Levers Of Power

Of the many unfortunate aspects of this blog, one of the most unfortunate ones for you, the reader, is that you’re forced to hear about whatever I’m obsessed with at the moment–which, for now, is the cosmetically-upgraded Milwaukee:

Hey, you’re lucky it’s distracting me from the Softride:

But it’ll be back, you can be sure of that.

Anyway, with regard to my most recent obsession, one sub-fixation–or frictation–has been the downtube friction shifters with which I recently fitted it:

Go ahead and say that last sentence ten times fast.

Friction shifting has spread through my bicycles like the poison ivy from which I’m currently suffering has spread across my calves and shins, and currently almost every bicycle I own is equipped with it:

  • Milwaukee: YES
  • Normcore Trek: YES
  • Homer: YES
  • Platypus: YES
  • Eye of the Tiger Bike: YES
  • Jones LWB: YES
  • Artisanal Engin Singlespeed: NO, because SINGLESPEED
  • Faggin: YES
  • Titanium Litespeed Forever Bike: NO, though at present it’s my elder son’s bike until such time as I elect to reappropriate it

There may be other bikes I’m forgetting.

Oh yeah, the Softride!

Told you it would be back.

As for why I’ve gone over to friction almost exclusively, I’ll spare you the whys and wherefores, because I’m not trying to convince you of anything and I don’t really care how you shift your bike. Use friction, use the modern bar-mounted hand computers they’re hawking now, push your chain to the next cog with a stick…it’s not my problem. I think it’s fun to use, it feels good, it eliminates a lot of compatibility issues, and as a tinkerer I find it fun and simple to set up, plus it opens up more options with regard to shifter placement. (I guess I just gave you the whys and wherefores after all.) But you may think friction is annoying and stupid and you know what? You’re entitled to your opinion, even if your opinion is totally wrong.

No, the reason I bring this up is because if you do happen to be interested in friction shifting and you research it on those Internets, you’re going to come across certain “information” that is wrong. So I’m writing this for the benefit of any of you wayward web surfers who may have washed up here after going adrift in the algorithms.

To be sure, there is valuable information to be found in forums and so forth with regard to bicycles. However, I’d say a good 45% of what you’ll read is total crap. This is because a lot of it is generated by people who have been riding bikes long enough to think they know what they’re talking about but not nearly long enough to have the slightest idea of they’re talking about. These are the people who say stuff like, “105 is fine, but you need at least Ultegra for racing.” Don’t worry, it’s all the same stuff. They’re not doing inspections at the start line, you’ll be just fine.

Anyway, one persistent bit of erroneous “wisdom” with regard to friction shifting is that you shouldn’t use it on 10-speed and up because like everything’s too close together or something and it won’t work very well or it will be hard to get in gear or whatever–which, I can tell you as an operator of a 10-speed friction system, is really not the case:

However, I do know why people think this, and in fact I used to think it myself. But now I believe that it really depends on the shifter. Consider this Dura Ace bar end shifter:

For awhile I was using it on the Platypus:

And before that I had it on my old travel bike that I no longer have:

And yes, THAT’S A GRAVEL BIKE BEFORE THERE WAS GRAVEL, I was totally ahead of the curve.

In any case, that shifter is no ordinary shifter–it’s a rare 10-speed index Shimano shifter with a friction mode. After incorporating a friction mode into their downtube and bar-end shifters for something like a quarter of a century they finally dropped it during the 10-speed era, but I managed to get a pair of what must have been the very last run of shifters to include it. However, what I found was that in friction mode it was kind of difficult to get into the right gear, and therefore I concluded that–as many others have claimed–10 gears is simply too many for a friction setup, and that you needed the detents for it to work right. So I just left it in index mode and that was that, until I eventually stripped down the bike and consigned the shifters to the parts bin.

I then dug the shifters out again for the Platypus, and I kept them in friction mode because they’re indexed for 10-speed and I was using a 9-speed cassette. Also, Rivendell state quite clearly that using index shifting on their frames voids the warranty and doing so may cause them to explode:

When I first installed the shifters, I figured they’d work better with the 9-speed cassette, since I was using a friction shifter on my other Rivendell which also had a 9-speed cassette, and it worked perfectly. Also, 9 was less than 10 and fewer cogs means better friction shifting, right? But in fact the shifter still felt kinda not great, just like it had on the 10-speed bike. Moreover, when I put a Silver2 shifter on the Platypus the shifting improved. Not only that, but I also put another Silver2 shifter on my Jones–which has a whopping TWELVE FREAKING SPEEDS–and that works great too:

Now if you’re a wayward Internet surfer please bear in mind I’m not telling you to use a Silver2 shifter on a SRAM Eagle drivetrain, because you have to use pretty much the shifter’s entire range of motion to get from one end of the cassette to the other and some people might not find that acceptable, especially if they’ve got smaller hands. Here it is in the highest gear:

And here it is in the lowest gear:

I mean if you’re cool with that then go for it, but it’s not optimal. I also once tried a Silver downtube shifter with an older SRAM derailleur, and the thing also had to do like a complete 180 to shift into the lowest gear, and while I don’t particularly mind that on a thumb shifter, I don’t consider it acceptable on a downtube shifter. So to save you from all this trouble, Rivendell simply says they’re not compatible with SRAM derailleurs, which is fair enough.

But that’s not the point. The point is, range of motion notwithstanding, I have no problem actually finding a gear (in fact it’s much better than all the clicking you have to do on a 1x 12-speed drivetrain with a trigger shifter), which is what I mean by “works great.” In other words, with the Silver shifters, whether it’s the 8-speed cassette on the Eye of the Tiger Bike, or the 9-speed cassette on my Platypus, or the 10-speed cassette on the Milwaukee, or even the 12-speed on the Jones, the number of cogs does not have any appreciable effect on how well or poorly it shifts. On all these bikes it shifts perfectly unless I fuck up the shift, it’s that simple.

If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Common Internet wisdom may hold that the more cogs you add the less accurate friction shifting is, and that you need the indexing to nail a gear. But in fact, when you have more cogs and they’re closer together, it’s much more likely you’ll land on one, and there’s a lot less space in between them for the chain to run rough or nosily or skip because it’s not quite in gear–especially since any 10-speed cassette and chain is going to have all the modern tooth shaping and shifting enhancements and all the rest of it to help it along. Simply put, there are so many cogs and so little space between them that the odds are in your favor. If a downtube shifter were a slot machine and it paid out whenever you landed on a gear, would you play the one with fewer cogs, or with more cogs? The only real problem is that because modern stuff runs so quietly–even when you’re not quite in gear–that it can occasionally lull you into a false sense of security, and you may think you’re fully in gear only to start pedaling hard and find out you’re not. (Meanwhile with an old freewheel you can be sure that if it’s not chattering and clattering that you’re solidly in gear, though it requires more fiddling) But even then, it’s not terribly jarring, and will usually just ghost-shift you into the next gear.

But ultimately all that depends on the shifter. The Shimano shifters I’ve used are kinda notchy in friction mode; they’re great because they don’t slip and they don’t require you to fuss with a thumb screw and find the sweet spot in between where they slip and where they bind–you just bolt them on and they’re good. At the same time, they don’t feel nearly as accurate as the Silver shifters, which are much smoother and consequently make it easier to fine-tune your derailleur position as you ride, and this is what seems to be the real key to a really good friction-on-a-modern-drivetrain setup. I’m sure there are a number of out-of-production friction shifters that would also work great; for example the Campy retrofriction shifter on the Vengeance Bike was even smoother than the Silver, though I never tried it with a modern cassette so I don’t know if there are any range issues, plus you’d never want to pay what people are asking for vintage Campy retrofriction shifters. I also have no experience with other in-production friction shifters like the ones from microSHIFT. But the Silvers are a sure bet so there doesn’t seem to be much reason to look elsewhere.

Again, this is not to foist friction shifting on you, nor is it to impugn modern shifters, which are also great. (Except for electronic shifters, of course. Fuck those things.) It’s just to say something I probably could have said just as easily in eight words to anyone who may be interested in going friction with their newish bike: “Get a nice shifter and it’ll work great.”

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