Brake levers that double as shift levers were a huge advance in shifting when they first appeared. Finally, we didn’t have to move our hands down to shift from levers located on the ends of the handlebars, or off the bars to shift levers mounted on the frame. This made it much easier to always be in the right gear, which saves energy. And it also allowed racers to shift more quickly.
Sometimes called shifting brake levers or “brifters,” these levers are now the standard non-electric option from all the major component makers, and each has its own model, such as Campagnolo’s Ergopower, Shimano’s STI and SRAM’s DoubleTap.
Awesome levers, but not perfect
Unfortunately, as wonderful to use as they are, some of these shifters do have an Achilles heel. Enter RoadBikeRider reader Dennis, who explains and asks for help.
“My derailleur cable broke inside the shift lever. The barrel end is now hidden and the frayed cable part is barely accessible (1/4 inch). I tried using a metal dental pick to push/pull the cable out, with no success; the cable is too tight. Do you have any suggestions or will I have to take it to my LBS to get the out cable out? Thanks!"
Preventing cable failure
Thank you for the question, Dennis. Cables breaking inside these levers is a relatively common failure. And, unfortunately, most of these levers are not made to be taken apart and reassembled, which would make the job easier, if they weren’t nearly impossible to put back together.
I know it’s too late now, but here are tips to prevent it next time and to help readers who may have a cable about to break, find it and fix it before that happens.
When installing new cables, be sure to grease the head of the cable where it sits inside the holder inside the lever. Also, it’s important to inspect and pay attention to the condition of the cable on a regular basis. I also recommend only using the very best cables. For example, I ride Shimano Dura-Ace components and I always use Dura-Ace cables.
Tip: Proper maintenance can help you avoid this problem. Depending on how often you ride and the conditions, it’s smart to lubricate the insides of shifting brake levers with a light lube about twice a year. While you do this, be sure to get some on the shift cable holder and cable head.
A telltale sign: Frequently having to adjust your rear derailleur
Cables rarely break all at once. Instead, they begin to fail with individual strands of the wrapped wires that make up the cable breaking. It takes awhile for enough strands to fail for the cable to break. As this happens, the cable usually stretches. And, when a shift cable stretches, it gets harder to hit the gear when you shift. Instead you experience shifting hesitation.
So, one of the signs that you should look inside your lever to see if your cable is fraying is having to fine-tune your rear derailleur adjustment frequently with the barrel adjuster. If you can discover the fraying cable early this way, it will be much easier to remove and replace. You also might feel the bad cable as you shift because a fraying cable can feel a little crunchy or clicky to your hand.
Getting broken cables out of the lever
Back to how to get the cable out. The first step is getting the cable holder inside the lever in the right position. Usually, this requires shifting the lever as if you were shifting onto your smallest rear cog. This will bring the holder into the right position for removing and replacing the cable.
At this point, if you’re lucky you’ll be able to squeeze and open the lever and use something like small needle nose pliers to grip the frayed end of the cable and push it into the cable holder to push the cable head out of the lever. Dennis said he tried a dental pick, which can work if you can’t find a way to grab any exposed cable. It’s a tight spot and it’s hard to see but usually if you keep trying you can find a way to get the head of the cable out of the holder.
Ideally you’ll have a little cable remaining to use to push the head out of the holder. If the cable is frayed, the splayed-out strands might be in the way and preventing pushing the cable through. You can try winding them together again. If this works, you can keep twisting and you might get the cable head to spin inside the holder and come out.
If the cable broke off flush, you can try fashioning an L-shaped wire to use as a pusher to poke the head out. If you can get it in place on the cable head, you might try to stick a piece of duct tape on the cable and pull and maybe the tape will hold enough to dislodge the cable.
You also might get lucky and have the head fall out if you position the bike to invert the cable head for gravity to help. You could then tap on the lever to try to get the head to come out on its own. I’ve never had one I couldn’t get out but it can take a good bit of fussing like this.
Tip: This is one of those problems that takes a lot of determination – and sometimes innovation – to solve. If you keep trying, you should be able to get it out.
A free idea for the lever makers
In discussing this with another reader in 2007, he made the great suggestion that Shimano (he had Shimano STI levers) should improve their levers by providing cable access holes in the sides of the levers. The holes would let you access the cables without having to work inside the levers. He came up with the idea after getting so frustrated trying to remove a cable that he drilled an access hole and was able to finally quickly get his broken cable out.
Obviously, with this issue, an ounce of prevention is way better than a pound of cure. So, be sure to check your cables regularly and remove and replace them before they break inside the lever.
Jim Langley is RBR's Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim's full bio.