For most bikes both gears and brakes rely upon cables for their mechanical operation. The exceptions are hydraulic brakes and electronic gears (although with the latter, in most instances, a cable is still involved).
If your brakes are feeling spongey or sticky or your gears are not shifting smoothly and you have already checked your brake pads and adjusted your derailleurs, it is most likely that the problem will lie with your cables.
The good news is that cables tend to be relatively cheap. The bad news is that they can be a bit fiddly to fit, not least because you will have to readjust your brakes/gears after you have replaced the cables.
Your cables come in two parts: the inner cable (the wire) and the outer cable or housing. You will normally need to replace the inner cable more often than the outer. The outer cable will also have plastic or metal caps on both ends of each length called housing ferules. These help guide the inner cable directly into the outer cable without cutting into it and snagging.
You will also note that both the inner and outer cables for brakes are fatter than those for gears. Do not mix the two or try and use gear cable for brakes and vice versa.
The key to getting your cabling performing well is to find a path for the cable that offers the smoothest arcs for the shortest length. This is because both attributes will reduce the amount of friction between the inner and the outer cables. If your gears and brakes have previously run smoothly then the best solution is to replicate what already exists. So, if you need to change outer cabling note its path before removing it (perhaps take a photo on your phone for reference) and then cut new outer cable to the same lengths as the old.
The same theory applies to the inner cable – follow the existing path.
Make sure to use good quality cable cutters when cutting both inner and outer cabling. This will ensure neat, clean cuts. With outer cabling make sure the hole for the inner cable is fully open and not crimped as this will cause friction, the main thing you are trying to overcome. You can use anything small and pokey, like a compass point or a darning needle, but I find the wickedly sharp Swiss Army knife attachment for removing stones from horses hooves works a treat (it is also good for lancing saddle sores but that is another topic entirely).
One of the trickiest job can be getting the gear cables inserted into the levers on road bikes. The cable will have an anchor on one end (lump of metal). The free end threads into a small hole, normally underneath the lever and it will only go in when the lever is clicked through to the position where the cable is fully released (on the smallest cog). Once you have located the hole, click the lever one way and then the other until you see the anchor on the old cable.
Now, undo the bolt on the derailleur holding the cable in place and remove the end cap from the cable. By pushing the cable back through, the anchor should pop out. You could now pull the cable through completely and insert the new one. However, the new cable will often catch. I have found a good technique is, rather than pulling the old cable out, snip the anchor off with cable snips and then push it back through using the new cable. The new cable might still catch but at least you can locate where it is catching and help it through.
Once the new cables are in place you will need to pull them tight and then hold them in place with the bolts at the brakes or derailleurs. Then, depending on the cable changed, tension the cables fully by either pulling on the brake lever a few times or clicking through the gears to take up any slack. Once you have done this, loosen the bolt, pull the cable tight again and re-tighten the bolt.
Kickstart your Land’s End to John O’Groats planning
Everything you need to know to get you started on your Lands End to John O Groats adventure is contained within these three books: a How To, a detailed account of riding the Google Map route for LEJOG and a ‘safe’ Route Book using GPX files.
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Available as electronic or paperback books from as little as £2.99 each or get all 3 for the price of 2 through this site for only £5.98. That’s less than an inner tube or a Costa coffee with a slice of cake.
Where to next?
The most popular pages on the site concern planning your End to End, including training for long distance cycling, thinking about the cycling equipment you will need, how to look after your bike, what you should be eating and drinking whilst cycling and how to create a route for Lands End to John O’Groats. Or you can read my own account of cycling End to End to get some idea of what to expect.