Aug 01 2009

Making the Shift to Barcons
Or, Bar-End Shifter Savvy

 

 
The Surly Long Haul Trucker is an appealing design, and the complete bike is thoughtfully outfitted with components that are affordable and durable. The LHT’s understated good looks, its rugged build, and its reasonable price tag attracts a lot of cyclists in the market for a touring or utility bicycle. But there’s one thing which worries many prospective LHT owners—those unfamiliar bar-end shifters, also known as barcons.

 
Not sure what I’m talking about? Take a look at the levers at the ends of the handlebars in the photo below to see a pair of bar-end shifters in the wild:

 

Bar End Shifters

 
Before I bought my LHT, I’d never used bar-end shifters and was a bit concerned that I’d have difficulty adjusting to them. I need not have worried! I quickly learned to shift, and swiftly developed a feel for what gear was in play. The Shimano bar-end shifters supplied with the complete LHT build are simple to use and, on the LHT, can be converted into downtube shifters on the LHT if desired. Maintenance is practically nil, and their simple design is easy to service when necessary. And if you like friction shifters, you’ll like these. The lever for the front derailleur is a friction shifter, and the lever that controls the rear derailleur can be switched from an indexed shifter into a friction shifter by just turning a screw. These make excellent shifters for a bike which will be used on long tours and in foul weather. Does it sound as if I’ve become a fan of bar-end shifters? You bet!

But isn’t shifting a bit difficult and hard to figure out? Nope. The left lever controls the front derailleur. Pushing down on the lever moves the chain from the large to the middle and finally the small ring. By pulling up on the right lever, you shift from the small cog to the largest in increments. Isn’t it disruptive to move hands from the tops of the handlebars or the brake hoods in order to reach the shifter levers? I don’t find it to be so, and it’s a lot easier for me than reaching down to work levers on the down tube. If you’re used to brifters—integrated shift levers and brake levers—it might take a bit of an adjustment, but unless you intend to race a LHT then you probably won’t be bothered.

Let’s look at shifting in a bit more detail. Here’s my typical hand position when moving up the gear cluster:

 

Bar End Shifters

 
I have small hands, but still, the levers aren’t difficult for me to manage. I often brace my thumb against the handlebar and lift the lever with two or three fingers, keeping my index finger on the handlebar or slightly further back. This offers excellent leverage and crisp, precise shifting. I do the same when moving up from small to large chainrings. To move the levers down, I normally press with the palm of my hand, like this:

 

Bar End Shifters

 
My thumb is braced on the bars and in this case my fingers are off the bars and lever altogether, though I usually brace my index and middle fingers on the bar, and often grip the lever with my ring and little fingers. If I want to shift down quickly, I can move the chain down the gear cluster almost in one fell swoop by reaching down with my right hand and pushing down on the lever with a smooth but firm action. I rarely need to shift the front derailleur as quickly, so moving the chain down the rings is typically more deliberative, and I can fine tune the position of the derailleur if the chain rubs.

 
Don’t let bar-end shifters turn you away from a bike. They might be unfamiliar, but they’re perfectly good shifters, and to my mind have significant advantages over brifters for a touring bike. If it turns out you prefer shifters to be closer to where you keep your hands on the tops of drop bars, you can buy adaptive devices like Paul’s Thumbies to turn the bar-end shifters into thumb shifters. But give bar-end shifters a try first. Practice in a parking lot or on a quiet street. If your hands are bigger than mine (they probably are!), then you can probably get away with gripping the levers with the last two fingers of your hand, perhaps even with your pinkie. I’m betting that inside 10 to 15 minutes you’ll have gotten the hang of bar-end shifters, and as the miles rack up on your bike’s odometer, you’ll discover just how intuitive and easy shifting can be.

 

Bar End Shifters

 
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