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by Sheldon "Friction's Foe" Brown
revised by John "Fatigue's Foe" Allen
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How Cables Work

Cables used on bicycles are in two parts. The inner wire is made of strands of steel twisted together. The outer housing is also made of flexible steel, usually wound in a helix. The inner wire runs down the middle of the housing. Both parts are equally important: neither can work without the other.

Isaac Newton said "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." In the case of bicycle cables, this means that there cannot be a pull on an inner cable without an equal push on the housing. The housing gives the pull of the cable something to pull against. 

That's how the cable can apply force to one arm of a sidepull brake, and the housing, to the other arm. Looking at the brake, you will see that the cable pulls, and the housing pushes -- equal and opposite.

Or, think of a tug-of-war: The two teams are pulling on opposite ends of the rope, like the brake lever and the brake.  The ground underneath is placed in compression, like the cable housing.

To save weight, many bicycles substitute the bicycle frame for some sections of the housing. This is done by attaching "cable stops" to the frame or fork. A cable stop has a socket to receive an end of a cable housing, and a small hole or slot through which the inner cable can pass, but the housing can't. The "push" of the housing is transferred to the frame, so the inner wire can run bare until it gets to another cable stop facing the other way, where the "push" from the frame is transferred back to another length of housing.

This "bare cable" routing can be done anywhere that the cable runs in a straight line and doesn't have to bend. Housing must be used from the handlebars to the frame, to accommodate the turning of the handlebars as the bicycle is steered. Housing must also be used where a cable moves the two arms of a brake in opposite directions. Sometimes, the inner wire is stationary and only the housing moves -- see this example. Lengths of housing are also commonly used when the direction of pull of the cable must be changed.

Bare cable may also pass over a pulley to change its direction. Most shift levers use a pulley sector to store the cable that they take up and release.

Why cables?

Many motor vehicles have a cable to operate the throttle, and some have cable-operated parking brakes. But hydraulic service brakes have been usual for decades. So, are they the wave of the future for bicycles too?

Why would you want your bicycle equipped with hydraulic brakes, or for that matter, electronic shifting?

On the other hand, why might it make sense to stick with cables?

All in all, hydraulic brake actuation is an expensive option that can somewhat improve brake performance. Electronic shifting also is expensive. Its main advantage is to improve convenience of shifting. Both pose the increased risk breakdown that can't be repaired during a ride.

Cable operation is becoming less common on high-end road bikes and mountain bikes, but it is the norm on everyday bicycles.

Good Cable Installation For Good Braking And Shifting

Gearshift and brake cables often show the difference between a hastily assembled bike and one which has been assembled by a mechanic who cared what he or she was doing.

Especially now that new handlebar designs seem to come along every week, a good mechanic must understand the theory of routing cables. One can no longer rely on a couple of rote "rules of thumb" for routing cables correctly.

Although people pay a lot of attention to what kind of derailers and brakes are fitted to a particular bicycle, good cable installation practices are more important than most differences between different brake and shift systems. The most expensive brakes and derailers will work poorly if there is excessive friction or play in their control cables. Even cheap brakes and derailers can usually be made to perform satisfactorily if care is used in installing the cables.

The great majority of service problems with brakes and gears results from cable friction or misadjustment, not deficiencies in the levers, calipers or derailers.

Types of inner wire

The inner wire of a bicycle cable is actually a sheaf of very thin wires, twisted together the same way as a rope.

The inner wire has a fitting at one end to attach it to the brake or shift lever. The other end of the cable is usually clamped into place by an anchor bolt, and so there is no fitting on that end. Brake cable has one of the two fittings shown in the photo below -- cylindrical end, for flat-bar levers, mushroom end for drop-bar levers. Sometimes an inner wire is sold double-ended, with both kinds of fittings, as in the photo below. This inner wire must be cut before it can be used. Because the front brake cable is short, it is often is possible to get two usable inner wires from a single double-ended one.

Double-ended brake cable

Most shifter cables have a small cylindrical end with the axis parallel to the wire, as shown in the photo below.

Shifter cable.

Some older shifters take a cable whose cylindrical end comes out of the side of the cylinder, as in the photo below. It shows a partially disassembled Huret shift lever.

Old-type shfiter cable.

The inner wire of brake cable is thicker than that of shifter cable, because it must resist higher tension.

Comparison of brake and shift cables

Types of Cable Housing

Conventional Helical Housing

At first glance, many people assume that cable housing is made of plastic. Actually, it is steel, and the plastic is a covering to protect it from moisture, and to keep it from scratching the paint of the bicycle.

Traditional cable housing is a tightly-wrapped helix of steel wire, sort of like a small-diameter Slinky. It has no particular strength in tension (pulling) but it cannot be compressed because the coils of wire are tight against one another.

Through the 1970's, the inner wire ran right through the steel helical housing, usually using grease for lubrication. Modern housing, however, has a plastic liner which surrounds the inner cable. This considerably reduces the friction. Some high-end cable systems, such as the Gore-Tex "Ride-On" cables, extend this liner even along the areas where there is no housing. These systems also have a special friction-reducing coating on the inner wires.

Parts of traditional cable
Baran Ivo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons, rotated and cropped
plastic outer covering helical housing plastic liner inner cable

"Compressionless" Index-compatible Housing

With helical housing, indexed shifting and handlebar-mounted shift levers resulted in imprecise shifting. The effective length of the housing changes as it is flexed: the turns of the helix spread apart on the outside of the curve.

Extension of cable housing when flexed

"compressionless" is a marketing expression. Actually, index-compatible cable housing is extensionless: Helical cable housing is just about as compressionless.

The slight extension of the housing is not a problem with brakes: sometimes the rear brake may drag slightly when the handlebars are turned all the way to one side, but you can't turn the bars that far when the bike is actually in motion. The small variation in housing length was too much for reliable indexed shifting, however, so Shimano introduced "S.I.S." housing, now widely copied by other manufacturers. This type of housing does not have a single helical-wound wire, but instead, it has a bundle of wires running pretty much straight along parallel to the housing. They are held in place by being sandwiched between the plastic housing liner and the plastic outer covering.

Parts of index-compatible cable
Index-compatible cable
plastic outer covering longitudinal wires plastic liner inner cable

Index-compatible housing doesn't change length significantly as its curvature changes, and so the shifter is able to communicate the correct setting to the derailer, even as the handlebars are turned, and the loops of cable housing bounce up and down due to bumps.

Warning: Since index-compatible housing relies on plastic to hold it together, it is not as strong as conventional helical housing, and should never be used for brakes! The loads applied to brake cables can easily cause index-compatible housing to rupture and burst, causing a complete and sudden loss of brake function.

Extra care must be used in routing index-compatible housing because it is also less flexible than conventional housing.

(You may be able to get away with helical housing where there is little or no change in cable curvature. I use helical housing for the handlebar-end shifters on my Bike Friday folding bicycle. The cable's greater flexibility makes the bicycle easier to disassemble and pack for travel. My Bike Friday has an 8-sprocket cassette. A cassette with more sprockets would be more finicky, because the sprockets are closer together..

"String of beads" cable housing

Nokon cable housingThe German company Nokon manufactures cables with housings consisting of small, rigid, interlocking aluminum segments, with a low-friction plastic liner. When installed, the cable in its housing looks somewhat like a string of beads. This system is index-compatible but allows much more flex than ordinary index-compatible housing, and also can be used for brakes. The interlocking ends of the segments keep flex below the limit where the inner wire would be damaged. Nokon cables are very expensive but worth the price in demanding applications, especially where the cable must be flexed sharply. One important application is where a cable must pass the hinge of a folding bicycle. "String of beads" cable housing is also made by Jagwire and perhaps other suppliers..

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Cutting Housing and Preparing the Ends

A very common source of excessive cable friction or "sponginess" is improper cutting or failure to shape the ends of the cable properly, allowing actual compression.

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Cable Routing

The Four Commandments of Cable Routing:

  1. The handlebars must be able to turn as far as they can in both directions without being limited by a cable pulling taut. Instead, the turning limit must be set by the handlebar bumping into the top tube or by the brake arm or reflector bracket bumping into the down tube.
  2. No wrong direction bends (For example: as the rear brake cable leaves the top tube and makes the bend down toward the caliper, it should make a smooth transition from parallel to the top tube to parallel to the seat stays. If the cable bends up from the top tube before bending down toward the seat stays, it is probably too long. If the cable curves out past the caliper, then bends back at an angle more vertical than the seat stays, it is certainly too long.
  3. Bends that cannot be avoided should be made as wide (gradual) as possible,
  4. Cable housings should be as short as they can be without violating the above rules. If a housing is attached to a part that moves, test it at the extreme positions it will take when in use. Apply a brake; shift a derailer to the positions where the cable is tightest and where it bends the housing the furthest in each direction.

Brake Cable Routing

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Gear Cable Routing

Over or Under the Bottom Bracket?


Cable that runs either over or under the bottom bracket can sometimes contribute to "autoshifting", spontaneous upshifts of the rear derailer under heavy load. This issue is addressed in a separate article.

"Criss-Cross" Cables

Most bicycles with handlebar-mounted shifters run the rear cable on the right, the front on the left. This causes some awkwardness in routing housing from the shift levers to the frame stops. Because these housings have to be long enough to permit the bars to turn all the way back and forth, the housings often wind up making a reverse bend--for instance, the rear will go from the shifter, which is on the right, swing forward and cross over past the centerline of the bicycle, then back over to the right side of the head tube, before heading down the down tube. These extra bends increase friction, and the fairly forcible contact between the housing and the side of the head tube can damage the finish.

A neat solution to this is to run the cables "criss-cross" style: The rear runs from the lever, (on the right) around the head tube, and to the cable stop on the left side of the downtube! The front cable crosses over similarly from the left side of the handlebar to the right side of the down tube.

The bare cables then cross one another under the middle of the downtube, making an "X". The cables may touch where they cross, but they will do so very lightly, since they are both straight...the tiny bit of friction at this crossing is more than offset by the reduction in friction in the smoother-flowing cable housings.

This technique does not work with over-the-bottom-bracket cable routing, but is doable with most newer bikes that have under-the-bottom-bracket cable routing and cable stops mounted toward the bottom side of the down tube.

This site also contains an extensive article on Derailer Adjustment.

Square knot in cableCable too Short? Too Long?

New cable too short? This problem can occur when you can't get a long cable for a tandem or when you need to re-use a front cable at the rear, so don't necessarily throw away cut-off inner wire. It can be spliced where it runs outside housing. There are commercial cable splitters, for bicycles with separable frames. Two cable anchor bolts in a strip of metal drilled at both ends also will do the trick. In an emergency, two lengths of cable can be spliced together with a square knot. Bend each piece into a tight "U" shape a couple of inches from the end, then loop them together to form the knot and pull hard on the cable with the lever to tighten it up. You may have to readjust it more than once. Highly flexible braided cable may need to be bent into a "Z" shape so it can be knotted once more in order to hold.

You probably don't want to carry a cable cutter with you as you ride. You can temporarily shorten a replacement cable by coiling it and wrapping the end around the coils.

Cable bootThese Boots are made for Cabling

Where a cable end faces upwards, rainwater can run down inside the housing. The water can rust the cable, but worse, in cold weather, the water can freeze and disable a brake a few minutes after taking the bicycle outdoors. The boot used where the cable of a direct-pull brake crosses between the brake arms can be used here to keep water out. Pack the boot with grease to keep water from running down inside. Oiling the cable also helps.


Cable Lubrication

In the old days, before the development of plastic-lined housing, it was necessary to coat the inner cable with light grease or heavy oil.

Modern plastic-lined cables have made the use of grease inappropriate, because the viscosity of the grease makes for sluggish cable movement. This is a more critical concern with modern brake and gear systems that use weaker return springs, and with indexed shifting in general.

Many manufacturers now recommend against using any lubrication on cables. It certainly should be avoided in the case of sealed systems such as Gore-Tex ®. Bicycles used in wet conditions, however, will often benefit by the application of a bit of oil, more as a rust-preventive than as a lubricant. The area of particular concern is the short loop of housing which carries the rear derailer cable around from the chainstay to the derailer.

Some bicycles provide awkward cable routing which forces housing to enter cable stops/adjusting barrels at a fairly sharp angle. This is particularly common on rear cantilever brakes. It often helps to put a bit of grease on the bit of cable that runs through such fittings.

Hardware Lubrication

Much of the hardware associated with cables requires lubrication on assembly.

Cable failure

As just mentioned, cables can slip if not securely anchored. Housing can get bent; cables and housings can rust and seize up. These problems are obvious and call for replacement.

If helical housing catches on something and takes on a permanent bend, it extends. Bending it back straight does not necessarily restore it to its original length. Turns of the helix may remain separated, resulting in spongy braking or imprecise shifting. Index-compatible housing is easier to damage, because it is less flexible, but the length of a bent cable is more constant.

Cables generally don't wear, but they can fatigue and fail when bent back and forth repeatedly, the same way it is possible to break a paperclip. Cables usually break at an end or where they pass over a pulley. Usually there is no symptom until the cable fails: prevention is by replacing cables on a schedule, or at least checking them frequently. Carry spare cables!

A pulley large enough to avoid fatiguing bicycle cable would be at least a couple of inches across -- impractical for shift levers. A handlebar-end shifter, as shown in the photo below, may give a warning: frayed cable strands may prick fingers, or impair shifting as they push against the housing end stop.

A cable which has begun to fray due to repeated bending frayed cable

Indicator chains of Sturmey-Archer internal-gear hubs have solved the cable fatigue problem for more than a century -- and so, instead, Sturmey-Archer cables fail where they pass over the pulley sector in the shifter.

A compact, lightweight pullchain isn't strong enough to resist the cable pull of a brake, and so a pivot at the cable end is needed instead. The cable-end socket inside a drop-bar brake lever is free to rotate, and so the cable can align itself with the direction of its pull. Flat-bar levers generally rely on the cylindrical cable fitting to make this adjustment. Lubrication of the pivot is important.

Many brakes and derailers attach the cable with an anchor bolt that does not allow the cable to align itself. This problem is generally worst with front derailers. Bending also occurs where a transverse cable passes over the yoke of a cantilever or centerpull brake.

A shift-cable failure usually doesn't lead to a crash, but a brake-cable failure very easily can. This is one reason that every bicycle other than a track-racing bicycle needs two independent braking systems. (The drivetrain of a fixed-gear bicycle does count as one, if the cyclist is skillful in using it for braking.)

(David Gordon Wilson has written an article covering the issue of cable fatigue.)

Take The Trouble To Do It Right

At the risk of repeating myself, let me again urge you to pay careful attention to all aspects of cable routing. Care in cable installation is much more important than having the latest titanium doo-dads!

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Articles by Sheldon Brown and Others

Reports of the demise of this Web site are greatly exaggerated! We at thank Harris Cyclery for its support over the years. Harris Cyclery has closed, but we keep going. Keep visiting the site for new and updated articles, and news about possible new affilations.

Copyright © 1997, 2008 Sheldon Brown

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