Friction Shifting Explained: What Is Friction Shifting On A Bike?

Imagine a time before your trusty Shimano indexed shifters.

Everything’s normal until you approach a steep hill. You look down towards your handlebars and see nothing to help you change gears – except for these strange-looking twisty levers on your down tube.

These are friction shifters. They’re old-school bike shifters and were the standard until Shimano popularized indexed gears in the 1980s. 

Never heard of them?

Fear not – we’ll get you up to speed on everything that you need to know about friction shifters!

We’ll be covering: 

  • What Is Friction Shifting?
  • Where On The Bike Are Friction Shifters Positioned?
  • The Pros and Cons of Friction Shifters 
  • Should You Get Friction Shifters For Your Bike?

Ready for the full lowdown on friction shifting?

Let’s dive in!

What Is Friction Shifting: Title Image

What Is Friction Shifting?

Friction shifters – sometimes referred to as “down tube shifters” – are levers that move up and down to pull a gear cable and change your gears accordingly. 

Friction shifters give the rider infinite adjustment of the cable to change the gear manually. Rather than clicking between preset gears, the cable is held taut by friction on the gear lever – giving “friction shifting” its name.

This sets friction shifting apart from index shifting, which is the standard system we’re used to on modern bikes.

Example of an indexed shifter unit on drop handlebars.
Example of an indexed shifter unit on drop handlebars.

How Is Friction Shifting Different from index shifting?

Index shifting uses designated notches (called “index points”) on a shifter to move the gear cable, pulling the derailleur into position for a predetermined sprocket.

Index shifting was introduced by Shimano in the 1980s, and has since become the standard on pretty much all bikes that use a derailleur-based gearing system. Before that, friction shifters were the standard.

To change gear, index shifters “click” between these index points on the shift lever to regulate the movement of the derailleur. 

Simply put, there’s no skill required to find the desired gears with index shifting. Anyone can shift gear with index shifters, as the derailleur position has already been set for you.

Down tube shifters (friction shifters) on an orange vintage bike.
Credit: Ralf RoletschekCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

Where On the bike are friction Shifters Positioned?

Friction shifters can be located just about anywhere on a bike depending on preference, including the handlebars, top tube, head tube, bar end shifters, and everything in between.

Two styles of friction shifters are particularly popular, however.

#1. Down tube Shifters

Down tube shifters on a modern carbon road bike.
Down tube shifters on a modern carbon road bike.
Credit: Richard MasonerCC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. Edited from the original.

As the name suggests, down tube shifters are positioned near the top of the bike’s down tube.

Down tube shifters are the most common style of friction shifters, and were long seen as the standard system for road bikes.

Since it makes more sense for shifters to be located on the handlebars for accessibility, down tube shifters have slowly fallen out of favor on modern bikes. That said, down tube shifters are still popular amongst purists, vintage bike enthusiasts, and some bikepackers

And just to be clear, you can also have index shifters on your down tube – though it’s not very common!

#2. Stem Shifters

Stem shifters are mounted on the handlebar stem.

Stem shifters were particularly popular from the mid-1970s to the ’80s, and were often used alongside brake extension levers to encourage riding using only the top of drop handlebars.

The overall look and aesthetic of drop handlebars were very “in” during the ’70s. This quickly evolved into a drop handlebar fad for casual riders, despite the design not being well-suited for leisurely cycling styles. 

As with downtube shifters, stem shifters aren’t ideal for controlling the bike – they bring the hands too close together and force you to remove a hand from the handlebars to shift gear.

The Pros and Cons Of Friction Shifting

5 Pros of Friction Shifting

#1. Performance

Have you ever had it where your index shifters don’t quite click into place properly?

As shifter cables stretch over time, each of the index points will naturally drift slightly apart from one another. This results in stubborn clicks and problematic shifting between gears. 

Not so with friction shifting. 

Since friction shifting doesn’t require index points to change gear, there’s less scope to become misaligned. If your derailleur is positioned between two gears, all you have to do is push the lever one way or the other. 

Friction shifting also offers cyclists some other nifty performance advantages. Multi-gear shifting in a single push or pull is a particular bonus, allowing you to shift from your smallest to biggest gear in one movement.

An added bonus for competitive riders is that friction shifters are significantly lighter than index shifters. If every pound of weight counts, then friction shifters might be just for you.

#2. Reliability 

With fewer moving parts, there’s less to wrong!

Friction shifters have stood the test of time. They’re robust, resilient, and very unlikely to fail.

This makes them especially popular with bikepackers, who favor reliability above all else as they grind out long miles through remote areas.

After you’ve set the derailleur’s outer limits, friction shifters require very little fine-tuning and maintenance, and much less precision than index shifters. No need to waste time fine-tuning the gears – straight out the box and they’re ready to shift!

#3. Compatibility

Since friction shifters have been around forever, you can benefit from a number of advantages including compatibility with other hardware and components.

You can usually mix your friction shifters with different derailleurs and cassettes to your heart’s content – another feature that makes them a bikepacker’s favorite as they might struggle to source specific replacement parts.

#4. Cost

Friction shifters won’t break the bank. 

Prices range from about $20 to $100, which is significantly less than you’d fork out for indexed shifters. If you need cheap and dependable shifters then friction shifters are the way to go. 

#5. Sound

If you hate the clicking and clanking that comes with index shifters, you might want to give friction shifters a try.

Without index points to flick between, friction shifting can be smoother and quieter than indexed shifters – especially cheaper models.

3 Drawbacks Of Friction Shifters

#1. Speed

As the gear isn’t found for you like with indexed shifters, friction shifters can take slightly longer to find your optimal gear of choice – especially if you’re new to them.

This can be a major downside for competitive riders, especially when you’re in a rush to react to an incline or respond to an attack. That said, you might find jumping straight from low to high gears much easier and faster with friction shifters. It all depends on context, skill, and preference!

#2. Comfort and Balance

If the shifters are not mounted on the handlebar, the rider has to take one hand off the handlebars to change gear. This makes changing gears cumbersome for riders, and can increase the likelihood of accidents as you’re off balance and less able to react in traffic.

Given the location of the shifters (usually on the down tube) it can be irritating to move your hand away from the handlebars. 

Who’s to say you can’t customize your friction shifters and put them closer to your handlebars though?

#3. Skill

Friction shifting is a bit of a learning curve at first.

You’ll have to take a few guesstimates at the distance the lever needs to move between each gear. But muscle memory will quickly kick in and you’ll be seamlessly shifting between higher and lower gears in no time! 

On rough terrain, friction shifting can require a little more skill. This is because the extra vibrations make it more difficult to feel feedback from the derailleur. 

Friction shifting takes practice to get comfortable with. Initially, you’ll experience some missed shifts. But don’t worry, these are easy to correct!

Should You Get Friction Shifters For Your Bike?

If you want a reliable, robust design classic then friction shifters might be for you!

They’re incredibly simple and easy to use, and there’s minimal risk of shifter failure compared to index shifters. They take a bit of getting used to, but the trade-off is simple: friction shifting is a robust system that requires less maintenance and is easier to repair. 

For longer bike tours, friction shifters are definitely worth considering. After all, the last thing you need is your index shifting failing on you when the nearest bike shop is hundreds of miles away! 

Friction shifters are having a bit of a renaissance with hipsters and vintage bike enthusiasts. Their popularity is on the rise rather than in decline – despite being nearly 100 years old! 

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