As I've been working on a current project, I was trying to decide what shifters to use, and I had several choices - one of them being bar-end shifters.
Ever since Shimano introduced their STI system (Shimano Total Integration) with the brake and shift levers combined into a single complex (and expensive) unit, practically any road bike sold today has some version of "integrated" brake/shift levers, or as some of us call them, "brifters." I've been told that only "squares" call them "brifters" and that all the cool roadies laugh at the term and at the people who use it. But what can I say? Like most retrogrouches, I'm so "square" that I still say things like "square" (as opposed to "groovy"). Anyhow, Saint Sheldon called them brifters, and who am I to argue with that?
Lots of people call the integrated brake/shifter systems one of the greatest developments in modern cycling. The thing is, I've got a couple of bikes with brifters: one with Shimano's STI, and another with Campagnolo's Ergo. They're nice, but the main thing either system has going for it is convenience. With shifting controls right there at the fingertips, it seems to me that one shifts gears a lot more frequently. Is that because the levers/buttons/paddles/or-what-have-you are so close at hand - or is it because they are usually paired up with a drivetrain that has anywhere from 8 to 12 cogs in the back (multiplied by however many chainrings one has)? Shifting is easy, so you shift more often. But is it necessary? Better? I'll stick with convenient.
Then again, bar-end controls have probably 80% of the convenience with fewer drawbacks than brifters (yes, I came up with that figure after careful scientific analysis, and in no way is that a subjective, made-up, "gut-feeling" statistic).
What drawbacks? How about cost, complexity, and vulnerability? The location of integrated brake/shift levers makes them more vulnerable to crash damage. Case in point: I hit some black ice on my commuting bike last winter, hit the pavement, and knocked one of the brifters half-way round the handlebar. Luckily they just got scuffed up but didn't break - but if they had, there would have been no repair option other than full replacement (and could I have bought just one brifter, or would I have had to buy the whole set?). If they do get damaged, or if they wear out, the only remedy in most cases is to replace the entire unit, which is not exactly cheap. Then there's the complexity of the systems which means there is a lot going on in that small package, and a lot more that can go wrong. I don't know about others, but I find it really annoying to have to replace an entire component or a whole system all because one small part broke or wore out. Campagnolo levers have an advantage over Shimano in that one can replace internal parts when they get worn - but doing so might be beyond the capability of most home mechanics and even some shop mechanics. Just like our computers, phones, televisions, appliances, and other electronic goods, integrated controls on a bike become yet another situation where "repair" really just means "replace."
Keeping brake levers and shift levers separate means that individual components can be much simpler with less to break or wear out. If they need maintenance or repair, they can be easier to work on. And if something does need to be replaced, one can often replace the individual part or component and not a whole system. If one crashes and damages a traditional brake lever, the shifting components are unaffected, and replacing a brake lever alone is a lot cheaper than an integrated component. Or conversely, if the shifter needs to be replaced, the brake levers are unaffected, and so on.
Also, both down-tube shifters and bar-end shifters are less vulnerable to damage. And the bar-ends levers are still easy to reach and can be operated without removing one's hands from the bars, though it might mean moving the hands away from the brake levers for a moment. If you really must brake and shift simultaneously, as I'm sure everyone does regularly, you've just lost some convenience.
Bar-end shifters have been around a long time - at least since the 1940s, if not earlier. The overall style of bar-end shifters hasn't really changed much since they were first introduced, and many of them look outwardly similar, though the internal mechanisms have changed some. Here are a few notable ones, old and new.
|Simplex bar-end control: earlier basic friction version. I have no personal experience with these, but mechanically speaking, these aren't all that different from the Campagnolo version shown above, and I'd expect them to work similarly.|
Some more modern/current options:
|The latest version of the Rivendell Silver shifters (Silver 2) is without a doubt styled with bar-end and thumb-shifter applications in mind. Currently available from the Rivendell website.|
I have bar-ends on a number of my bikes. I like them for their convenience and for all those "-ity's." You know the ones I mean: simplicity, reliability, durability, and repairability. It's nice to know such things are still valued enough to be an option in a throwaway world.