Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
Thanks to a reader’s excellent question, I get to tell a brief “adventure story” from one of my first long rides, which took place in the mid 1960s aboard a “3-speed racer.” That’s what we used to call British road bikes, such as Robin Hoods, Phillips, Triumphs, etc.
They were “racers,” because they were a lot lighter than the more popular American one-speed bikes at the time. Plus they sported Sturmey-Archer 3-speed internal gearing. More gears makes you faster, right?
Layne asked, “I would like to read what you have to say about deciding when cables need replacing and what to do if one breaks on the road. One of my favorite routes has long, winding, fast descents and I often wonder how I would stop the bike should one of the brake cables snap? If it ever happens, I hope it is to the rear brake because the front brake does most of the work.”
Stupid Bike Tricks
Layne’s question about how to stop without brakes is where my British racer story comes in. I was 10 or 11 when my dad found me the bike. It was a hand-me-down and was missing some parts, most notably the brake levers and cables.
I fixed the bike up best I could and decided to try riding it without fixing the brakes. Most of the bikes I had before had foot brakes, also known as coaster brakes because the rear hub was also the only brake. To stop, you pushed back on the pedal with your foot.
Looking at the brakeless 3-speed I realized I could use my foot to stop it, too! To do it, I moved my left foot from the pedal to the left chainstay. I put the ball of my foot on the chainstay and I was able to put my heel on the rear tire to stop the bike.
Believe it or not, using this ridiculously risky braking maneuver I managed to complete a 60 mile ride with plenty of traffic, stops and lights. The only bad part was rubbing a hole through and ruining my shoe, which my father wasn’t happy about at all.
Brake Cable Failure Pretty Much a Thing of the Past
Fortunately, even if you wanted to try my stupid foot brake trick, it’s unlikely you would ever need to. Because brake cables have improved tremendously since the 1960s as has brake cable housing, brakes and brake levers.
And, in the rare event you were to break one cable, the other brake front or rear would do fine to slow you to a safe speed. That’s assuming the rest of the brake, such as the rim or disc rotor, brake pads, caliper, cable, housing and lever are all working well.
You are correct that the front brake does most of the work. But the rear brake adjusted properly will be able to stop you just fine, too.
If you’re traveling fast, you may want to sit up tall and make yourself into a sail to use your air brake, too. Also, you want to avoid skidding the rear wheel. To do this keep your body weight back over the rear wheel.
How Long Do They Last?
In my first bike shop in 1971, we used to recommend replacing brake and shift cables yearly. Back then most cables were inexpensive French cables and they stretched and could break at the head inside the lever or cable anchor bolt.
Plus, the anchor bolts (also called “pinch bolts”) weren’t designed to simply hold the cable. They often crushed it and broke one or more strands of the cable. This led to fraying and breaking cables.
I give credit to Campagnolo for coming out with the first high quality cables and housing and caliper brakes with safe anchor bolts. Once they raised the bar, their competitors got on board.
The photos here come from Dale Brown’s wonderful website of all things vintage road bike at www.classicrendezvous.com If you love classic lightweights, check it out and consider joining their Google group. It’s free and full of entertaining and informative talk about these rare and exquisite bicycles.
Fast Forward to Modern Cables
Today, I have brake cables that are 5, even 10 years old that are still showing no sign of giving up the ghost. It’s because these cables are such high quality to begin with and because they’re protected by excellent housings and nothing in them or where they connect to the lever or brake can harm them.
Still, to be safe, I keep spare cables and housings on hand. I prefer and recommend using the cables recommended by the company that made your brakes. For example, I only use Shimano Dura-Ace cables and housing sets on my Dura-Ace brakes.
So When Should You Replace Cables?
Back to Layne’s question on when to replace cables, it depends on their quality and condition. Keep in mind that even quality cables can fail if they were installed poorly.
But if you have quality cables installed correctly, they ought to hold up fine for at least three years in my estimation. If you ride in extreme weather or crash a lot, you could need new ones much sooner, of course.
Thoughts on Aftermarket Cable Kits
I know there are companies that specialize in aftermarket cables and housings. These will work if it’s all that’s available. In my experience, however, for the best performance, stick with the cables and housing that came with your brakes.
The exception would be if your brakes came with inferior cables and housing. Some bikes come with off brand brakes, cables and housings. Sometimes these brakes can be improved with aftermarket kits.
How Do You Inspect Cables?
The first check is how they feel when you squeeze the levers. Quality cables pull and release smoothly, no binding, no roughness. Also, the pull is consistent, the same travel in the levers. This changes slightly as brake pads wear, which is normal and doesn’t indicate a problem with the cables.
You should regularly inspect the cables and housing for any signs of wear. Housing can crack and bend. Exposed sections of some types of cables may rust. If the cables don’t have crimped caps on the ends (or solder – not as common now), the cable end might fray.
A cable fraying at the end can usually be rewound and capped. If not, look closely to make sure the cable isn’t failing above the anchor bolt, which means it could break. That’s not usually the case if it’s only fraying on the end, but it’s worth double checking to be sure.
Checks and Repairs
Cracked housing sections should be trimmed or the entire piece should be replaced. Bent housing should be evaluated and straightened or replaced. Because tight bends and too many bends increase friction.
Rusted cables and those with any fraying along the working length should be replaced. Even though the rust or failure might only be on the outside strands, they’re just as important as the inner ones.
Look Inside the Levers
It’s not easy to evaluate the brake cable heads, the lead ball ends that are inside the brake levers. You can look inside and usually see part of the cable to tell if they’re shiny (good) or rusty (time to replace).
You may not be able to see the points where the cables meet the heads. That’s where cables can corrode leading to failure. If you can’t see it, you might be able to feel it. When corrosion sets in the levers can feel a little rougher. You might also hear a slight crunch or click sound. You can also pull hard on the levers to test their strength. If they hold, that’s a good sign. If not, it’s better to find out at home that you need a new cable.
I hope this brief overview puts your mind at ease on those downhills, Layne. Readers, please chime in with your experience on brake cable life and any other tips for Layne.
10,193 Daily Rides in a Row
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.