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Cables & Housing

Repair & Tech Info - Bikeman Tech Info

Brakes, shifters, Campy, Shimano - cables come in many flavors. Too often overlooked when setting up a drivetrain; cables and housing can be the major cause of mis-shifting and heavy shifter feel. Here is a basic run-down on the ins and outs of bicycle cables.


There are two basic types of cables; brake and shifter.  Brake cables are thicker, typically 1.5/1.6mm in diameter.  Brake cables come with a choice of three different heads - one for mountain/flat bar brake levers, one for Shimano road/drop bar brake levers (compatible with most non-Shimano levers), and one for Campagnolo road/drop bar brake levers.  A Shimano cable head is slightly larger than a Campy head so it may not fit into a Campy road brake.
Bicycle Cable Heads

A.  Shimano Brake Cable
B.  Campagnolo Brake Cable
C.  Mountain Brake Cable
D.  Shimano Shifter Cable
E.  Campagnolo Shifter Cable

Derailleur cables are thinner, 1.1/1.2mm in diameter.  There are two heads available on derailleur cables - Shimano and Campagnolo.  A Shimano cable head is slightly larger than a Campy head so it may not fit into a Campy shifter.


Just like with cables, housing comes in two different types; brake and shifter.  From the outside they may look the same - but they are in fact very different.

Brake housing is built around a wire that coils down the length of the cable.  This structure gives the great strength needed for the power generated by the brake lever.
Brake HousingShifter Housing
Shifter cables see different forces so the housing is built differently.  Shifter housing is built around many length-wise running cables that make the housing 'compressionless' which aids in the crisp feel of shifting - especially needed on today's 8/9/10/11 speed cassettes.

4&5mm Housing

Shifter housing also comes in two different outside diameters, 4mm and 5mm.  New bikes and shifter sets typically come with 4mm housing.  Most 4mm housing will have plastic ferrules at the ends while 5mm housing uses metal ferrules.  Here at Bikeman we recommend using 5mm shift housing.

Other variations of housing include housing made from many aluminum segments, like Nokon housing.  On the positive side the aluminum housing is stiff, lightweight, and reusable.  On the negative side there is a lot more set up time, cost, and care must be taken to be sure that the frame is protected as aluminum housing will rub paint off where it contacts the frame.

Please Note: Due to their construction, brake housing should always be used with brakes and shifter housing should always be used with shifters.  Shifter housing could fail if used on a brake (not good when you want to stop), brake housing could make that shifter feel a little dead.

Bikeman's Cable Recommendations

As I mentioned earlier, cables are far too often an afterthought when setting up a drivetrain and an easy place to skimp out on.  Cables aren't all created equally.  A good quality cable can really improve the feel and action of your shifter or brake.  In the store we prefer slick stainless cables.  The 'slick' part of that refers to a process in which the cable is drawn through a circular die that smooths out the braids on the outside of the cable.  A couple extra dollars spent on a cable like this is well worth it.

Most bikes you buy at a bike shop come built up with 4mm derailleur housing that uses plastic end caps.  Your bike will thank you once you get rid of it.  Here at Bikeman we only recommend using 5mm shift housing with metal end caps.  Not only is the housing itself much more durable, the metal end caps resist bending at a sharp angle which creates unnecessary drag on the cable system.  If you have housing with plastic end caps look at the condition of the end caps where they enter the frame housing stops/derailleur/barrel adjusters - if they are bent at an angle your cable is dragging way more than it should and the housing should be replaced.

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