Why Do So Many Touring Bikes Use Bar End Shifters? (it’s not just about looks)

As newcomers get into touring, they begin to witness traits clearly differentiating touring bicycles from the rest of the cycling categories.

One of the biggest differences is that the touring segment is not as crazy about new technology as mountain and road biking. The main priorities are comfort, reliability, and endurance rather than speed.

In consequence, one discovers somewhat unexpected tech on touring bicycles. Bar-end shifters are among the popular examples.

Why do we find them so often on touring machines when there are more sophisticated and comfortable shifting systems designed for drop bars? Is it about looks or functionality?

Well, it’s about both.

Bar-end shifters offer simplicity, reliability, and serviceability that appeals to touring cyclists in search of gear that has the lowest chance of malfunctioning. The retro look of bar-end shifters also contributes to their popularity.

What Are The Advantages of Bar-end Shifters For Touring?

Below is a list containing detailed characteristics making bar-ends attractive to touring cyclists:

1. Simplicity

Bar-end shifters contain fewer parts than more sophisticated drop bar shifting systems such as Shimano’s STI (Shimano Total Integration), Campagnolo’s Ergo shifters and SRAM’s offers.

The simplistic engineering makes bar-ends more reliable because less can go wrong.

In that regard, bar-end shifters resemble an old Nokia phone which does not have the extras of modern smartphones but comes with a stronger body, longer-lasting battery, and a “disconnected” software that cannot get infected.

Why are bar-ends shifters so simple?

First, they are a fairly old technology dating back to the 80s. Second, they don’t have to be as complicated as modern shifters because they aren’t integrated into the brake levers.

The simple design of old-school shifters gives bar-ends extra robustness which is greatly appreciated during long tours when the bicycle is loaded with a lot of gear and subject to the quickly changing climate and terrain.

Once the derailleurs and the chain get contaminated and clogged with dirt from the road, the tension on the shifting system goes up. In consequence, the shifters wear out faster.

The effect of dirt is difficult to minimize on a tour because the circumstances may prevent the rider from stopping and cleaning the moving parts thoroughly. Sometimes one just has to keep pedaling.

In similar moments, the extra strength of a component is greatly appreciated.

2. Serviceability

The clean design and straightforward engineering of bar-end shifters make them less intimidating to service.

Meanwhile, the modern shift + brake combos are often too complicated for mechanics who don’t have extensive knowledge on the subject. Also, it’s hard to find replacement parts.

This leaves users with three possible options in case of failure:

  1. Buy a new set
  2. Find a reputable mechanic in possession of the needed replacement parts
  3. Hunt for the parts online and try to fix the problem on their own.

The difficulty of repairing modern drop bar shifters is the reason why some cyclists don’t even bother and report the part dead upon failure.

The parts for bar-end shifters are also scarce and sometimes even more difficult to find due to the age of the technology, but at least, it’s easier to disassemble and service the shifter on your own.

This characteristic makes bar-end shifters more suitable for touring bikes because the cyclist would have a higher chance of resurrecting the unit if a problem occurs.

3. Protected location

The low key position of bar-end shifters protects them during accidents. The same cannot be said about the modern options.

During a head-on collision, the levers/shifters would be among the first points of contact.

Conversely, if the cyclist is running bar-end shifters they are unlikely to be broken, although nothing is impossible during similar scenarios.

Of course, even in the case of bar-ends, the brake levers would still have to be replaced, but at least, single-function levers are cheaper to replace.

The placement and small size of bar-end shifters decrease the risk of negative consequences during a side fall too.

Conversely, the protruding profile of brake/shifter levers, makes them more susceptible to injury during unexpected bike drops.

4. Friction shifting

Bar-end shifters usually offer friction shifting at the front (chainrings) and the option of switching between friction and index shifting at the back (cassette).

This functionality alone is the reason why many tourers choose bar-end shifters.

But to fully understand why the difference between friction and index shifting has to be cleared.

Index shifting is the modern way. When you press the shifter, it clicks and moves the gear cable a bit. The extent of the cable’s movement is pre-set and the same every time. When the index system operates properly, one can shift gears without much thought.

Friction shifting is not as precise. The shifters move the derailleurs as much as the cyclist wants to because the movement isn’t pre-set. Or in other words, it’s the riders’ responsibility to find the correct position of the derailleur for each gear.

Friction shifting may seem primitive and counter-intuitive, especially to new school riders, but it has unquestionable benefits for touring. They’re listed below:

Compatibility With Different Drivetrains

Since friction shifters aren’t “on a leash”, they can work with a multitude of drivetrains. In consequence, the cyclist isn’t bound to a specific speed system.

This is beneficial because, on a tour, one may find themselves at locations that do not offer a large variety of chains, cassettes, and chainrings. In similar cases, a downgrade may be necessary to continue the tour (e.g., switching from 10-speed to 8-speed).

Index shifters do not provide that extra even though they are more sophisticated. Once you buy an index shifter for a specific speed system, you cannot efficiently use any other one.

Note: To take advantage of both worlds, some people use modern combo shifters while also carrying a pair of bar-end shifters or “thumbies” (friction shifters for flat handlebars) as a back-up. This isn’t a bad idea because bar-end shifters are small and light.

Compatibility With Double and Triple Chainrings

A front friction shifter can work with both a double and triple chainring at the front. The low gearing offered by a triple system is beneficial for touring cyclists carrying a lot of gear.

No Need to Index Your Gears

Friction shifters do not require gear indexing. The cyclist has to simply limit the derailleurs’ screws. The goal is, of course, to prevent chain movement outside of the cassette’s or the chainrings’ scope.

Conversely, index shifting requires more frequent maintenance in order for the system to operate properly. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to provide the necessary care all the time, especially when touring. As a result, the indexed gears often get out of tune and the chain starts rubbing.

Friction shifting allows us to smooth out the inaccuracies without having to re-index the gears.

Trimming of the front derailleur

When shifting up and down the cassette (rear sprockets), the chain becomes angled and sometimes starts rubbing against the front derailleur’s cage.

To prevent this from happening, one has to to “trim” the derailleur or in other words make little adjustments that move the derailleur a bit without causing a gear shift.

Friction shifters allow you to do that effectively which is why some people prefer to have one at the front. Conversely, index/pre-determined shifters give you a set position of the front derailleur.

Note: There are also index shifters with a trim function, but not every model has it.

With bar-end shifters you can go from one end of the cassette to the other in a single swipe.

Fast Shifting From One End to The Other

Friction shifting gives you the opportunity to go from the smallest to the biggest cog of the cassette in one continuous swipe whereas index shifters require multiple presses to achieve the same result.

More Suitable For Bicycles With Mixed Parts

Friction shifters reduce the chances of experiencing problems when mixing different bicycle parts – a good option to have when going on a tour into the unknown.

5. Bar-end Shifters Do Not Interfere With Bags and Baskets

Drop bars are narrow. When you attach a wide basket or a bag to them, it may get in the way of a combo shifter. In some cases, one may even experience “ghost shifting”.

Bar-end levers eliminate this possibility because they sit far away from the bag or basket.

Another factor that aggravates the problem is the amount of gear that some touring cyclists carry. One time I say a guy who’d attached a separate rucksack to his handlebar bag.

The more “crowded” the bike is, the greater the risk of shifting interference. Hence why bar-ends shine again.

6. Some purists just like the look

Dia Compe Silver friction 5-9-speed bar end shifters

Some people like the style of bar-end shifters, especially when installed on a rusty old bicycle that’s seen its fair share of explorations.

This is a subjective advantage but real nonetheless as aesthetics heavily influence the purchases that cyclists make regardless of what they’re telling you.

7. Cheaper

Bar-end shifters are cheaper than integrated brake-shifters. The price difference is more apparent when upgrading a bicycle because cycling components cost more when purchased individually.

If you were to buy a complete bike, however, the theoretical separate price of the brake-shifters would be much lower.

This makes bar-end shifters a good choice for older bicycles which don’t justify the investment in high-end combo shifters.

8. Independent Brake Systems

When you run bar-end shifters, the brake system becomes independent.

This increases the number of possible braking set-ups because you’re no longer bound to brakes compatible solely with integrated brake-shifters.

The pull of a brifter (brake+shifter), does not work with all brake models. For example, regular mechanical disc brakes (not road) and V-brakes require a longer pull. To operate with those systems, a combo shifter needs an adaptor known as “travel agent”.

The travel agent allows a short cable pull lever to work with a long pull caliper. However, the addition of a travel agent complicates the braking set-up and some consider it unaesthetic.

With bar-end shifters, you don’t have to worry about that because you can just buy a regular V-brake lever.

This point is a very strong incentive for touring bikes to use bar-end shifters.

9. Bail-out Friction Shifting Option

If the index option of the rear bar-end shifter malfunctions, it may be possible to preserve the efficiency that gears offer by switching to friction mode.

Conversely, combo shifters don’t have a “backup plan”. Once they’re gone, they need fixing or replacement.

10. An Opportunity to Mix Mountain and Road Bike Parts

Bar-end shifters such as those made by microSHIFT allow you to mix road and MTB parts.

The BS-SR-M12-R bar-end shifter by microSHIFT is compatible with 12-speed cassettes such as SRAM Eagle.

If you want to combine drop bars with a mountain bike rear derailleur, you can do it because their bar-end shifters are compatible with 11 and even 12-speed drivetrains.

For the same reason, multi-purpose bar-ends are a good option for Frankenstein bicycles combining unorthodox components.

The modern combo shifters do not provide you with that luxury because they’re designed to operate with a limited number of systems. Once you take them out of their “zone”, all efficiency is lost.

For example, it’s not possible to combine a road STI shifter with a mountain bike front derailleur because MTB and road shifters have a different cable pull ratio with dissimilar index points.

Note: This quality of bar-end shifters makes them a popular choice when converting a retro mountain bike to a drop bar machine.

What Are The Disadvantages of Bar End Shifters?

Below you will find the disadvantages of bar-end shifters and how much they affect touring:

Inefficiency

Unlike integrated brake-shifters, bar-ends require notable hand movement to reach them. Every time you shift, you have to let go and move your hand out of position. The result is inefficiency, distraction, and potential instability.

The main purpose of combo shifters is to eliminate this issue. The opportunity to shift without removing your hands from the hoods results in speed and encourages you to shift more frequently simply because it’s easy to do so.

Therefore, it’s not a surprise that we find combo shifters on racing bikes. But touring is different. You aren’t racing anyone. And even if you were, you would lose due to the weight of the bicycle rather than slow shifting.

Ultimately, the technical agility of combo shifters has a greater impact on racing than touring.

Poor Reaction Shifting

The speed offered by combo shifters makes it easier to quickly switch gears upon facing a sudden change of terrain such as an unexpected hill.

Friction bar-end shifters rob you of that opportunity because the shifting process is longer and not as “neat”.

But since the majority of touring itineraries include long intercity roads, one rarely needs ultra-fast shifting because the ascents and descents can be seen from far away.

Loss of Desire to Shift

Friction bar-end shifters require you to move your hands away from the handlebars. Then, you have to search for the right gear. The extra effort results in infrequent shifting and longer periods of cycling in an inefficient gear.

Potential Safety Issues

Every time you shift via a bar-end shifter, you’re moving your hand away from the brakes. This necessity may not have the greatest impact on touring cycling but definitely affects city riding. This is especially true for beginners who haven’t gotten used to the bar-end shifting experience.

Knee Hits/Stabs

Bar-end shifters are an extension of the bars and can easily come in contact with your upper leg.

To lower the chances, some people cut the ends of their drop bars an inch before installing the bar-end shifters.

This technique keeps the profile of the drops similar to what it would be without bar-end shifters.

Another benefit of cutting the bars is that the bar-end shifters come closer to your hand. The reduced distance makes it easier to reach them and shift.

Note: The method won’t work if the handlebars vary in thickness. Once you cut the ends, you may be unable to fit the bar-end shifters.

No Shifting Out of the Saddle

Bar-ends make it impossible to shift out of the saddle due to their position. If you are riding out of the saddle and find yourself in need of a different gear, you would have to sit back down to shift.

Not the Best Option for Off-Road Touring

The instability of bar-end shifting increases multiple times on technical terrain with unexpected obstacles and tight turns. For that reason, you would rarely see them on bicycles designed for off-road terrain.

Bar-end Shifters Prevent You from Using a Bar-End Mirror

Bar-end mirrors designed for road bikes are not compatible with bar-end shifters. It’s one or the other. This could be a severe downside for cyclists who love bar-end mirrors.

Bar-end Shifters and the Cold Weather 

Some cyclists riding in cold weather prefer bar-end shifters because they are easier to use with gloves such as mittens or lobsters – two models that reduce one’s finger dexterity.

Integrated brake-shifters, on the other hand, are difficult to operate with big gloves because you have to reach a tighter spot.

However, the scenario changes a bit when the rider relies on mittens/pogies attached to the handlebars (Note: The pogies wrap around the bars and act as a windshield for your hands.)

Pogies on road bikes cover the hoods and the brakes but leave part od the drops and subsequently the bar-end shifters uncovered.

If you cycle with pogies and bar-end shifters, you will find the shifting process even more cumbersome because you would have to get your hand out of the pogie/mitten, shift, and then aim for the hole of the pogie to re-grab the hoods.

Also, the bar-end shifters will be really cold since they are exposed to the elements. (You can minimize this side effect by wearing thin gloves.)

Having said that, pogies can negatively affect combo shifters too. Some pogies are very restrictive and get in the way of the shifter.

I run pogies/bar mitts on my mountain bike during the cold months. The left one is often stopping the front shifter from moving freely. Sometimes I fail to shift into the lowest gear because the pogie is restricting the lever.

Do modern shift/brake combos break frequently?

There is no doubt that bar-end shifters’ simple design makes them more durable than the combo shifters, but the truth is that modern shifters are super studied and reliable too.

A set of high-quality integrated brake-shifters will last a long time and can survive some serious falls. They don’t break as easily as some say.

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