Monday, January 21, 2013

The Secret life of Friction shifters (Old Ten Speed edition)

In my last post I mentioned my good fortune that the 1974 Peugeot frame-set came with stock friction shifters because Peugeot had a unique way of mounting their down tube shifters.  That got me to thinking about all the different ways friction shifting got approached during the bike boom era for 10 and 12 speed shifting.   They are easy to remember because they all have the shifters location in their name; down-tube, bar-end, and stem. 

Many flavors of Down Tube shifters

In my mind the classic old 10 speed has shifters on the down tube of the frame but this was handled in many different ways.  The most common was to  have the shifters mounted on a band that mounts  to the frame above a brazed on lug, apparently in the early days there were no lugs and riders had issues with the shifters, under tension from the shift cables, coming loose and sliding down the tube causing paint damage and probably a few missed shifts. Some builders like to put the lug on the top facing part of the down tube (Raleigh super course shown) and others went with the underside (Miyata 912 shown).
note triangular "lug" below the shifter band

The route that Peugeot took is a bit different, instead of a lug they use a single shifter boss, on the drive side of the frame, and the (rear) shifter screws directly into the boss.  On the non-drive side  the band that goes around the down tube has the (front) shifter mounted to the band-like Shimano, Suntour, Campy etc.  On the drive side of the band there is a "window" cut in the band so it can go around the boss.  Hopefully these pictures will make it seem less confusing that what I just wrote.

Shifter boss on the drive side only of the down tube
Peugeot specific Simplex shifter with window in band to accommodate shifter boss on frame
Simplex shifters on a Peugeot UO-8

For a while in the mid to late 80s you could get this nifty center mounted down tube shifter "cluster" that bolted to the frame  -kind of like like a water bottle cage.  In the grand scheme of old 10/12 speeds these are kind of rare.
The final evolution is having a shifter boss on either side of the frame.  This is how current steel bikes that even bother to consider down tube shifters do it.  The nice thing about this setup is that if you decide to go with the shifters in a different place -bar ends, STI etc you can use the bosses to mount cable routing guides/adjusters.  Here is a Velo Orange frame with just the boss and then one with the shifters mounted.
Bar end shifters 

Like the name says these are mounted on the bar ends.  This type of shifting is popular on touring bikes where riders want the simplicity and bullet proof qualities of friction but don't want to look down to shift.  I like this set up as you can shift with your pinkie while on the bottom of the drops with a bit of practice.  These are also popular on Time Trail bikes because you can mount them on areo bars -facing straight out from the bike-and shift without changing your aero profile.  Yeah that sounds like a blast....

Not old or 10 speed but using bar end shifters

Stem Shifters

Again the name says it all, they are mounted on the stem.  I like these least of the three as they always give me a queasy feeling in the groinal area, must be a guy thing.  Anyway the bike companies marketed these in the mid 1970s as safer and easier than the classic down-tube shifters, but I think it was really a cost cutting move as they didn't have to weld an extra bit on the down tube anymore.  In general you tend to see these more on an entry level bike than on the higher end "race" bikes.
on stem

As if those three weren't enough choices you can borrow from early Mt. bike technology and get some Paul's thumbies (or like products) and mount your down tube shifters on the bars!  As the name implies you use your thumbs (primarily) to do the shifting.
Why, you may ask, why would he ramble on and on about shifters! Well one thing I like about old 10 speeds is you can swap many parts from one bike to another without giving it much thought BUT there are exceptions (see French bikes) and shifters are one.  So this is just a little education for the new to the game.  For example if you get a frame built for a stem shifter set up and decide you like down tube shifters better you may end up with a your shifters slipping down the down-tube if you don't get a lug or bosses brazed on, or you may decide you don't want derlin plastic simplex shifters on your old Peugeot and go with some old Shimano 600's on a band and the realize "Oh dang what the heck where those French thinking with this boss on just one side!!!!!".  Anyway its not rocket science just pays to know what you are facing out there in the wide wide world of old 10 speeds.  As always....


Honorable Mention

For trying to teach an old dog new tricks I tip my hat to Retro Shift ( who've come up, in the last year, with a rather unique way to mount friction shifters that combines old with new.
Part STI part retro all funky, chapeau.


  1. On some center-mounted downtube shifters, the left shifter would self-trim the front derailleur when you shifted the rear derailleur, so that when the chain was at one side of the rear cluster the front derailleur wouldn't rub the chain.

    It was a really slick bit of engineering that no longer is available on any other shifting system. I don't know if the Suntour shifter in your photo is one of them, but I wouldn't be surprised.

    The thing I like about the old shifting systems is that they were so simple and light. Just replace a cable and you were back in business. While the new brake lever/shifter combination makes shifter little more than a thought, there are many little parts that are difficult to replace, especially when you are out on the road.

    1. Big Oak thanks for dropping by. I went to friction when it hit me one day that I was replacing my Shimano brifters ever 2-3 years at 200-300 bucks a pop. I also realized I was not a racer and what I really wanted was reliability, durability and value. Once I realized that my carbon dreams turned to lust for lugged steel and friction shifting!

      I would love to come across a bike with the cool center mounted DT shifters some day.


    2. The shifter of which you speak, Big Oak, was the Suntour "Symmetric." They were cammed such that the front derailler would adjust slightly when the rear was shifted. I doubt the one pictured is a Symmetric, as it does not have that word on it. Google to see one.

      I have one (on a 1984 Centurion Elite GT) and that's why I'm here. It has worn out such that when in the granny ring and pushing up a hill, the front derailler will shift back into the middle ring. Annoying to say the least. I'm wondering whether to replace it outright or go to a straight-up, non-cammed version. Tending toward the latter.

      BTW, I agree with RoadieRyan about simplicity being elegant. Once you get used to friction, shifting becomes fast and accurate. SIS and complex shifters are for the simple-minded.


    3. I've had two Nishikis with Suntour Symmetric shifters, and they BOTH have that same problem. Neither has a Granny ring, so it's even worse when the front derailleur slips rings pushing up a hill. This is easily adjusted with the correct hex key. Someone should make a little Velcro strap to attach one to the top tube, or something.

      There's a mechanic at Bicycle Habitat in Chelsea (New York) who loves the Symmetric shifters. I wish I'd bought the one that was on ebay a year or so back, just to give him. I didn't bid because the seller was kind enough to answer my question about how to fix them:

      "It can be fixed just by replacing the bushing part but it is a weird size and will be hard to find."

      Now I don't even know what a bushing is --- it sounds vaguely obscene --- but if anyone figures out the size, or replaces on in their Symmetric, I'd love to know/see about it.

    4. There is a classic and Vintage section in the bike forums ( and I find they are a wealth of knowledge

  2. Those Campeurs are certainly photogenic, aren't they...I have a weakness for all things VO.

    I am becoming envious of your success with the Blog, Ryan! Nice work!


  3. I agree Tim Joe the VO stuff is very lust worthy. Thanks for the nice words re the blog I have read some very good blogs, Mr. TPC, that inspire me.

  4. I'm pretty sure that with my time left on this planet that I will never again own another bike with "brifters". Once was enough spending a frustrating afternoon fishing a broken cable out of there.
    Nice Pictures, especially that Univega with the bar-ends!

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  6. I never had a bike with index shifting, just "friction shifting". My Azuki had shifts on the stem of handle bars and it was easy to manage fast shifts, sudden breaking/steering because the hand motions were not very long. Another bike I had, the Atala had shifters below the handle bars on the down tube, so the hand motions between shifting, steering and braking were a little longer. My current bike is a '84 Schwinn Sierra [which I bought new] with shifters on the handle bar and its great because very little hand motion time is needed to switch between shifting, steering and braking.

    So what is the Secret Life of Friction Shifters?

    Friction shifters have to manage many things in the bikes drive train. Sometimes we have to make manual hi/lo adjustments to the derailleurs when we stop for a rest. While riding the extra shifts might be needed when the chain rubs the front derailleurs. But I think the real secret of friction shifters is we are more focused on the ride in front of us and better able to react to sudden obstacles that can appear in the road or bike path.

  7. Friction suntour shifters with suntour derailleurs that is what I currently ride on been a great fan since I discovered them a few years back and if you have a suntour freewheel that is just the cherry on top,as I tell my wife they shift like liquid gold.

    1. I have a SunTour V-GT Luxe drive train on the Motobecane Grand Touring and it still works great after 40 years

  8. I have a Zeus downtube shifter pair from the era (1968) before bosses on the downtube. It came with a circa 1968 Carlton Giro d' Italia full chrome road bike. With friction and good alloy steel frames I can configure: 650B x47 to 700c x 23-35-35. I can use any of 7,8,9 speed cassettes and freewheels, smallest chainring 26T biopace, 4 chainrings even.Not so vintage MTB friction shifters and the cheapest aluminium friction shifters from the east all do the job. They could fix any brifter issue at 10% of what it might cost.I can make silent shifts, my hub is silent, my frame doesn't buzz or click, my comfortably wide tyres squish along... Friction can work any combination of chainring and block not like modern equipment that is locked into a groupset, a frame, a CX,Road,MTX, MTY, MTZ pigeonhole

    1. Yes indeed, I like to say Friction doesn't care, it just works with a variety of combinations, makes and parts

  9. Where can I get a bottle cage bolt shifter adapter like the one pictured above? :-)

  10. Well assuming your bike came with a top of the down tube braze on then you can search ebay for Suntour/Shimano top mount shifter boss adapter