Jacob here. That quote isn’t mine, by the way. I don’t have the wit to come up with that genius gatekeeping tagline. I absolutely approve, though. I’m something of a friction shifting superfan in training myself, and while I know there a plenty of people that are immensely more capable of describing the phenomenon, I definitely have enough clout to speak confidently on the topic. With that in mind, let’s get started on this blog with an essential focus on friction shifting.
So what is it? Where do I find it? How does it work? And what’s up with that funky alternative widely known as indexed shifting? Well, ladies and gentlemen and the gender non-conforming, friction shifting is something I’d describe as classic. Beautiful and flashy but tastefully so. Reliable, yet touchy. I see friction shifting as not only a concept, but also a simple (and somehow also nuanced) learned skill. If you’ve used friction shifting you may know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t I hope my carefully chosen words have your mouth watering for more. The best way to introduce this shin-dig is to start with what everyone knows: indexed shifting.
You readers have ridden a bike, right? If you haven’t, you should try it. For those of you that have, you’re familiar with gears, and the way they shift. The clicks! The different gears! Push a lever and it clicks, and suddenly you’re in 2nd gear, cruising up a hill much easier than before. That click of the shifter? That’s an index! That’s the resounding effect of technological innovation that just threw you into 2nd gear with ease. The rest of the gears have their respective clicks, too. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Indexing is great. Love it. It’s a piece of cake. But imagine a world where those clicks don’t exist. A world where shifting gears is a little peskier. That’s the art of friction shifting.
On a basic level, shifting gears has to do with the basic action of pulling a cable attached to the derailleur. I can’t dive into derailleurs right now because that’s gonna be a whole different post at some point, but the derailleur changes the path of the chain so it’s lined up with certain gears. Generally pulling the shift cable tighter makes it easier to pedal, and cutting some slack makes it harder. Them’s the rules. I don’t make ’em. The shifter itself usually involves some sort of pulley that, when adjusted, wraps the cable tighter or looser around it which in turn “shifts” the gears. In an indexed shifter, there’s little stops inside a mechanism that are spring loaded to catch on each gear as the pulley is turned by the action of the lever. On a friction shifter, that ain’t a thing. That’s a luxury unafforded by the gods of love and everything exquisite. Fricton holds the shifter in position, and it’s up to the user to properly adjust that shifter so the derailleur is lined up with the right gear. If it’s out of line, you bike is gonna sound broke as heck. That’s no good. That’s why its a skill. If you have 9 speeds in the back, shifting to each of those 9 speeds is gonna be a task in and of itself that brings you and your mind closer to understanding the bike.
Friction shifters are most commonly found in three forms. There’s the downtube shifter, the bar-end shifter, and the thumb shifter. They’re all essentially the same basic mechanism except some smarty-pants figured out how to put it somewhere else. The first photo is a Suntour XCD Thum b shifter, the second is a set of Shimano 600 Tri-Color downtube shifters, and the third is a set of Shimano bar end shifters on one of my personal bikes.
Over my short yet dense 3 years of riding and working on bikes religiously, I’ve come to love, cherish, and revere friction shifting as my preferred method of doing things. I’ve got favorite drivetrain configurations and things I dream about. I’ve got friction shifting systems stored away, waiting for the perfect bike. Something I can tell you is that friction shifting is fantastic for 5-9 speed drivetrains. 10 speed is a little too finicky for me to thoroughly enjoy, but I’ve got my winter commuter set up friction 10 to try and get it under my belt. I’ve made a few fun modifications to that whole system that I won’t dive into too much detail on. If you’d like to see that and a goofy explanation, head to my Instagram @h8gate8 and check out one of my more recent posts (as of 12/13/18 for archive purposes). Friction 11 is something I’ve only used once or twice but I can say for sure that it’s much easier to use than friction 10. My theory on this is because there are really small gaps between gears in the back, which lends itself to ease of shifting because it takes so little input from the shifter to throw the chain around, and the incredibly stiff nature of shifts along all 11 speed systems is fantastic for getting your shift fine tuned. 10 speed drivetrains have what I speculate to be just enough space between gears (A.K.A. pitch) that it’s hard to find that sweet spot. This is also likely exacerbated by the “power” mechanism found in most Suntour shifters that I enjoy oh-so much. The power shifters made my Suntour have a quasi-index feature that is basically a ratchet that ensures minimum slippage while making the lever throw feel nice and smooth.
If you’d like to try friction shifting out for yourself, you can stop by the bike project and convert your existing bike, or try one of our bikes, or if you’re looking for something new and shiny head to your local bike shop and talk to those guys about Gevenalle shifters, Microshift thumbies, Shimano Bar-ends, or something from the lovely folks over at Rivendell. Until then, you can find some light reading on pages 8 & 9 of the 1992 Bridgestone Bicycles catalog here.