Ask a Mechanic: Changing Cables and Housing

Aeshir wants to know, is it worth shelling out for expensive cables and housing or even anything but the middle of the road stuff, especially if I replace mine every few months or so?

Great question, Aeshir. Changing cables and housing is a relatively inexpensive way to make sure that your bike is shifting and braking to it’s highest potential. There are lots of options out there when it comes to both the cables and housing you choose to use, so we will take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of the different options.

Let’s start with the cables. The difference between inexpensive cables and more expensive cables is the coating applied to the cable itself.  The most basic cables will be non-coated steel cables, and the more expensive ones will typically be a stainless steel cable with a Teflon coating of some sort.  Non-coated steel cables are susceptible to rust so I stay away from these whenever possible. The types of cables I prefer and use the most are the non-coated stainless steel variety. They are resistant to rust and slide almost as well as the coated cables.  I tend to avoid the coated cables for the most part simply because I’ve had problems with the coating eventually breaking down and separating from the cable no matter which brand you buy.  When it goes unnoticed it creates excessive drag in the housing. Also the coating is very thin so you have to be extra careful when running these cables on your bike and getting them set up, especially with all the internal cable routing we’re seeing on frames these days. However it should be noted that when installed with care and done properly, coated cables will provide a lighter action at the shifter, which translates into better, more precise, shifting or braking.

Let’s move on to the housing.  All shift housing is compressionless and has some form of lubrication within the plastic liner running down the center of the housing. More expensive housing is the alloy link style that consists of a series of small alloy bits that bend and move together with a plastic liner running down the center, as opposed to the traditional shift housing which consists of a bunch of small wires running parallel to the cable that are sandwiched between the inner plastic liner and the outer casing. If your bike’s cable routing requires a tight bend I would recommend going with either the Jagwire Elite Road Link systems or the Nokon cable and housing sets. Otherwise, the traditional style housing will work just fine, and since there is very minimal difference between brands, go with what’s available. When it comes to brake housing you have a couple of options as well.  There’s the traditional helical-wound brake housing as well as compressionless housing.  If you choose to use compressionless housing you have to make sure it is specific to brakes.  Compressionless brake housing is typically reinforced with Kevlar to be able to withstand the forces exerted during braking. Compressionless brake housing is also much stiffer than the helical housing so the set up process needs to be much more precise.

Even though I said I avoid them, coated cables do provide a better feel when it comes to both shifting and braking.  If you stay on top of your bike maintenance and can afford the extra cost, I would recommend them because you will be rewarded with lighter, more precise shifting and braking. With regards to housing, just stick with the traditional stuff and save a little money.