home.
- Being a bit short on cash when making an unexpected purchase.
You could also put a GPS tracker in the ball to know where your bike is at all times.
There are Bluetooth alarms designed to alert you when an object is out of reach. Usually, they’re used for keys or handbags, but the method can be applied to other items.
You can put one of those in a tennis ball and connect it to your phone. If someone takes your bike out of the Bluetooth Zone, you will know.
You can fit a few extra tire patches in there and/or rubber cement for emergency uses.
You can put many other items in a tennis ball. They have to answer the following criteria, though:
- They have to be small enough to pass through a tiny hole.
- The movement of the wheel shouldn’t have a negative effect on the object.
- The items should be silent when moving in the ball.
Warning! Do not put anything consumable (e.g., gums, pills…etc.) in the ball because the material that the ball is made of could be extremely harmful to the human body.
Also, do not store expensive items (e.g., engagement ring…etc). The ball may jump out during a hard landing and get lost. In addition, there’s always the possibility of theft while the bike is locked.
Tip: If you intend to use a tennis ball as a hidden storage unit, it will be wiser to spray paint it in a color that doesn’t attract a lot of attention.
Otherwise, a “curious” stranger may suddenly decide that they want to play tennis and steal the ball and your 10 bucks in it, for example.
In different, if you plan to use the tennis ball primarily as an aesthetic accessory, you may paint it in a screaming color as a way to make your bike an attention magnet.
How Can You Put A Tennis Ball In The Spokes of a BMX or Another Bike?
1. Search for two adjacent spokes on one side of the wheel that are as far away from each other as possible. This is the entrance point.
2. Use one of the entrances point to get the ball between the wheel’s spokes.
3. At this point, the ball should be between the spokes, but it won’t be secure. Start pressing the ball towards the hub while squeezing it from both sides.
You can use one hand to squeeze and the other to push the ball or do both actions at the same time using two hands.
Be gentle. Don’t force the ball into the spokes. When you’re squeezing the ball it acquires an oval shape allowing it to easily slide between the spokes.
4. Once the ball is as close as possible to the hub, release it.
5. Spin the wheel to see if the ball is secure.
1.If you’re going to use the tennis ball as a storage unit, make the smallest possible cut that you can. Making a big cut will greatly reduce the integrity of the ball.
2. When you are installing the tennis ball, make sure that the cut is perpendicular to the hub.
Image 1 – The Right Position
Image 2 – Wrong Position
Tip 1: You can wrap a line of duct tape around the cut to seal it.
Tip 2: You can squeeze the ball when it’s already installed to slide a small item in.
Note: Some tennis balls smell bad when you cut them. The item that you put in there will get the same odor.
1. The practice of putting a tennis ball in the spokes of a BMX bike originated somewhere in the 80s.
2. Tennis balls increase the rotating weight of the wheels and slow the deceleration of the bike. Some people consider this beneficial for longer lines because the need for pedaling is reduced.
3. The original technical motivation behind this trend was to add tension to certain spokes. Some claim that it works while others consider it poor practice damaging the spokes.
One thing is certain, a wheel in a good condition doesn’t need tennis balls.
4. The primary reason why people continue to put tennis balls in their spokes is fashion.
5. A tennis ball can be used to store small items.