Bar End Shifters

Bar End shifters-1When 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.



  13 comments for “Bar End Shifters

  1. Ron Clark
    February 6, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I seriously considered these when I put together my tourer, but it became a moot point when I went with butterfly bars. I did leave a set of downtube shifters on my ride, just in case something ever went wrong with the Sram twist shifters when I was far from home.

    • Roff Smith
      February 6, 2013 at 5:36 pm

      I am going to have to give butterfly bars a try out some time. They look intriguing and God knows they are popular on the Continent.

      • Ron Clark
        February 6, 2013 at 5:55 pm

        I like them. They are a pain in the ass, though, when it comes to finding a handlebar bag to fit, and at least on the pair I use, there wasn’t enough clearance to use thumbshifters. All in all, though, I like them a lot better than drops, especially as I get older.

        • Roff Smith
          February 6, 2013 at 6:30 pm

          I never actually ride on the drops. I am always resting my hands on top or over the hoods

          • Ron Clark
            February 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm

            I was the same way, as far as never riding in the drops. I guess that’s what compelled me to try the trekking bars, since I can actually get more useful hand positions on them than I ever could on drop bars.

  2. February 6, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    I don’t know much about shifters but I can remember the horrors (at the time) of my one and only racing bike I had as a kid. My dad used to build bikes and ran a bike shop for some years building and refining bikes for the weekend time trials. I remember waking up one Christmas morning, I would have been about 13, to find a bundle of spokes in my Christmas stocking.

    My dad had got me a bike for Christmas but, being my dad, it was a Claude Butler frame in a horrible green with the rest of the bike as boxed components and we built it together. It was my first experience of Derailleur gears and although they were set up right by my dad, I could never get used to them so I left it in the middle and used it as a single speed lol

    My dad gave up on me when he came home one day and found I hat equipped the bike with ‘cow horn’ handlebars. Sadly the bike was stolen after about three years of great fun. I just wish I had learned more from my dad, all his skill and experience passed away with him.

    I do love that bike of yours though, a very classy machine.

  3. February 6, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    I sold my Lemond with more of a racing geometry and just purchased a Rivendell Sam Hillborne; said goodbye to STI and hello to bar end shifters for the first time on mustache bars. Though I do believe the down-tube shifters I first rode were also friction.

    • Roff Smith
      February 6, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      Yes, I expect your downtube shifters would have been friction. I’ve always liked friction.

      I have heard great things about the Rivendell Sam Hillborne, although I’ve never seen one in the flesh on this side of the pond

      • February 8, 2013 at 12:26 am

        I know some Rivendell’s are rolling around over there somewhere. I’ll have pix up soon on my site; I love the new blue and cream paint scheme, with fenders to match. I have a teaser pic up if you want to take a look.

        • Roff Smith
          February 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm

          I will indeed have a look. Thanks.

  4. Mr Will
    February 8, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    ” 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.”

    Actually, you can. There is a half-click position on the front shifter, which allows you to trim the front dérailleur closer to the centre.

    Most bikes also have adjusters which allow you to adjust the cable position fully from the cockpit. I’m a fan of Jagwire Rocket Adjusters ( but in-line versions are available as well.

    A bigger problem is finding a bar-bag to fit. Inward swinging shifters with cables sticking out the sides can clash with a lot of them!

    • Roff Smith
      February 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm

      I guess I betrayed my ignorance of STI and Ergo levers. I wasn’t aware of the half-click. One thing though: does this half-click offer the finesse of trimming with friction levers?

      The point about the bar bags is a good one.

      • Mr Will
        February 12, 2013 at 11:36 am

        I can only really speak for Shimano but in my experience there is not the same level of finesse. It works well when the shifters are adjusted just right, but isn’t really a tool for coping when things could do with a tune-up (hence the cable adjusters).

        I believe Campagnolo are better in this regard but I haven’t tried them for long enough to comment accurately.

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