When I was drafting up the specifications for my dream tourer I had pretty set ideas for just about everything I wanted on it – a threaded quill stem, a square-taper bottom bracket, quill pedals, a decaleur to help support a boxy French randonneuring handlebar bag, in short all the usual accoutrements one would expect to find on what might be called a retro-classic bicycle.
When it came to mounting the shift levers, however, I had a momentary quaver. Part of me was tempted – sorely tempted – to keep with the overall retro-classic theme and go with the old down-tube shifters, just like they had ‘em back in the day. I like down tube shifters, or the idea of them anyway, and I like the look of them on classic bicycles but in the end, I decided not to have them on my dream bike for the simple reason that they never formed part of my dream, and indeed played little role in my past as a cyclist.
I wanted to build a bicycle that was truly mine, not somebody else’s stylised ideal of what a classic tourer should look like, and the honest truth is that for nearly all of my cycling life I have used bar end shifters. And so when it came to the crunch, bar-end shifters are what I bought – Shimano Dura Ace nine-speed ones. I love them. They are beautifully made and function beautifully.
I have liked bar ends ever since I first started using them, back in the 1970s. Simple, reliable, nice looking on a bicycle, they are less of a stretch to reach than down-tube shifters (especially when you are climbing up a mountain pass) and virtually never require servicing – in short the ideal set-up for a drop-bar touring bike, in my eyes at any rate.
Modern bar end shifters, like the Dura Ace nine-speeds I have on my classic tourer, are indexed for the rear – a pleasing touch of modernity – while relying on good old-fashioned friction shifting for the front derailleur, where there are no real benefits to indexed shifting, only endless hassles in trying to fine tune it. With my bar-end shifters I love being able to trim the front derailleur as I ride, should it not shift perfectly. You can’t do that on Ergo or STI levers.
Those who want a choice can turn a catch in the rear shifter and disengage index shifting in back as well. I like to have that option. But then of course friction shifting was how I originally learned to ride.
I realise that I am bucking modernity in my fondness for old-fashioned bar-end shifters; that the vast majority of road bikes these days use the integrated shift and brake levers. In fact, I have a set on my Pegoretti (a 2008 Centaur groupset) While I like them on that nice swift Italian machine, and have yet to have a problem with them, I would still be reluctant to put such complicated and difficult to repair shifters on a tourer.
One of the most important aspects of a touring bike – and one of its chief beauties in my eyes – is its utter reliability and with these achingly simple levers there is just nothing to go wrong. So basic are they – and their down-tube cousins – that were you to snap one off you could practically whittle yourself a new one out of a chunk of drift wood. In the thirty-odd years I have been using them, over many tens of thousands of miles in all sorts of distant places and harsh conditions, I’ve never had one fail.