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Almost Everything a New Cyclist Needs to Know About Modern Road Bike Shifters and How they Work;  A Noob’s Guide.

Modern bike shifters, also known as integrated brake and shift levers, are the second best innovation to cycling since they put gears on a bicycle.  The only greater innovation in the last century and change is the clipless pedal.  Not carbon fiber, bro.  Not electronic Bluetooth shifting (yes, that’s a thing), sister.


Some will claim the old down tube shifters were better.  Randonneuring fans occasionally swear by bar end shifters.  I won’t bother wading into that swamp.  One thing is for certain, for sport cyclists, only clipless pedals have made the sport safer, more accessible and more enjoyable.

Now we don’t have to move our hands from the handlebars to shift…. or away from the brakes.  I have ridden an older bike with down tube shifters in a group setting and that set-up is a stark disadvantage.  Rather than shifting every time a different gear is necessary, one tends to push too hard a gear with the down tube system rather than reach for the shifter – same for bar end shifters.  Instead, whether riding with one’s hands on the hoods or down in the drops, the shifters are inches away.

Let’s work on some vocabulary too, because I just realized that last paragraph may seem like a foreign language to some (click to embiggen):

Drops and Hoods.jpg

Like the clipless pedal, if you’re new to cycling, the shifters can be a little daunting – until you use them and get used to how they work.  Once you know what you’re doing, they’re incredibly intuitive and wonderful.  This post will get into how several of the shifters “work”.

There are three main brands and one new upstart that will become very popular in the coming years.  The big three are Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo.  The new company is MicroSHIFT.  Of course, they’re all different in the manner they work.  I own shifters from two different brands, Shimano and MicroSHIFT.  I am, however, familiar with Campagnolo and SRAM.

Now, many people become confused because the shifter “buttons” move the chain in reverse direction front to back.  However, when you consider what they actually do, both shifter levers/buttons move the chain similarly, to smaller or bigger rings.  For instance, let’s start with the vastly more popular shimano shifters:

Shimano Shifter...

So that’s the right hand shifter.  The left operates the front derailleur for the larger sprockets called “chain rings”.  The inside shift lever moves the chain from the bigger chain ring to the smaller chain ring.  The Main Shift Lever moves the chain from the smaller chain ring to a bigger chain ring.  The direction the chain moves is different but the levers actually do the same thing.  One lever moves the chain to a smaller ring/cog and the other to a bigger ring/cog.

Now let’s have a look at MicroSHIFT, which is set up a lot like Campagnolo, only the shifters are about three to six times less expensive.  Seriously.

MicroSHIFT Shifter

For the MicroSHIFT shift levers, the main silver lever is only a brake lever.  Unlike the Shimano shifters, that only moves front to back and applies the brakes.  The shift button shifts the chain to a smaller cog in the back.  The shift lever moves the chain to a bigger cog.  Same for the left side (the button moves to a smaller ring, the lever to a bigger ring).

For Campagnolo, you have the lever and button system and the levers and buttons do the same things as the MicroSHIFT levers and buttons:

Campy Chorus.jpg

As I wrote earlier, Campagnolo components are the more expensive than the MicroSHIFT components, but Campagnolo is Italian and enjoys the “cool” label.  Campagnolo is what all of the cool kids use…  Well, at least the cool kids who can afford $500 for their shifters and $130 for a cassette.  We mere mortals with one household income, a spouse, and kids tend to go for the Shimano/SRAM setup….  My cassettes cost about $40.

So, we’ve covered some basics about what the shifters do, how they operate, and in general, that Campagnolo is the coveted, more expensive brand.  We’ve scratched the surface of the full shifter education.  Barely.  I’ve stayed away from SRAM thus far because SRAM went their own way a while ago when it comes to shifters…  To tell you the truth, I’ve never even used a set so I can’t comment intelligently on the double-tap system they employ for their shifters.

With that said, with each of the Brands, there are several product lines within the brands.  There are nine lines within “Shimano”…  Let’s see, going top of the line to bottom:  Dura Ace Di2 (Electronic), Dura Ace, Ultegra Di2 (Electronic), Ultegra, 105*, Tiagra, Sora, Claris, Tourney, and A050.  I placed an asterisk next to 105 because that is said to be the line of demarcation between racing components and leisure cruising.  Also, the 105 line is Shimano’s workhorse.  That line is known industry-wide to last forever and a day, and to take a beating.

Then Campagnolo:  EPS (Electronic), Super-Record, Record, Chorus, and Centaur.  Campagnolo Super-Record EPS runs anywhere from $2,700 to $4,000 for the entire line, while Shimano Dura Ace Di2 runs about $2,300, give or take, for the entire line of components.  SRAM etap runs about $1,900 and is cable free – the components speak to each other via Bluetooth.  Seriously.

The SRAM line is:  Red etap, Red, Force, Force 1x, Rival, Rival 1x, Apex and Apex 1x (1x refers to only one chain ring… no front derailleur).

Each brand above is listed top of the line to bottom.  The higher the line in the hierarchy, the more expensive and lighter the components (with the exception of the electronic models – the batteries add weight).  Now, I can even give you the differences between the brands, stereotypically speaking.  Shimano shifters are buttery smooth.  SRAM, on the other hand, give a grand “clunk” when they shift…. you know you’ve shifted a gear with SRAM.  Campagnolo (aka “Campy”) are dead in the middle of Shimano and SRAM.  Smooth, but with enough feedback to know you’ve shifted.  MicroSHIFT tends to be even more buttery than Shimano…  They’re smooth.

That last paragraph is why Campy components are so popular.

Finally, I want to talk about one more thing in relation to noobs and shifters, something that came up a few weeks ago on one of the blogs I follow:  Dial indicators on the shifters.  For Shimano, only Claris, Sora and the 050 lines have dial indicators – the bottom of the line-up.  There is a reason for this:  Once you’ve ridden for ten minutes without the indicators, you realize you really don’t need them because typically we shift till we run out of gears, then we shift into the small chain ring up front… and we have ten or eleven more gears (eight or nine for the lower lines) to work with.  What gear I’m in doesn’t matter.  What matters is my cadence and speed, so the dial indicators become useless….

Because?

They become useless because my drivetrain is tuned so well, I can shift both shifters at the same time, going up a hill, and my chain won’t drop.  I’ll just keep rolling.  Then there’s the “When in doubt, Baby Ring” way to manage hills and shifting.  If I don’t think I can climb a hill in the easiest gear with the chain on the big ring, I instantly shift to the baby ring (up front, remember; cogs are in back, chain rings are up front).  Shifting to a harder gear going up a hill is easy.  Shifting to an easier chain ring, unless you really know what you’re doing, is not.  If it looks like I might need the little ring, I don’t hesitate – this way I’m never caught in the wrong gear.

That covers the basics of shifters… stay tuned next Friday and I’ll dig a little deeper.

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