Love it or loathe it, the term “brifter” is now well-established in the cyclist’s vocabulary.
But if you’re not familiar with them, this might leave you wondering: what are brifters, and why do they matter?
Put simply, “brifters” are the combined brake and gear shifters typically used on modern bikes with drop handlebars.
Although brifters have been around since the ’80s, they can seem complicated and confusing to new cyclists. With the rising popularity of sporty hybrids and drop-handlebar gravel bikes, they are an increasingly common sight in the cycling world.
To get you up to speed on all things brifter, we’ll be covering:
Let’s dive in!
What are brifters?
“Brifters” – a mash-up of the words “brakes” and “shifters” – are the combined brake and gear shifters commonly used on road bikes and some hybrid and gravel bikes.
They integrate the brake lever and gear shifter into a single unit, making it more convenient and ergonomic to shift gears and control the brakes with the same hand.
Brifters typically use cable-actuated mechanisms to control the gears and brakes. You operate brifters by pushing the levers and/or buttons in specific directions to shift gears or apply the brakes.
- Related Article: How Do Bike Gears Work?
A brief history of Brifters
Before the invention of brifters, changing gears on a bicycle typically involved friction shifters located on the down tube or stem.
The history of brifters proper can be traced back to the late 1980s when Shimano introduced the first combined brake-shift lever: the Shimano Total Integration (STI) system.
There were also earlier prototypes from smaller designers such as Joel Evett.
The STI system revolutionized how cyclists shifted gears and applied brakes and quickly gained popularity among road cyclists for its convenience and improved control.
The first generation of STI brifters had some reliability issues, and Shimano continued to refine the design over the next few years.
In 1989, Shimano introduced a new version of the STI brifters that had a more robust shifting mechanism and were compatible with 7-speed cassettes.
Around the same time, other manufacturers began developing their own brifter designs.
In 1990, SRAM introduced its Grip Shift system, which used a rotating grip on the handlebars to change gears. In 1992, Campagnolo, an Italian company known for its high-end bicycle components, introduced its version of brifters known as “Ergopower.”
How Does Brifter Design Differ between the big three Manufacturers?
The “Big Three” bike component manufacturers are Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo.
The brifters produced by each all have their benefits and work similarly. However, some subtle differences lead to many cyclists having particular favorites.
The main points of difference between the Big Three include:
Each brand has its own unique shifting mechanism.
With Shimano brifters, the brake lever itself can be pushed inwards to shift into a larger sprocket. A smaller second lever beneath the brake can be pushed to shift into smaller sprockets.
SRAM uses a single-lever system. The brake lever has no control over shifting, and cannot be pushed sideways. Instead, a smaller lever located behind the brake can be pushed once to shift into a smaller sprocket. If you keep pushing, the lever will click again, shifting you into a larger sprocket.
Campagnolo brake levers also remain fixed in place and do not control shifting. A smaller lever behind the brake controls shifting into larger sprockets. Shifts into smaller sprockets are controlled by a small lever located on the inward-facing side of the brifter.
While it is sometimes possible to mix and match components from different brands, using components from the same brand is generally recommended to ensure optimal compatibility and performance.
Which types of bikes Use brifters?
Brifters are typically found on modern bikes with drop handlebars – the style most commonly found on road bikes.
Nowadays, you take it for granted that a road bike will come with brifters. However, the traditional steel-framed bikes of the ’80s and earlier typically had the gear shifters on the down tube.
Road bikes suit the brifter setup as they are very comfortable for long rides, and you can tuck into an aerodynamic position on the drops while still being able to control the brakes and, if needed, change gear quickly without losing balance.
Other bike styles that often use drop handlebars, such as cyclocross and touring bikes, also typically make use of brifters. Gravel bikes are another type that uses drop handlebars and brifters, and which has exploded in popularity in recent years.
What are the pros and cons of brifters?
the benefits of brifters
Brifters integrate the brake and gear shifting into a single unit, allowing you to control both with the same hand.
This improves the bike’s ergonomics and reduces the need to take your hands off the handlebars to shift gears. In addition, it allows you to move your hands into different positions throughout your ride to improve aerodynamics and comfort.
This can improve the overall riding experience and make it easier to shift gears while riding.
Brifters give you better control over the bike, allowing you to apply the brakes and shift gears with a single hand. This can be especially beneficial in high-speed or technical riding situations where you must react quickly to changes in terrain or road conditions.
the problems with brifters
While brifters offer several benefits, they also have some potential problems.
Brifters can be more complex and challenging to maintain than traditional brake and gear levers. They typically require more specialized tools and knowledge to repair or replace and can be more expensive to fix if they break.
They are not universally compatible with all bikes and can only be used with specific groupsets and bikes. This can limit the options for upgrading or replacing components on the bike.
Brifters are also more expensive than traditional brake and gear levers, which can be a barrier for some cyclists looking to upgrade their bikes.
Now You Know All About Brifters…
You can decide if they suit your style of riding!
If you’re looking to spend a long time in the saddle on relatively even ground, brifters are a great gear and braking system. Although brifters look at home on road bikes, they can also be a handy and practical addition to gravel and hybrid bikes.
Without the introduction of brifters, you would have to change your hand position whenever you want to change your gears or stop.
Brifters can seem complex, but due to their convenience, reliability, and overall sleek look, they’re a no-brainer for most cyclists.