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):
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:
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.
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:
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….
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.
My Trek was about as clean as an eighteen year-old bike can possibly be. Two coats of wax, and polished to perfection….
Rarely will you find a bike that has been through so much, including being a loaner bike for the local shop for years, look so good. With the obvious exception of the well-worn components, the bike was immaculate…. I-m-m-a-c-u-l-a-t-e.
Eventually, I will be glad that our road was resurfaced. The old cracks are filled in and it’ll be smooth once again… In the meantime though, it sucks. Dirty, dusty and nasty, for two or three weeks until the rock chips are finally seated in the tar base layer. Even then, it’ll be next spring before it’s smooth enough to enjoy riding on again.
Curse you Chip Seal.
I’ve had an awesome run at life over the last twenty-five years of sobriety. There’s a chance of a few major potholes in my near future that will have to be navigated at high speed. It’s times like these that my daily bike ride becomes extra important. My ride is my decompression.
A bike ride (or a bike) is not my Higher Power, so please don’t bother, just for the sake of being obtuse.
We rolled out after an 8-3/4 mile warmup. My buddy Mike was up front with Doug, I was second, and we had another five or so behind each of us.
The start was a little slower than normal but we were into a bit of a headwind.
Fifteen wonderful miles later we were getting into the hills. There once was a time I would struggle in the hills but those days are in my past. I’m not the fastest in our gang, but I’m not near the slowest either.
At 20 miles we’d rolled up the last decent hill and we were on our way down into Vernon. The intermediate sprint at the City Limits sign. I took my turn up the hill so I could ride wheels into the sprint, and I timed everything just right. My main worry was Doug. He took his turn right after me and he was sitting right on my wheel.
The person up front in a sprint rarely wins.
I launched immediately after an oncoming motorcycle passed us. We’d been cruising at around 24 mph, maybe, and I put everything I had into the launch. I could see Doug’s shadow behind me and directly to my left so I broke right to disrupt his draft. With 100 meters to go I was maxed out and I could feel Doug right behind me. He was grunting against the effort. I’d beaten him the week before and I knew he was way too competitive to let that sit.
I turned over the pedals as fast as I could and even managed to accelerate a little bit. I was still barely ahead with 10 meters go go…. I had him. By a front wheel.
My legs, unfortunately, were jelly and I only had eight miles in which to recover for the final sprint. Rather than fade to the back, I like to take a turn up front after a sprint so I can control the pace and let the group form back up. Then I can head to the back for a decent recharge.
Five miles later I was sitting four bikes back with three to go. My legs had come around a bit but I still gave them a good shake to loosen up the cobwebs. I was either going to end with a perfect lead out from Phill or I was going to have to sprint from the front – and that almost never works.
Coming in to the last mile and it was Phill, then me, then the group, single-file behind us. Phill was laying down an excellent pace and with a quarter-mile to go he started accelerating. I knew then that Phill was going to bring it home.
I waited till the farmhouse to launch my sprint from 27 mph. I hammered just as hard and just before the City Limits I glanced at my computer. 35.1 mph. I could see a shadow behind me so I kept the power on and cruised over the line by maybe three-quarters of a bike length. I was cooked.
A family was waiting in the parking lot with water and Gatorade, ice cold and provided by their church. They handed the drinks to anyone who reached for one…. Never seen anything like it. I stopped, gratefully took a Gatorade, and took a minute to talk to them about cycling, our group, and what we do. Of course I helped the kids pick up my bike so they could feel how light they are, then moved along to pack up.
We each talked about our ride, in particular how grateful we are to have started the B Group, and how nice it is to be able to ride hard and fast, without it becoming a race – that we can keep the group together.
Then it was on to a raucous board meeting for our bicycle club, and dinner at the local diner.
All of my troubles are still there today, but I slept like a baby last night, and right up to the alarm. A bike ride goes a long way to putting a smile on my face, and sometimes that’s all I need to get fired up to suit up for another day in the trenches of life.
It’s against the rules (No. 61). It shouldn’t work. My butt should be aching after 20 miles. It should be like riding on barbed wire after 50. I should hate it.
But I don’t. I really do like it.
Rule 61 allows for 3mm of padding on a saddle, with a special 2mm carve out for those who are fighting with saddle sores. That Bontrager saddle has 4mm, but those 4mm work. Of course, I have 1mm, maybe 2, on the Venge’s Romin. If the two were combined, I’d be alright, no? 6mm combined padding, divided by two saddles… 3mm each.
All silliness aside, the saddle on my Venge is hard. I figured all saddles should be like that one because the Romin saddle is butter on the Venge. It was a good saddle on the Trek too, but all of the road vibration went straight through to my keister. The 5200 is a harsher ride than the Venge (if you can believe that). The extra three millimeters of padding on the Bontrager saddle make the 5200 an incredibly plush ride – almost as nice as the Venge.
There’s an important caveat though… I had to raise the saddle a couple of millimeters to account for the thicker padding so I wouldn’t bounce when I pedaled, but the bike is smoother than it’s ever been – and smoother means faster.
So whatever the case may be with The Rules, I’m going to justify the thicker padding on the saddle because it makes an already decent ride, plush.
I never thought I’d suggest this, but try it, you might like it! Just beware, this can definitely be taken too far in a hurry. If you’re thinking you need a gel pad to go over your saddle, there’s something wrong with your setup or the saddle is completely wrong for your physiology.
Oh, and if you really want to know the funny part: I think the shop owner got that saddle off of a kid’s bike and had me try it as a backhanded joke because I happen to be a little finicky about saddles. To quote Donald “Duck” Dunn in the original musical, The Blues Brothers, “If the $#!+ fits, wear it”.
This won’t be a ridiculous treehugger post where we equate vehicles to pistols or rifles, because that’s silly, and only alienates participants of an important discussion.
Let’s face it, there’s a lot of angst out there about cyclists and their use of the road, and it’s building to a crescendo because cycling is growing in popularity again, or remains popular. It’s like going for a walk. Without the trouble of walking, is several times faster, and you get to buy a toy! You haven’t seen anything yet – wait until autonomous cars come along and the car automatically treats cyclists right! Then you’re going to see some anger.
I would like to make a few points about our equal right to the road:
- Do you really believe we have a desire to be on the same road surface with a person who is angered to a point of being willing to assault one of us, because they’re held up by 20 seconds waiting to safely pass us? Really?
- Yelling at us, revving your engine, and honking won’t work, not as much as you wish it would. We regularly hear of friends being picked out of a motorist’s grill and we still choose to ride. Your acting petulant isn’t going to have the affect you think it will.
- I’m not about to hang up my super-bike because you get a little pissy about cyclists. We are faster than most farm equipment and take up a fraction of the space and nobody would argue that farm equipment should be banned from roads.
- Here’s the important point though: Your anger is misplaced. You don’t want us on the road surface proper and we certainly don’t want to be there with you either! In my home State a past liberal Governor promised a three foot shoulder on every new road built. That never happened (though many roads in the north end of the State did get them). With a decent shoulder, do you think we would opt to ride on the road surface? It’d be a rare day and a big group that would get us anywhere near the road surface. Don’t be angry with us, simply because we’re trying to stay fit, be angry at your State and local politicians who keep us on the road surface. It’s their fault.
- Let’s look at another: You’re angry because you see a Cyclist in the middle of the lane, dodging potholes? I guaran-damn-tee you I didn’t cause the potholes with my bicycle, nor is it my fault the road is in shambles. We pick the least-traveled roads we can to get us to where we want to go…. We don’t want to see you anymore than you want to see us. It’s your local politician who has a responsibility to get the roads fixed. While they’re at it, lobby for a rideable shoulder too!
- Last point, you’re not really angry with us when you think about it, you’re angry with your local political system for not adding shoulders and for not keeping up on road repair. Take your angst out on someone who actually cares, because it isn’t that cyclist you see on the road every now and again. They’re just trying to live a happy, fit life.
- As a capper to this post, this last point: Cyclists aren’t from one party or another. We encompass all political ideologies. If you’re a Republican cyclist hater, chances are you’re buzzing a Republican cyclist, not an ignorant treehugger. If you’re a Democrat cyclist hater, you’re probably buzzing a treehugger, not some racist conservative. One thing is for certain, if you’re buzzing cyclists you’re the jerk and if you just happen to buzz one of us who has a camera on their bike or person (increasingly common nowadays), you just might wind up in jail where you belong.
60 marvelously cool degrees at 7am, when we were wheels down and rolling. The wind… wait, we can’t call three mph wind! The breeze was out of the northwest at just three mph. Seriously, barely enough to notice as we headed west, then north till the tripmeter read 31 and change.
Then we turned around and headed for home, without knowing exactly how we were going to get there without hitting a gravel road. Call it an adventure. On a bike.
Our average suffered because we had to double back a few times, but yesterday wasn’t about an average, it was about the perfect joy that cycling is: Cruising down the road, cares left behind, laughing, talking with friends, and maybe three or four motorists in a seven mile stretch who were a little less than appreciative at seeing cyclists on the road….. Beaten only by the Jesus freak with “saved” messages all over their vehicle, who scream and holler that you’re going to hell for riding a bicycle. True story. Only one thing can be said in response:
“You’re number one! Have a nice day.”
61 miles, 3:17 and change. 18.5 mph average.
I consider myself quite lucky to be able to ride as much as I do. I imagine I would have to be retired to ride any more. If not retired, definitely divorced, because my wife certainly wouldn’t put up with me devoting that much time to cycling. I also wouldn’t blame her – I’d have to kick my own @$$.
Considering I’m not ready to retire and I have no desire to be divorced, I’ll just call what I have, good enough.
Before last week, my best non-DALMAC one week total mileage was 280. I beat it by just ten miles but when you’re me, being able to put in 15-1/2 hours of any week into cycling is pretty rare… and good!
I managed 70 miles on the Fourth and 81 on Saturday… throw in a 33 mile Monday, a few easy days and another 54 on Sunday. Add them all up and it’s 290.
I love big mileage weeks. It’s not some hokey notion that 290 miles is cooler than 150 or 200 but because if I’m putting in near 300 miles in a week, I’m spending a lot of fun time with my wife and friends – and that’s all good.
Cycling is the fitness and weight loss equivalent of good times and noodle salad.
All Waxed Up and LOTS of Places to Go! What I had to do to my old school bike to make it road trip worthy…. Once again.
Seriously. I wasn’t kidding in the title. I wax the 5200. Once a month.
Zoom in, I’ll give you a second…… That’s right, shiny baby. That’s beside the point though. Lots of places to go, that’s the main point. Yes.
It used to be, not long ago, I would loath riding the 5200. My biggest problem, of course, is that I bought a high-end race bike… fourteen years newer than my once trusty Trek. I used to wonder how Lance could have won a Tour de France on it compared to my Venge.
Then the rear rim blew out so I had to put new wheels on it. Then I decided the seat post had to go so I could get something more adjustable (see below). Then I found out the headset was shot…. and I mean shot. Chris King to the rescue (heavy, but stupid smooth). Finally, the bottom bracket bearings had to be tended to. Oh, and new shifters/brake levers too. I almost forgot. And a different saddle! The original 155mm Trek saddle had my hamstrings barking like junkyard dogs.
With all of that done, that 18 year-old bike rides like new. Or at least close to new.
The headset being shot was the biggest problem. The bike’s steering was never quite right and I would develop a speed shimmy above 45 mph. Today I can blow right by 45 without worrying.
While writing this post I’d almost forgotten the original saddle on the 5200, the original 155mm behemoth had me in serious pain when I started ratcheting up the mileage on it. I actually had to take time off the bike, though I thought the problem was running related initially (and wrote about it here). I need a 138-145mm saddle.
The shifters were the next in order of importance, and thank God for MicroSHIFT. $75 for 9 speed shifters that work perfectly, are three times less than Shimano Sora 9 sp., and they don’t have those silly gear indicators. The old shifters had been dying for s couple of years and the right shifter finally went the way of the Dodo. The right simply wouldn’t shift anymore. The new MicroSHIFT shifters were a vast improvement over the worn out Shimano Ultegra shifters and didn’t break the bank.
The next big piece of the puzzle were the wheels. The ’99 5200 came with what became known as a “bomb proof” Rolf Vector Comp and was excellent at holding its true with a minimal number of spokes. Unfortunately, and no fault of the wheels or Rolf, the sidewalls became thin after years of heavy use and braking. The rear rim blew out at the brake track. I put the wheels that came on my race bike on the Trek. They’re heavy, but have held up well under hard miles in poor conditions.
Getting into the smaller items, I replaced the seat post because I didn’t like how it adjusted nose up and down. Level was between clicks, that’d be the simplest way to put it. I wanted something that I could adjust the saddle exactly to where I wanted it.
Then there was the maintenance on the bottom bracket bearings. This was just simple maintenance: Clean out the sealed bearings, clean and lube the housings, repack the bearings. Years of rough riding and winters on the trainer had taken their toll. This was done when the headset was replaced and frame painted:
All told, I probably have about as much into that bike as if I had purchased it new. I paid $750 for it when it was 14 or 15 years-old and I actually took the time to detail what I put into the bike since:
Add to that photo the $75 shifters and $50 for another saddle, and that’ll get you there.
And this is the finished product again:
After all of that, the bike went from okay to superb. I went from riding it only so I could keep my nice bike from the rain, to preferring it under certain circumstances.
To be clear, my Specialized Venge is a vastly superior bicycle. It’s faster, lighter, and more comfortable on rougher pavement. On the other hand, with some of those upgrades, the Trek closed the gap…. and even though it’s about four pounds heavier, it’s a better climbing bike. You’ve gotta love a 30 tooth chain ring on a 20% grade, that’s all I have to say.
The significance here is in all that had to be done to make that used bike right. Parts wear out and break, it’s the curse of riding lightweight products, they wear out and it’s not always as easy as a shifter not shifting anymore to know that something serious is wrong. My bad headset is a perfect example. That headset was gone when I bought the bike but it got a lot worse over the next two years I owned it. I finally figured it out just before I had the frame painted. I could feel play in the fork started under heavy front breaking. When I tried to tighten everything up, the steering bound up. Before sinking all of that money into the bike, I thought it was about done – and that’ll show you how wrong I was. With some new parts, that old school Trek just started its second life.
I’ve spent the last 24 years and change trying to do the next right thing when it came to my health. I quit drinking, quit smoking, quit soda, quit, quit, quit, quit, quit… and started exercising. A LOT. I’ve been active for most of my life but I got nutty about rollerblading as a young man, and cycling as a mid-life journey.
The amount of exercise I get on my bike had my doctor nervous…. it turns out some people think 10-15 hours in a week is a lot. Crazy, right? They called it “extreme”. Seven hours a week at a geezerly pace is okay but ten or twelve riding like a middle-aged comet is beyond the pale?
Anyway, I had an appointment with a specialist that a doctor/cyclist friend of mine holds in high regard to get checked out. The weeks leading up to the appointment were pretty tough.
I had trained hard through the winter and I was riding strong. Then came the freak out by my family doc (who had nothing but my best interest and health in mind). When he said that I had a special hook on my EKG that was either nothing one big @$$ coffin nail – and I mean coffin nail in the worst way, as in you only need one. I backed off on the intensity of cycling almost immediately. I tried to convince myself that I was being silly, that I was as healthy as an ox, but I couldn’t help but as a friend of mine likes to say, “It’s real easy to talk tough about death until the bus shows up for you”.
I had my appointment and it went exceptionally well – according to the specialist, it was more likely that my heart was perfectly healthy and strong than it was the coffin nail. He didn’t hear so much as a murmur, and I should go on living my life and come back to see him in 30 years when I started slowing down (that would put me at about 77). He then offered that just to make 100% sure that I was clear, he’d order an echocardiogram. That just happened, and it was awesome. To be able to see the valves of my heart working in real time…. to hear it working.
I’ve all but ceased worrying, but in two weeks or so, when the report finally comes out, I’ll know for sure that I can still hammer. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to that report.
Recovery is what happens in meetings and elsewhere, when we work on fixing that which gets in the way of living a healthy, happy. productive life.
Recovering is what happens the other 23 hours of the day.