Bar End Shifters = The Classic Long-distance Choice

from Rookie’s keyboard

Hello, friends

Long-distance cyclists are not as crazy about new technology as the MTB and road racing maniacs. Instead, the main priorities are reliability, serviceability, and convenience rather than speed. 

For that reason, many equip their adventure bikes with bar-end shifters (BESs).

Below is a list containing detailed characteristics that make bar-ends attractive:


BESs contain fewer parts than more sophisticated drop bar shifting systems such as Shimano’s STI (Shimano Total Integration), Campagnolo’s Ergo shifters, and SRAM’s offers.

Simplified engineering makes bar-ends more trustworthy because fewer parts can malfunction.

You can think of BESs as an old Nokia phone that does not have the extras of modern smartphones but is equipped with a stronger body, a longer-lasting battery, and software that cannot get infected.

BESs are a fairly old technology dating back to the 80s. They don’t have to be as complicated as modern shifters because they aren’t integrated into the brake levers.

The design and position of BESs result in robustness that is greatly appreciated during long tours when the bicycle is loaded with a lot of gear.

Once the derailleurs and the chain get contaminated and clogged with dirt from the road, the tension on the shifting system goes up. Consequently, the shifters wear out faster.

The effect of dirt is difficult to minimize on a tour because the circumstances may prevent the rider from stopping and cleaning the moving parts. 


BESs are easier to service whilst the modern shift + brake combos are often too complicated for mechanics who don’t have extensive knowledge on the subject. And it’s often difficult to find replacement parts.

This leaves three options in case of failure:

  1. Buy a new set
  2. Find a reputable mechanic who has the needed replacement parts
  3. Hunt for the parts online and try to fix the problem yourself.

The difficulty of repairing modern drop bar shifters is the reason why some cyclists don’t even bother and simply replace the broken unit.

The parts for bar-end shifters are also rare and sometimes even more difficult to find due to the age of the technology, but at least, it’s easier to disassemble and service the shifter on your own.

This characteristic makes bar-end shifters more suitable for long-travel bikes because the cyclist would have a higher chance of fixing the unit in the middle of nowhere.


The position of bar-end shifters makes them less vulnerable during accidents. During a head-on collision, the levers are among the first points of contact. But bar-end shifters are unlikely to be broken because they sit “behind the handlebars”.

Friction shifting

Bar-end shifters usually offer friction shifting at the front (chainrings) and the option to switch between friction and index shifting at the back.

Unlike modern index shifters, friction models are “free” and can work with a multitude of drivetrains regardless of type (road or MTB). 

In consequence, the cyclist isn’t bound to a specific speed system. This is beneficial because, on a tour, one may find themselves at a location with a limited supply of bike parts.

A downgrade may be necessary to continue the tour (e.g., switching from 10-speed to 8-speed).

Index shifters do not provide that extra even though they are more sophisticated. 

To get the best of both worlds, some people use modern shifters while also carrying a pair of bar-end shifters or “thumbies” (friction shifters for flat handlebars) as a backup. 

Compatibility With 2x and 3x Chainrings

A front friction shifter can work with both a double and triple chainring at the front. The low gearing offered by a triple system is beneficial for cyclists carrying a lot of gear.

No Need to Index Your Gears

Friction shifters do not require gear indexing. The only necessary adjustment is to set the derailleur’s screws properly and prevent chain movement outside of the cassette’s or the chainrings’ scope.

Conversely, index shifting requires more frequent maintenance for the system to operate properly. 

As a result, the indexed gears often get out of tune and the chain starts rubbing.

Friction shifting allows us to compensate for the inaccuracies without having to re-index the gears.

Trimming of the front derailleur

When shifting up and down the cassette (rear sprockets), the chain becomes angled and sometimes starts rubbing against the front derailleur’s cage.

To stop this, you have to “trim” the derailleur or in other words make little adjustments that move the derailleur a bit without causing a gear shift.

Friction shifters allow you to do that effectively which is why some people prefer to have one at the front. 

There are also index shifters with a trim function, but not every model has it.

Fast Shifting From One End To The Other

Friction shifting allows you to go from the smallest to the biggest cog of a cassette in one continuous swipe whereas index shifters require multiple clicks to achieve the same.

No Interference With Bags and Baskets

When you attach a wide basket or a bag to a set of drop bars, it may get in the way of the brake-shifter. In some cases, one may even experience “ghost shifting”.

Bar-end levers eliminate this possibility because they remain behind the basket/bag.

Another factor that aggravates the problem is the amount of gear that some touring cyclists carry. 

One time I saw a guy who’d attached a separate rucksack to his handlebar bag.

The more “crowded” the bike is, the greater the risk of shifting interference. 

Vintage Look 

Dia Compe Silver friction 5-9-speed bar end shifters

Some cyclists admire the appearance of bar-end shifters, especially when installed on a rusty old bicycle.

This is a subjective benefit but real nonetheless as aesthetics heavily influence the purchases that cyclists make.


Bar-end shifters are cheaper than brake-shifters. The price difference is more apparent when upgrading a bicycle because cycling components cost more when purchased individually.

This makes bar-end shifters a good choice for old bikes whose age and pride don’t justify the purchase of brake-shifters.

The Brake System Is Independent

Bar-end shifters make the brake system independent. 

This increases the number of possible brake setups because you’re no longer bound to brakes compatible solely with brake-shifters.

The pull of a brifter (brake+shifter), does not work with all brake models. For example, regular mechanical disc brakes (not road) and V-brakes require a longer pull. To operate with those systems, a brake-shifter needs an adaptor known as a “travel agent”.

The travel agent allows a short cable pull lever to work with a long pull caliper. However, the addition of a travel agent complicates the setup and uglifies it.

With bar-end shifters, you don’t have to worry about that because you can just buy a regular V-brake lever.

You Can Mix Mountain and Road Bike Parts

Bar-end shifters such as those made by microSHIFT allow you to mix road and MTB parts.

The BS-SR-M12-R bar-end shifter by microSHIFT is compatible with 12-speed cassettes such as SRAM Eagle.

If you want to combine drop bars with a mountain bike rear derailleur, you can do it because their bar-end shifters are compatible with 11 and even 12-speed drivetrains.

For the same reason, multi-purpose bar-ends are a good option for Frankenstein bicycles combining unorthodox components.

Brake-shifters do not provide that opportunity because they’re designed to operate with a limited number of systems. 

For example, it’s not possible to combine a road STI shifter with a mountain bike front derailleur because MTB and road shifters have a different cable pull ratio with dissimilar index points


Of course, nothing is perfect. BESs have their downsides too:


Unlike integrated brake-shifters, bar-ends require a lot of hand movement. Every time you shift, you have to move your hand out of position. The result is inefficiency, distraction, and potential instability.

Therefore, it’s not a surprise that we find brake-shifters on racing bikes. But touring is different. You aren’t racing anyone. And even if you were, you would lose due to the weight of the bicycle rather than slow shifting.

Slow Reaction

Brake-shifters make it easier to quickly switch gears upon facing a sudden change of terrain such as an unexpected hill.

Friction bar-end shifters rob you of that opportunity because the shifting process is slow.

But since the majority of touring itineraries include long roads, one rarely needs ultra-fast shifting because the ascents and descents can be seen from far away.

Less Shifting

Friction bar-end shifters require you to move your hands away from the handlebars. Then, you have to search for the right cog. The extra effort results in infrequent shifting and longer periods of cycling in an inefficient gear.

Knee Hits

Bar-end shifters are an extension of the bars and can easily come in contact with your upper leg.

To lower the chances, some people cut the ends of their drop bars an inch before installing the bar-end shifters.

This technique keeps the profile of the drops similar to what it would be without bar-end shifters.

Another benefit of cutting the bars is that the bar-end shifters come closer to your hand. The reduced distance makes it easier to reach them and shift.

The method won’t work if the handlebars vary in thickness. Once you cut the ends, you may be unable to fit the bar-end shifters.

No Shifting When Pedaling Out of the Saddle

Bar-ends make it impossible to shift out of the saddle due to their position. If you are riding out of the saddle and find yourself in need of a different gear, you would have to sit back down to shift.

Off-Road Unfriendly

The instability of bar-end shifting increases multiple times on technical terrain with unexpected obstacles and tight turns. You would rarely see them on bicycles designed for off-road terrain.

No Bar-End Mirrors

Bar-end mirrors designed for road bikes are not compatible with bar-end shifters. It’s one or the other. 

Bar-end Shifters and the Cold Weather 

Bar-end shifters are easier to use with gloves such as mittens or lobsters – two models that reduce one’s finger dexterity.

Integrated brake-shifters, on the other hand, are difficult to operate with big gloves because you have to reach a tighter spot.

However, the scenario changes a bit when relying on mittens/pogies attached to the handlebars 

The pogies wrap around the bars and act as a windshield for your hands.

Pogies on road bikes cover the hoods and the brakes but leave part of the drops and subsequently the bar-end shifters uncovered.

If you cycle with pogies and bar-end shifters, you will find the shifting process even more uncomfortable because you would have to get your hand out of the pogie/mitten, shift, and then aim for the hole of the pogie to re-grab the hoods.

The bar-end shifters will be cold since they are exposed. You can mitigate that issue by wearing thin gloves.

Until next time,

– Rookie






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