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Modern "Aero" brake levers, with their long bases and big hoods have some pretty significant ergonomic advantages over traditional levers. Personally though, I hate having to tear off my bar tape to replace my brake cable housing.

Is there any way to route brake cables external to the bar tape with aero levers?

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    How often do you replace the housing? Aug 7, 2021 at 0:53
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    Aside - how good/bad is your bartape? I find the cheapest $2 foam stuff doesn't survive an unwrap, but anything better can be unwrapped and rewrapped multiple times.
    – Criggie
    Aug 7, 2021 at 2:24
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    I wonder what makes you need to change your housings so often. I ride MTB on muddy conditions, I usually neglect maintenance between rides and yet, even the lower housings, near the derailleur last more than a year. I'd say the part near the handlebar lasts 2 times what the derailleur one does.
    – Jahaziel
    Aug 7, 2021 at 14:29
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    You can get quite cheap bar tape that goes back on (@Criggie). I had to shorten mine after coming off and shredding the outermost 2 turns of some newly fitted tape that I rather like - firm foam with bits of cork. Instead of the self-adhesive strip that a lot of cheap tape has (with glue stronger than the foam) it has a silicone gripper strip like a narrower version of what you get on bib shorts
    – Chris H
    Aug 10, 2021 at 15:14
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    @ChrisH - What I've works better than anything is to run thin ribs of silicone caulk along the bar, then (when set) wrap with hockey tape. The surface must be ribbed to be effective. Aug 11, 2021 at 12:39

3 Answers 3

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There's not a reasonable way of doing it unless you're content with having it look really funny. The closest it comes is on some internally routed bars, the run of housing between the lever and the entry point is fairly short. One can imagine contriving a way of doing this with one of those bars, like run just that little bit of housing above the tape, or use the spiny articulated "tunnel" bits that come with Shimano bar-end shifters. But nobody does any of that in reality.

I only ride shellacked cotton tape and only ride aero levers, and it hasn't been a serious problem in the 7-ish years my road bikes have been set up that way. Among those have been a singlespeed, a touring bike with 9-speed bar-ends, and a rando bike with 10-speed Ergos. It's true that doing this turns off the ability of shellacked cotton tape to last decades or indefinitely, but good setup counts for a lot. I will admit that as I've gotten older, it's become more evident that downtube shifters, non-aero levers, and shellacked cotton are basically the apex point of road bikes, and if I needed more bikes that might be the direction I'd go.

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Bit of a frame challenge, but there are a few other options:

  1. Use cable housing with replaceable liner, so you don’t have to touch the housing under the tape.
  2. Don’t replace the housing under the bar tape. Insert a barrel adjuster where the housing comes out from under the bar tape so you can replace the rest of it.
  3. There are some recent, proprietary road bike handlebars with internal cable routing. Here the cables enter the handlebar directly behind the levers. The top of the handlebar is often not even wrapped with tape any more (since there is no housing to cover).
  4. Just don’t use bar tape beyond the levers. Tape the cable housings to the bar and leave it at that.

It does make me wonder how often you replace your cable housings though ;)

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    5. Replace the housing whenever you replace the tape. Although it may sound like overkill. I replace housings after two or three years. Quality stuff will last at least 2 years.
    – Carel
    Aug 7, 2021 at 16:18
  • Do the cable housings with replaceable liner exist? The type with beads that go over small tube doesn’t count unless you have a way to keep the beads aligned under bar tape.
    – ojs
    Aug 10, 2021 at 8:17
  • @ojs: The Nokons have a length of basically bare cable housing where you can simply slide the liner through. Shown in the middle of the photo here: dbyvw4eroffpi.cloudfront.net/product-media/1J23/1000/1000/… Gore Ride-On cables had a continuous, replaceable liner in the cable housings, but unfortunately they are no longer made. I don’t know if anyone else makes a similar product today.
    – Michael
    Aug 10, 2021 at 9:27
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This may not be a proper answer because I'm not a road cyclist and I'm not well versed in drop bar maintenance, however, I'm a tinkerer and have fiddled a lot with brake and handlebar setups.

After re-reading the comments, I see you mention your wraps never last "more than about three months", So I guess you are trying to wrap your bars with something else and you expect this material to last more than a year? two years or more?

Many of my road bike friends do replace the handlebar tape periodically anyway, mostly for aesthetics, just to change color and renew the look and feel of the bike when the tape wears out. Some do this once a year, some every two or three.

So here are a few suggestions:

A housing for the housing

Find some plastic flexible tubing that has an inner diameter that allows the regular brake and shifter housing to be slid inside. The thinner the wall of this tubbing, the better (I'm thinking of a ptfe tube that is used to connect water inlets of refrigerators. Its semi-transparent and somewhat flexible so it can bend around a small radius.). Wrap the handlebar as usual, but the housing should be surrounded by this tubing. So, if you need to replace the housing, you can slide them in and out ​without unwrapping the bar tape. You may need to leave a hole in the wrap, near the hood to allow you to handle the first 2-3 centimeters of housing into the lever body.

I guess that the tubing will bulge behind bar tape a bit more than the housing alone, but you'd keep the "aero" aspect of it.

Leave one foot outside the blanket

Another thing I'd try is to place a very short segment of housing near the lever, just 2-4 centimetres just to route the housing outside the tape, that is, do not wrap it or do as little turns over it as possible. Then the rest of the housing would be connected to this using an inline regulator or some other suitable connector. This short piece should not need to be replaced so often, as it is almost straight, and being so short, it would have negligible effect on performance even if used way beyond it's replacement period.

Brake noodles

For a particular type of setup I actually rode for several kilometers with, I had MTB levers and shifters installed on the forwards portion of "bullhorn" handlebars. The cables would exit towards the front, requiring way too much "floating" housing and to make the route back towards the bike, so I used V-Brake "noodles" to make a sharp turn towards the center line of the bike, so the housings where shorter and could be managed better.

You could do a similar thing, using a noodle just for exiting the lever, allowing for a sharp turn that routes the housing inwards and outside the tape. The noodle already has a receiver piece for the housing, so no need to reinvent that small part.

Here is what a brake noodle looks like (ignore the rubber bit, you'd just need the metallic parts and a plastic liner that comes inside):

enter image description here

You can get these noddles in different "degrees", meaning how much of a turn do they make. The most common is the 90 degree, that is the the cable "exits" in a direction 90 degrees relative to the direction the housing enters. There are noodles with less degrees and I have been able to buy 135 degree noodles.

And here is my faux bullhorn setup:

enter image description here

The picture taken in the second bike that I fit with this setup, and I was just about to return it to MTB configuration. The first time It was done on a commuter bike that I used for delivery service (Used it daily on an urban environment). This second time, I used for a long multi day ride on road (I could keep up with proper road bikers for some kilometers with this bike!)

The point of showing you this is to "prove" the setup was very reliable, once the cables where assembled and adjusted they worked just as expected. The adjustment took no longer than it usually does. I had to fiddle more with the tape as it was not a real bullhorn bar, that's why you see some electrical tape and bad wraps around the corners.

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    Nice work! There exist brake noodles which are segmented, and can work at weird angles and sharper turns, plus they have flex. There's a brand "Nokon" which make the whole cable out of segments and beads (is better than that sounds!) which can do neat things too.
    – Criggie
    Aug 10, 2021 at 1:53
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    Separately, re the electrical tape, have a look at heatshrink tubing which comes in all manner of sizes. A piece over the elbow might work nicely once heat is applied and the heatshrink tube narrows down on itself.
    – Criggie
    Aug 10, 2021 at 1:55
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    My tourer as built used something like a segmented or coarsely spiral-wound noodly stainless thing from the brifter round the bend in the bar tops, so the join to the cable housing was on the straight centre section of the bar. I removed them when I recabled and retaped recently. (@Criggie)
    – Chris H
    Aug 10, 2021 at 15:09

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