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Bikebiz | For every rider

Chapter 9 - Caring for cables

Kim Liebig

Caring for cables

Go take a look at your bike.

Admire its beauty. Now look specifically at its levers and pedals. If all you are seeing protruding from beyond the levers and cables are hoses, you might just own one of those comparatively rare bikes that has hydraulic brakes as well as a hydraulic clutch, with not a cable in sight. But if you think you’ve escaped this blog, now take a look at what’s looping out of the throttle assembly up on the handlebars. Bet it’s a cable.

There. Gotcha. (Unless you are one of those smartarse ride-by-wire people…)

The point is, it’s hard to escape cables on motorcycles. Yet it’s easy to ignore them. So let’s spend a little bit of time considering why it’s a good idea to give them some love instead. 

Cable to grave?
Have cables always been part of bikes? Almost. Very early in bike evolution, linkages were the go. Mind you, gearshifts were also up by the side of the fuel tank back then, too. Then in the early 1900’s a bloke by the name of Frank Bowden invented ‘the Bowden wire mechanism’ and in next to no time, hand controls moved to the handlebars and riders could get on with the job of riding without needing expert juggling skills. Soon after clutch, brakes, throttle and choke were all cable-controlled and that’s how it stayed until hydraulic control started to take over for brakes and sometimes clutches. But progress or no progress, almost every bike on the road today still has a cable here and there.

To lube, or not to lube?
Does a regular dose of lube keep cables running silky smooth? It depends who you ask. Some folks swear by a squirt of WD-type spray or even oil. You can even buy little gizmos that attach to motorcycle cables and help you accurately shoot aerosol lube inside the cable sleeve with a minimum of mess. 

On the other hand, there are those who claim that a clean, dry cable is best and that any added lubricant will eventually leave a sticky residue that actually makes cable action worse. It’s also true that many modern cables feature a special plastic lining that is in itself quite slippery, so no lube might ever be required. 

Which way do you go? Talk to a rider you trust for an opinion and if you’re still not convinced, a Bikebiz tech is a good call. 

Adjusting is easy
Here’s a newsflash for you…cables stretch! Yes, despite being made of metal, cables stretch and get longer with use. Not a lot longer, but enough for you to notice that clutch, brake levers and throttle start to feel ‘sloppy’. That new bike feeling fades away and you start to feel like there’s a lazy change in the hand controls before you take off, stop or go. But it’s usually very easy to fix, sometimes with no tools at all.

A word of caution before we dive in. Incorrectly adjusting cables that control throttle, brake and clutch can negatively affect how your bike takes off and stops. If you have any doubts about your abilities, leave it to a professional. And if you want to give it a go, use your head and take a slow test ride down an empty street to check everything before taking off onto the open road. Being a bit careful could save your life. 

Clutch cable adjustment
We’ll start with this one because most bikes still have a cable-operated clutch. The good news is that, because wear in the clutch mechanism itself is constant, the cable adjustment up at the lever perch is usually designed to be easy and can often be done without tools. As a rule of thumb, look for a lock wheel or lock nut and an adjusting nut or barrel. Don’t go crazy with big adjustments. Back off the lock nut and roll the adjuster out, away from where it enters the lever mechanism, just one turn. Now test what you’ve done. Sit on the bike and, being careful to ensure the bike is in neutral, start it up. Hold on the brakes and ease the bike into first gear with the clutch lever squeezed in. Now, gently ease the clutch part way out. Get a feel for where the friction point is engaging. Too close to the grip? Too far out? Put the bike back into neutral and adjust out or in, just a little at a time, until the friction point is exactly where you want it. Now snug up the lock nut and take a gentle test ride to make sure it’s right. Having done it once, adjusting your clutch soon becomes second nature.

Tip: the adjuster will have a slot along its length, (the slot is there to allow the adjuster to fit over the inner cable), it is good practice to face the slot down (towards the ground) if facing up water can enter the cable via the slot. 

Brake cable adjustment
Your bike has a cable-operated brake? Congratulations, you are part of an increasingly small, elite group. Or maybe you just have old-fashioned brakes. All the more reason to keep them adjusted right! Happily, the process is much the same as for the clutch, except of course that you are looking to achieve a brake biting point that’s comfortable for you, rather than having the brakes start to work just as the lever is starting to trap your fingers against the grip. Again, go gradually and test carefully every time you make an adjustment.

Throttle cable adjustment
Okay, so let’s stop for a moment and consider this. Firstly, throttle adjustment tends to be a bit more complex, as many bikes have a two-cable, push/pull system. Secondly, it should go without saying that if throttle cable adjustment goes wrong, you could unleash a great gob of power unexpectedly, when you need it least. So if you have any doubts at all, leave this one well alone and take your bike to an expert bike tech for throttle adjustment.

Even the most modern ride by wire systems typically use a cable to open a servo motor, the servo motor is the “wire” part. A ride by wire system needs a Manufacturer Diagnostic tool to adjust accurately, my advice is leave this one to the Service Center.

Still keen? Okay. The vast majority of bikes still have throttles controlled via cables. Now, despite what you might have heard, on a road bike a tiny bit of play before the throttle opens is a good thing. If you hit a bump, your hand is jarred and you accidentally open the throttle just a touch, you don’t wind up picking bits of car out of your teeth if there’s some play in the action before the throttle cracks open. But a lot of play feels like crap. 

If you look at the throttle housing you’ll notice a cable or possibly even two cables exiting the housing. One will feature an adjuster and a locknut. Chances are you’ll be able to tackle them with a 10 or 12 millimetre spanner and once you’ve ‘unlocked’ the nuts, your delicate fingers. (Some cable adjusters are also designed solely for twiddling by hand.) Make small adjustments and feel for throttle play as you go. Being sure that the bike is in neutral, start the bike in between adjustments to ensure you haven’t affected the idle speed by getting rid of too much play. When you are happy that you’ve removed any sloppiness but still have enough play to be safe, snug down the lock nut. Carefully check what you’ve done with a walking-pace ride in a safe place with no traffic before you venture any further. If no amount of adjustment at the throttle end will get rid of excess play, there is often more scope for adjustment down at the carbs or throttle bodies. But if you are at this stage, you really might be better consulting with a Bikebiz tech professional.

Summing up
Cable maintenance and adjustment isn’t difficult, but nor is it something to be rushed – don’t leave it until 5 minutes before a ride to give it a go for the first time - you’ll be tempted to hurry through the job.

Take your time, pay attention, make small adjustments and carefully test the results in a safe space. You might even choose to keep count of how many times you turn a nut or adjuster, so that in the unlikely event you get lost, you can return things to how they were before you got started. All the systems controlled by cables are vital to the fundamentals of going and stopping, so if you choose the DIY path, pay close attention to what you’re doing – your safety depends on you getting it right.

Until next time, enjoy the ride!

This advice is a guide only. It is general in nature. It cannot be relied upon for you to make decisions. All efforts are made for information to be accurate at the time of publishing. If you are unsure of your skills, please take your motorcycle to a qualified motorcycle workshop, and the mechanics can do everything for you.

Click here to read Chapter 10 - Radiators and Keeping in Cool