Monday, July 1, 2013

Summer Riding with Johnny and the Brifters

Go Johnny Go: shift cable exit left

Upper nineties and low humidity is just about perfect for me. All sign of aches and pains cook away, and provided enough water, I can find that well-tuned balance of cadence, gear, and position that feels like I could ride a long, long time. But a key component of that feeling is confidence in the equipment. Nothing supports that sort of confidence like easy, swift, sure, accurate shifts.

In the latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly, they discuss the pros and cons of different types of shifters, from bar end, to down tube, to brifters. I'm in general agreement with what is written there. Eventually I may switch to Dura-ace down tube shifters on this bike, because as far as I know, nothing else is as swift, sure, and accurate, and they also are very simple, which I also appreciate. They might be fussy with a ten-speed cog and/or a triple chain ring, though, so I may have to look into those possible issues further.

But one minor distinction I want to make is that the brifters on my bicycle are the slightly older Ultegra type where the shift cable exits from the side, allowing a gradual, single ninety degree bend down to the cable boss. With this arrangement, I find that the shifts are almost without delay, and very crisp. This differs somewhat from what they state in BQ, perhaps because they were referring to newer Shimano brifters with the "aero" stealth shifter cables hidden beneath the bar tape, which do look sleeker than mine, but cause the shift cable to bend around and get impeded much more than mine do, resulting in perceived delay and increased friction.

Since I ride most of the time with my hands loosely on the hoods, I also find the brifters super convenient. A few times I pretend-shifted my non-existent down tube shifters from various starting hand positions. All were pretty comfortable, but none were as easy as a quick flick of the appropriate finger or thumb that I use to shift or trim with the brifters. For easy summer riding, they seem tough to beat. Except for the fixie. For flatland summer cruising, nothing beats that.

Possible future location of Dura-ace down tube shifters


  1. I am mildly mortified to admit that downtube shifters have always driven me crazy. I simply cannot work them either quickly or smoothly. I actually did a little happy dance in a bike store when, years ago, I discovered brifters. I've always wondered if there were others out there that had difficulties with the downtube shifters and were just too embarrassed to admit it!

    1. I like them since, for me, they strike the right balance between excellent shifts and deterrence of constant shifting thru inconvenience. When correctly adjusted and as part of an overall wonderful bike, they can provide gratifyingly instant and problem-free shifts. But, like me and bar end shifters, they aren't for everyone.

  2. I grew up on down tube shift levers, so don't have a problem with them (I realize they aren't race-competitive any longer, but neither am I) and love the simplicity, no cable clutter up front, ease of maintenance. I think brifters are a savvy way to hugely jack up the price of a bike, in other words cash flow for manufacturers and dealers. In another industry it's why they put dvd players and touchscreens in cars and people just mindlessly go along with all that and pay, of course.

    I think if I were a little squeamish, a little scaredy about reaching down to the down tube to shift, I would install Paul Components Thumbies mounts on the bars and mount the down tube shift levers there. Wouldn't be competitive of course, nor tres chic.

    1. Also brifters bring complexity to components, shifters and brake levers, that can be much simpler, and to many people, simpler implies more robust and easier to repair in the middle of a ride or in the home shop. Although when I crashed, my Ultegra brifter speared the asphalt and got pushed around the bar, but kept on working without a hitch after I repositioned it. But my first concern was how much it was going to cost to replace one. I ride my fixie when I get too uptight about all that stuff, though.

    2. I also ride down tube shifters on my road bike. I think having to reach for shifting has been helpful. It's forced me to learn how to hold a line one-handed, as well as limiting my shifting. But about a third of my miles are gravel, and reaching for the down tube when the road gets loose can be a bit unnerving. It's taught me to either plan my shifts ahead, or grind through it until a safe spot to shift shows up. On the upside, all that gravel dust hasn't caused any mechanical issues. I may cobble some sort of bar-ends or thumb shifters like Don is talking about if I come across the right parts.


One Speed: Go! A cycling blog in and around Phoenix, AZ

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