I have ridden fixed-gears and single-speed bicycles, but for my own bikes, I am wedded to multiple gears. Part of that is my love of the mountains with their long and steep climbs, and part of it is my allegiance to Vélocio, who fought tooth and nail to get multi-speed bicycles accepted in the face of the opposition from the big bike companies and the racers sponsored by them.
On a recent ride with my friend Hahn, I had another opportunity to ride with a single gear. As we left Snohomish, a strand of my derailleur cable poked my finger as I shifted gears. I remarked: “I’ll need to replace the derailleur cable in the next three or four months, before the other strands break as well.” Unfortunately, it did not take that long. A few miles down the road, luckily after we had climbed the steep rollers on Dubuque Road, my derailleur cable broke as I shifted gears. The derailleur’s return spring automatically shifted the chain to the smallest freewheel cog.

I stopped and assessed the situation: I didn’t have any tools in my handlebar bag, so I just wrapped the dangling shifter cable around the down tube.

I shifted to the small chainring, and we continued the ride. My gear now was 32-13, or about 66 gear inches. In fact, that is very similar to the 48-19 that I ride most of the time. The chain rubbed slightly on the large chainring at times due to the extreme chainline, but not enough to be a problem.

As we continued our ride, I realized that I don’t shift very often anyhow. There were a few hills where I would have liked a smaller gear, but instead, I powered up them. On steeper hills, I had to rise out of the saddle, which I usually avoid except for short stretches.
Overall, riding my bike as a single-speed was a pleasant experience that did not detract from the ride. Afterward, I was not any more tired than usual, only the insides of my thumbs hurt a bit from riding out of the saddle so much. And during my next ride, my occasional knee problems flared up, so perhaps I should stick with multi-geared bikes. Most of all, I have great admiration for riders who complete hilly long-distance events like PBP on a single speed or even a fixed gear.
When I went to replace the broken cable, I realized that my shift lever – which I had installed half a year ago to replace the worn-out 37 year-old original – had a small ridge from the parting line of the forging die. The cable had been bending over that ridge,which is why it broke after just a few months. I smoothed the groove for the shifter cable with a small file before installing a new cable.
While I was filing, I thought about how breaking a derailleur cable is merely inconvenient, whereas having your brakes malfunction can be dangerous. I inspect the components of my bike’s braking system much more frequently than my derailleurs: levers, cables, housing, brakes, pads and not to forget, the rims. I was inspired to write my next “Mechanical Advantage” column for Adventure Cyclist magazine on inspecting your brake system to ensure that it works reliably.

Share this post

Comments (26)

  • Andy

    I’m curious why so few people carry extra cables, as weight is of little concern. On most rides other than my 4mi commute, I carry spare brake and derailleur cables (one of each). While I’ve only seen one person break a cable during a ride, they had to limp 70mi home with only the ability to shift the triple chainring. If just one person had carried a cable, this would have been solved in under a minute – so now I carry them. I also put on new cables about once a year. I figure it’s a minimal cost to nearly ensure that it won’t snap mid-ride.
    I’ve also heard of people scavenging their front shift cable to tie to the rear, to make one not-so-great cable if you know a good knot. You lose the ability to shift the chainrings unless you kick it onto the small ring or get off to put it back on the big ring, but that might be more functional than not having the ability to shift through a cassette.

    February 3, 2012 at 8:28 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      With modern brake/shift levers, cable replacement isn’t as easy as it is with downtube shifters. During PBP in the past, I carried a shifter cable. As you say, it doesn’t weigh much. However, with downtube levers, you usually get ample warning when the cable is starting to fray, as the strands poke your fingers when you shift. This is only the second time (in 25 years of avid riding) that I broke a shifter cable on my own bike during a ride without previous warning.
      Using the front cable to lengthen the rear one not only would be difficult, but it makes little sense. The front derailleur offers a much larger gear range than the rear (unless you use half-step gearing). Also, without a shifter cable, your front derailleur becomes a chainguard (stuck over the smallest chainring), so you lose the ability to shift the front by hand.
      We once broke the rear shifter cable on a friend’s tandem on a long ride. We used the limit screw to adjust the rear derailleur to the middle of the freewheel, and then used the front derailleur to shift between the three chainrings. We had no trouble for the rest of our ride.

      February 3, 2012 at 8:57 am
  • JDB

    No tools?
    Regarding brake inspection, what can you suggest to someone who’s rim brakes have ground the rim walls into concave profiles? An online search brings up some discussion of thin rim walls being weaker and ultimately prone to blowout from tire/bead pressure. But how does one know when a rim has worn too much?

    February 3, 2012 at 8:42 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      My bikes usually are reliable. I carry a spare tube, tire levers and a glueless patch kit on every ride. I usually have a few MAFAC wrenches, but they were in my own handlebar bag, while the bag on the bike was a test sample.
      Regarding your rim inspection – yes, the rim eventually will blow out. If the sidewalls are concave, I’d replace the rim. You can check whether the walls are bowing outward at maximum pressure. Use calipers and see whether the walls are parallel. If they bow outward, it’s time to replace the rim. After you replace the rim, you can cut a section out of it, and you can see how thin your sidewalls were. New rims usually are 1.5-1.6 mm. A rim with less than 1 mm is starting to get problematic. My last rim did bow outward at 0.8 mm.

      February 3, 2012 at 8:47 am
  • Bubba

    I’m surprised you run a freewheel that has a 13t cog, Jan. So modern! 🙂
    I kid, I kid.

    February 3, 2012 at 9:13 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I never use the 13- or 14-tooth cogs on that bike, even in a sprint. But finding 6-speed freewheels that start with a 15-tooth cog is difficult. With the brazed-on front derailleur, a smaller chainring isn’t a great option, either. So I use the bike as an 8-speed… which doesn’t seem to slow it down.

      February 3, 2012 at 9:21 am
  • Matthew J

    Maxi-Car freewheel hub! Lovely. Both my 650b wheelsets have MaxiCar freewheels. Is the DT shifter Simplex Retrofriction?
    Good temporary road fix.

    February 3, 2012 at 9:28 am
  • Lee Williams

    It’s a rare, rare day you find me cycling without at least the simple, indestructible Park MT-1. I was “fortunate” enough to have my most recent shifter cable break occur under the bottom bracket; I was able to retension the derailleur using the fixed end and place myself in a middle gear. With a longer run of cable as you have I might have tensioned it off to a water bottle bolt or similar, though perhaps for your spirited riding the lowest cog is more appropriate.

    February 3, 2012 at 10:08 am
  • Luke

    Hi, regarding rim wear, I’ve found this useful:
    Best wishes,

    February 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Using the spoke is a great idea. The suggestion to replace the rim when you measure less than 1 mm remaining wall thickness is good, too. Rim sidewalls don’t wear evenly, and the weakest spot of the rim may well be quite a bit thinner than what you measure.

      February 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm
  • Steve Palincsar

    You don’t have to settle for the chain being on the smallest sprocket. First, loosen one of your water bottle mounting screws. Manually shift the derailleur onto a sprocket in the middle of the block (push it over with your thumb) and catch the cable under the water bottle cage and screw down the screw to maintain tension. You’ll still have two or three gears, depending on how many chain rings you have, but the gears won’t be “too high” and “way too high” but instead will be “medium” and “medium low”.

    February 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm
  • Conrad

    Is that a Campagnolo cable? Do you have to use Campy cables with those old components? Just curious. I find it irritating that Campagnolo designed their levers to only accept slightly smaller-headed Campy cables which are, of course, more expensive than the excellent Japanese cables that are compatible with everything else.

    February 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm
    • Matthew J

      Conrad –
      As Jan confirms above, the DT levers are Simplex Retrofriction. Simplex and Campy both use that same smaller cable head.
      In the day Simplex and Campy were standard equipment on a significant number of higher end bikes.
      These days the Campy DT cable is harder to find as after Simplex went out of business and Campy stopped making DT shifters, the remaining manufacturers all use the larger Japanese standard.

      February 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I find it irritating that Campagnolo

      One thing to consider is that Campagnolo and the Europeans came first. Why should they change their shifters (with all the problems with backward compatibility that this implies) just because some far-East knockoffs (which is what Japanese components initially were) introduced a new standard. It would be equally irritating if you no longer could use Campagnolo shifter cables on your older bike. The last Campagnolo cables I bought were of such high quality that I gladly would pay a premium for them, especially since my cables usually last for a decade or more.

      February 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm
    • Neilsen

      Taiwan-made cables (usually Jagwire) are common in most U.S. bicycle shops. Japanese-made cables are also readily available in the form of Shimano (Shimano compatible only) and Yokozuna (Campy head option or Shimano head option). I have been using Yokozuna cables exclusively due to their high quality smooth stainless construction and slightly lower cost than Shimano. With my Campagnolo brake levers, I notice no difference in quality or durability with the Campy-compatible Yokozuna made cable.

      February 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm
      • cept

        yokozuna makes shimano’s cables and housing.

        February 4, 2012 at 6:11 pm
  • Conrad

    Good point- I guess Campagnolo isn’t the only company guilty of causing struggle by introducing parts of different compatibility. There has to be a word for this. unvereinbarkampfen? Look at all the bottom bracket options we have right now.

    February 3, 2012 at 9:22 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I wonder how many of these incompatible standards are just pure sloppiness. Consider when Campagnolo copied the Stronglight square-taper BB, they got it slightly wrong. The Japanese were more accurate, so their JIS standard is the same as the French (Stronglight) standard. The Campagnolo standard later was adopted by others and became the ISO standard.
      It seems unlikely that Japanese makers introduced shifter cables with slightly bigger heads on purpose. As a new manufacturer, having your components compatible with existing ones is very useful.

      February 4, 2012 at 6:18 am
  • Ἀντισθένης

    I like a wide range of gears for climbs and distances too, but this could be a Damascene conversion. I keep a fixed-gear (with brakes and fenders) for commuting, as fixed has so many advantages for that:
    – no gears to shift or look at in traffic
    – unavoidable ‘interval training’
    – less to wonder if you’ve maintained rushing out the door
    – lighter
    Full disclosure: my commute is not that hilly, though neither is it flat.

    February 4, 2012 at 2:35 am
  • Paul

    I did have a friend in college who had both brake cables snap while descending a hill near his house. The road ended in a T intersection, and my friend flew through the person’s screen door at the bottom of the hill. He offered to pay for the screen door, and the homeowner — so my friend maintains — replaced the door with a much nicer one than the one that had been crashed through. He was reasonably lucky. He rode the same bike up into the mountains near Santa Fe quite frequently. He could have lost his brakes coming down a mountain rather than a steep hill.

    February 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm
  • Alexander Krauß

    Slightly OT: I am pleased that your bike seems to be not the cleanest. I remember having read somewhere that there was a discussion going on between racers and randonneurs also on that. Randonneurs dont clean their bikes while it is regarded respectless to show up at a reace with a bike that is not shiny clean. How would you assess the impact of a little dirt on durability? I have heard engineers say “dirt seals” while washing risks washing the dirt into critical parts instead of out of them…..

    February 6, 2012 at 1:18 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Ernest Csuka always said that cleaning your bike enables you to spot problems early on. I think he had a point. However, my life is so busy that often I have a choice between cleaning my bike and riding it. Fortunately, the aluminum fenders usually keep the bike relatively clean.
      The bike got dirty on that ride because it had snowed recently, and we had to ride next to the bike trail in the mud, rather than on the ice that covered the trail. Riding behind somebody in mud will get your bike dirty in no time, fenders or not.
      If you use a sponge and soapy water, rather than a hose, cleaning your bike should not cause any damage. I usually put on a good car wax to protect the metals and paint after I clean the bike. In fact, I should do that today!
      The bike has held up very well during the 38 years it has been ridden hard in any weather. In the first photo, you can see that the paint has worn off where my hand touches it when I shift. Fortunately, the chrome-plating of the headlugs extends underneath the paint, so chrome and not bare steel is exposed there – no rust. I used to think that the bike had been repainted and had been green originally, but looking up the original build sheet at Cycles Alex Singer, I found that it always had been “Porsche Gray.” (I don’t know why it’s called that, but that is what the build sheet said.)

      February 6, 2012 at 6:58 am
  • Scott G.

    The Campy cables also fit Cyclo-Benelux shifters, the Benelux Super 60 used very long limit
    screws so once your cable broke, you could select any gear. A small hemostat is good for fishing cables out of STI shifters and for holding cables while tightening cable fixing bolts.

    February 6, 2012 at 6:03 am
  • Kenetic Sam

    Well, if you’re not going to sponsor a Tour de France team, you should at least bring back the Retrofriction shifters! The ebay supply is dwindling…

    February 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Comments are closed.

Are you on our list?

Every week, we bring you stories of great rides, new products, and fascinating tech. Sign up and enjoy the ride!

* indicates required