An apology to my bike (and a guide to fixing a new gear cable)
My bicycle is my most trusted possession; she is my passport to adventure, my free ticket to work, my trusty pack horse and my faithful steed. But I’ve been guilty in recent weeks of not listening to her. And you will ignore your bike at your peril. A happy bike is a quiet bike: a dry chain will squeak, a broken hub bearing will knock, a loose fitting will rattle. If your bike is talking, listen. I admit to being guilty of not listening.
Every time I reached for the gear lever it creaked in protest. It was saying, ‘Anna, please fix me!’ Each sluggish, sticky shift of the gear said, ‘Please, a new cable is all I ask!’ Eventually, the lever got so stiff I had to pull it from the opposite side, with each man-handling grab the cable complaining, ‘I am old and rusty! Help me, please!!’
Every day I thought, ‘I should do something about this. I have the tools and the knowledge.’ But there is always something else more important to do. And I worried, ‘What if it isn’t as simple as a cable change? What if I have to buy a new chain and gears?’ That was more expense and trouble than I cared to contemplate; it was a job for another day. So I continued to ride, and the bike continued to complain.
Eventually, so tired was she of my procrastination, she played a cruel but much-deserved trick: the cable snapped mid-ride, leaving me struggling up the Bath hills in the highest gear. My hand was forced.
It took a mere 15 minutes to change the cable, and she now rides like a new bike. No longer am I wrenching at the lever to force a rusted cable into action; the lightest of touches is all that is needed. At once, I have re-fallen in love with my bicycle. Bikey, I’m sorry I ignored you for so long. It won’t happen again.
Bicycle maintenance is empowering, very useful and easy to learn. Here’s how to fit a new gear cable.
Tools needed: cable cutters, 5mm allen key / 9mm spanner, pliers
Parts needed: gear cable, cable housing, cable end, lubricant spray e.g TF2. These are available cheaply from your local bike shop.
1.Removing the cable
Depending on the bike you have, you might need to open the gear shifter to access the cable. With drops, simply pull the drop brake lever and you’ll see the round silver top of the cable. A good place to snip the cable is at the derailleur end, near the bolt, then push the cable through and the top should easily come out. As mine had snapped, I needed to root around with needle-nose pliers in the shifter to grab it. Make a note of the route of the cable, as you’ll need to know that when you put the new one in.
2. Replacing/servicing the cable housing
Your metal cable runs inside the plastic cable outer, which is lined with metal. These can both rust and corrode, leading to sticky gears. You can replace the outer to make super-smooth, long-lasting gear changes, though servicing the outer also does the trick (in my case, I like the grey colour and only have black to replace it, so I’m keeping the old one). If replacing, snip the new cable to the length of the old one. If servicing, give a good spray down the cable housing with a lubricant spray. This can be messy, so make sure you have an old cloth to hand.
3. Fitting the new cable
First, and most importantly, make sure your shifter is set to the highest gear. This is where the cable is most slack, so must be installed in this gear in order for them to index properly. Next, route the cable, from the shifter, through the cable outer (this usually has a butt on the frame to hold it), likely in a groove at the bottom of the frame (underneath the bottom bracket), through more cable outer, through the barrel adjuster (at this point, make sure your barrel adjuster is fully screwed in) and into the clamp. There are many different types of clamp, but usually there is a groove where the cable sits. I tend to hold the cable to tension with the pliers while tightening the bolt.
4. Testing the cable and indexing the gears
Change through the gears (either in a stand or by riding the bike); the cable will probably be too slack at this point and will need pulling through more. Remember to leave the shifter in the highest gear before adjusting the cable each time. You are looking for one gear change per click of the shifter. If the cable is as tight as you can get it, and the gear is still not shifting from the highest to next highest, unwind the barrel adjuster (quarter turns will do) and keep testing until the cable is at the correct tension. Once the two highest gears are shifting correctly, the rest should follow suit – check through the gears to make sure, and make small changes to the barrel adjuster if necessary. Unwinding the barrel adjuster tightens the cable (by increasing the length of the housing, science fans).
5. Tidying up
Snip the cable an inch beyond the bolt, and add the cable end. This needs to be clamped onto the cable – the cutters might have a clamp feature, or use the pliers. If you neglect to do this, the cable will fray and will need replacing again!