9 Speed Friction Shifting Update

After negotiating the wide open seas of THE HELMET DEBATE in my last post, I’ve returned to my usual sheltered backwater of cycling lore, to further discuss the joys of non-indexed shifting and my latest experiences:

A while ago I blogged about issues I has having shifting friction with nine-speed. However, these problems have disappeared completely following a proper cable service, revealing a truly wonderful new/old shifting system that combines the best of up to the minute and ‘outmoded’ systems. I felt it was necessary to update the last blog because I don’t want to put off any folks who are running nine-speed and would like to try friction. Plus, a little repetition doesn’t do any harm.

A QUICK FRICTION/INDEXING PRIMER: For those of you who don’t know what friction shifting is, it’s the system of derailleur gearing that existed before modern gearing systems that click from gear to gear. Friction systems don’t have those ‘click’ positions, meaning that you have to manually feel the chain move from sprocket to sprocket and make minor adjustments to get rid of any chain noise or ‘dithering’ between gears.

OK, back to the thread: Since I gave my cables and rear mechanism a thorough overhaul, the need to adjust, or ‘trim’ the gears has almost disappeared. Ironically, I think this is due partially to the many refinements that Shimano and other companies have made to their indexed systems. Let me explain…

Back in the waning years of friction shifting, five-speed rear freewheels were the norm for ordinary folks. This meant big gaps between each gear position, therefore less likelihood of hitting the gear perfectly on your first throw of the lever. Contrast this with a nine-speed system with narrow gaps between each sprocket – you move your gear shifter and you’re far more likely to find a gear than find a gap.

Allied to this are the shifting ramps and specially lowered teeth that Shimano et al have engineered into their sprockets to make shifting easier and quieter, even under load. These features are designed to make indexed (click) shifting slicker; however, it has an even more profound effect on friction shifts, making for almost completely silent, seamless gear changes, even under considerable load.

Another ‘engineered for indexing’ feature has big benefits for friction users. And this time it’s a feature of the rear derailleur. The top jockey wheel of a modern rear derailleur is floating – i.e. it has a slight but significant amount of side to side play, straight out of the box. This isn’t sloppy manufacturing – this is a design feature to facilitate easier indexing. Essentially, the side-to-side float in the top jockey wheel allows for slight maladjustment of the indexing, a degree of excess friction in the cables or slight twisting in the derailleur itself. However this feature makes friction shifting even slicker. Nine times out of ten, this float negates the need to trim, certainly on a nine-speed setup – the floating top jockey wheel obligingly takes up the misalignment for you.

It’s rare when old and new technologies are complimentary in this way. I’m running a modern Deore LX mech, cassette and chain with Dura Ace bar ends set in friction mode- the best of both worlds – like shooting with a DSLR on manual mode. You regain control of the mechanism and therefore an understanding of its function, whilst reaping the benefits of genuinely useful technological advances.

A great feature of the Dura Ace bar-ends is that you can choose indexed or friction, to suit your mood. However, like yesterday, when freezing conditions and road salt rendered my indexing useless, I just switched to ‘outmoded’ friction and immediately, my full gear range was back. It’s good to have choices.

The advantages of friction shifting:

  • Never worry about adjusting your indexing again
  • Quieter shifts
  • A better understanding of how derailleur shifting works
  • The ability to swap in a different wheel without readjusting (good for Time Triallists, according to one of my TT friends)
  • The ability for the gears to work in poor conditions
  • A certain esoteric smugness gained from using something different
  • And more besides.

Further reading:

Grant Petersen on Friction Shifting

… and in the interests of balance:

Sheldon Brown’s Bicycle Glossary (ironically Sheldon was a big click-click fan)

5 thoughts on “9 Speed Friction Shifting Update

  1. I’m glad it’s working better for you. I also have barend shifters that can do either friction or indexed. I usually keep them in Indexed mode, but it’s good to have a backup option.

    Last Saturday, I was out riding in a snowstorm and enough snow and ice collected on my derailleur itself to prevent it from shifting into my smallest cog. The indexing was still fine, but friction mode wouldn’t have helped the icy derailleur.

  2. theeverydaycyclist

    I found that, a few days ago, the road salt had started to seize the cable in the rearmost loop section of cable outer. Indexing wouldn’t work but friction would, because I could deliberately overshift and correct. It’s great to ride a bike that gives you options.

  3. We do a lot of friction conversions at our local bike coop. I currently own two 5- speed friction bikes and just sold my 8-speed friction bike. The cheapest way to get this set up going is to remove your rapid fires or twist grips and replace them with new $16 Sunrace thumbshifters. If you have a local bike kitchen / coop / recyclery, look for some 80s Shimano thumb-shifters or Suntour ratcheting stem or thumb-shifters. These retro shifters are wonderful. Also, the fewer gears on the freewheel / cassette the better for friction. If you replace that 9-speed with an 8-speed, cassettes and chains are cheaper and last longer.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      I’ve got a set of Sunrace shifters from when the bike was in upright handlebar mode. They work really well for a cheap shifter. Good to hear that there are folks out there actively turning back to friction. You’re right about the 8 speed chains and cassettes too. Much cheaper and more robust.

  4. I’ve read, and have observed myself, that derailleur guide pulley float actually makes friction shifting more difficult, at least with a 10-speed Hyperglide cassette. The float reduces the feedback (noise) that you need to tell you that the derailleur is not centered over the cog. With the derailleur almost between two cogs, you often get ghost shifts when you stand on the pedals. I found a few references online suggesting that the guide and tension pulleys should be swapped for friction shifting. After I did that, I was much happier.

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