Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Retro Friction - Part One

It's hard to imagine anything being more "retro" than friction shift levers. So how perfect that there are even friction levers called "Retrofriction"?

Campy's friction levers -- pretty, but
nothing to brag about functionally.
The Simplex company from France introduced their "Retrofriction" shift levers in the early 70s, and they quickly became a favorite among racers and tourists alike. The levers were sold for over 20 years, through several different generations, and under at least four different brand names (Simplex, Spidel, Gipiemme, and Mavic). There were bar-end versions, as well as clamp-on and brazed-on down-tube versions. What made the Simplex levers such a standout was the spring-clutch mechanism that held the levers (and the derailleur!) in place without slipping, but also allowed for a much lighter touch than other levers that were held in place purely with the friction of their bushings and a lot of bolt tension.

Many racers who had full-Campagnolo gruppos could be seen with the Simplex levers mounted on their bikes, and this included a lot of pros at the time, too. As much as racers in the 70s and early 80s may have preferred or coveted Campagnolo's derailleurs, brakes, cranks, hubs, and more, the Campy shift levers were nothing to brag about. Held in place with a 5mm d-ring screw and a nylon bushing, the Campy levers needed
to be screwed seriously tightly to keep from slipping. If they were tight enough to stay put, they were a bear to move smoothly. If they could be moved smoothly, then they'd move on their own as the derailleur would pull itself down to smaller cogs -- usually as the rider was just starting a long climb. Installing the Simplex levers on an otherwise all-Campy bike build was a sign that the builder knew what he was doing.

The smoothly elegant
version seen on many
 racing bikes in the 1980s.
Versions of the Simplex levers from the 70s, in the first couple of generations, are pretty easy to identify as they have an "S" in a sunburst logo imprinted on them. Most are aluminum, but there was even a plastic version to go along with Simplex's plastic "delrin" derailleurs. By roughly 1980 or so, the levers took on a smoother appearance with a large cutout in them -- this is the version that I probably see the most often and is the style that I have. The version made for Gipiemme is a little harder to find than the others. It has almost a spoon-like appearance that I assume would have a nice feel to it. I've even seen them referred to as "coke spoons," but I won't go there. All of them come up from
Gipiemme's version of the Retrofriction
shift levers. Light, smooth, desirable.
time to time on eBay, and prices seem to vary. I checked eBay prices as I was writing this and found them listed between $90 - $125. Bargains can be had, as I've sometimes seen (and bought) clean used examples for far less.

The Simplex levers, along with other friction systems, eventually got pushed out of the market by Shimano's indexing system. The hype at the time (forgive the cliche) was "if it don't click, it don't sell." Nevertheless, I understand that Mavic still offered a variant in the early 90s, but the Simplex company went out of business by about 1995. Too bad, really. A commenter on one of my other posts pointed out that the French were probably the original Retrogrouches. There's probably some truth to that. I've heard it said, and I have no doubt, that the French component makers likely saw indexed shifting as a fad that wouldn't catch on. If they were making any effort to make their own version, they kept it a pretty good secret. Campagnolo's first effort at marketing an indexed system failed miserably, and if not for the racers' loyalty to their other road racing components, who knows what might have happened to them?

The Simplex Retrofriction levers, under their various names and guises, are widely considered the best friction levers. The amount of control at the rider's fingertips is, in my opinion, better than with indexed and integrated shifters. Unlike the various click-to-shift systems that are supposed to be superior, cable tension and adjustment are no issue at all with a friction system, unless the derailleur cable is just so slack that you'd run out of lever travel before hitting the last cogs. Trimming the front derailleur for rear shifts is a simple matter and one has almost infinite fine-tuning ability. Those last couple of points are supposed to be some of the great benefits of the new electronic shifting systems, yet those have always been benefits of full friction shifting.

Is there a down side? Fast and precise shifting is a matter of user skill, but I don't really accept that as a downside. Lots of things require skill and practice, and we usually respect that, so why should being really skilled on a bike be different? Here's one: They don't work so well with 9, 10, or 11 speed cog systems. With most of the older friction levers (the Simplex Retrofriction included), lever travel even to hit 8 cogs gets a little long, and beyond that, the spacing between cogs starts getting pretty painstaking. Okay - got me there, but then that's another issue and another can of worms.

Next post: Retro Friction -- Part Two -- Copies and Competition


  1. My friend, the late Dan Ulwelling, had a bike shop for years. One time he told me that he thought the only real improvement in bicycle design in his lifetime was brifters.

    1. Oh well. I have brifters. I use them. And they're nice when everything's adjusted right. But I like bar-ends a lot -- I think they have most of the advantages of brifters with fewer disadvantages. Less fussy about adjustment. Less vulnerable. Much cheaper.

  2. How nice to learn of your blog, via Off the Beaten Path. Interesting discussion here. Thanks!

    1. Thank you -- I only got started a couple of weeks ago -- but hoping it will catch on.

  3. Congratulations on recognizing a spring clutch! Every other explanation of these shifters that I have ever read stated, incorrectly, that the shifter spring opposed the force of the derailleur spring.

  4. Thanks -- I can only guess that people see that there is a spring inside, and make that assumption based on other spring-loaded mechanisms they've seen. The Shimano versions seem to work that way -- where the spring acts as a simple counterbalance.

  5. One thing that's changed with the advent of index shifting, STI, etc is that racers don't need to plan shifts anymore. Once upon a time races were won or lost with missed shifts or because a rider had to sit down to change gears. Not any more

  6. Just for info that others may find useful - Microshift still makes a 10 speed bar-end shifter set that is index or friction for the rear (front friction-only). Make a nice touring setup as you can have indexed gears but switch to friction if needed.

    I like to support Microshift as they are less driven by fashion and more into making Stuff That Works

    1. My experience with those shifters was pretty bad.

      1. In indexed mode, it wasn't possible to hit all the gears without having to shift one extra over, then back on at least one or two. Both a couple of shops and I tried to get it to work, but nobody had luck.

      2. In friction mode, there's no gap between "constant slippage" and "too hard to move." In fact, they loosened on their own sometimes.

      I ended up putting Shimano SL-BS79 levers on that bike, since 10-speed friction shifting didn't really fit that bike's personality.

      I've used Shimano's bar-end shifters with 7-, 8-, and 9-speed shifters in friction mode with nary a complaint, so they know what they're doing.

    2. I've used Microshift derailleurs - I think they're pretty good, and great for the money. I can't speak to their index/friction bar-ends as I've only used the Shimano ones (which are excellent) - but I have heard others echo similar experiences.

  7. Thanks for the article!

    I fixed up my 1973 Raleigh Record last year and was pleased to discover that the knack of smooth downtube shifting came back as soon as I rode it for the first time.

    1. It's nice to know people are keeping those bike boom era bikes still going!