How Often Should Bike Cables Be Replaced?

No bike rider wants to be brought up short when the brake cable fails, so being in the know about what to look for and when equals preventative maintenance so that failure doesn’t happen.Bikes are certainly not complicated machines.  Or at least that’s what we all thought when first learning to ride a bike.  Maintenance wasn’t an issue, but complicated or not, bikes and the mechanisms that make them go do need regular care. 

Cables should be replaced when they are worn causing the bike functionality to react to that wear and tear.  This is every 2,000 to 3,000 miles. Specific damage to the cables or housing is also cause for replacement.

The bike needs to be safe in its working parts that make your biking adventures happen the way you expect for the way you ride.  Being safe includes identifying when your cables need replacing.  Below is information on recognizing why and when cable replacement is needed.

It’s Time for Bike Cable Replacement

Routine frequency of replacing cables varies among cyclists and bike mechanics, usually based on previous experience or range of miles or years.  The most common answers are:

  • Every 2,000-3,000 miles
  • Once a year
  • Every 2-3 years

Bottom line though is when there is evidence of wear, cables are replaced.  That goes for brake cables and shifter cables. Replacing the housing for both brake and shifter cables at the same time either is replaced is recommended to make replacement less complicated down the line.

Cables wear most often because of breakdowns, or microtears, in the cable filaments.  Some of the physical signs of cable wear are:

  • Fraying
  • Cracks in the cable
  • Discolorations

The Factors That Contribute to Bike Cable Replacement

You won’t have a good ride if your bike has cable issues. We all can guess that weather and environmental conditions, as well as road conditions, do affect the life of bike cables. For example, this should be obvious for those living in hot, sun-drenched climates: basically, your bike needs a sunscreen.  Sunlight damage is a factor in cables deteriorating, so store your bike inside.

If it’s not possible to keep your bike inside, having some sort of cover available will protect not only cables, but your paint job.  A cover will also help the buildup of rust due to rain and damp conditions.

A good indication that it’s time to replace cables is performance, it will suffer and you will know it! Some indications include?

  • Sluggishness in the brakes
  • Poor or jumping shifting
  • Reaction time has slowed down when braking, and
  • Damage to the cable connections, e.g., hitting a curb or rock,

These are all signs that it’s time to do that periodic check or full-on replacement of the cables.

When It’s Time to Shop for Cables

There are several product names you’ll hear most often when you get ready to replace the bike’s cables and housings. For both brake and shifter cables, you’ll hear and read recommendations for:

They each get high marks in all areas important to maintaining high performance, quality, and long wear.

Universal replacement kits are available instead of a separate, specific kit for each type of bike.  For example, mountain bike and road bike or mountain bike, road bike, and gravel bike.  Universal replacement kits may need some tweaking to make them truly universal.

Of course, there are less expensive brands out there.  Preferences and budgets differ.  Consider your investment in your bike and the performance and safety standards you expect when making your purchasing decision.

Do Bike Cables Stretch?

Cables do stretch and that factors into replacement.  Cables are made of either stainless or galvanized steel to withstand the tension of braking and metal will stretch.Shifting and braking are the actions that cause the stretching, so stretching isn’t preventable.

It’s preferable to look for “pre-stretched” in the product info when buying your bike because it would save a lot of time and hassle and cost for the do-it-yourselfers out there or for bike shop repairs.

How Long Do Bike Cables Last?

Bike cables last until performance isn’t what it should be.  How long cables last varies depending on MTB or road bike and conditions your bike is exposed to. It’s not uncommon for mountain bike cables to wear out and be replaced more often than a road bike’s cables.  Pay attention to the bike’s change in performance, do the periodic check, and you’ll get the good performance you expect.

There Are Differences in Bicycle Brakes

If you’re a dedicated cyclist, you will probably have a few different bikes in your backyard shed.  There might be a road bike, a mountain bike, and the latest bike of interest; the gravel bike.  And, each one has a brake cable system to be maintained.

Bikes and the Brakes They Come With

  • Road bike:  Most common are rim (caliper) brakes, but disc brakes are moving in.
  • Mountain bike:  Disc brakes
  • Gravel bike:  Disc brakes

With disc brakes as a possible choice for road bikes, there are points to consider.  For example, disc brakes are more expensive then rim brakes yet need less pressure for braking.  And, disc brakes are heavier than rim brakes but give a faster ride.

The choice for disc brakes is between mechanical and hydraulic.  The choice lies in your preference for the best ride and the easiest maintenance.  The support for hydraulic brakes among riders comes from the fact that cables on the mechanical disc brakes will stretch, but hydraulic fluid won’t.   

Road Bikes

We all know when you’re buying a road bike, you’re buying a bike to get you safely where you want to go on a paved road, not off-road adventure riding.  The brakes commonly used on road bikes are rim or caliper brakes.  It’s true, disc brakes are becoming more popular for use on the road bike, but there are still advantages to the rim breaks, including cheaper than disc brakes and easier to maintain.

Mountain Bikes

The mountain bike is formerly known as the “all terrain” bike. The mountain bike is designed to take on challenging mountain trails with:

  • Snow
  • Sand
  • Mud
  • Any other riding surface

Disc brakes are the standard for mountain bikes whether mechanical or hydraulic. They give better braking performance in all weather and road conditions than rim brakes especially on the steep climb and descent of more rugged mountain terrain.

Gravel Bikes

The gravel bike is a spin on the adventure bike of old.  It takes on the rougher gravel backroads but stills does the job of a road bike. Gravel bikes do use disc brakes.  Because disc brakes have been a staple on mountain bikes for many years, they are best for rough biking terrain, such as the graveled areas like wilderness roads and the old farm roads that would be a little hard to maneuver with the standard road bike.

Conclusion

As a bike owner, the time will come when your bike’s cables will need to be replaced.  How often isn’t necessarily a set time in months or years.  The signs will be in how your bike is responding to the demands you put on it and the eventual wear of its parts.  Or, you might decide preventive maintenance is the path for you and set a specific date to replace cables and housing. Scheduling regular checkups can prevent the surprise of a cable snapping.

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