This post compares the advantages and disadvantages of bar-end shifters and brifters (e.g., STI) in relation to one another.
Bar-end shifters – lever shifters attaching to the ends of the handlebars. To use bar-end shifters, one needs handlebars pointing towards the rider. E.g., drop bars, swept-back handlebars.
Brifters – Brifters a.k.a. brake-shifters combine a brake lever and a shifter designed exclusively for drop bars. Nonetheless, they can also be used on some alternative bars. E.g., mustache handlebars.
The Advantages of Bar-end Shifters
1. Lower price
Brake-shifters are some of the priciest road components. The more speeds you need, the more expensive the shifters get.
Bar-end shifters are not cheap either, but their price is often lower for the same number of gears.
Therefore, if you’re looking to minimize the cost of a project, bar-end shifters are a more appropriate choice.
Bar-end shifters are independent of the brake levers and give the rider more freedom when selecting a brake system. The rider can combine them with both – short-pull and long-pull levers.
Conversely, brake-shifters are always short-pull because they’re designed specifically for road bikes.
The pull ratio of brake-shifters makes them incompatible with non-road brakes such as V-brakes.
Meanwhile, bar-end shifters can make a V-brake conversion a reality because they operate independently of the shifters and can thus be combined with V-brake-ready long-pull drop levers (e.g., Tektro RL520).
Another benefit of bar-end shifters’ independence is that the rider preserves the ability to shift when the brake levers are damaged.
3. Friction Shifting
Friction shifters (old-school) are silent and do not follow a pre-determined groove – they go as far as the rider wants them to. Thus, it’s up to the cyclist to determine how much to move the shifter to switch to another gear. For that reason, some compare friction shifting to riding a manual car.
Index shifters (modern), on the other hand, make a clicking sound and pull/release a pre-determined amount of cable with each click. This makes shifting easier because the rider doesn’t have to fine-tune each shift.
Most bar-end shifters rely on friction shifting at the front (chainrings) and index or friction shifting at the back. (The rider can switch between the index and friction option when installing the shifter.)
Some people like front friction shifters because they allow you to effectively “trim” the front derailleur in order to stop the chain from rubbing against its cage.
Since there are fewer chainrings than there are rear gears, it doesn’t take a lot of guessing to shift between the chainrings via a friction shifter. If the limit screws on the front derailleur are adjusted to prevent the chain from falling due to an over-shift, front friction shifting is surprisingly fast and convenient.
For the rear, however, index shifting shines supreme because there are many cogs with tight spacing between each other.
Nonetheless, the friction option is considered beneficial for unfortunate situations when the gear indexing is off.
Another major benefit of friction shifting is the possibility to combine all kinds of bike parts. For example, one can use a rear MTB derailleur on a road bike regardless of rear shift ratios because the rider can make fine adjustments to the derailleur’s position when the shifter is in friction mode.
For that reason, bar-end shifters often find themselves on touring rigs (read more on that topic).
Bar-end shifters are far simpler than modern brifters such as STI. They use fewer parts and rarely if ever malfunction. In fact, if you’re running them in friction mode, they are as reliable as a shifter can be.
Bar-end shifters may need occasional cleaning lubrication, but other than that, they’re expected to operate without maintenance for a long time.
Conversely, brifters are more complicated and difficult to repair because there’s a multitude of small parts involved in the mechanism.
Also, there’s a shortage of replacement parts on the market. Sometimes, the only option is to buy a broken second-hand brifter and use it as a donor for parts.
5. Protected During Head-on Collisions
The position of bar-end shifters behind the curves protects them during a head-on collision.
Meanwhile, brifters are the first point of contact in accidents of that nature.
That said, bar-end shifters are far from invulnerable. If the bike falls to the side, they can be easily damaged.
6. Basket/Handlebar bag Clearance
The levers of brifters have to move laterally to shift. Subsequently, the shifting motion limits the width of the basket or bag that can be installed on the bars.
If a bag or a basket is getting in the way of the lever, the rider won’t be able to shift. Thus, one is contrived to narrower models.
On the other hand, bar-end shifters are far away from that zone, and the brake levers that they’re coupled with do not have to move laterally because they don’t shift.
7. Style points
Some people admire the retro look of bar-end shifters, especially when installed on a classic steel frame.
The Disadvantages of Bar-end Shifters
1. Slow and Risky
The number one downside of bar-end shifters is their location. To shift, the rider has to move their hands away from the hoods and subsequently the brakes.
The shifting motion isn’t as slow as that of downtube shifters, but it still affects the rider’s balance.
This is the main reason why some riders stay away from bar-end shifters.
2. Seated Shifting Only
Bar-end shifters cannot be operated when riding out of the saddle. To shift, the rider has to be seated. Some cyclists see this technicality as a “momentum killer”.
3. Negative Effect On Steering
When using bar-ends shifters, the rider is applying force to the extremities of the handlebars – the points with the greatest steering leverage. As a result, the shifting process can potentially harm the balance of the bicycle.
With practice, this effect is minimized to the point where experienced users do not consider it an issue. Newer riders, however, may feel a bit frustrated.
3. Poor Thigh and Knee Clearance
Sometimes cyclists hit their legs with narrower drop bars even without bar-end shifters installed.
When you add bar-end shifters to the picture, the likelihood of contact increases even further, especially during tight turns. It’s also possible to get small bruises in case of consistent hits.
Some riders find that annoying and revert to downtube shifters or upgrade to brifters.
4. Visible Shifting
Every time you shift, those around you can see what you’re doing. If you’re touring or commuting, it doesn’t matter, but in a race, your shifting can give valuable insight to your rivals about your physical state and plans.
In different, brifters keep this information as private as possible.
5. Cable & Housing Routing Issues
There are two ways to route the cables and housing of bar-end shifters.
- Mid-way exit
A common choice is to have the cable housing out of the bars mid-way right before the hoods.
Some prefer to run cable housing all the way to the stem.
Regardless of the utilized option, it is difficult to keep the cable housing of bar-end shifters super slick.
6. Low Availability
Bar-end shifters are popular on the Internet, but offline, few cyclists know of them.
Due to the low demand, in some countries, it’s difficult to find a pair in a local bike shop. One often has to order from an online store. The extra waiting time and the shipping expenses are a hassle.
7. No Bar-end Accessories
Bar-end shifters prevent the installation of other accessories such as a bar-end mirror.
The Advantages of Brifters
1. Speed, Control, and Safety
The number one reason why brifters rendered downtube, stem, and bar-end shifters obsolete in the racing world is the speed, control, and safety that they provide.
The rider can easily switch gears without taking their hands away from the brakes/hoods. This allows cyclists to shift quickly while maintaining maximum control over the handlebars.
The result is stability and safety that bar-end and downtube shifters fail to offer.
Brake-shifters also make it possible to shift while riding out of the saddle or braking – a quality that bar-end shifters do not possess.
2. Sleek Designs
Brake-shifters combine brake levers and shifters in one neat package. This gives the bike a unified, clean look.
3. Higher Resale Value
The general public isn’t enthusiastic about learning how to use bar-end and downtube shifters, especially in friction mode. Most people consider cycling a leisure activity rather than a hardcore sport and prefer the operation of the machine to be as simple as possible.
Thus, a bike with brake-shifters holds its price better on the second-hand market.
4. Compatible With a Bar-end Mirror
Unlike bar-end shifters, brake-shifters allow you to install bar-end accessories such as a mirror.
The Downsides of Brifters
Brake-shifters are far from cheap. In fact, they’re often the most expensive component on a road bike. If you’re looking for STI shifters with a greater number of speeds, you will have to pay a decent chunk of money.
For that reason, many entry-level road bikes come with other forms of shifters (e.g., models mounted on the flat part of the bars). The companies do it to keep the cost low.
2. Difficult to Repair
Brifters come with complex engineering involving a multitude of small parts that have to work in unison. If one goes out of order, the entire chain suffers. When you add the difficult access to the heart of the shifter, it becomes understandable why people don’t feel ecstatic about brifters servicing.
The good news is that a quality set of brifters is highly unlikely to need frequent “interventions”. It can run just fine for years. Occasionally, one may have to clean it, but this procedure is simpler and can be done with a can of WD-40 and a rag.
3. Only Short-pull Brakes
Brifters work solely with short-pull brakes. Therefore, you can combine them with caliper brakes, road bike disc brakes, mini V-brakes, and cantilever brakes.
If you want to ride with V-brakes, you will have to replace the brifters with long-pull models. Unfortunately, those cannot shift.
4. No Friction Shifting
Brake-shifters are designed for speed, precision and efficiency. Hence why all of them are indexed according to the drivetrain’s needs. This makes road and MTB part mixing more difficult.
When To Choose Bar-end Shifters
Bar-end shifters shine in the following situations:
1. The user wants the simplicity and reliability of friction shifting.
2. On touring or commuting bicycles that combine V-brakes with drop bars.
3. On alternative bars with ergonomics preventing the use of brifters.
4. When the cyclist isn’t a competitive racer. (Any way you look at it, brifters are far more efficient than bar-end and downtube shifters.)
5. When the cyclist is going for a retro look.
When To Choose Brake-shifters
Brake-shifters are the logical choice when:
1. The bike is used for competitive riding.
2. The cyclist is after maximum stability while shifting.
3. The cyclist wants their bike to look up-to-date.
|Simple and reliable||Slow||Fast||Expensive|
|Back-up friction shifting||Unstable||Stable||Difficult to service|
|Independent from the brake levers||Outdated look||Precise||Shortage of replacement parts|
|Allow the use of V-brakes||Poor thigh and knee clearance||Clean cable routing||No friction shifting|
|Retro appearance||Clunky cable routing||Good for racing||Reduced clearance for baskets and handlebars|
|Good for touring||Not good for racing||Work with bar-end mirrors|
|Do not work with bar-end mirrors|