We’ve all had times when our bike shifting and braking systems have acted up. Ever wondered why? Most of us keep on riding hoping that the problem will fix itself. In most cases, this isn’t going to happen. The good news is that it’s a relatively easy fix – one that you can do at home yourself. There are the occasional cases where it may need taking to your local bike shop.

A bikes cables and cable housings may often just look like a complicated mess. These cables are what keep your bike braking and shifting smoothly all the time. Most bikes these days come with mechanical disc brakes or rim brakes which still utilize cables for braking.


Cables connect each shifter with its derailleur and each brake lever with its caliper. That’s the simplest way to put it. Each cable runs through a rigid housing specifically built for each application. These days, there are primarily two types of cable routings used by bicycle manufacturers.

Some frame manufacturers use external/semi-external housing with stops, allowing the bare cable to run along straight sections of the frame (toptube, downtube), which minimizes weight but leaves the cable more susceptible to contamination. Other designs use internally routed cables, keeping everything tucked safely inside of the frame’s tubing (Usually seen on higher-end bikes). These cables are less susceptible to dirt and contamination – all cables undergo wear as they are used and require frequent attention to work at their best. Internal cable routing makes it a little harder to service often.

Bicycle cables are made of steel strands wound together and bound with an anchor on one end. The anchor will be specific for different styles of brake or shifter manufacturers. Most good-quality cables are made from stainless steel, some coated with an anti-friction material. Newer cables work fine alone but some older cables required you to apply some lube to them to ensure slickness.


There are two types of cable housing, one for brake cables and one for shifter cables.

Brake housing is made from a single, flat strand of steel that is coiled into a tube. The steel tube is then coated and lined with plastic for protection and reduced friction. These types of housings can withstand a high amount of force, which is why they are good for braking applications. Due to the coil construction, the housing does compress slightly -this would be unacceptable as shifter cables.

Shift housing is “compressionless” housing made from several strands of steel running the length of the cable. Because this housing doesn’t compress, it is perfect for shift applications where consistent cable tension is critical.

A plastic outer coating covers the housing’s strands. The housing’s strength under extreme force is minimal, which is why it is not used in high-stress scenarios such as braking.

Both types of housing usually get a fixtures called “ferrules” at the ends, which help create positive interfaces with the frame and components. Like with any moving part, there is wear and tear that takes place within these cables and housings – it’s important to know when it is time to change these cables.

Periodic cable and housing maintenance will ensure they last a long time. Avoiding these few basic steps can end up costing a lot more than if you had just occasionally just had a look at them.


You won’t need to do this too often but the periodicity of this depends on where you live and where you ride.

SETP 1: Without turning the crank, shift into the smallest cog at the back and smallest chainring. This will ease cable tesnion and allow you to remove the cables.

STEP 2: Remove the cables from the housing. You will now be able to slide the sections of housing up and down the cable, exposing the previously hidden areas.

Look out for frayed cables, dirt buildup or corrosion. Replace if you find any bit of deterioration. Re-conditioning these cables are not worth it as they are physically beyond repair.

STEP 3: If they are not damaged, wipe them clean with a rag and apply a lightweight lubricant to the cables, sliding the housing back and forth over the cables to work the lube into the cable housing. Don’t over do it.

STEP 4: Places the cables and housing stops back into the frame/frame stops. Continue pedaling to bring back tension into the cables.

Shifter/brake cables are often neglected on bike simply because nobody knows much about them. They are however very crucial to smooth shifting and braking performance. Keep them clean and occasionally take a look at them to ensure they are not contaminated or rusted. Most times they can be serviced to perform like before.

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About the Author

Shaun George

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT CYCLING I'm an avid mountain biker and I like riding fast and flowy singletrack. As I keep riding, I continuously work on honing my riding skills. I like to ride whenever possible, especially with friends. I also like to influence folk into getting to ride more often. Working on bicycles has also been a keen interest of mine for quite some time. DISCIPLINE: Mountain biking and Road biking CURRENT BIKE: Merida One Twenty 9.600 & Specialized Allez Elite DSW DREAM BIKE: Santa Cruz 5010

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