How to replace brake cables

New year, new cables. That’s an adage that will totally catch on.

Over time brake cables gather dirt, water seeps into them and they get worn out. This is one of the repairs you will want to do occasionally and not wait for the part to break before you fix it.Replacing cables is a good thing to do annually, or sooner if you ride a lot.  You will instantly be able to tell the difference after replacing cables. The braking will be more smooth and efficient. Perhaps throw cable replacement in with a general bike check over and spruce up.

This guide will specifically take you through replacing the brake cable for straight handlebar brakes. The process is very similar for other brake lever types, only really altered by access to the cable. This will vary by manufacturer and information is often available on their websites, so you can easily apply most of this guide to any non-hydrolic cable replacement with a little intuition.

colourful cables

Why not add some colour to your bike in the process?

You’ll need a new brake cable. You should check this is the same as your current brake cable with the same nipple style on the end. This will vary depending on the type of brakes you have. You’ll also need the cable outer casing (also known as cable housing) if you intend on replacing it, as well as metal ferrules, an end cap (often included) and a wire cutter. Make sure you use a professional wire cutter. If you don’t have one ask your local bike shop to cut the cable using your existing cables as guidance.

Before you remove the brake cable, take a look at how it is currently threaded around your bike. This will vary between different bikes. If you don’t have very good memory then take pictures of the way it is threaded so you can repeat this once it is removed. Using an Allen key undo the clamp bolt that holds the brake cable in place.

Cable routing

Turn the barrel adjuster and line it up so that the cable can be threaded through, and ease out the cable. You will need to pull the brake lever to expose the nest where the cable nipple is held. Pull out the old cable and keep all the parts.

Cable ends

Check the outer casing to see if it has any kinks. If it does then this will definitely need replacing otherwise you can use the existing casing, unless it is very old, then it is worth replacing anyway. If you are using new outer casing then cut it to the same length as the existing one. If you don’t already have outer casing you will need to estimate the length that is needed. This can be tricky, so it may be worth getting advice from an expert.

If the outer casing is too long then the braking will not be efficient. Use good quality wire cutters to be sure the ends of the outer casing are cut square. Often you will need a screwdriver to clear the opening as this can get squashed when you cut them to the correct length. If you are replacing the casing then attach metal ferrules to the end of it. Depending on the bike, you may not need to attach a ferrule on the end nearest the brake unit, as this goes into the noodle. It’s a good idea to drop a little bit of lubricant into the ferrules to keep everything working well.


A noodle, the non-yummy kind

If the new brake cable you have bought has two types of nipple attached to either end choose the one that matches the type you have already. Apply a very thin layer of grease to the cable using your fingers or a cloth. This is just to prevent rust and only a tiny amount is needed. Then thread the cable through outer casing.

Then hook it back onto the brake lever, starting at the nipple. To do this, pull the lever and slide the nipple into the nest. Thread the cable through the brake lever and through the barrel adjuster. Then turn the barrel adjuster so that the cable cannot escape. Slide the outer casing into the barrel adjuster.On the other side of the cable, you will want to put the metal noodle back on. Also, the rubber will need sliding back on. This should be done with the large side first.

Thread it through the cable clamp bolt, then tighten the bolt loosely just to hold it in place for now. Then reconnect the brake with the arm that holds it in place. You can then make any further adjustments you need to do by undoing the cable clamp bolt and pulling the wire through.

tighten the boltNow it’s time to test your new brake cable. Pull the lever down hard twice. When you pull your brake lever halfway the brakes should be fully engaged. If this does not happen then you need to adjust the cable from the cable clamp bolt, letting out or in a bit of cable. It is a good idea to start with the barrel adjuster fully tightened so that, then as the cable stretches and the brake pads wear, you can loosen it.

Double check all the bolts are firmly tightened and the wire end is tucked away. If you do have excess cable then cut this off using the wire cutters, leaving about 3-4 inches of cable for future adjustment. The cable should then have an end cap on it to prevent the wire splitting which should be fastened by pressing down on the open end. Test your brake out a few times to check everything is working okay.

End cap

New cables always stretch out after a bit of use, this is partly why new bikes come with a first free service. If your brakes start feeling a little spongy in a few weeks, you can adjust them at the barrel or the clamp, whichever you prefer.

Do you have any tips for changing cables?

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17 Responses to How to replace brake cables

  1. Sabrina 01/01/2016 at 2:25 pm #

    Perfect timing! I want/need to replace my rear brake cable (the end is frayed badly). I have a step-through frame and I’ve been told that that means I ought to lubricate the cable before threading it through the housing. What lubricant do you recommend?

    I’d use sewing machine oil (I’m a seamstress) but I find that seizes up when used to replace grips, which is good then, of course, but I don’t want my brake cable to seize up!

    Also, where do you get those colourful housings?

    • MJ Ray 03/01/2016 at 10:49 pm #

      Grease the cable with Aquaslip or a competitor.

      You can buy coloured cable housings in some stores or mail order.

      • Sabrina 05/01/2016 at 11:43 am #

        Thank you! 🙂

      • Vincent 05/01/2016 at 12:33 pm #

        I read that cables should not be greased if using teflon-coated cable housing (which are a better option than standard housings, but obviously a bit more pricey).

        • MJ Ray 05/01/2016 at 6:47 pm #

          Why not? The metal in the outer shouldn’t corrode then, but the inner still could.

        • Vincent 06/01/2016 at 2:10 pm #

          Because it gathers dust and gets all gooey.

        • MJ Ray 06/01/2016 at 5:22 pm #

          Gooey seems good, but how are you getting dust INSIDE your cable outer?

  2. becca 01/01/2016 at 11:25 pm #

    Nice – for the brake unaware!! – shared with my brother.. hope to get him in my bike world 🙂

    One thing though, when I text the brakes, I opt for pulling the brakes about 7 times to make sure it’s all in place. Either its a good habit.. or Im very anal. Undecided!!

  3. MJ Ray 03/01/2016 at 10:47 pm #

    When fixing the new cable, thread it through loosely, wind the barrel adjuster all the way out (stop short of falling apart!), hold the pads tight against the rim with one hand and tighten the Allen key with the other, then wind the barrel adjuster back in until the wheel spins freely even after squeezing the brake lever a few times.

    Other brake types can be very different: nuts instead of Allen keys, barrel adjuster by the brake instead of the lever, quick release switches by either brake or lever, thread the cable through the lever from the other side, …

    • Vincent 04/01/2016 at 12:21 pm #

      MJ Ray > When fixing the new cable, thread it through loosely, wind the barrel adjuster all the way out (stop short of falling apart!), hold the pads tight against the rim with one hand and tighten the Allen key with the other

      With only two hands available, how do you 1) hold the pads tight against the rim, 2) pull the cable to keep it in tension, and 3) tighten the Allen key?

      • MJ Ray 04/01/2016 at 2:27 pm #

        Good question! After you take up the slack in the cable, you can usually let it go while you tighten the Allen key because you’re holding the pads against the rim. If not (most often if it’s an old cable that’s been clamped before in a slightly different place), put a mole grip (that might be a brand name) onto the cable just outside the clamp to keep it in position.

        • Vincent 04/01/2016 at 3:11 pm #

          Thanks for the tip.

        • Vincent 05/01/2016 at 12:42 pm #

          Addendum: When changing cables, make sure you cut the cable long enough that you can use a cable stretcher later when changing brake pads:

          Otherwise, you’ll have to use a needle-nose plier, which flattens the cable.

        • MJ Ray 06/01/2016 at 11:59 am #

          Looks like a unitasker there, Vincent? Locking pliers can be set to the correct pressure so as not to squash the cable… but the clamp’s going to flatten it anyway and as long as it’s not too near the end, pliers shouldn’t make it fray any worse.

        • Vincent 06/01/2016 at 2:12 pm #

          A cable stretcher needs no hand to stay in place, unlike a plier.

        • MJ Ray 06/01/2016 at 5:21 pm #

          Locking pliers stay on the cable with no hand needed.

    • Pete Martin 01/04/2017 at 6:47 am #

      Top tip!

      Worked like a dream…

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