Over the years I have spent quite a bit of time keeping up with cable maintenance on ‘cross bikes. A ‘cross bike’s cables are exposed to huge amounts of contamination, and washings only drive grit further in, shortening the lifespan of the cables and decreasing performance.
There are two solutions:
1) The conventional approach is to run standard cables, periodically pulling the housing out of its stops to clean and re-lube the cable and replacing when necessary. The upfront cost for standard cables and housing is low, and cleaning and relubing is pretty easy to do. But this will result in steadily diminishing cable performance and in the long-term, replacing cables every week or so is not as cheap as it seemed at first.
2) The other option is to seal your cables from end to end. Quite a few manufacturers offer different versions of ‘sealed’ cables and set up correctly most of them work quite well. Here’s a look at a few of the option, plus instructions on a custom ‘cross install for Gore cables and some general tips for cable installation and maintenance.
Clearly we’ve decided that a sealed system is the way to go. The initial outlay is higher, but because the systems last so much longer in bad conditions, they cost becomes closer to equal over time. And if you value your time, the savings can be huge.
Surprisingly, a fully sealed set-up as we recommend (a modified version of the set-up that manufacturers describe) weighs almost exactly the same as a regular cable set-up.
Nokon cables are well suited to ‘cross. It’s a simple system of housing segments or ‘pearls’ threaded onto two continuous liner sections. The pearls are machined aluminum, come in different colors and really look great compared to normal plastic coated housing.
Nokon sets come partially assembled so pearls are added or subtracted to make sections the required length. They have sleeves to protect your frame and a flexible boot to join together liner sections. If you are running two chainrings, the derailleur kit won’t have enough hardware for a fully sealed system, but Nokon offers an extension kit that covers this issue nicely.
The Nokon directions are unfathomable at best but the setup is pretty self-explanatory. Brake and shifter performance is excellent due to compression-less housing and a slick, flexible liner. Cabling a whole bike should cost around $180. Not cheap, but the inexpensive liners can be replaced and the pearls can be used over and over; they should last for years and could even be moved from bike to bike.
The trick with Nokon is that the slots in your frame’s cable stops need to be big enough for the liner to run through without pinching the cable. If the stops are slightly small it is easy to gently drill out the slots to allow the cable to run unobstructed.
Vertebrae is a new Australian design and operates on a similar platform to Nokon. Housing segments, in this case aluminum oxide ceramic ‘vertebrae,’ are threaded onto a continuous liner. The twist is that once the housing sections are assembled, heat shrink tubing is used to cover the housing to keep it all together and protect the frame.
The Vertebrae system comes with plenty of everything, even enough heat shrink and liner to replace or repair whole sections. Once again this system is not cheap: a whole bike will run around $200. The upside is that the vertebrae will not corrode, break or deteriorate and once installed look pretty damn good. The liners are cheap and the heat shrink covers can be removed and replaced with different colors.
Assembly can be somewhat time consuming and the heat shrink requires an electric heat gun and the skill to apply it.
By far the cheapest option for shielded cables comes from Jagwire. The Ripcord kit is comprised of Jagwire’s lubricated L3 housing, teflon coated stainless cables, nosed ferrules and sealing liner to go between the stops.
Installation is simple and with attention to detail it is possible to make a high performance, long-wearing cable setup.
Two drawbacks: The liner didn’t fit snugly over the ferrule noses, creating a contamination entry point. (The solution is to buy some 1/8-inch heat shrink tubing and seal it up.) The other problem is that the brake kit is only offered for mountain bikes so you need to buy two road derailleur cables. You could also heat shrink the ferrules to the housing. This whole setup should cost around $80 and if setup correctly it should last several times as long as a standard cable system.
If you have a lot of bikes in your stable, or are outfitting a ‘cross team, Jagwire offers bulk housing, cables, liner and nosed ferrules which makes assembling custom systems cheap and easy.
One of the first systems I got my hands on was the new Gore RideOn Professional system. Stu Thorne runs this for the shifters on all of the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team bikes and recommends them highly. With the help of Gore product designer Robert Thomas I set out to make the slickest, smoothest and most impermeable RideOn setup possible.
This process is quite lengthy but the results are amazing. This system has the best action I have ridden. The shifting and braking are both super light and smooth. After five weeks of riding, racing and washing, there has been no perceivable loss of performance. Sadly, a single bike kit from Gore does not contain all the pieces necessary to do two derailleurs on a top-routed frame but if you run a single ring or down tube routing, it will work well.
Gore is developing a cyclocross upgrade kit and at Interbike the company showed a nifty little grub seal prototype designed to work on SRAM derailleurs. The upgrade kit is slated for release in December. RideOn Professional cables cost around $130 per bike. That’s kind of pricey but set up correctly they have outstanding performance and should last at least a ‘cross season, probably much longer.
Editor’s note: Australian native Michael Robson grew up racing dirt bikes and flat-track and in his teens progressed to BMX. He first came to race in the U.S. in the early nineties and ended up in Europe as a workaday roadie. Now a professional photographer and rabid cyclocrosser, Robson is reliving his youth ripping it up in master’s ‘cross, making great photos for a living and testing gear for VeloNews.