Better Shifting For $5

Remember when your bike was new?  Remember the feeling of effortlessly changing gears?  If those are but distant memories, then it’s time for a little TLC.  You can improve your bike’s shifting for less than five bucks, and it doesn’t require any replacement parts, or even tools.  I know it sounds like crazy talk, but it’s true.

Lean your bike over and you’ll notice that your derailleur cables are routed over–or in some cases, though–a small plastic guide.  Unless all your riding takes place on an indoor trainer, you’ll probably find some dirt and crud on that guide (and the cables).  That dirt causes friction between the cables and guide, and that friction affects your bike’s shifting.  The solution to keeping the friction at bay is silicone spray lube, and it only costs about five bucks.

Head over to your local hardware or automotive supply store and pick up a can of their least expensive silicone lube.  Most of the brands work the same, but make sure you select an aerosol version that includes a little plastic “straw.”  And while you’re at the store, grab some rubber gloves and a small spray bottle if you don’t already have one (the kind you’d use to mist plants).

Now comes the fun part.

  1. Fill the spray bottle with water.  You can add a few drops of liquid dish soap, but it’s really not necessary.  If the bottle has an adjustable nozzle, set it to the finest or narrowest setting (i.e., “stream” not “spray”).
  2. Position the bike so that the cranks are facing away from you, and you have easy access to the bottom bracket shell.  If you don’t have a repair stand, you can just lean the bike against a wall or fence (again, with the cranks facing away from you).
  3. Spread out some newspaper under the bike, and wipe any dirt off the bottom bracket shell, cable guide, and cables.
  4. Using the the spray bottle, squirt the cables where they pass through the cable guide.  Take care not to get water in the cranks’ bearings, or on the chainrings (you can shield them with a rag).
  5. When the everything appears clean, dry the cables and guide with a shop rag or paper towel.  If you want to be extra-thorough, you can blow out any remaining water with compressed air.
  6. Once the bike is dry, insert the plastic straw in the silicone lube’s spray nozzle, and carefully spray the cable guide and cables (where they contact the guide).  DO NOT get any lube on the tires or rims (protect them with rags or newspaper).  You don’t need to flood the bottom bracket with lubricant–a few short blasts are usually enough.
  7. Wipe off any excess lube, and activate the front and rear shifters a couple of times (shifting should be noticeably smoother).
  8. That’s it, you’re done!
This whole process takes maybe five minutes, but is best done after a ride so that the lube can dry (otherwise it just attracts more dirt).  It’s also a good time to inspect the cable guide (and cables) for wear.