Shifters come in a lot of styles. You are probably familar with the ones on your bike, but I thought a little primer on the various types could help people understand what they have and what others they ride with have that might be different.
Down tube shifters are very traditional. I have them on my main road bike, but I am actually not a big fan. It seems strange that I don’t mind spending the energy to ride a century or more but I am too lazy to reach all the way down near my water bottle to shift gears. Instead I just grind along in too big a gear when the road goes up a little and get passed when we start down a hill because everyone else has shifted into a bigger gear and I am just spinning out in a climbing gear (and catching my breath).
Stem mounted shifters were popular in the 70’s and 80’s because they moved the sifters up to an easy to reach location. I have heard them called suicide shifters because they stick straight up where your stomach or chest will land on them if you are pitched forward in a crash or sudden stop. Also who has room on or near their stem for shifters with the bell, computer, phone holder, lights, compass, clock, bottle opener and chamois cream dispenser? Well I made that last one up, I hope.
The original suicide shifters were some of the first shifters. You had to reach way down near the bottom bracket to shift.
So we move away from the stem to other parts of the handle bar to find a place for the shifters. This is handy because the handle bar is were you keep your hands, isn’t it?
What makes a good place for shifters now depends on what kind of handle bars you have. The main choices are drop handle bars and flat handle bars. Flat bars come with various amounts of sweep back towards the rider. And there are also other variations like mustache bars, multi-bend touring bars and time trial bars.
Drop bars have two main types of shifters, built into the brake levers (sometimes called brifters) or bar end shifters which are also used on time trial bars. One complication these shifters bring is that there are now four cables coming from the handle bars, two for shifting and two for brakes. The combined shifter and brake lever are the most common on road bikes today. In fact the three major brands (Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo) all have their fans. Besides brand loyalty, this is because they each have a different shape and one brand will fit a given individual better than another. Bar end shifters are favored for their reliability and for keeping the cables out of the way although some newer brake/shifter combos also feature cleaner cable routing under the handle bar tape.
Straight bars have given us thumb shifters, trigger shifters and twist shifters. You can also get special mounts like Paul Component “thumbies” that allow using bar end shifters on flat bars. Thumb shifters are just pushed forward or pulled back to shift gears. Triggers have two small levers on each side. One shifts up and the other shifts down.
Twist shifters are also used on other bars especially with internal gear hubs. You will also see thumb shifters and trigger shifters on these other bars.
One interesting development are electronic systems like Shimano DI. These just need electric buttons to shift, so they can be placed more freely. You can even have shift buttons in more than one place. This year (or in bicycle market terms maybe I mean next year) Shimano is moving electronic shifting down from the top-of-the-line Dura Ace group to Ultegra. That still makes this a pretty expensive choice, but the price is headed in the right direction.