Your breaks are undeniably a main component of your bike and help you to have a safe and enjoyable riding experience. You are not going to have fun or feel safe if there’s no way to slow down correctly in traffic, elevation changes, or near pedestrians.
By the end of this article, you will have a much better idea of how brake cables work, their purpose, costs involved, and how to go about changing your own.
Do bike brake cables stretch? The short answer is yes, bike cables do stretch. There is quite a bit of debate amongst cyclists as some are certain they come pre-stretched to their fullest ability, while others have posted demonstration videos on how to stretch the cables. Be aware, however, that stretching them beyond what feels natural will snap the cable and result in an expensive repair.
If you own a bike, you need to understand the cables attached to it – simple as that. Brake cables are essential to safe riding. You can avoid accidents, dangerous situations, as well as costly repairs by simply knowing how to fine-tune your own bicycle.
Table of Contents
Do Bike Brake Cables Stretch?
Cable stretching can be simplified by thinking of it as – settling into place. The cables have a natural elasticity being metal and will stretch slightly. This is minuscule and you possibly won’t notice this, but only pick up on a change in your brakes. This could mean it’s time to replace the cables and get a fine-tuning.
Often riders adjust their cables on a new bike purchase despite that they are supposed to come ‘pre-stretched’ from the distributor. New bikes may be a bit stiffer and the periodic adjustment is normal.
This is a subject which you would think to have one solidified answer. But the opinions on professional bicyclists’ blogs, forums, and articles differ completely. Here are some of the answer ranges:
- “It’s my understanding that cables don’t stretch…” Another myth. Get the tune-up.
- “If you need to stretch your cables, adjust with a barrel adjuster. Problem solved.”
- “Cables will stretch over time, but they won’t become elastic.”
Metal is in fact known to stretch slightly and be elastic, which is why we use it in things like steel springs. But the debate surprisingly sprawls across the entire internet on this subject.
Being that there is substantial proof for stretching the cable, process videos, and shops that offer the service – we’re going to go ahead and endorse the statement of, “Yes, bike cables do in fact stretch.”
How Does Cable Stretching Occur?
The stretching is often noticed in new bicycle purchases or if it’s only been ridden a few times.
The mechanics inside of your bike will have to do with the shifting. You can greatly impact your bike cables by shifting gears up and down often. Once you settle the derailleur into what we’ll call – ‘your happy gear,’ you’ll want to leave it there to avoid jolting the cables around like monkey vines.
If you feel pressure against your derailleur, just give it a firmer push to get there. You may want to take it back a notch but it’s ultimately what is comfortable to the rider. The bike is built for it but the main point to take away is not jerking it too much.
Your brakes are affected by the cable unless they are hydraulic. You’ll feel a looseness when you attempt to break and will be forced to pull the lever much further back and harder to get the same stopping force you once had.
This is an indication of cable issues that you may want to look at or take in for an adjustment.
When to Stretch Brake Cables
What everyone can agree on is that cables will wear and tear eventually, so it is not uncommon to require new ones. If you ride often or compete in cycling, you’ll need to understand what a is a cable issue on your bike, and what is an entirely separate brake issue.
There are a variety of reasons why you may need to change your brake cables. Some seem obvious while others are quite surprising.
If you’re a bike owner, look out for these possibilities:
- You left out in the sunlight too long and exposed to the elements. This will cause premature rusting and degrading of your precious ride. To avoid this issue, I advise keeping the bikes inside, in the garage, or a water-proof bike shed. You don’t want to buy a new bike every year so take care of the one you’ve got.
- You notice your bike doesn’t have proper tension. This is something you will feel in riding it more than notice visually. If you feel something is loose when you try to brake or the reaction time has slowed, you may want to look at the cable connections.
- You just had an accident and things are wonky now. If you hit a curb or threw off any of the main stem, structure, or wheel rims – you may have damaged your cable connection. This could need a simple fix-up at the local bike repair shop or could mean a new bike investment for you.
- You can feel your brake pads are worn down and you have to put a lot more force into the brake lever than you used to. This is normal for a bike that has been used and loved. You can take to a bike shop and see what lubricants or fixes they recommend. It may result in a brake pad replacement.
- The rims are actually the part of your bike which the brake touches. It pinches the rim like a crab claw to secure the wheel to a halt. Check that your brake is actually making contact with the rim and not just gently rubbing it.
- It may have slipped through the pinch bolt (where the cables attach). Find the cables and where they connect on your bike and simply re-adjust to a tighter position. Test the bike to see if it’s too tight for you or if the brakes should be loosened.
Again, if the bike is new then the cable is new. So this is normal. If this seems to be an ongoing problem for you, the cables could be frayed and done.
How to Prevent Stretched Cables
There’s truly no way to prevent this as it’s part of being a bike owner. If you are a frequent rider, you will need to replace your brake cables at some point or the entire bike.
The absolute best solution to this issue is purchasing a bike that directly states ‘Pre-stretched cables’ on the information tag. They ought to come this way, but some distributors are lax on this.
The stretching is simply a lot of force on the system which will somewhat shock the bike. Shocking the bike prepares it for heavier riding and braking for you in the fast situations you’ll find yourself in. Settling the system beforehand is essential to a healthy bike structure.
It will save you a lot of time and readjustments if you’re not a cabling or brake expert.
How to Pre-Stretch Your Own Cables
Some riders say just riding your bike will stretch the cables, while others think this is naive.
The verdict seems to be that they will tighten over time and requiring stretching. If you’re a handy-dandy and like to take on these tasks yourself, here’s your how-to.
Something you’ll need to invest in if you’re keen on fixing it yourself is a barrel adjuster (available at Amazon). This is the tool you’ll need to unwind bolts.
One piece of advice before beginning is you may want to recruit a friend there as an extra set of hands. They can hold the brakes secure while you adjust the cable.
- First, check the brake pads. They’ll be worn down like an old tire if they need replacing. This could save you the time in stretching cables if that’s not the issue.
- Have your extra hands hold the brakes closed so they touch the rim.
- Take the barrel adjuster you’ve purchased off amazon. Wind it as tight on the brake levelers as it comfortably can go. Then unwind it just a bit to loosen a touch.
- Find the bolt attached to your brake and loosen it counterclockwise.
- Shift the bike upwards while leaving the wheels still. Don’t crank it or push the bike to what feels will break it. Just a bit of force to get those cables working.
- Have your extra hands let go of brakes. Wind the barrel adjuster on the brake leveler and check they hit the rim still in the proper place.
- Feel the overall balance of the bike and check the brakes are even. If one is rubbing the rim then be certain the brake pads aren’t hitting the rim. You want both brake pads to be clear of the rim.
- If it’s still a bit wobbly, wind the barrel adjuster out a bit more to loosen the tension.
Tension is what bike brake cables are for. You’ll know it’s been done correctly if the tension feels tight enough for braking but not so tight that you’re restricted when pedaling.
Despite only stretching a small amount, the cables will flex as far as naturally functional to that particular bike. Other things that may assist you in stretching the cables is looking at the brake levelers, pads, and calipers to increase the natural spring.
Costs to Stretch Cables
Again, they are supposed to come pre-stretched now. But if you’re invested in a high-quality bike and the cables go out, you won’t be keen on replacing the entire bike I’m sure.
Taking it into your local bike shop will be a quick errand and they often can have it back to you within a couple of hours. The cost truly ranges based on your area and the quality of your bike model. The average price for stretching or replacing brake cables will run you about $20-$150 with labor.
I want to note that many in the forum debates tried to oil their bikes and this is not a safe technique. Manufacturers advise against this as it will deteriorate your parts quicker and result in higher expenses to fix/replace.
A general monthly check will do your bike a world of good. This can easily be done by taking a few minutes to check all the nuts and bolts are securely tightened.
Really it all comes down to tension and balance. These are the purposes of your bike cables and will need to feel natural to that specific rider. If alterations need to be made, then take it to your bike shop to customize and adapt it to your needs.
Now that you’re an expert on brake cables, feel free to ride off into the sunset with your tassels flying in the wind behind you.