Friction Shifting – is 9 speed a cog too far?

Dura Ace bar end shifters have the luxury of an indexed or friction option - but is friction shifting a viable option with 9 speed?

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.

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42 thoughts on “Friction Shifting – is 9 speed a cog too far?

  1. Hmm, the Surly LHT has a foot in both camps. The chainrings shift with friction and the 9-speed cassette shifts with indexed (with the option of friction). I’ve stuck with this combo as it works for me. I too am a little nostalgic for friction shifting. It reminds me of my teenage years bombing about on my Malvern Star roadbike with downtube friction shifters (you know, when dinosaurs roomed the earth and carbon-fibre was burnt wholemeal toast).

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      With you 100 percent there BB. Even in the realm of toast, carbon is bad! I might just persevere and see how I get on. Putting things into perspective for a moment, what’s the worst thing than can happen – a missed shift?! Big deal, its not as if I’m racing or anything! The beauty of the Shimano bar ends is you can pick ‘manual’ or ‘auto’ settings when the mood suits. It’s like the thinking man’s flip-flop hub!

  2. When I had my Surly LHT (9spd cassette), I switched from drop bars to Albatross bars and mounted the Dura Ace bar end shifters on the bars with Paul’s Thumbies. For reasons I can’t remember, I switched to friction shifting. I soon developed a feel for it. You do have to be very precise with the 9 speed drivetrain. I never went back to index shifting.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Hi Myles – long time no hear! Your experiences have made me decide to persevere and smarten up my shifting act. Shifting indexed after shifting friction is like playing a computer game on ‘Arcade’ mode. Easy to get the high score, but no kudos…. 😉

  3. Since I’m not running a 9-speed, I don’t strictly match your request for response. So I’ll simply say, for the record, I’m using Silver friction shifters on my downtube with a 7-speed cog, and I like it very much.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Glad to hear from you anyway, even though you don’t fit into my overly-exacting response criteria! Like Grant Petersen says – “Seven’s heaven.” Almost tempted to buy a set of Riv Silvers (Dia Compe Power Ratchets as they are known over here in the UK) and start stockpiling 7 speed cassettes and chains in some sort of cycling panic room!

      1. JimPsycles

        I am riding Rivendell Silvers and a nine speed with great satisfaction. Nonetheless, when the Grant Petersons and Sheldon Browns of the world say “seven’s heaven”, we should consider. Maybe after I first try 8?
        P.S. Greater reliability, confidence, and compatibility with friction shifting are also rewards.

  4. velohobo

    In my humble opinion, no. The more gears and cogs and other spinning things the better (for me). I really don’t mind the redundency of gearing in-between. I love and have grown to depend on my granniest of granny gears and enjoy having a varied range to play with. I also love by bar end shifters switched to friction. Cheaper by far than STI shifters and never miss a gear or drop a chain.
    Great post! Jack

  5. Tav

    Hi, I’m running the Sunrace shifter you mentioned in your earlier post, in a 1×9 setup on my commuter.

    I’d read somewhere that some folk had had being precise enough when friction shifting a 9 speed setup. Apparently the 9 speed shifters work on a different actuation ratio (2:1) than the 8 speed systems, and only pull a tinyyyyyy amount of cable – making it easy to overshift in friction mode.

    So in my case I went for a SRAM x7 derailleur with its 1:1 actuation ratio. I haven’t had any problems finding the right gear with this.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Interesting insight Tav – I didn’t know that the cable pull ratio of 8 and 9 speed setups was different. Little wonder that my setup is so finnicky, although I’d read that SRAM stuff is 1:1. Also I don’t think the short levers of the Shimano bar ends don’t really help when in friction mode. A longer lever, like a Dia Compe/Rivendell Silver would make fine tuning a lot easier.

    2. I’m running Falcon ($10/pr) friction shifters aka thumbies on a mtn bike 3 x 8. I have used a 1:1 SRAM r.d. and a Shimano “8 speed” r.d., and felt fine with both. These move a long way to pull the cable, so maybe they will suit you in your quest for 9 speed use.

      My experience with them so far has been that they are very pleasant except for long climbs when standing out of the saddle, or very aggressive riding over rocky terrain that makes shifting difficult. My answer in those situations is to only use about 3 gears on the back and the 2 bigger chainrings in the front, by memory. I just mash harder or spin faster till I can seat and pick the preferred gears. Works for me. I have found running the front shifter opposite the front brake helps a lot in getting more control of the bike. I am rarely needing to shift AND brake at the same instant.

  6. Monti

    Just added the Sunrace friction shifter to my 9 speed folder and its seems to be working. I do, however, see what you mean by the absence of a positive “clunk”. Nevertheless, I’m going to stick with it as the indexed gripshift kept falling out of alignment.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      I gave my cables a thorough servicing and I’m pleased to report that all is now well. I think I was getting a bit of ghost shifting caused by sticking cables. With a bit of mental adjustment I’m now 9 speed friction shifting like a pro.

    2. Is it possible that it’s the tooth shapes of the new cassettes that prevent the happy “clunk” , or that the gears are so close together that the chain is at much less of an angle between gears? I have not tried 9sp with my friction shifters, but it is good to know it is not much harder. I like 9sp components but have stayed with 7 and 8 because of low cost (sometimes free!) and wide availability of surplus and used parts and cheap chains.

      1. theeverydaycyclist

        You’re right. There’s no clunk but there is a wonderful seamless gearchange even under load. Even better, ironically, than when using clicky shifters.

  7. Geoff

    OK…I’m using dura ace shifters set to friction mode on my bike, a small wheel Moulton TSR9. The bike has flat bars, and so I bought some Paul Components thumbies to mount them on. The cassette is a 9 speed SRAM, with 2 chainrings up front. After about 1,000 miles I have to say I absolutely love the setup. You get used to it, like learning to play a piano or guitar or whatever, and I can generally hit whatever gear I want, quicky…no fuss. Just like on a motorbike, you know which gear you’re in by the relative positions of the speedo and tacho needle, on the bicycle I can tell which gear I’m in purely by the position of the lever relative to the handlebar. After a shift, listen carefully to confirm you’ve got it right, and crack on! I can’t see that it might be a problem. The only situation which might introduce difficulty is where there is a lot of background noise drowning out th e noise of a mis-aligned shift, strong wind or heavy city traffic perhaps. Its pretty hilly round here, and I like being able to shift from 1st to say 7th after cresting a hill, or 9th to 1st on approaching a real demon, in one movement. Here’s a pic.

    IMG_0839

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Hi Geoff – you’re right, friction is great for rapid gear changing from high to low, or low to high. Love your bike and love your Carradice hack!

  8. Hi!

    I currently use an old mtb friction shifter with an 8 speed cassette and it works fine. I’m overhauling my bicycle and are thinking of going for a 9 speed cassette and was wondering if my old shifter will work with a 9 speed cassette. I would rather not have to change the shifter as I love friction shifting!!

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Yes your friction shifter will work on 9 if it works on eight, since the cassette width and therefore the lever throw required would be the same.

      I’m on Sun Race cheapo friction levers at the moment and their ratcheting action is superb. No more worries about gears going out of adjustment and the ability to quickly shift from one end of the cassette to the other.

  9. Maximus

    I just set up a 1X9 mountain bike, and decided to go with a nice-looking $2 friction shifter. I was attracted to it by its simplicity, light weight and price. So far I have been very satisfied with its performance, and I can’t imagine going back to gripshift or Shimano’s rapidfire (have you ever taken one of those things apart? – there’s a MILLION tiny pieces inside there. Old school wins again.

  10. Shojii

    I know this is an old post, but I felt the need to throw in my $0.02. I’m currently running an 18 speed 12-25/53-39 Campagnolo Veloce setup with gutted Ergopowers and Simplex Retrofrictions. Upshifting – no problem, just shift and let the chain drop into place; Downshifting – with the light retrofriction action, it’s easy to use the old ‘overshift then correct’ method. I’ve never missed a shift with this setup, partly because the long lever throw also lets me judge where the chain is in relation to a particular cog in the cassette. I love my ergopowers too but variety is the spice of life, no?

  11. Nine speed friction shifting works just fine on my Surly LHT. A bike mechanic who serviced it recently warned me off using friction shifting but when I asked him why he really couldn’t give me a reason. Different strokes for different folks.

  12. Craig

    I ride a 1984 Univega Land Rover Sport; it was originally ten speeds, but as I wore parts out, it eventually became eighteen with a Shimano Deore LX derailler. I still use the original Shimano EM friction thumb shifters, although I had to modify the rear shifter to get a greater range of motion to accomodate the six-speed freewheel. I also added a V-brake cable guide to the derailler. I bent it to about 120 degree to give the shifter cable a better transition radius and eliminates the cable and housing getting kinked from looping around from the frame.

  13. Richard

    I’ve got 9 speed dura ace bar end shifters in friction mode, 9 speed ultegra derailleur and 10 speed cassette. Works super good and shifting is super nice!

  14. Andrew Mitchell

    10 speed cassette ? Can you use ALL the gears or just 9. Sorry if thats a stupd question. I’m just busy with a custom build bike – a kind of flat bar road bike and have now come to the gearing problem or ‘ decision time ‘ part. I unfortunately have a 9 speed Tiagra rear mech and 10 speed 105 cassette ( which is a rather nice one ) and need to decide on friction or index. Do I buy a new mech for 10 speed or a new 9 speed cassette and go downtube friciton shifting. I never knew that road mechs are not like mtb types when I started this project off ( always learning ) and stupidly bought 10 speed handlebar index shifters. Would someone please gelp me make this decision. Wish Paul Compnents thumbies weren’t so expensive too – that may have been a solution to all this.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Would love to be able to help but I have no experience of ten speed. However I imagine the lever throw and range of movement of the friction bar end lever and the derailleur would be the same on eight, nine and ten speed. The only difference would be the spacing of the clicks. However I’m not sure if the jockey wheels on a ten speed dérailleur are narrower profile than on a nine.

      One thing is for sure. If manufacturers had seen sense and drew a line at eight, with nice tight gaps between gears and nice robust chains, life would have been much simpler.

      As Grant Petersen says, “eight’s great”.

      1. I hope the big 3 don’t try to phase out 8 speed stuff. It’s getting ridiculous now, with $200 cassettes and 11+ speed rear clusters, proprietary tool chainbreakers, and top shelf shifters that are incompatible with anything else ever. 8 speed rules.

  15. Craig

    An update here: I just finished rebuilding my 1984 Univega with Surly Large Marge wheels, and with it came 27 speeds. Still using the same Shimano EM shifters and still able to run through the full range of gears; I think there is enough room to shift a ten or eleven cog cassette with them…not bad for something that was designed around a five cog freewheel!

  16. Maximus

    I have found myself on this thread more than once, and today I have to add to it. I ride a lot on the front range of Colorado, and one of my 2 bikes is a ti hardtail with some retro parts. My other bike is a 5″ travel modern FS machine that is essentially a rocket made for singletrack. Needless to say it has a 2X10 indexed system on it, and it works flawlessly. But I do constantly find myself drawn to my hardtail, I just can’t give it up. Every time I pull it out I think “Oh yeah, THIS is why I ride this bike!!” It has a 1X9 drivetrain with an old school XT SIS/friction shifter. I don’t have any trouble hitting the gears I want, and like you, I love the feel of hitting that perfect shift. I will admit that I use the bikes for different applications, and this friction powered HT is reserved mostly for fast rolling hardpack trails. I have a 10 speed cassette lying around, and I think my next project will be to try to make it work on the HT. So my question is no longer ‘is 9 speeds to much,’ but rather ‘Can I get it to 10?’ The reason I want 10 is because of the increased range (32X11-36 instead of 32X11-32). Some cold winter day I will find the time to set it up and I’ll let you know the verdict.

  17. Fighting decrepitness

    I like indexed rear and friction front.

    So I run a 6 speed triple Nishiki touring bike barcon in friction obviously, pure delight with silver shifters. Then there is an 8 speed Jamis Aurora with friction front der, indexed rear barcon, and then there is the 10 speed ultegra road bike that is a finicky machine but usually runs good, only bike I had to walk home though. Now building up a Soma Double Cross and have ordered dang near everything for 9 speed (cause I think 8 speed quality parts are going bye-bye) and finally decided to go with barcons again. But I will friction the front der, and enjoy the click on the rear. BTW, it will have a SRAM 11-34 and a Sugino 48/36/24, so a super wide range. Swiss Army knife bike for riding everyday, rain or shine and the wide gears will keep it relevant as I get older, but keep on riding past 57 yrs old.

  18. Markus

    Old thread, but still useful!
    I’m currently upgrading an 80’s Italian race bike with the “8 of 9 trick”. The chain, the sprockets and the sprocket spacing will be the same as on an 9 speed. I’m keeping the dérailleurs, the shifters and the crank-set as is. So I was relieved to read that 9 speed friction shifting works.
    Looking back, it would have been easier to just to spread the frame. Finding decent 126 mm wide hyperglide hubs proved troublesome, and the wheels need to be specially built. Still, preserving the rear at the original width keeps the bike more period correct. The old wheels and hubs can always be changed back.
    The bike has an 6-speed 13-18 freewheel right now, so going to an wider range 8 speed will make great deal of difference.

  19. Phil Taylor

    I have a 1*9 setup and use a microShift rear derailleur (RD-R566) and a microShift index shifter. I have recently put on a VO Tourist bar (long story to do with prolapsed discs in my lower back) but the index shifter is a bit too large for the bar.

    I want advice on a few things:
    What friction shifter would people recommend to work with 9 speed?
    I am using standard Shimano flatbar brake levers. Is there a smaller alternative?

    I basically want a clean, comfortable setup that is also reliable for commuting.

  20. I fitted a nine speed casette and chain plus Shimano DT shifters to my 90s 853 Raleigh Special Products race machine. It drove me mad, thought it was me losing dexterity until I was informed about the cable pull difference. I’ve now gone back to 8 speed and am a happy bunny.
    I also run amongst others an 1985 mint condition Raleigh Royal with original 32-11 5 speed freewheel. Clunky but positive and lovely to ride.

  21. Kasper

    I’m from the generation who has never tried friction shifting. I decided to change that recently and converted my 10 speed to friction shifting. I have no reference, and to me it worked fine. I had the bike with me for some long rides in the Pyrenees last month and only encountered a bad shift once.

    Friction shifting really caught me, but as you mentioned, I never got that “clunk” when shifting, which I think sounds, and must feel, so nice (though I’ve only ever heard it on other peoples bikes). So I have ordered 8 speed components and looking forward to going “the other way”. I think 10-speed shifting is fairly easy with friction. Maybe because I expected it to work like hell. So I’m eager to see how 8-speed will differ.

  22. Shane

    Hi,
    RE: Rear gear compatibility. As per above, SRAM have 1:1 actuation ratio &
    Shimano use the 2:1 for their rear index gears. It’s worth mentioning that Shimano have stuck with this 2:1 since the rollout of index gears. So index compatible Shimano rear derailleur whether its 7 or 11 speed will shift the same, although space between the cage holding the jockey wheels gets less with 9 speed +. This is because the space the rear gear block takes on the hub has also remained the same since 8 speed. The only thing that has changed 9 speed & up is the chain width. Which is why 9 speed and over gears get progressively harder to friction shift. This holds true whether you have MTB OR a Road index system, so MTB & Road rear derailleurs are interchangeable.
    Beware Shimano compatible Front Derailleurs that have triple index shift are different between MTB and road.
    Gear shifters like the Dura-Ace bar end ones that use friction for the front derailleur are great for the practical cyclist.

    Having friction option for the rear gears is great. Generally I find the Index is annoying. There’s so much that will affect solid shifting. Whether its drive train alignment, too much friction somewhere in the cable, maybe a grubby chain or derailleur it all adds up to a right pain on any bike. These problems can only get worse with a narrow chain. Other disadvantages of the narrow chain have been designed out. You might think that the wider chain should last longer but the spec of 10 speed and especially 11 speed chains has increased to compensate so a Shimano 10 speed chain might outlast a 9. While this is true for any Shimano Chain (including Dura-Ace). You can avoid this by getting one of the higher quality KMC ones, here the mid range series get the same high material spec across their size range.

    What gets me is that as things “progress” it gets harder to get your hands on the best quality gear for 8 and 9 speed. Seems that market leaders like Shimano have lost touch with a huge part of the market.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Hear hear. I’m now on a seven speed friction setup. Currently I’m running a SRAM chain but I think a galvanised Wippermann or a nickel plated KMC would be my preferred option.

  23. xenotropic

    I have a 10 speed Shimano casette, SRAM X7 derailleur, and a Rivendell “silver” shifter, and it works well. The cable pull distance on the silver shifter is just barely what the X7 needs, but it doesn’t feel like there are any inter-gear shifting problems; the X7 is very “positive” in terms of being in a gear and not in between.

  24. JArthur212

    So I have an interesting case. I inherited my dad’s 1974 Peugeot PY-10 (Reynolds 531 tubing). I noticed that the original simplex rear dropouts were cut and replaced by Campagnolo dropouts.

    At the time I didn’t think much of it, since it had a Shimano long cage rear mech. The other day I was curious if my spare Campagnolo Proton wheelset would fit on my dad’s old bike, and to my shock they do! The spacing for the rear dropouts must have been extended to fit 130mm back in the 1980s or something.

    Now this is where it gets interesting. I am thinking of getting a 9 speed campy cassette, a campy rear mech and attaching them to my simplex slj friction shifters. my questions are about the crank set and the front derailleur. Currently it has a simplex slj front and a stronglight crank. From what I have read the front mech can often blend with campy stuff, but do i need campy friction levers as well? Would the stronglight crank even work with campy chain? Or does that not even matter.

    Any insight would be great!

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      I couldn’t comment on that particular setup but what I can say is the front mechs are mechanically crude items that tend to work with a whole heap of different shifters. I’m currently running an old Suntour front mech with Shimano Ultegra bar ends and it works fine. I don’t think you’d need new shifters. Friction shifting really does liberate you to dig deep in the parts drawer.

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