Monday, January 27, 2020

Old Is Good - And Sometimes New Again: Bar-end Shifters

I've been thinking about shifters lately.

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.

When Campagnolo introduced its first parallelogram derailleur, the Gran Sport, they also offered a bar-end lever, going back at least as early as 1953 (judging by their catalogs). The examples above, with the familiar blue covers, probably date to the '70s but were made for a couple of decades (as I understand it, the smaller parts are not interchangeable with the earlier Gran Sport ones). I once had a pair of these, and my main complaint was that they had to be set very tightly to prevent slipping or "auto-shifting" but when they were tight enough not to slip, they were awfully stiff to move.

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. 

Simplex Retrofriction Shifters: These came out in the 1970s and have the same spring-clutch mechanism that made their Retrofriction downtube levers such a revelation. I've never used the bar-ends which are harder to find than the downtube mounted version (which I have and do use) - but that spring in the middle of the lever lets them work smoothly with a light touch, and without slipping.
SunTour Power Ratchet Bar-Cons: These were introduced in the early '70s and became among the most popular bar-end controls of all time. The concept is similar to that of the Simplex Retrofriction ones shown above, but the execution is a little different. These have a fine ratcheting mechanism that allows a light touch and action without slipping. The ratchet means you can feel the tiny little 'clicks' when moving them, so they're not quite as smooth as the Simplex - but it's still a very effective solution.

One of the great things about the SunTours is that they were made for many years with only the slightest changes, and they are almost completely re-buildable. Most (maybe all) of the small parts are interchangeable from one year to the next, so they're virtually immune to obsolescence. And believe it or not, you can still find the parts.
Here's an interesting one - Shimano "Fingertip Control" bar-ends. No group name on them, but I sometimes see them listed for sale as Dura Ace. Circa late '70s, I believe. These have a large coil spring inside which counterbalances the spring in the derailleur. No clicks or ratchets. No clutch. Just one spring working against another.

This is what the Shimano shifter looks like inside - it's very simple, really. Here's how they work: The spring in the rear derailleur is typically "high normal" - in other words, its natural position is to be in the high gear (smallest cog). The spring in the lever is "low normal" - in that it wants to move the derailleur to the lowest gear (largest cog - and by the way, this is all completely reversed for the front derailleur). To set them up, you have to move the lever against the spring to the opposite end of its travel and hold it in place while you pull all the slack out of the cable at the derailleur and then tighten the pinch bolt. It helps to have one of those cable pulling tools, aka a "4th hand tool." When you have them all set up properly, the two springs basically fight it out, tug-of-war style, and the derailleur stays in place where you put it. The movement takes a fairly light touch as there is very little friction. The same mechanism was also used in early Shimano Deore "thumb shifters" for mountain bikes.

Some more modern/current options:
Modern Shimano Indexing levers - available for 8, 9, 10, and even 11 speeds. My Rivendell has the 9-speed version - nearly 20 years old and still going strong. I don't know about the 10 and 11-sp. versions, but my old 9-sp. ones can be switched from indexing to friction, but the indexing is bulletproof so there'd be no reason to switch them. The bodies, or "pods" have been copied by other makers because they are compatible with many standard downtube shift levers - which means customizing options.


Current production Dia Compe levers. Notice that the pods are identical to the Shimano pods shown above. The levers have an extra-fine version of the SunTour Power Ratchet mech. Grant Petersen/Rivendell was instrumental in getting that ratchet mechanism resurrected, originally for a near-exact re-issue of the late '80s SunTour Sprint shifters (dubbed "Silver"), which they would then pair with the Shimano pods for some smooth-action bar-ends. Dia Compe later made this more "traditional" styled lever with the same internal mechanism. The levers themselves can be mounted on the pods, or on the downtube.

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.

13 comments:

  1. I don't use bar ends myself, but if I had to forsake downtube shifters, I would choose bar-ends over "brifters". I say this from experience with all three types of shifters.

    And, if I were to go with bar-ends, my choice would be either Sun Tour or the Simplex retro friction. The Sun Tours are nice, and are clearly better than Shimano's or any of the friction bar-ends, but I think the reason why Simplex retro friction bar-ends aren't better known is that not many people know about them. They were never widely available (at least here in the US) and don't seem to have been in production for very long.

    If I'm not mistaken, the internals of the Sun Tour's Bar Con are interchangeable with their ratcheted downtube shifters from the '70's.

    The Rivendell shifters look interesting.

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    1. I think you are right about the internal pieces being the same between the downtube and bar-end versions from SunTour. I haven’t tried it, but they probably are interchangeable.

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  2. As a long-distance tourer, one must always keep an eye on the "ity's" as you put it. I've a pair of Suntour bar-ends on the tandem and Simplex on the touring bicycle. Both installed over 30+ years ago. Both sets going strong.

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  3. I just completed a new build using, for the first time ever, bar ends. I'm struggling to get used to them because they have exactly the opposite shifting action to downtube shifters. I suppose I could install them upside down, but then the cable would run along the top of the drops.
    Hopefully I'll adapt over time.

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    1. Before you shift, just remember that down is up and up is down. Makes perfect sense in the current political climate.

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  4. I have bar-ends on two of my road bikes and our tandem, and have another pair I’ll eventually put on another bike. They come to hand easily, and they’re reliable. Plus, I like the way they look — brifters are ugly, in my view.

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  5. For the writer struggling with the "backwards" action (vs down-tube shifters) of the bar-ends, I had the same issue. The solution was to change the way I thought about the direction. It's actually the same direction if you think of it as "pull and push" (the lever or the cable) rather than the direction. Once I started thinking about it that way, I (mostly) stopped shifting the wrong direction. I hope that helps. Jon Blum

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  6. I've been wondering about Bar end shifters for one of my hybrid bikes, which currently has a straight handlebar and trigger shifters. I don't like Brifters for all the reasons you described so I've looked at the Shimano and Microshift 8-speed indexed shifters. I've installed downtube shifters on my tourer and love them for the precise indexing on the rear mech and the ability to trim and adjust my front mech, but I'm not sure I want to have 8 speeds without indexing, otherwise I'd get the Rivendell set.

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  7. I fitted mid-range Shimano brifters to my touring bike 12 years ago. Like you, I hit some black ice and the right hand brake lever took the most of the impact. It looked a complete mess...but incredibly it still worked. Although it was an obsolete part (a right-hand 7-speed shifter), it was surprisingly easy to find a reasonably-priced single replacement on ebay. I certainly recognise the drawbacks of brifters but, personally, I just love their useability and convenience.

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  8. Brooks,

    Thanks for the info on the bar-end shifters.

    The bar-ends that click (ratchet), is there a number of clicks that one can feel when shifting from one gear to another? That is, if one has an 8 speed cassette, will the user notice the same numbers of clicks between shifts?

    Also, as an aside, Shimano has stopped production of the Ultegra 8 speed bar-end shifters. It seems that for 8 speed the replacement is the Sora 8 speed down-tube shifters…

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    1. about the clicks in the ratcheting levers - they are not the same as the clicks in indexing levers. They are much smaller/finer clicks (you only barely feel them), and they don't correspond with the number of gear changes. In fact, they only click/ratchet in one direction, in a similar manner to freewheels or even a ratcheting socket wrench. You would really want to consider them as more similar to normal "friction" shifters.

      about Shimano ending production of 8-speed bar-ends, that's too bad. I should have suspected it. Odd, though, since they do still make 8-speed derailleur and gearing systems, like the Claris group.

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  9. I have had Suntour "BarCons" on at least one bike pretty much continuously since retrofitting my 1971 Motobecane Grand Touring, shortly after I bought it, new. Combined with the stiff Huret Alvit derailleurs and French freewheel, the shifting was terrible, but I liked the action and the "coolness factor". When building up my latest winter commuter, I stuck with the Shimano indexed bar-ends, though I did move to a 9-speed, low-normal setup to avoid hitting the right shifter with my knee while out-of-the-saddle climbing. This setup hasn't worked out well, frequently resulting in annoying gear-hunting and self-shifting, especially under load. I'm going to try going back to 8-speed after I wear out this cassette before giving up on the reverse-action rear derailleur. Even after a couple winters, I still often shift into the wrong gear. It's tough to overcome 50 years of muscle memory.

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  10. I love my (campag) brifters, especially the flick-of-the-thumb shifts during accelleration. But they're fragile and eventually all have failed - I'm sure the complicated cable routing contributes to the fatigue failures of the shifter paddles.

    I suspect I'll return to barcons on the daily driver once the current $$$ set die in the usual way.

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