Just Ask Jack — When to Replace Cables?

An anonymous reader sent in the following question:

“How often should I replace my cables?”

Well, that’s an excellent question! There are no hard and fast rules about replacing your cables, but I like to do it once a year. If you ride in really harsh conditions (excessive rain, snow/road salt, mud), you may consider replacing them more often…like every six months or so.

casings

I’m not going to bore you with a step-by-step tutorial on replacing your cables, but I will offer several tips, tricks and pointers to make things smoother. First, when you buy cables, go ahead and spring for replacement casing, too. It’s only a dollar or two a foot (cheaper if you buy it in bulk from Bike Tools, Etc. or the like). Remember also that there are two kinds of cable casings…spiral-wound for brakes, linear compression casing for derailleur systems. Don’t mix the two unless you want inaccurate shifting or blown casings and poor braking!

Next, most inner wire (cable) sets are two-ended. Be careful when you get started that you don’t cut off the wrong leaded end — once the wrong end is cut, it’s too late to turn back!

From left to right: barrel end for mountain bike brake levers, mushroom end for road brake levers, mini-barrel for shifters
Leaded ends

How on earth are you supposed to cut cables and casings cleanly? Proper tools are a must — home wire cutters mash the cables and casings and leave a messy, mangled end, so that’s a no-no. Many bike tool makers (Park, Lifu, Cyclo) make specific cable and casing cutters that are expensive but worth it for a clean, precise job. My favorite, though, is the Dremel tool with a reinforced abrasive cutoff wheel. I’m lucky that my wife has a Black and Decker “Wizard” tool that is cordless…which makes things even easier. Don’t tell her I’ve liberated it for my own nefarious purposes!

cutters

A lot of us have Dremel-type tools laying around (and if you don’t, now you have a perfect excuse to run out and buy one — handy for all manner of bike tinkering!). With the cutoff wheel installed, you can make very precise cuts in the casing that need little or no “truing”. To cut cables, just wrap a bit of masking tape at the point you’re going to cut and cut right through the tape and cable. The tape keeps the individual wires from unraveling.

Another trick with the cutoff wheel is to “dress” the end of the casing to give it a nice square end. Just run the casing along the flat top of the cutoff wheel like so:

Dressing the casing end
(I’ll cover making badass .45 caliber zipper pulls in another post)

Once you’ve dressed the end of the casing, reach in the end of it with a sharp nail or file and make sure the liner isn’t mangled.

Swapping your cables and casings out at least once a year will provide smoother braking and shifting and will help keep you from getting stranded with a serious technical problem…no one wants to be late to work, right?

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.


Click here to see a vast selection of cables for your bike.


8 Comments

  1. russ roca January 16, 2008 6:15 pm 

    Cool….never thought of a dremel to dress the casing….if you don’t have a dremel, a file works fine too…

  2. RL Policar January 16, 2008 6:42 pm 

    hmm, I’ve never “dressed” a housing…I’ve always just cut it, insert a nail or old sharpened spoke in it.

  3. Ghost Rider January 16, 2008 7:07 pm 

    Well, then…you’re missing out on the precision that is possible with “dressing”. The casing tip fits better and doesn’t compress into the sloppy end of the casing and everything stays much neater and tighter. Seriously, it only takes a couple extra seconds and separates “advanced” from “hack” 😉

  4. Max January 16, 2008 8:20 pm 

    Are there any cables that are the “best”? I ride North-East Coast (Delaware/PA).

  5. Ghost Rider January 16, 2008 10:08 pm 

    I don’t have any specific recommendations…as long as the cable is stainless steel (teflon-coated or not) and the casing has a liner, they all seem to work the same.

  6. RL Policar January 16, 2008 10:13 pm 

    Max JagWire has some awesome products. Priscilla had it on her mountain bike…for almost 3 years and I never had to replace it.

  7. russ roca January 16, 2008 10:26 pm 

    I read about dressing in a Rivendell Reader…one of the last two issues….if you haven’t gotten a hold of one, it is a MUST read for practical biking tips

  8. Levi January 17, 2008 9:10 am 

    Nice tips! Dremels sure do come in handy :)

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