The Dust-Up: An Ode to Friction Shifting


The Dust-Up: An Ode to Friction Shifting

After Nic Morales ditched indexed shifters for a friction system, he hasn’t looked back. Below, Nic breaks down the differences between index and friction and explains why he’s excited about bucking mainstream shifting trends towards a life of friction...

As I sat in my friend’s living room eating some spicy lentil soup, he asked me to explain friction shifting.

Not that I’m some mechanical adept, rather, his question was more likely prompted by the fact that I have been—probably annoyingly—singing the praises of a recent (excuse the pun) shift towards friction.

Like many of my bicycle-related decisions, the change was inspired by Russ of PathLessPedaled. As the father of the ‘home for non-competitive cycling’ on the internet, Russ preaches practicality over bling and questions things the bike industry likes to say are better without much objective proof. Note: just because something is 7% faster in a wind tunnel does not mean it’s actually faster. That’s not how wind works. Also, who gives a shit.

Jokes aside, months of listening to Russ talk about the benefits of friction shifting had me hooked. I’m something of a contrarian if you couldn’t already tell, so yet another thing to separate myself from the big S’s and Trek’s I often see on the trails was more than enough to inspire a switch. After snagging a bar end shifter from microSHIFT and some beautiful TRP RRL brake levers, I asked a local mechanic to help with my journey back to the future.

For the uninitiated, I’ll try to explain this as simply as possible. Most modern shifters are STI format, meaning the brake hoods and shifting are contained within the same mechanism. Shifting is just a click in one direction or another, depending on what church you pray to— Shimano, SRAM, Campagnolo, etc. All that means is: you click, and a mechanism with a machined index moves from point to point, shifting each gear. The mechanism responsible for moving between the gears is exactly that, a mechanism. All you have to do is click up and down your range. A friction shifter takes those machined points out of the equation, giving the rider a range of movement to access all gears. It’s up to them and their senses to shift.

Of course, there are practical applications for STI- style shifters. I have no doubt it’s significantly more convenient to use in a race context. Jumbling around, trying to find a gear could probably cost you a few places. In the unpredictability of a race, you probably need to do a lot of quick, instantaneous shifting. That said, I don’t race. I don’t really ever want to. However, in my many months and now several thousands of miles with a friction shifter, I’ve come to appreciate more than just an exaggerated space between myself and the world of racing. First and foremost, frustrating the bicycle industry.

One of the main benefits of friction shifters is that they allow almost limitless compatibility across an industry that has spent considerable amounts of money being brand exclusive, proprietary, and, for the consumer, frustrating. As Russ tells it, up until 9-speed, road and mountain stuff worked together perfectly. As we move toward 12, 13, and inexplicably 14-speed, things are set to be more incompatible than ever before (find another explanation on the topic here).

With an 11-speed friction shifter and some light tweaking, you can use whatever combination of groupset pieces makes feasible sense. It’s your property, do as you please. Aside from the ostensive freedom that might provide, a tangible reason you might want to mix and match is capability. 1x may not be for everyone, but it introduced a wide world of groupset modifications to fit cadence, terrain, and function. Running an 11-50t cassette can provide all the range you’ll ever need, but being able to use it is another story. Prior to the release of SRAM’s new Apex AXS system, the American component manufacturer had you spend another 500-800 dollars on a mullet kit. Meanwhile, regarding road and mountain cross compatibility, Shimano just says no, and Campagnolo swore at me in Italian just for asking. While the Italians have warmed to the idea of a wide range, wireless 1x system via Super Record EPS, their groupset retails at the low low price of nearly five grand. Running friction eliminates the arbitrary limits imposed on us by a hyper-capitalist market— power to the people and all that.

Another frustrating aspect of said market is the tier-ing of products these massive corporations like to push. They don’t make one groupset, put their name behind it, and submit their wares to the free market. They have tiers of varying “quality.” What’s often marketed as the difference between these tiers is “better shifting.” A relatively vague term meant to describe…what? Faster shifting? More reliable shifting? Consistency in shifts? In my eyes, it’s purposely ambiguous to have you wanting to climb the upgrade ladder. After all, even the base models of these groupsets can be classified as “expensive”—shouldn’t they all work?

Friction drops acid on that idea and, once again, puts the power back in your hands. “Better” shifting is on you. Knowing the spaces between gears determines how well the bike shifts, not a name on the tier list. To my limited experimentation (I don’t have a bunch of different, expensive derailleurs lying around), one mech shifts as well as the other when in friction mode. No more skipping derailleurs that are slightly out of tune– you can rapidly shift through the entire cassette with the flick of your wrist, adjusting for imperfections with ease. Those realities, combined with the added flexibility in component choice, are the concrete reasons I’d recommend anyone at least try it. All that said, like anything, these are just personal choices, material affectations of my ideology.

Without sounding hokey, you genuinely feel more in tune with the machine. All of my fixie friends said this about riding fixed, and while I did eventually understand what they were talking about, I didn’t feel the same connection to my bike until I tried friction. There is something about taking pride in each individual shift that becomes fulfilling. As someone constantly bouncing between the bike as a means to an end—getting to a wildlife preserve, seeing new places, fitness, etc.—and seeing the bike as an end in and of itself, friction varies that sometimes monotonous experience.

Of course, there are some drawbacks. Modern derailleurs, especially ones optimized for all-road riding, have clutch systems, and at times there can be the occasional ghost shift due to the clutch fighting the bar end. This is largely solved by ensuring the cable tension is appropriate. But it can still happen. There is also the placement of the bar-end shifter that can present an issue. It’s far from the smartest place to put a shifter, given that spot’s propensity to getting banged around. That said, STI shifters are usually the first thing to hit the dirt in a crash. But, crashing probably isn’t ideal for any system aside from downtube shifters. Friction shifting isn’t the easiest thing when the terrain gets rough and rowdy, but, hey, all the more fun.

Inevitably, when the industry seems to be making a big push for wireless shifting, the tendency for comparison arises. Having limited experience with a system so efficient it doesn’t require a physical connection between shifter and derailleur, I’m not suggesting friction is comparable. In terms of performance, I can see why someone might opt for Bluetooth systems. But, even before the shift, I thought about the why concerning wireless shifting. EVs and devices that fall within their purview, like Bluetooth shifting, assume an aura of cleanliness. They don’t spew oil or visible fumes. They don’t make loud, exploding, destructive noises— just quiet, eerie mechanical whirring. The evil of electronics is a far-away problem. Lithium mining is just oil colonialism 2.0. I say this typing on a MacBook, my iPhone sitting directly beside. But, to excuse my hypocrisy, just because the system we participate in presents issues doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fix them. Converting an entire industry to electronic shifting, demanding more disposable lithium-ion batteries and touch points on shifters and derailleurs that are more than likely designed with obsolesce in mind is…not great. Particularly when mechanical shifting, in any form, is more than sufficient.

There’s also the somewhat conspiratorial, but not altogether impossible, concept that component manufacturers are all too ready to send us into a wireless future to save themselves a pretty penny. The theory goes like this: creating a Bluetooth brifter doesn’t require as much machined precision due to the lack of a physical cable. Because each shift is simply a signal for up or down, no physical positions need to be fabricated in order for indexed shifting. And while their margins rise, those savings haven’t really been passed on to you. In some sense, you’re paying for a less capable, less modular system, that has, in theory, a finite life. You can pick up any variety of older derailleurs from the 80s and 90s on eBay for pennies on the dollar. The best bit? They still work. Will we be able to say the same about their electronic counterparts?

Outside of theories and immediate, performance-based rationale, the change to friction shifting has also provoked me to consider: what kind of bike rider does friction shifting engender? Part of the experience of riding a bike is also maintaining it. Joy, fulfillment, and self-sufficiency can be found by learning to fix and maintain what propels you. It’s easy to see how that idea could be inherent to it. After all, you are responsible for its movements. The whole thing is that you’re moving about the world of your own volition. Applying the same principle to its maintenance appears seamless. Does an electronic shifter encourage a sense of independence? Does it make you want to push the limits of mechanical tolerances? Does it present itself as a tool that can be fixed? Or is it a pathway for subscription services and mechanical obscurity?

I say this largely because I’ve been turned on to the power that bikes possess. Not just as vehicles for performance but as tools that can legitimately change the world for the better. With the planet in limbo and some legitimate transitions in how we traverse it coming to fruition, I think it’s important not just to change but to change in the right way. Friction shifting may not seem related to any of that, but these decisions exist within the purview of titanic issues. As a tool that forces you to consider your actions more intentionally, friction shifting may not be inspired by the performance-centric ideal, but perhaps it’s time for a shift in a different direction.

If you’re new to this series, welcome to The Dust-Up, a semi-regular platform for Radavist editors and contributors to make bold, sometimes controversial claims about cycling. A way to challenge long-held assumptions that deserve a second look. Sometimes they will be global issues with important far-reaching consequences; other times, they will shed light on little nerdy corners of our world that don’t get enough attention.