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What It Feels Like When Your Rear Derailleur Is Going Bad. The Venge Gets Fixed.

I got home from the office an hour earlier than normal, yesterday. It was a hard week so I took a bit of liberty so I could sneak in a ride before bowling. My wife called shortly after I left to inform me my order from JensonUSA showed up, too. Two new Shimano 105 chainrings and a new medium cage 105 10-speed rear derailleur.

I had the new parts on and derailleurs adjusted in less than a half-hour, and I won’t lie, I was pretty stoked at how quickly I got the parts on and derailleurs dialed in. I dressed and headed out for the test ride. The test was perfect. I hit every gear quickly, no lag in any gear, and the new chainrings were an excellent upgrade to the aftermarket chainrings I’d had on the bike.

Unfortunately, I’ve got something that’s creaking wildly when I get out of the saddle. I installed the pedals from my Trek when I got home to see if the pedals had gone bad (not it), so the next logical issue is the seat post. I removed it, cleaned it, hit it with some carbon paste and installed it again late last night so I’ve got my fingers crossed that’s the issue.

If not, it gets expensive.

Now, I was fortunate. I spend so much time tinkering with my bikes, I knew something was amiss a few weeks ago. The shifting was still quite good, but the derailleur was finicky about the barrel adjuster setting. It had to be just right, within a quarter-turn, or the chain would skip lightly in certain gear selections (it sounded like the barrel adjustment was just a touch off). New cable housings, expertly installed so as to avoid friction in the cable, didn’t help and once I knew the cable and housings weren’t an issue, the need for a new derailleur was a no-brainer. The chainrings were an added bonus. I was assuming that’s what was causing the gravel grinding sound when I got out of the saddle. I was incorrect, but drivetrain-wise, I’m set for at least another five, maybe ten years once I get the source of the noise corrected.

Where this gets fun and exciting for me is what’s next for that old Ultegra 10-speed derailleur. Next, I’m going to try to refurbish it with a new kit to see if I can’t get it back to working like new so I can put it back on the Venge and save the 105 derailleur for “just in case” either the 105 on the Trek or Ultegra on the Venge goes kaput in the future.

I’d have taken a new photo, but to be honest, it doesn’t look much different from the old photo… and I was way too busy having fun to bother…

More later.

How do you know when a rear derailleur is going bad? And what to do about it.

First, let’s get into how to know your rear “mech” or derailleur is going bad. This is a very simple assessment. Complexly. The derailleur will become increasingly more difficult to “dial in” to a point it will shift well going up or down the cassette, but not both (unless you’ve got it set just right – then, a short while later, that won’t work, either).

There’s only one big problem: the same diagnosis applies for about a dozen other problems in shifting as it pertains to the drivetrain. Worn chain rings, worn cassette, worn chain, worn master link, loose chainring bolts, too much tension in the cable, too little tension in the cable, a kink in the cable, dirty shift cable housing, old cable housing… sweat or dirt that clogged a cable housing ferule, a dirty shifter, sweat or sports drink that leaks down to and gums up the cable guide below the bottom bracket housing… and that’s just a good start!

The point is, the only way to really know it’s your derailleur is to make sure all of the above items are eliminated first. If you’ve got those issues well under control and your shifting is still suspicious (and you’ve got five to 20 years on a derailleur, it’s a fair bet your mech is tired. I like to be in the perfect gear at any given moment, so I shift a lot. It makes sense that I’ll only get eight years out of a derailleur. Give or take.

Now, I know some will replace their drivetrains every few years. I know one guy who lives in the UK where it rains a lot, and changes out his drivetrain yearly. I can get five to ten years out of a drivetrain, but I don’t ride much in the rain, either. Usually, cleaning the drivetrain or replacing cables and housings will do the trick for any shifting issues I’ve got.

Recently, though, I’ve had to replace the derailleur on the Trek and the Venge is up next. First, there’s no question the chainrings are bad, so those have to go as well. However, it’s quite easy to tell the Ultegra rear derailleur is on its last leg. I’ve got a new stainless cable, new housings, new ferules all the way back to the rear mech. It shifts like butter at the shifter… except it’s almost impossible to dial in at the rear barrel adjuster. The derailleur is going.

So, the answer is to hop on down to the bike shop and order a new 10 speed Ultegra rear derailleur, right? Wrong. You can’t get them anymore. Not new, anyway… unless you’re willing to pay $70 for the new part and $150 for shipping (I’m not kidding). And a used mech from eBay will likely get me into the same mess I’m already in… So, the answer is a new 105 10 speed rear derailleur. They’re still made and sold new and run about $45 to $60 before shipping. Mine is on the way, with the new chainrings (I got about five years out of the current chainrings) and the order was big enough I didn’t pay for shipping.

Now, ordering the rear derailleur isn’t perfectly simple – nor is ordering the chainrings.

First, for the derailleur, you’ve got to decide on a short or medium cage. If you’re using big rings (52 & 53 tooth) with a corncob cassette (say 11-23), you’re going to want a short cage. With a compact setup (50/34 or smaller) with a bigger cassette (say 11-28 or 11-32), you’re going to want a medium cage which will allow for a bigger cassette for those climby days. I’ve covered chainrings elsewhere. For derailleurs, I really had to hem and haw over the Venge but I ended up going for the medium cage. I could have gone short, but I wanted the option for when I’m older to use a bigger cassette (currently 11-25 or 11-28 as the mood and amount of “up” suits me).

New chainrings on the Trek – the same are coming for the Venge

So, that’s the first option. There is a second… but it’s sketchy. And I’m going to try it after the new derailleur gets here.

The second option is to rebuild the old derailleur. You can purchase kits that include a new spring and grommets to refurbish an old mech, and there are plenty of videos on the web that show how to accomplish this. There’s also, for the real adventurous, a third option. The part that holds the replaceable spring has two holes. One for less tension and one for more tension. If the spring is worn out, and mine likely is because my derailleur is obviously clean and well-lubed because I take care of my stuff, common sense suggests I should be able to switch spring holes to add a little more tension to the spring which should get me a few more years out of it (?).

I’m not going to mess with that until the new mech is here and installed, though. I’ve got about another month of riding left on the Venge. I’m not about to shelve the bike until the cold weather has me storing it for the winter.

More to come…

My Skipping Shifting On a Classic Trek 5200… Chain Line, A Fix (Possibly), And The Funniest Idea For A Fix I’ve Ever Heard

[Ed – The information contained in this post is solid, though digging deeper into the problem I eventually came to find that the main culprit to my tale of woe was a bad chainring.]

Vacationing down in Georgia, I had a serious shifting problem. Whenever I was in the small ring and put power to the pedal, say climbing a hill (of which there are many where we ride on vacation), I had the potential to drop the chain into the bottom bracket. If I was careful and didn’t lay down too much power, I’d be okay, but judging what would be acceptable and what would drop the chain, while climbing a hill, was near impossible and certainly frustrating.

Thankfully, weather limited our ability to ride – it rained at night, rendering the morning roads treacherous and too dangerous to bother with on vacation. We stayed active in other ways, swimming and hiking.

It wasn’t until I got home and rode easy, the day after a 100-miler, that I picked up the click while pedaling in the small ring. The rear derailleur was out of adjustment. A full two turns of the barrel adjuster. After months of perfect shifting, I don’t know how it became that bad on the ride down to Georgia, but it was. I thought that would fix the problem. I was wrong.

Later on in the ride, testing it out on a small hill, I skipped the chain again but didn’t drop it off the front ring. I was absolutely flummoxed. New derailleur, fairly new cassette, new chain and a system that shifted magnificently… and I was dropping the chain from the little ring. Then it occurred to me that this had been going on for a while. Years. I thought back and remembered dropping my chain in the same place on the first day of DALMAC every year. I started researching and came up with chain line. Several years ago I changed my 3×9 speed drivetrain to a 2×10 and upgraded the wheels to a 10/11 speed set. Perhaps all the new changes messed up the chain line?

That was the only thing that made sense. The problem was possibly in the crank… but fairly common sense dictated the chainrings needed to move in, toward the bottom bracket. I could move it out, say with a shim, but in was impossible. I resorted to what you’re not supposed to do in this situation and added a half-millimeter shim behind the cassette – and that was on top of the shim that came with my wheels for a 10-speed drivetrain. The chain drop got better, it would still skip under power. I changed the half-millimeter spacer out for a full millimeter. The chain drop stopped altogether but it still skipped in the smaller cogs on the back under climbing pressure, say the four smallest…

Shimming the cassette further is not the answer. I’m running out of space between the lock ring of the cassette and the dropout. That, and you’re not supposed to shim the cassette to fix that issue, anyway – you’re supposed to fix it at the crank, with the set screws and shimming the crank. While I understand that, there was some thought that went into the decision to shim the cassette a bit more that I wanted to touch on. Getting into nitpicking, I have about a turn and a half of play in the rear barrel adjuster before clicking can be heard. Dead center is 3/4s of a turn, then. Well, that’s where the shifting worked best, dead center, but that produced an almost imperceptible skip every now and again that I described earlier in the post. If I turned the barrel adjuster clockwise, the skip would fade away to nothing, but the shifting was slightly compromised… so my thinking was, if the derailleur likes the cassette further out (which is why it wanted the barrel adjuster turned clockwise), then simply move the cassette that way. I should also add, the set screws on both derailleurs were dead nuts, right on – and checked by the pros at the local shop.

Now, that led to one excellent benefit: the drivetrain has never been this quiet. I mean whisper quiet. It’s fantastic. Shifts are smooth and crisp… everything is awesome except for that little skip in the smallest four cogs in the back under power. I just can’t get it to go away completely… and that led to the best advice I’d ever seen on a YouTube video (paraphrasing):

Once you’ve taken everything as far as you can possibly go, accept that your bike just can’t do some things because the chain rubs on the big chainring in the small/second-to-small or small/small combination. If your bike presents issues in a couple of gears, especially in combinations you don’t commonly use anyway, don’t use them like that. Just don’t do that.

I never, and I mean never, use the last two cogs while in the small ring. I also would never climb a hill in the last four on the cassette in the small ring – I have big ring gears for that.

So, with all of that being said, I’ve got to check my thinking with he pros at the shop. I have no idea how this will turn out, but you’ll hear it here when I finally get to the bottom of everything.

Here’s the Punchline: Sometimes You Just Need a New Stinkin’ Derailleur

The shifting on my rain bike has been something of a mess for quite a while. It wasn’t horrible, it just wasn’t perfect. It was… really, really close, but really, really close is only good in horse shoes and hand grenades.

If, and I do mean “if”, I got it dialed in so the bike shifted up and down the cassette crisply, one gear would catch and skip… usually in the small cogs. Again, it wasn’t terrible, it just… lacked. Now, this gets fun. I found if I mixed the seven smallest cogs of a Shimano cassette with the three big cogs from a SRAM PG-1070, 98% of perfection was achievable. I know. I’m a bit of a geek that way. The problem with that flawless shifting was that the chain would make the faintest skipping noise even though the shifting was right on. This drove me a little nuts (and likely those who drafted behind me, though my wife said she never really noticed).

This was in stark contrast to my Venge, which is perfect. And that perfection magnified the lacking of the Trek to a point it diminished from my wanting to ride it (thus, I took my Venge on our northerly road trip a couple of weeks ago).

So, whilst perusing the interwebz the other day, I happened upon a glorious find… a brand new Shimano 105 5701 GS rear derailleur. It was magnificent and only $45. I ordered that and a set of pulley wheels for my wife’s bike.

Well, Thursday night after I got home from the office, I changed that sucker out and took her for a ride. And… 98% became 99%.

Halfway through my ride, I knew exactly what the problem was… the chain was barely slipping on the 4th biggest cog… the first on the transition from the SRAM to the Shimano cogs.

When I got home, I dug out an old SRAM PG-1070 that I used on the Venge for less than a season. It’s a very nice, $86 cassette, but I didn’t like it on the Venge. An Ultegra was better for… well, I just wanted to keep the Ultegra line on the Venge. I slapped that almost new cassette on the Trek, shifted a few times… and zero skipping and no annoying noises.

It is beautiful. And with that out of the way, I’d been toiling away, trying to find the drag in the system that was messing up my shifting for way too long. I’d replace a cable housing here and an end-cap there. I thought it could have been a housing length issue, maybe… I was just about to take it to the shop when I found that derailleur on Jenson. Sometimes you just need a new stinkin’ derailleur.

Of course, choosing between bikes will be that much more difficult, now. But that’s a good kind of difficult.

PS. By the way, I set the thing up myself, from Hi and Lo limit screws to the B screw… and got it exactly right within ten minutes. That I didn’t screw it up had me pretty ecstatic.

The Noob’s Guide to Cycling: Fixing a Shifter Cable in Minutes and Reasons to Take Up the Task In the First Place

There are few things that will affect a bicycle’s mechanical shifting as much as the cables. Get one little thing wrong and your bike can shift horribly until that tiny mistake is fixed. In many cases, the affect may be worse; it’ll be minor. Not enough to bother with changing the cable, but the bike just doesn’t quite shift as well as it should. Even something as simple as a frayed cable end can pooch your shifting. Relax, though, even the vaunted internally routed shifting cable is fixable in minutes with the right tools, equipment and knowhow.

A front derailleur’s main cable problems that will require a new cable are:

  • The cable was installed/looped incorrectly at the derailleur bolt which can cause the cable to fray when it’s tightened down, among other problems. If the cable is frayed at the bolt this can/will cause the pull to be slightly off when the shifter is engaged and this will cause problems in shifting and adjusting the derailleur. A frayed cable can even affect the trim feature in your shift levers, meaning you’ll get chain rub on the derailleur cage at the big and/or little cogs of the cassette (you’ll likely think this is a set screw problem… check for a frayed cable where the cable is clamped to the derailleur, first).
  • A kinked cable… if your shift cable is kinked, shift quality will be affected – and the cable can also kink inside the shift lever if cables aren’t changed every couple of years or so (the end can also break off inside the shifter which is not good).
  • The cable/housing is old, rusted, dirty, grimy, etc. etc. Dirt, grim or rust will cause the cable to develop friction in the housing which will ruin shift quality.
  • As a bonus, if the housings are too long or too short, this can adversely affect shift quality, but this gets a little tricky in that the shifting problems aren’t glaring. A bit slow going up the cassette, or maybe down… often just enough to make you wonder what’s going on.

A rear derailleur’s cable issues are a little more diverse. They are:

  • See 1 through 4 above.
  • The housing loop at the rear of the bike is too big or too small.
  • The cable guide(s) are gummed up underneath the bottom bracket (sports drink leakage and sweat are the main culprits here).
  • Item 1 is particularly daunting with the rear derailleur. The cable must be on the correct side of the screw for the derailleur to work properly. Typically, look for a little groove for the cable to rest in on the derailleur nub where the bolt goes into. Look up your derailleur type and download the setup instructions if you’re not sure. I searched “Shimano 105 10sp Rear Derailleur installation instructions”:

Now all that’s left is to complete the switch of an offending cable. First, if you can afford a few extra bucks for better cables, I recommend the stainless steel cables. They’re the cat’s pajamas and improve shifting immensely. To me, they’re well worth the money. Second, for interior cable routing I like to use cable liner (not cable housing, cable liner) to make the process painless and simple (amazingly so). I’ve got a 10 meter roll of the stuff and use it often.

First, we’re going to undo the bar tape down to just under the hood. There’s no need to unwrap any further – all you’re looking for is access to the bottom of the hood, where the cable housing enters the hood lever body. This is easier if you’ve got access and can see what you’re doing. Next, undo the cable from the derailleur and if there’s a frayed end, snip it off far enough up that you hit good cable. Then, slide the cable liner over the cable and keep feeding it till the liner comes out the other hole in the frame. If the liner won’t easily feed over the cable, you can fasten the liner to the cable with a piece of electrical tape and pull the cable and liner through that way. Tape the liner to both holes where it enters and exits the frame to secure it. Next, with your hood rolled up from the bottom, feed the cable out paying attention to the hole where the cable will go back in. This step will vary between shifters – if you run into questions, search online for the owner’s manual for your shifters.

With the old cable out, take some light lube on your fingers and wipe down the new cable (this step can be skipped if using stainless cables – most manufacturers actually recommend not using a light lube on the cable with new housing – this might need its own post and a pro interview it’s so controversial). Feed the end into the lever hole until it pops up by the cable housing end. This can be a touch on the tricky side getting the angle right. Then, carefully guide the cable end into the housing – I like to use an ultra-thin pair of needle-nosed pliers, they guide the end of the cable perfectly into the housing so I don’t have to mess with pulling the housing from the hood to guide the cable in by hand (a 2 mm hex key works well, also). Once your cable is through the first section of housing, you simply run the cable through the liner you ran through the frame earlier. You don’t have to worry about fishing for the wire or using magnets (and good luck with a magnet and stainless steel btw). Properly connect your cable to the derailleur and adjust the barrel or in-line adjuster. Wrap your bar back up, clean up, and Bob shall be your uncle.

Changing a cable is a daunting task when you’re new to bike repair. It’s a scary undertaking. You will improve with practice, though. New cables used to take me hours – it was a task reserved for a rainy weekend day when I had a clear stretch of time. After years of practice, I can change a shifter cable after work and before my regular evening ride.

A Bike Ride for Tinkering and… Um… Thinkering? Tinkering Yes, Thinking, No.

My weekday riding buddy, Chuck decided to work late, so I was on my own.  I’d already put in ten miles before I’d gotten to his driveway and I was well over a 19-mph average and I had another 19 miles to go (give or take – there were opportunities to cut it short).  Part of me wanted to hammer it out for a 20-mph average.  There was another part that wanted just one more easy evening before all hell breaks loose this weekend with fantastic cycling weather and nothing to do but cut the grass.

After a lackluster performance Tuesday night, I decided, at the very least, I needed another handful of miles at a decent effort, then I could reevaluate.

I’d put my old saddle back on the Venge and, even though it’s massively heavy by racing saddle standards, it’s light by normal standards and it feels like a perfectly broken in baseball glove.  Sadly, my bike goes from 15.5 pounds to 15.8 but I’ll live with it if it’s comfortable to ride on (until I find a better option).  That’ll work out to about 16-1/2 pounds decked out with pedals and cages.

Also, with new wheels on the bike, the shifting needed to be dialed in a little better, something I had little trepidation in messing with.  After I crossed over 20 miles in just over an hour, I decided to stop every now and again and get the rear derailleur set a little more to my liking.  And so it was.  I’d ride a mile or two, stop, dismount, give the barrel adjuster a quarter turn and head out again for another mile or two…  I loosened the adjuster till I got a result I didn’t like, then went back the other way till I didn’t like it, then split the difference right in the middle.  I went from “Okay” shifting with a little drag in the system last year, to zero drag and so much play in the adjuster, it’s actually tough to find dead center – but I found it last night.

And the rest of the ride, another six miles, was just a fun cruise home.  I kicked it for a couple of those, but otherwise kept it easy between 18 & 20-mph.

I pulled into the driveway with a little more than 28 miles and a well-tuned ride, ready for the weekend.  Oh, and a happy ass after swapping saddles again.  I’m a little disappointed, of course, that I couldn’t stick it out with the lightweight saddle, but ultimately being a weight wienie has to stop at the comfort door.  I don’t care if I could get that thing down to 12 pounds – if I’d rather ride the 18-pound Trek because it’s more comfortable, why?

What I didn’t do on my ride last night was think about all of the craziness going on.  There are new reports out now about crisis fatigue* in which people are becoming run-down due to bad news.  I don’t participate in that, other than to continually evaluate that which resides in my personal space.  My part is doing what’s right.  As long as I’m doing that, the whirling dervishes shall whirl.  And I think I’ll let them.

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*I didn’t actually read the article beyond the first paragraph.  I have no idea what the rest says, but it’s about crisis fatigue so I linked to it.  As I wrote earlier, I don’t participate in that.

Well, Winter Isn’t Done Quite Yet – and My Trek’s Shifting is Fixed… But At What Cost?!

We got something like four or five inches of snow between Wednesday and Thursday mornings – and it’s messy. Winds with gusts up to 40-mph (that’s real damn fast in km/h) have blown snow back over the roads and with temps in the mid-to-low teens, everything slicked up instantly. The kids haven’t had school for two days. Surprisingly, though, the ride into work both mornings (and on the way home) was actually pretty good. The expressways were clear. Everything else sucked.

Wednesday, between snow storms, I called the owner of the local shop and told him about my front derailleur hanger problem. He was sympathetic and suggested I bring my 5200 in to see if they could find a solution other than “living with” the chain dropping into the bottom bracket when shifting from the big to little ring, in the two biggest cogs in the back. On one hand, I was () that close to installing a chain catcher and just calling it good… On the other, if you can fix a bike without adding weight, the solution must be explored.

Well, kinda. The fix worked – it’s just too expensive for the normal person to want to afford it, unless money isn’t really an object. The answer is to weld some stainless steel wire to the bottom of the derailleur cage and file the mounting hole down 3 mm so the derailleur fits as it should. It’s a little less than an hour’s work for an experienced welder, so you’ve gotta figure the cost at around $120 when you include the shop mechanic’s time, maybe more in a big market. You’ve gotta ask yourself if you really want to blow that kind of money to avoid 45 grams on a $12 – $30 chain catcher you can install yourself in 15 minutes.

However, if you’re good riding buds with your local shop owner, who happens to be an expert frame-builder and brazer, and you do a veritable $#!+-ton of volunteering for the club… well, perhaps you can save a buck or two and the solution becomes worth it. Because the welding fix works.

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I was back on my Trek on the trainer last night, cranking out the imaginary miles and all was well. I’m a lot happier on the Trek than my gravel bike. There’s nothing wrong with the Diverge, of course, the 5200 is simply a better all-around ride. Besides, it’s my bike-baby. And spending a ridiculous amount of money on your bike-baby – well, it’s just the right thing to do.

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…You would ride, too if one happened to you.

A Most Enjoyable Journey in Shifting Perfection: The Front Derailleur Mount for a Trek 5500/5200 and a 50 Tooth Chain Ring… Enough to Make You Madder than Bernie Sanders at a Free Market Over-performance Banquet

There are few things more frustrating in life than taking a once stellar road racing bike, trying to update it with modern parts, only to find that one stupid part that isn’t made anymore gums up an otherwise perfect project.  Enter the humble, bumble front derailleur mount…

If you’ve got a Trek 5200 (or a 5500 or a bunch of other brands, too, this isn’t just a Trek problem) and you’ve tried to switch from a 52 or 53 tooth chainring to a 50 tooth, you may have run into trouble in paradise: you can’t find a front derailleur mount that’ll allow the derailleur bolt to slide down far enough to hit the optimum height for the derailleur cage above the big ring teeth (about 2 millimeters).  If you look at mine, that’s about 5 mm.  That was an initial setup, though, I’m down to about 4 mm currently and that’s as low as I can go without taking a file to the derailleur mount hole.

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My 5200 is a 1999 5200 T.  “T” for triple.  I swapped out the 52/42/30 triple for a 50/34 double drivetrain.  I had some trouble with the chain dropping into the bottom bracket until recently, and that’s likely why you’ve landed here – because they don’t make a front derailleur hanger bracket for this.  Don’t fret – it’s almost fixable without messing with the derailleur mount (though taking a file the hole is an option if you’re CAREFUL).  First things first, lower the derailleur all the way down on the mount.  Once you’re as low as you can go, line the cage up so it’s running on exactly the same line as the big chainring.  Next, you’re going to have to get the front derailleur dialed in perfectly with the set screws.

I’m running a 2013 10-speed Shimano 105 system on my 1999 Trek and it works fine, after some tinkering, but there’s a trick…

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Now, before we get into this, we all know you never touch the set screws.  Because it’s never the set screws unless you change cranks or the derailleur (I did both, and even though I knew it was going to come down the the set screws, you MUST investigate everything else first – because it’s never the set screws).  I started with the barrel adjuster first.  Nope, still dropped into the bottom bracket – almost, but in the biggest cog, and 50% of the time in the second (on the cassette), it’d drop.  Then the derailleur cage.  Alignment was good and I was at the lowest setting on the bolt-on bracket.  Now we move on to the set screws – and certain death.  Once you mess with the set screws, unless you know EXACTLY what you’re doing, you’re… um… screwed…

I held my breath…

Don’t worry, I knew exactly what I was doing.  You want the chain to be in the baby ring up front and the big cog in the back and set your derailleur cage with the low set screw so the cage is less than 1 mm from the chain.  Normal suggestion is 1 mm… you’re going to take it till the chain rubs the derailleur cage and back it off the chain ever so slightly.

These are directly from Shimano’s 105, Ultegra and Dura Ace front derailleur manual (for my 10 speed setups):

On that second diagram, we’re going to overlook the fact we have 4-5 mm gap between the teeth and derailleur cage and just make sure we’ve got the inside (closest to the bike) of the cage just barely off the chain so it doesn’t rub when the pedals go ’round.  Also, you’ll want to make sure your chain is within tolerance and your chainrings and cassette aren’t worn out, all of which contribute to poor shifting.

Here’s the trick, though:  This isn’t perfect.  You can’t shift to the little ring from the big ring from the biggest (easiest) cog on the back.  You can’t do it.  The chain will drop.  EVERY time.  Even the second cog is a little risky – but will work just fine if you shift properly, taking a little pressure off the pedals when shifting.  The third cog or any cog thereafter?  Perfection.

Now, some will say if it can’t operate perfectly, it ain’t right, so something else must be done.  I respect that.  I’m just not going to live by it.  Shifting to the little ring from all but the biggest cog in the back is just fine with me.  I only use that gear twice a year anyway – and if I can’t anticipate a gear change better than that, I’ve got bigger problems than dropping the chain into the bottom bracket.

Perfect Shifting on a Shimano 10 Speed Drivetrain Requires Perfect Cable Housings, Ferrules, and Fresh Cables

I’ve written before, in a disjointed “update” fashion, about my adventures with Shimano’s 10 speed shifting problems but after yesterday’s adventures, it’s time for a full post. Necessity is the mother of fixing a road bike’s drivetrain is how the saying goes, methinks.

First, Shimano’s 10 speed drivetrains (105, Ultegra, Dura Ace) are notorious for poor shifting quality if there’s any drag in the cable system. And by “any”, I mean any. No drag? Fantastic. Drag? Read on… I won’t be dealing with the normal culprits in this post, things such as dirt, grime, wear, excessive lube, installing the cable improperly on the pinch-bolt of the derailleur, frayed cables, sweat and sport drink-caked cable guide, etc. This post is for a more nefarious issue.

If you’ve got drag in the cable system, here’s what it will present as, in two different scenarios – each on a different bike, with a different component line (Ultegra and 105).

With the first, you can get the shifting dialed in, but it’s hard. One quarter-turn either way and it’ll shift good going up the cassette or down the cassette, but not both. You’ll get a hesitation on one or more gears while others will work just fine. If, however, you get the barrel adjuster dialed in just right, it’ll shift perfectly. It’s liable drive you up a wall, too, because the cause can be tough to track down – it was for me.

In the second scenario, and worse, you’ll get clicking gears, almost like you’re half-geared, going up or down the cassette, but not both. Motherf****er, I’m getting worked up just thinking about it. It gets worse; it’ll happen on specific gears only, upper, lower or middle of the cassette depending on which way you’re adjuster is misdialed. Oh, it gets still worse. You can get it dialed in just right in the big ring, but it’ll click in a couple of gears when you shift to the little ring. We’re going to deal with this scenario first, because it’ll drive a person mad. It did me.

The clicking problem presented itself on my Specialized Venge. Shimano Ultegra 10 speed. I switched housings, cables, almost everything and couldn’t find the damned gremlin. Then I gave the mechanic at the shop a crack at it. He made it better by installing new cables all the way back, but I still had to have it dialed in just right… and I still had the big ring/baby ring problem, though as little time as I spend in the baby ring, it was livable, at least. Still, it bugged me to no end knowing there was something off.

In the end, I got lucky finding the problem. The mechanic at the shop ran the rear derailleur housing exiting the handlebar and entering the down tube about a centimeter too long. It drove me nuts seeing it not symmetrical with the other side. I decided to tinker with it one Saturday to get that cable length corrected. When putting it back together, the ferrule (end cap) was a coated plastic… I didn’t like it and swapped it out for a metal end cap before putting everything back together. After HOURS of monkeying around with it, shifting perfection was achieved at long last. It was that one little freakin’ plastic ferrule that gummed up my shifting so bad, a pro couldn’t figure it out.

Second up is the hesitation in the shifting on my Trek, Shimano 105 ten speed drivetrain. Now this was a little trickier to pin down for one fun reason. The whole bike, from the ground up, is new except for the frame, fork and chain ring bolts. I chose the cable housing lengths myself, based on a guess. I threaded the housings through the handlebar ports. I put it all together myself, brakes, shifters, housings, end caps… all of it.

So let’s just say there was a lot I could have messed up and leave it at that.

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I checked everything and was simply flummoxed. No plastic ferrule, no bad housing, no drag in the system… in fact, I went so far as to leave the rear loop alone because if it worked on the old 9 speed system, why mess with it, right?

Guess what I found out Sunday night? Yep, it was the rear loop that worked perfectly on the original 9 speed system. It was the only thing I hadn’t changed and before I messed around with changing new stuff, because I’d finally had enough, I just wanted to make absolutely sure. I cut a new length of shifter housing (there’s a difference between brake and shifter housing, by the way) and put two brand spankin’ new end caps on each end, threaded it on, connected the cable to the derailleur, dialed it in with the barrel adjuster… et voilà. Doh! Perfect.

The problem inherent in the ten speed system was corrected in the eleven speed drivetrain. The fix for a ten speed system can seem complex, but with a little sticktoitiveness it can be dealt with. The tough part is figuring out where the drag is in the system.

If, by some unlucky stroke, you run into this on your bike, the best advice I can give is run the whole cable system new back to the derailleur. New housings, new cable, new end caps (and be sure to use metal caps)… no frayed ends on the shift cables, too. The problem is drag on the cable, even the slightest little bit will throw the system off, so I wouldn’t use a heavy lube on the cable, either. In fact, if you’ve got decent housing, I’d stay away from lube altogether. Modern shift cable housing doesn’t require it, though check the manufacturers instructions for yours, just to make sure.

This post assumes, of course, that all other issues are dealt with, like a gummed up cable guide (under the bottom bracket shell), the cable is on the proper side of the pinch bolt, the cables aren’t frayed or rusted, the housings aren’t gummed up, etc. etc. etc.