Empowering The Bicycle Traveler

In Defense of Bar-End Shifters

We are often asked why Surly specs bar-end shifters rather than integrated brake/shift levers on the Long Haul Trucker, Disc Trucker and Cross-Check.  This is a good question and one we thought warranted some explanation.

side view of bike

Disc Trucker with bar-end shifters.

When you walk into most bike shops, you’ll most likely find that every single new bike with drop bars is fitted with combination brake/shift levers from Shimano, Sram or perhaps Campagnolo.  They have become ubiquitous for a myriad of reasons, most of them good.  With an integrated shifter, the rider has complete control over braking and shifting from a single hand position without having to let go of the bars.  Now, the rider can shift while bouncing over rough terrain, from the hoods or the drops, even out of the saddle or in a full sprint!  Try that with your old downtube shifters and you may be picking your teeth out of the dirt.  This was quite an advancement and has changed the way riders interact with their bikes in a profound way.  Many cyclists could never imagine going “back” to bar-end or down tube shifters.  Why should they?

handlebar and brake hoods

Straggler with Shimano STI brake/shift levers

If integrated shifting is so great that it has become the standard for drop-bar bikes of all styles and price points, why would a bike company include anything else on their complete bikes?  Are Surly’s bikes spec’ed by crotchety retrogrouches who are scared of progress?  Maybe.  Are they trying to rip us off by sticking us with obsolete, outdated parts for an exorbitant price?  Doubtful.  Did they accidentally order ten million sets of bar-end shifters that they had to put somewhere?  Possible, but unlikely.  Surly does use integrated shift levers on a handful of bikes like the Pacer and Straggler, so we know they’re not afraid to spec them when it makes sense.  Perhaps it comes down to having the right tool for the job.

For all their wonders and benefits, the level of convenience offered by integrated shifters comes at a price, both literal and figurative.  These things are not cheap!  Next to the frame and wheels, those little clicky bits are usually the most expensive component on your bike.  For example, Shimano’s latest Ultegra STI (Shimano Total Integration) levers carry an MSRP of $400.  If you want the top-of-the-line Dura-Ace units you’re looking at at whopping $700!  You could buy a nice new frame with money to spare or even a complete entry-level bike for that price!

In contrast, a pair of Dura-Ace bar-end shifters (probably the finest indexing bar-end shifters on the market) will set you back about $120.  Depending on your drivetrain requirements, many shifter sets (like these little dandies from SunRace) cost much less.  This saves you money on the complete bike and makes replacement in case of a crash or damage much less painful for the pocketbook.

Also, the operation of integrated shifters can be very confusing for new users.  Learning which of the four shift paddles (two of which are also brake levers) does what, when and how to use them adds to the intimidation and nervousness many new riders feel.  So much focus is required to learn how to shift that it is easy to forget how to brake, especially when your brake lever is also your shifter!  Conversely, bar-end shifters use only two levers – one for each derailleur – that are completely separate from the brake levers.  Pull it towards you to shift one way, push away from you for the other.  The lever even stays in place to remind you what gear you’re in.  Easy for new riders to learn, refreshingly simple for the experienced.

The other main drawback of integrated shifters is their complexity and lack of serviceability.  There is a whole heck of a lot going on under those hoods that allows you to pull and release cable, shifting willy-nilly up and down across your cassette to your heart’s content.  When something goes wrong in there, there is often nothing to be done.  Here’s a photo from the Black Mountain Cycles blog that illustrates the point:

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Photo by Mike Varley, Black Mountain Cycles. Used with permission.

Holy smokes, look at all those tiny springs!  We must note that Shimano does not intend for their shifters to be disassembled in this way.  None of the pictured parts are available as replacements and getting this whole mess back together would be quite a chore.  The problem with this particular shifter (as per Mike’s story on the blog) was that the teeny little spring in the lower-right corner broke, preventing one pawl from doing its job holding the cable reel in place and rendering the shifter useless.  When something like this happens there is no recourse other than to replace the entire unit.  In favorable conditions Shimano’s integrated shifters have a surprisingly good track record but they will all wear out eventually.  When they do fail you will quickly find yourself up shi(f)t creek without a functioning paddle.  This could be only a minor inconvenience if you’re close to home and have deep pockets but is not a situation you want to be in when out on the road for an extended tour.

For the sake of comparison, I pulled the Shimano 9-speed bar end shifter off the RandoGnar to see what goes on inside this little guy.  Much like the integrated shifters, the guts of the bar end shifters are installed at the factory and aren’t meant to be taken apart for service.  Unlike the STI units though, bar end shifters rarely fail or wear out.  Here we can see why.  This shifter has been in constant service since 2008; first on my Long Haul Trucker, then on the RandoGnar.  It has seen many thousands of miles and an uncountable number of shifts in sometimes horrible conditions.  It has never been cleaned, serviced or lubricated in any way.  It still works well and I expect to get many more years of service from it.  Given the same treatment, I would be lucky if an integrated shifter lasted half that time.

P1160219

That’s all, folks.  Not much going on in there, huh?  No tiny springs, no diminutive pawls, just a shift lever, couple of ball bearings, detent ring, big burly spring and some washers, bushings, post and nut to hold it all together.  Simple and robust.  I gave everything a clean, oiled up the moving parts, reassembled the shifter and bolted it back onto the bike.  It now works as well or better than when it was new.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that bar-end shifters are more serviceable than integrated levers.  While they may be easier to take apart (I would never dare disassemble a fully-functional STI lever) and have fewer parts, Shimano does not offer replacements for the internal components.  If something breaks inside your bar-end shifter, you’ll have to replace the whole unit, same as the STI.  What I am saying is that there is much less to break inside a bar-end shifter, so the probability of a failure is minimal.  And, if you do manage to break one you won’t have to sell a kidney to fund its replacement.

This is why they’re spec’ed on Surly’s touring bikes and many others.  When compared with integrated brake/shift levers they are inexpensive, simple and reliable; all prized traits in touring gear.  For my money, they’re the flat-out best shifter for a drop-bar touring bike.  Surly gets that.  You’ll get it too once you try them.

What has been your experience with integrated or bar-end shifters on your touring bike?  Tell us about it in the comments below.  Thanks for reading.

 

39 comments… add one
  • G.E. October 29, 2014, 4:23 pm

    When I was looking at purchasing a Surly LHT several years ago I recall the shop guys stating that one of the nice things about bar-ends was being able to shift to friction should the indexing option suddenly go out on a tour. I don’t know if it’s happened, but I thought it was a nice feature, making things a little easier should the worst case scenario with a shifter take place.

    Personally, I find bar-ends on drop handlebars a little awkward. I like using them on Albatross, Mustache, or other such bars because it feels very intuitive, but when hanging out for long periods of time at the top of a drop bar I find it a little less efficient to utilize the bar-end shifters – not impossible, but less comfortable I’ll say. I suppose it’s possible to get used to anything and if I gave it a more solid effort, perhaps it would become less bumbling, but I haven’t bothered. Plus, I tend to buy STI’s second hand and wait for a great deal, so that definitely helps as well.

    I think both ways of shifting definitely have their place and both can be wonderful depending on a riders preferences.

    Reply
    • calcagnolibero August 15, 2015, 11:41 pm

      Hi G.E.,
      If you spend long periods of time on the tops it means you’re riding constantly uphill in a never ending climb.

      Reply
      • James March 6, 2017, 11:07 am

        Or you’re aerobraking on the descent, to conserve brake pads. That being said, I did a three month length of Japan tour, and about 85% of my bike time was climbing, with about 10% descending (that other 5% was flats; Japan is basically a volcanic mountain chain). It’s actually not far off too say you’re in an endless climb there, and there were many times I wished I could have shifted without taking my hand off the bar.

        Reply
  • alangunn October 29, 2014, 6:06 pm

    Hey Ryan! I’ve been running my bar-ends for several years, mostly friction. Like you, it started with the LHT. I’ve since used them on a cross check and now they are on my straggler. And they just keep working, so I just keep using them. It’s been about 6 years, I think. I have more miles on these shifters than any other parts, except maybe a front derailleur. Pretty much all the reasons you state are exactly why I keep using them. Looking forward to many more years!

    Reply
  • Sky King October 29, 2014, 6:16 pm

    Of course once I had the bar end shifter skill mastered I bought “Bernard” My Gilles Berthoud which had down tube shifters – gasp – but now I am pretty adept as one hand shifting and talk about simple to replace…

    Reply
  • Patrick Lyford October 30, 2014, 8:09 am

    Hello…and thanks for your blog. I enjoy it. While I realize bar end shifters are simpler and less expensive, my experience with brake/shifter levers (brifters, in the parlance) have served me well since they came out. Over the decades, I’ve not had any issues with them. And I still have the bikes I purchased in the 1980s…a 1984 Vitus road bike and a 1986 Cannondale T-500 touring bike. The DuraAce brake/shifters that came with the Vitus are still functioning. No argument that, should failure occur, the bar ends are preferable money-wise and being able to go from friction to indexing is a real plus. If failure occurs near home, online shopping often provides me with some real deals…like buying a complete Shimano 105 groupset for $445. So, as with all things bicycle, rider preference is the determining factor, in my opinion. For me, it’s the Brifters.

    Reply
    • Don McNaughton November 4, 2015, 10:12 pm

      If you’re not touring, what you call “brifters” are more practical for ease of squeezing both brakes in a pinch and sprint possibility etc.

      If touring outside of service areas, dual control STI levers or “brifters” are a gamble where the house doesn’t usually win. But if the house does win, you’re not only out a 2nd mortgage, you might not even reach the homeless shelter (if there is one).

      Moral of the story is that a wise preference is based on desired outcome.

      Reply
    • Gary Stevens June 27, 2016, 6:36 am

      DuraAce brake/shifters on a 1984 bike? They didn’t come out until 1990.

      Reply
  • APR October 30, 2014, 9:12 am

    I haven’t owned a road bike with drop bars since around 1978. It was a Ron Cooper with downtube shifters, no indexing (when men were men and all bikes were steel, LOL). The first time I used a road bike with integrated shift/brake levers, I accidentally shifted while applying the brakes. This probably isn’t a safety issue, but slightly annoying.

    Reply
  • doug October 31, 2014, 7:38 am

    Up until a few years ago, I always had mountain bikes. I got my first bike with “Brifters” a couple of years ago, and I LOVED them. It was amazing to me that shifting could be so effortless and intuitive. I since got a Long Haul Trucker which has bar ends. I fully expected to dislike bar end shifters and that I would eventually “upgrade” to “Brifters”. After using them for a few weeks, I found the experience very satisfying and decided that I didn’t care about “Brifters”. The feel of the indexing was very nice, but eventually the indexing broke. I then moved to friction mode, again expecting not to like it and that I would upgrade — but this time just to a new/functional indexed bar end. It’s been a while now, and I feel like friction is pretty awesome too, and don’t care much about the indexing!

    Though each of the iterations of shifting though to friction bar ends, I have found I shift a lot less. I don’t fiddle with or seek the “perfect gear.” I have found I just ride and don’t worry about it! May be worth mentioning: I’m not a racer, so maybe it is my luxury to not worry about this and just go with the simplest solution, but it’s very satisfying to just ride!

    Reply
    • muse November 24, 2015, 1:50 pm

      I absolutely concur. Bar end shifters are elegant in their simplicity and grace. So often folks look at my bike and say; ” That sure looks heavy!” and “It must be slow”. I just nod my head. We are a different breed.

      Reply
  • chris reino October 31, 2014, 9:15 am

    Great post Jim! As you know, I have been using bar end shifters for years and currently have them on 3 bikes. My most recent purchase, a cross bike from Black Mt Cycles has them and I would not have considered anything else! I just got my first set of STI shifters on my Linskey Ti road bike last summer. I had DOWNTUBE shifters on my rivendell road bike since 1985 and never wished for being able to shift faster of more often (I think most people shift too much anyway). I for one hope bar end shifters continue to be made and spec’d on bikes

    Reply
    • Bike Hermit™ October 31, 2014, 11:53 am

      Thanks Chris, I would like to take credit for the post but Ryan contributed that one.

      Reply
  • Jim Reed November 5, 2014, 11:24 am

    Nice article, I own bikes with both, my LHT is perfect with bar ends wouldn’t want it any other way, now my Bianchi road bike would be awkward with bar ends with trying to shift while climbing out of the saddle, both systems have their purpose and it’s nice to have the options. Thanks Jim

    Reply
  • Tony November 7, 2014, 1:48 pm

    I’ve always used bar-end shifters on my touring bikes. I like the simplicity. I find them most useful when needing to shift when hauling the fully loaded bike up a hill. You’re down on the drops and can change down with a tap your palm. You maintain full control of the steering which can get a bit wobbly at low speeds when climbing.

    Reply
  • david reuteler November 8, 2014, 12:06 am

    jim, nice try. bar-end shifters suck. on the one bike i owned that had ’em i replaced them with down tube shifters within the week. as far as bar-end or down tube shifters being more durable (than brifters) while touring… well, as long as you have down tube shifter bosses just bring along a spare down tube rear shifter. lightweight, best of both worlds. been doing it for years.

    Reply
    • Bike Hermit™ November 8, 2014, 8:26 am

      Dave, I too use down tube shifters on the touring bike…the ultimate in simplicity. The thing about the Campy brifters you use is that parts are available and they can be rebuilt.

      Reply
    • Mike December 24, 2014, 9:21 am

      The only advantage I can see of down tube shifters over end bars (I used down tube for 30 years until I got a LHT three years ago) is down tubes are less likely to get damaged in a crash.

      Since I spend most of my day in the drops, I like the end bars a little better. But one gets used to whatever one has, especially after thousands and thousands of miles. 🙂

      Reply
  • Stuart November 24, 2014, 7:15 am

    Hi, I have a Surly Disc Trucker with flat bars and Shimano SLX trigger shifters. What would be your take with flat bars – friction shifters or trigger shifters (for a tourer)? Would the same arguments apply?

    Reply
    • Ryan King November 25, 2014, 7:56 am

      Stuart,

      Thanks for the question! I’d say that some of the same arguments apply to the flat bar situation but in my experience mtb-style trigger shifters have proven themselves to be much more reliable than integrated road shifters. I’d say the choice comes down to ergonomic preference or a compatibility issue.

      If you have 10-speed “Dyna-Sys” SLX components, the matching shifter is your only good option as the rear derailleur and shifter share a unique cable pull. Other 10-speed shifters will not index properly and I don’t recommend friction shifting across 10-speed clusters. It’s too fussy for most people’s liking.

      If you have 9-speed SLX bits, you do have other shifter options like Shimano 9-speed bar-end shifters on Paul’s Thumbie mounts or the IRD XC Pro thumb shifters. All that said, there’s not much wrong with SLX triggers so I’d probably stick with your current setup unless you’re unhappy with it or just looking for a change.

      I hope this helps. Feel free to get in touch directly if you have any other questions.
      Cheers!

      Ryan

      Reply
  • Ash November 24, 2014, 1:28 pm

    I’m with down tube shifters all the way, but would like to try bar ends some time. I’ve always felt they’d be difficult to use precisely, for some reason.

    Reply
  • Mark November 24, 2014, 6:58 pm

    I’ve used bar end shifters only for about 10 years, and only on friction. I really like to be able to quickly sweep the whole cluster if I am on a “rough stuff” segment and conditions surprise me. Have helped some friends try to repair indexed shifters and that helped me like friction. On a long tour in Finland in May this year, temps were in the high eighties and nineties much of the time and the heat and effort got to me and I found myself reaching for downtube shifters that weren’t there (imagining I was on my old Mercian?)! Crazy what fatigue will do, but it is fun!

    Mark

    Reply
  • Mike December 24, 2014, 9:12 am

    Some people just don’t get bar end shifters. Mostly those are people that don’t do long self supported touring. I explained many times to a friend I ride with once in a while why I have them on my bike.

    He always poo-poo’s them. But then we do different types of biking. He bikes a lot, usually 4,000 miles or more a year. But he rarely ventures out of his own county.

    The two times he did were with me, and I carried all the gear and clothes. He keeps telling me my bike is too slow and I keep telling him his bike would never make it through one of my trips if he had to carry all his own gear.

    He likes speed and day rides close to home – I like traveling to interesting places by bike.

    Reply
  • Ron Beland December 24, 2014, 9:52 am

    As a year round urban commuter cyclist I have found bar end shifters the best approach for me, closely followed by downtube shifters. I value the ability to perform quick downshifts down multiple gears, something that would require multiple clicks on brifters or push click flat bar shifters. I have also found brifter and mountain bike index shifters that require a lever click to ultimately become erratic as they are subject to the grit of everyday riding. Curiously, the index on Shimano bar end shifters seem much more impervious to dirt and wear. I do volunteer tune ups at our local farmers markets and have some experience trying to make shifters work.
    Incidentally, I don’t see index shifting as much of an advantage over friction.
    Incidentally,

    Reply
  • SteveP December 24, 2014, 10:02 am

    Just built up my first “touring oriented” bike using bar-ends (and an SP dynamo hub) a while ago (I do ride an older bike that came with them as well) and they are fine. As long as you don’t go “racer low) on the bar height, the drops will be comfortable and the shifters at hand.

    And while I have several older bikes with downtube lever shifters, I must say I prefer brifters. You can buy a Shimano Tiagra 10X3 groupset for about US$300. The RD is the weakest point (while I think the brifters themselves the best) so I sometimes swap in a 105 GS RD instead (+$35).

    As a tall man, and not getting any younger, I find those downtube levers a long stretch on my 62cm frames. BTW, Microshift also make some very nice bar-ends, one model with selectable rear friction/index.

    Reply
  • Paul Kaplan May 4, 2015, 1:44 pm

    My concern, that no one seems to talk about, is that the shifters seem to stick out a lot. Can the shifters move when you lean your bike against something? Can they break off?
    PK

    Reply
    • Ryan King May 25, 2015, 10:14 am

      Howdy, Paul!

      You’re right, the shifters do stick out a bit and I’m sure it is possible to break them in a serious impact. However, I’d say they’re much better protected in a crash than integrated drop-bar shifters and are very sturdily constructed. I’ve crashed my set more times than I’d like to admit and though the plastic cover recently broke off the RH shifter the functionality is unimpaired. Usually the brake lever or side of the handlebar will hit the ground before the shifter itself, in my experience. This may not be the case for bars like dirt drops that have lots of flare. As for shifting accidentally when leaned, I have never had this problem and imagine it would be a pretty rare inconvenience. Perhaps other readers can chime in with their experience…

      Thanks again for the comment and for reading!
      -Ryan

      Reply
  • Handy Andy November 17, 2015, 8:36 pm

    Major consideration not mentioned in this post – bar end shifters are universally compatible with front (and rear in friction mode) derailleurs. Provides flexibility for example when you use a MTB front derailleur with dropbars. Also don’t need to worry so much about speeds. I used an 8 speed specific mountain derailleur on a 9 speed triple crankset and it shifts cleanly across the chainrings; these parts would be incompatible with an indexed front shifter.

    Reply
  • Mike Howard January 18, 2016, 9:26 am

    Two things not mentioned about Bar End Shifters, the newer Shimano units use an allen setting to tighten into the bar. When it comes loose it can get knocked out of the bar easily and these new units “Pop” apart from the assembly pressure. Small parts lost in the garage, or into the grass on side of road. Also, bar-ends get bumped out of place leaning the loaded bike against walls, posts, or even your knee when climbing. Simple = Down tube.

    Reply
    • Bike Hermit® January 18, 2016, 5:44 pm

      Mike,
      Maybe I haven’t used the “newer” Shimano units but the bolt that holds the pod in the bar on the ones I have used is ridiculously secure; sometimes so much that they are difficult to loosen.

      Reply
  • John DeBacher July 5, 2016, 5:49 pm

    Now I know why used barcons are relatively expensive and in relative short supply – you all covet them so much!

    I’m curious, any of you seen or tried Rivendell’s bar-end pods for converting downtube shifters? Or their Silver Shifter barend kit?
    http://www.rivbike.com/product-p/sh13.htm
    Looks tempting.

    Reply
  • Jay Ray August 13, 2016, 9:08 am

    Getting back in after many decades out. I just rode for enjoyment and exercise, never much beyond 20 miles from home. I wouldn’t call myself a cyclist at all. But a few years back I got into canoeing/camping trips, and now the camping aspect of a touring bicycle beckons. The idea of camping off of a bicycle speaks loudly, the camping more so than the bicycle.

    Any thoughts on the Shimano A050 shifters?

    Never saw them before recently, and only in pictures. The “hose clamp” means of attachment looks cheap, but intuitively the placement looks good to me for the rider, and also would seem to limit damage. I could be completely wrong in that intuition. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    • Bike Hermit® August 16, 2016, 10:06 am

      I don’t have any experience with those but they look a little awkward from a functionality standpoint.

      Reply
  • Bill Leif August 26, 2016, 8:47 am

    I used bar ends for 30 yrs until i bought a Bianchi Volpe with combos. Didn’t want them for all the reasons listed in the article but loved the bike so there I was. Had them for 8 months, thought they were OK until I returned to my well-locked bike to find my stem, bars, and all attached objects gone. @$!#. Tyrns you can be dressed like a reputable person in a suit, approach a modern bike, take 10 seconds to clip 4 cables and undo 2 5mm bolts, throw the whole assembly in your LL Bean man bag, and fence the shifters for $200. That was 2004, and I just went back to bar ends, which nobody wants to steal.

    Reply
  • Derek Wildash September 11, 2016, 8:09 am

    It always amazed me that something so downright expensive as brifters would be hanging out the front of your bicycle just looking for trouble. I’m not talking so much road bikes but on cross and gravel bikes they just take a beating. I’ve been lucky with mine so far but if the day comes when they need to be replaced I will go to bar end shifters without a second thought.

    Reply
  • Ethan c Brackett September 11, 2016, 11:26 am

    so I’m a bike builder at my local bike shop, so i feel as if ive got some voice to say this…
    ive ridden numerous bikes with newer style brake/shift levers, and yes they are easy, and of course bar shifters, i’ve also ridden surly’s with bar end shifters. I recently got my hands on an 84 schwinn world sport which im going to restore and make my daily rider. it has quill stem shifters. let me tell you about awkward. especially the first few rides. I’ve never rode a bike with downtube shifters but I can only imagine how hard that would be to pull off especially at speed. what i’m getting at here is I think there will be 3 levers to continue to the future, the integrated shift/brake lever, the flat bar mount version of it. and then the bar end shifter. for the sure fact that their nearly bulletproof. and are less awkward than downtube or stem shifters.

    Reply
  • steve October 2, 2016, 7:32 pm

    I bought a Trek 520 touring bike about 3 years ago. During the 2nd summer, the right hand bar end shifter ( Shimano) started to get very stiff and hard to move. I took it to the local bike shop, who found that the internals were completely corroded up. They replaced it with a sunrace. Now, a little over a year later, the Sunrace froze up as well. I disassembled /cleaned/lubed it, and it works again, but the indexing no longer works. I guess I got it back together incorrectly, but I’m not going to try to repair the indexing. The left hand shifter is also getting stiff, so it looks like I’m going to replace both. I previously had a Specialized bike with Shimano brifters, and never had a problem in about 10 years of riding that bike.

    Reply
    • Aaron S March 19, 2017, 10:14 am

      Get Shimano Dura-Ace bar end shifters. I’ve ridden thousands of miles on them on my Surly LHT with zero problems. They are bullet-proof. I also agree that Shimano brifters are highly reliable, but cost is much higher for equivalent quality.

      Reply
  • JACK HARDING January 1, 2017, 6:09 pm

    I used to ride with bar end shifters but they kept poking me in the knees on a tight turn!

    Reply

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