Fixing it before it brakes

There is an old adage which says “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Apart from being a great way to wind up prescriptive grammar pedants, there is a lot of wisdom in that remark.

However, there is also an adage which says “A stitch in time saves nine” (i.e. if you fix a problem before it gets too big you can save yourself a lot of work later on).

When it comes to bike maintenance, it’s probably a good idea to find a balance between the two – to avoid unnecessary and potentially counter-productive futzing with stuff that’s working fine but to pick up on developing problems before they get too big, especially when it comes to important systems such as the brakes (arguably the single most important bit of a bike).

Flicking back through my last few cycling-related posts, I notice that the last time I mentioned which bike I was using (just over a year ago) it was my mountain bike.  At the time, my road bike was down for maintenance as I was unable to find a suitable freewheel tool to enable me to take the freewheel off the back wheel in order to replace a broken spoke.  Fairly shortly after that post, I gave up on looking for a freewheel tool, bought a cheap but reasonably effective pair of new wheels (so they would be a matched pair) and a freewheel with a standard modern fitting, and got the bike back on the road.  That was just as well, since a few months ago my mountain bike developed a problem with the bottom bracket (essentially, the thread on the shell seems to have stripped itself) which will probably be quite expensive to fix (if it’s actually possible) and I’m currently operating with just one bike again.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed my brakes were getting a bit sluggish (and they don’t have the greatest stopping power at the best of times, as they are only caliper brakes with fairly small pads, not nearly as good as the V-brakes on my mountain bike).  A couple of days ago I decided it would be a good idea to adjust them while I was still able to stop the bike (and I had a couple of other minor maintenance tasks to do at the same time).

As well as rotating the brake pads to achieve more uniform wear (there’s still plenty of rubber left on all of them but the front ones were wearing quite a bit faster than the back ones) and adjusting the spacing between the pads and the wheels, I decided it would be a good idea to change the rear brake cable since the old one was beginning to look a bit worn out.  I had bought a couple of replacement brake cables shortly after I last changed them (sometime last year, I think) as I usually like to keep spares of that kind of thing.

I’ve replaced quite a few cables on my bikes over the years and it’s a fairly easy job.  This time, however, I learned an important lesson about how not to do it.

Having slotted the appropriate end of the (inner) cable into the lever and fed it through the outer cable (which I wasn’t replacing), I connected it up to the brake caliper, adjusted it to give a decent gap between the brake and the wheel rim and then trimmed off the excess cable, leaving a couple of spare inches for adjustment.  I then went to test the brake and discovered that the cable had popped out of the lever while the tension was relaxed.  In order to get it back in, I had to undo it at the caliper end and pull it back through a bit.  Unfortunately it was a tiny bit too short to fasten safely in at that end once I’d got the other end reseated in the lever.

Rather than trying to attach it anyway and hope for the best, I decided the sensible course of action would be to chalk it up to experience and try again using my second spare cable.  This time, I made sure everything was attached at both ends and thoroughly tested before I cut off the excess cable!

The first cable wasn’t wasted either, as I decided to use that to replace the (much shorter) front brake cable which, although not as decayed as the back one, was beginning to show some signs of distress.  Hopefully both the new cables will last a reasonable while (at least until next Spring), and I’ve already ordered a couple more spares.

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