A while back I posted an article on the benefits of friction shifting as opposed to indexed (SIS in Shimano’s parlance) – however, a recent ‘upgrade’ has forced me to reconsider a full time, no-looking back commitment to ‘no-clicks’ shifting.
There’s a generation out there who probably don’t know what friction shifting is – indeed, I’m on the very cusp of that generation. However, I’m old enough to have ridden friction shifting 10 speed racers as a kid, before indexed shifters efficiently clicked their way onto the field of play.
Basically on modern bikes, to shift, you click a lever, press a button, twist a twistgrip, etc and the gear notches into place. Friction shifting removes those notches, meaning that you, the rider, have to use judgement and finesse to move the chain smoothly from one sprocket to the next. It’s called friction shifting because it’s just the friction in the mechanism that holds the gear mechanism in alignment.
The benefits of this seemingly archaic arrangement are manifold. Master friction shifting and you’ll never have to worry about gear cable adjustment again. You’ll also be freed from having to worry about shifter/transmission compatibility. You’ll develop a real understanding of how derailleur gears work (and the logic of adjusting cable slack on indexed systems). Perhaps to most satisfying aspect of friction shifting is mastering the skill, rather than relying upon the mechanism to judge the shift. It’s akin to judging a perfect putt in golf, catching a peanut in your mouth, or taking a perfectly lit shot on a manual camera. You don’t always get it right, but when you do, it’s magic.
For the past couple of years I’ve been enjoying the experience of judging my shifts ‘by hand’, using an 8 speed drivetrain with Ultegra bar end shifters. These Shimano shifters have the option of switching from indexed to friction on the fly, meaning that users can give friction a try without component swapping.
However, a few weeks ago, I wore through another chain and cassette and decided to upgrade to 9 speed. I already had a shiny set of 9 speed Dura Ace bar end shifters (which also have the indexed/friction option) so a new 9 speed block and chain was ordered, delivered and fitted. Problem is, since going from 8 to 9 speed, I’ve found that friction shifting and I are no longer the happy bedfellows that we used to be.
Theoretically, it should be easier to hit a gear with more cogs on the cluster, but in practice it isn’t the case. Because the sprockets on a 9 speed cassette are so close together, you don’t get that positive ‘clunk’ that you get on a 5, 6, 7 or indeed an 8 speed cassette when the chain finds its niche. Sometimes the chain will kid you that it’s snug on a sprocket, only to jump up or down when you get out of the saddle and put the power down.
The upshot of this is I’ve gone back to the future; clicking between gears. Don’t get me wrong; it’s no hardship; the changes are beautifully crisp (I’m running Dura Ace bar ends, Deore LX mechs and a Deore 11-32 cassette). Sadly though, I feel I’m missing out on the satisfaction of catching that metaphorical peanut or watching my perfect putt drop into the hole.
So the question is; is 9 speed a cog too far for friction, or should I just persevere and accept that the game just got a little harder?
I’d be interested to hear from other friction shifters out there who are running a nine speed set-up, particularly those who are using Dura Ace, like me, and from those using the Rivendell Silver/Dia-Compe friction-only ratcheting shifter.