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)

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.