Frozen Cable Time

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We arrived at work yesterday figuring that the sub-zero cold, wind and snow would keep most of the customers away, leaving us with time to work on some projects. The highest priority is reconfiguring our workshop after building a massive, floor-anchored, steel frame to hang our electric bike lifts from. It’s a great improvement but not entirely our own initiative. The lifts, you see, were bolted into the 150 or 200 year old wooden beams of our ceiling… and thus the floor of the neighbors upstairs. Though the lifts are nearly new and operate very quietly they do make some vibration. Standing on the concrete (over sand) floor we never noticed this vibration but it drove the lady upstairs crazy. Actually she’s complained very vocally and angrily about a lot of things, apparently calling and writing every possible authority on a regular basis. Most of her complaints have nothing to do with our activities (there’s another bike workshop next door and several apartments have been renovated), but the vibration was a legitimate issue according to the various city inspectors who visited to investigate.

So the city ordered the building owner (a social housing corporation that manages tens of thousands of properties) to fix the vibration problem. It was decided that the only solution was to totally isolate the lifts from the floor beams, and the only practical way to do that was to build a steel frame all the way to the floor. We’re very fortunate and thankful that they took care of the job and paid for it. But it still requires an investment of several days of our labor to refit the lifts and lights. We took the opportunity to make them fully adjustable on both X and Y axis as well as angle, and now we’re adding more lights. I don’t think a workshop can ever have enough light.

Anyhow, this is all we were thinking about yesterday morning so I got busy with the scaffold, drills, plugs, screws and wiring to hang the fluorescent boxes on our ancient ceiling. And then the first snowy Cargobike and customer came in:

Customer: “My bike is almost impossible to ride. It’s really slow, and I think the brake lever might be broken.”

Mechanic: “I’m pretty sure your cables are frozen.”

Customer: “But I think there’s also something wrong with the brake.”

Mechanic: “The brakes are probably fine but they’re being locked by the frozen cables.”

Customer: “Oh wait, now it seems to be fine.”

Mechanic: “Sure, your bike is indoors so the cable just thawed, releasing the brake. It’ll freeze again a few moments after going outside. If you can wait 15 minutes I’ll fix it.

While working on this bike another snowy bike came in with the same problem, and so it went the whole day. Alexis and I pulled and flushed at least 15 cables yesterday. The problem is that Amsterdam bikes live outdoors, rain or shine. Tiny amounts of water drip and condense into the cable housings. On good quality bikes the cables are stainless steel and the housings are lined with polyethelene or another low friction plastic so the water doesn’t make much difference… until the thermometer goes below the freezing point. Then the cable freezes inside the housing. Usually it creates enough friction that pulling hard on the brake lever will overcome the friction, actuating the brake but the brake’s return spring cannot pull it back… thus locked brakes.

So here’s what you do to fix (or prevent) a frozen cable:

    1. Let it thaw.

    2. Remove the crimped end cap and make sure the end of the cable isn’t unwound or damaged. If it is either rewind, shorten or replace the cable as necessary.

    3. Remove any kinks in the cable so that it can easily be pulled and reinserted through the housing.

    4. Pull the cable out.

    5. Seal the nozzle of a compressed air pistol against the upper end of the housing and blow everything possible out of the housing.

    6. Seal the dispenser straw of a suitable light oil against the brake lever end of the housing. It might be necessary to pull the housing cap to do this. We use a generic multipurpose oil with teflon but just about any light oil should work fine. Don’t use “dry” type lubricant because it won’t displace the water for long.

    7. Spray the oil into the housing until it begins coming out the other end.

    5.5 Oops. Put a rag at the brake end of the housing to catch the oil coming out at great velocity.

    8-9-10. Thread the cable back into the housing, readjust the brake and crimp a new end on.

This fix is valid for any brake (or gear) cable but I’m basically assuming the bike has roller brakes here. Drum brakes can pull their own freezing tricks and rim brakes simply aren’t suitable for storing outdoors and riding in snow country. Now the techies can ask me why I didn’t write anything about disk brakes.

This experience also demonstrates something about Amsterdam cyclists: Not only do they store their bikes on the street, they also ride in ALL conditions including snow. Of course they do; How else would they get to work, take the kids to school, do the groceries and visit their friends?

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Speaking of snow, here’s a sneak peek at our surprising new development: The WorkCycles Child Transport Sled. We’re strong proponents of the K.I.S.S. philosophy (Keep It Simple Stupid) and our Sled meets the KISS criteria beautifully: It needs no wheels, tires, bearings, towing linkage or even harnesses. Just shove the kid in and go! It’s versatile too: You can pull it while walking, tie the patented “S.T.R.A.P.” (Singular Tied/Releasable Attaching Pieceofplasticwebbing) to your bike or even have your dog(s) or oxen pull it from a yoke. When there’s no snow it can be attached to the front carrier of your bike as a convenient transport bin.

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In testing the WorkCycles sled we also learned that Amsterdammers not only ride their bikes all year round in all conditions, they can also make really big snowballs.

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14 Responses to “Frozen Cable Time”

  1. ten Says:

    kawaiiiiiiii! He looks like he loves the new development in workcycles inventory. And S.T.R.A.P – hahahaha.

    speaking of brakes, been raining like the end of the world here (okinawa) all xmas, and my yuba’s rim brakes were getting pretty feeeeeeble on the way home from work yesterday. Temporary solution: ride slower. Slightly longer term solution: new brake blocks. Need to think about a more permanent solution however, methinks, now I see why you dont use rim brakes on workcycles.

    merry x!

  2. henry Says:

    Thanks. We’re pretty proud of our little supermodel baby.

    Some of the cheaper bikes in the Netherlands are sold with rim brakes but (at least in urban areas) the Dutch don’t generally maintain their bikes so after a few months the calipers hang pathetically, pinging against the spokes. Nope WorkCycles need brakes that are more or less maintenance free for very long intervals.

  3. ten Says:

    yeah, finally getting round to changing the brake blocks made the different it needed, but thats the problem: getting around to it. In a few years when it comes time to upgrade I’ll be looking for a more maintenance-free solution.

    happy new year!

  4. henry Says:

    Shimano roller brakes aren’t amazingly powerful but with each iteration they get incrementally better. With minimal creativity they’ll fit just about any bike, unlike disks.

    Also they’re as close to maintenance free as possible. Squirt a little (special) grease in them occasionally (as in every year or so) and they’ll happily live outdoors for a long time. If you do ever fry one just toss it in the scrap bin and install a new one. You can’t do that with drums.

  5. ten Says:

    thanks, much appreciated, I’ll look into that. Have a happy new decade!

  6. Steven Vance Says:

    Why did you write about disc brakes?

  7. henry Says:

    Because somebody like you would ask about disk brakes. đŸ˜‰

  8. Steven Vance Says:

    I made a typo. I meant didn’t, but I think you read it that way.

    What’s the answer about disc brakes then?

  9. henry Says:

    Steve, The answer is “42”.

  10. ReindeR Rustema Says:

    Yes, I tried to help a woman who fell in the street last Friday with her Bakfiets on Spui. Apparently she pulled the brakes a bit because of some car approaching from Spuistraat but unfortunately the front wheel would then block completely, causing her to lose her balance and to fall. Luckily the motorist anticipated trouble (a taxi even). It was quite a balancing act in the snow to help the thing back on its wheels while holding my own 1956 transportfiets. She herself quickly jumped back on her feet.

    I took me many seconds to trace the source of the wheel blocking while traffic was jamming up around us. Eventually we gave up, I continued with my colleagues who were waiting for me and she dragged the whole Bakfiets to the side of the road I assume. One unhappy customer! I assume she was on her way to pick up her kids, considering the contents of the box under the sail that fell open.

    Perhaps you should send out a mailing to all your customers about this? And there should be a fix for models in the future. Or a maintenance reminder when you sell it. For now a broadcast on the local television channel perhaps? Just send a press release to AT5 and Parool and see what happens.

  11. Axel Says:

    rim brakes are just fine for snowy weather! I live in Sweden, store my bike outdoors in -20°C sometimes, with no real problems to speak of. Sure stuff are a bit more stiff in that temp, but after trying the brakes for a while they work fine.

  12. Valentijn Sessink Says:

    While removing cables is easy for brakes, removing the transmission cable is not an easy job. I can assure you: riding in first gear from Zaandam to Amsterdam is not a fun thing to do.

    So here’s the easy workaround I found:

    1. Let it thaw.

    2. Remove the cables with their casings from the brake handles and/or from your shifters. You’ll end up with casings that still have cables in them, so you can’t spray oil in them. Now what?

    3. Get a balloon and slip it over the cable housing. Wind a metal wire around it to seal it.

    4. Now cut off the top of the balloon. Insert the straw of a spray can with lubricant. Seal this side too – I did this with my hands, but that’s not very convenient as you need to hold the can as well as seal the straw.

    5. Skip 5 and 6.

    7. Spray the oil into the housing until it begins coming out the other end. Please be very careful: not only will the oil come out the rear end, if you spray too hard, you’ll also risk the balloon popping.

    7.5 Oops. Put a rag at the brake end of the housing to catch the oil coming out at great velocity.

    8. Remove balloon, reattach cable to handles. No need to readjust!

  13. Steve Mondel Says:

    Hi Henry; I would like to know about the ‘electric bike lifts that you use in the shop.
    Thanks. Steve M.

  14. henry Says:

    You can see some more pictures of the installation here:

    They’re made by a Dutch firm and are strong enough to lift scooters, mopeds, loaded bakfietsen etc. We have four of them and have never had a problem. It’s really the only way to work with heavy bikes.

    Its called: Fietstakel VEH-150
    They’re made by De Vries. Their site is (entirely in Dutch):

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