Road bike shifters a.k.a. brake-shifters are among the most expensive parts of a road bike.
In some cases, entry-level road bikes do not even come with brake-shifters because the bike has to fit within a tight budget that doesn’t permit such а luxury.
The reasons why road bike shifters are expensive are as follows:
1. Mechanical Complexity
Brake-shifters combine a gear shifter and a brake lever in one.
Consequently, the final product is more mechanically complex because one element (the levers) is used for shifting and braking.
The mechanism of brake-shifters consists of multiple small pieces and is more difficult to assemble and repair.
In different, the shifters and brake levers on MTBs operate separately from one another and come as two different units (except for entry-level models). This gives engineers more options to simplify the system.
2. High Durability
Complexity and durability are opposing forces. The simpler an item is, the greater its durability can be. Conversely, the more complex the system, the higher the chance of failure.
Since brake-shifters are expected to perform flawlessly for years, the designers, engineers, and manufacturers have to invest a lot of resources into making a complex and yet robust product.
Truth be told, brake-shifters made by reputable companies are indeed surprisingly durable and rarely need any repairs. Most of the maintenance consists of cleaning the units with a degreaser.
3. Supply & Demand
The law of supply and demand comes into play when determining the price of bikes and components.
Let’s dissect it bit by bit.
The Law of Demand
The customer a.k.a. the person doing the “demanding” naturally wants a lower price.
The lower the price of a product, the greater the demanded quantity.
The Law of Supply
The producer a.k.a. the supplier is more motivated to sell expensive products. Thus, if a product is expensive, producers are looking for ways to increase the supply.
However, if they increase the supply too much, there will be a surplus which will later lead to a reduction in price simply because people won’t be buying enough of the product at the high price
The Market (Equilibrium Price)
The point where the demand and the supply meet (the buyer and the seller agree with each other) determines the market price of a product.
That point, however, is influenced by the character of the product and the profile of the customer.
If the product is generic and demanded by lots of people, then the equilibrium price will be lower due to high production and market competition.
If the product is exclusive and demanded by a minority of high-income customers, then manufacturers would be able to sell the item for a greater price thanks to their leverage and the larger income of the customers. Thus, the equilibrium price will be higher.
Another factor that influences the equilibrium price is desire. The greater the desire for a product, the more it can cost because the customer will be willing to cover the bill.
The same applies to road shifters.
Brake-shifters are a niche product found solely on intermediate and high-end road and touring bikes. Or in other words, the people who would want a brake-shifter is limited in comparison to cyclists buying flat bar shifters.
However, the desire for the product is high. Or in other words, the number of people who want a road shifter is small, but their desire makes up for it and results in a willingness to pay more.
When you account for the fact that the people riding expensive road bikes are very likely to have stable jobs and high income (e.g., middle-aged doctors…etc.), the equilibrium price goes even higher.
FAQ: Why do road cyclists “desire” brake-shifters so much?
The primary benefit of brake-shifters is that they’re the only drop-bar-compatible product that allows road cyclists to shift without moving their hands away from the levers.
In the past, downtube shifters were the norm. While downtube shifters have some benefits (rigid, simple, crisp shifting), they have two major downsides too – the rider has to move their hands away from the bars (instability), and the shift is visible to other riders (predictability).
Also, downtube shifters were all friction until the 80s when the right shifter became indexed.
Thus, if a modern road cyclist wants to compete without being at a disadvantage, modern indexed brake-shifters are absolutely necessary.
4. Limited Market Competition
The number of companies producing brake-shifters is fairly limited. The most popular companies are Shimano, SRAM, Campagnolo, and MicroShift. If there were more companies (e.g., 20+) making brake-shifters, the market price will go down.
However, this is unlikely to happen because of the limited demand for the product. Simply put, road bikes and brake-shifters, in particular, are not as popular as one might believe. The vast majority of cyclists do not ride pure road bikes nor bikes with drop bars.
Also, casual road cyclists aren’t willing to spend a lot of money on shifters because they don’t care about having high-end performance and often go for bar-end or downtube shifters. This limits the demand for brake-shifters even more.
FAQ: Why are MTB shifters cheaper than Road brake-shifters?
As previously mentioned, MTB shifters and brakes are made of two separate units operating independently. This gives engineers more freedom.
However, even when you combine the price of an average MTB brake lever and shifter, the combo is still less expensive than some brake-shifters.
Why? The main reason is the great demand for the products because they’re found on flat bars a.k.a. the most popular handlebar type. The extra units that have to be produced give companies an incentive to come up with cheaper models and install them on entry and mid-level bikes.
Ultimately, however, the above applies only to base models. Some MTB shifters and brake levers are very expensive and rival brake-shifters in price.
How Can I Get Cheaper Road Shifters?
Below is a list of options to minimize the cost of brake-shifters:
- Switch to fewer speeds. 8 and 9-speed shifters are cheaper than 10+ models.
- Buy second-hand shifters. You can use the Facebook marketplace or local websites selling second-hand goods to find a set of shifters.
- Install only one brake-shifter. Another option is to keep using a downtube shifter for the front (chainrings) and install an indexed brake-shifter to control the rear derailleur. Believe it or not, Lance Armstrong and other pro cyclists adopted this combo back in the day.
Their motivation wasn’t to save money. The goals were:
- Save weight (non-STI brake levers were 100 grams or so lighter back in the day)
- Have full control over the front derailleur’s movement. (The front shifter was in friction mode and allowed cyclists to trim the derailleur as needed to prevent chain rubbing.)
- Minimize the chances of a dropped chain. (By maximally controlling the front shifting, the rider can reduce the chances of a dropped chain.)