Cyclists seeing a stock (“complete”) Surly Long Haul Trucker for the first time are often mystified by the location of the shifters: They protrude from the bar ends. Such “bar-end shifters” — more commonly known as Barcons, a term trademarked by Sun Tour — are still favored by many cyclocross racers, but except when mounted on the ends of aerobars, they’ve all but disappeared from the road-racing scene. Few mountain bikers use them, either. Brifters (so-called “integrated shifters,” combining the functions of brake lever and shifter) are the new norm on road bikes. Many older cyclists can remember when bar-end shifters were state of the art, however. The good news? They still have much to recommend them for cyclotouring.
In functional terms, there’s little besides location to distinguish bar-end shifters from the down-tube shifters that preceded them. (Both bar-end shifters and their down-tube counterparts now incorporate indexing, at least for the rear derailleur.) Nor are bar-end shifters especially hard to master — for riders who’ve already mastered the art of changing gears, that is! But this isn’t always obvious on first acquaintance, especially if you’ve never used anything except a brifter.
Here’s what bar-end shifters look like from the saddle:
Why would you want them on your bike? Well, not everyone does. In fact, bar-end shifters are often condemned as slow to respond and imprecise. That hasn’t been my experience, however. Mine shift quickly and well. I love them. Moreover, they’re simple, reliable, and easy to maintain. That’s important to any rider who ventures off the beaten track. And there’s a fail-safe option of sorts for those days when the wind of fortune blows against you. If anything causes the indexing to drift out of sync, you don’t have to miss a beat (or a shift). It only take a few seconds to change to friction shifting. Some riders even switch over from time to time simply for the fun of it. Friction shifting, if performed swiftly and skillfully, is altogether silent.
Of course, as good as bar-end shifters are, they’re not without their share of drawbacks. You can’t mount anything else in the handlebar ends, for one thing, which makes fitting a mirror an exercise in frustration. You can’t even embellish your bar ends with wine corks! Some cyclists (not me) also bang their knees on the shift levers when underway. If this often happens to you, consider fitting down-tube shifters, instead. The job is easy enough. Removing the bar-end shifters is the trickiest bit, but I’ve covered this rather fussy job in an earlier article. And once the bar-end shifters come off, the same bosses that are used to mount their cable stops will readily accept down-tube shifters. Then it only remains to shorten the cables and adjust the derailleurs. Piece of cake.
Or maybe you favor straight bars. Then you’re in luck. Paul’s Thumbies are clever gadgets that let you take the “bar-end” out of your bar-end shifters, making it easy for you to move them to a position right on the bars — and under your thumbs. That’s not a bad place for shifters to be, is it?
This is one time where I’m sticking with stock, however. I like drop bars and I love bar-end shifters. You’ll have to pry my cold, dead hands off ’em to get them away from me. My suggestion to you? Give them a try. I’m betting you’ll think they’re the best shifter you’ve ever used, bar none!
After reading this article, Barney Ward, of Old Fat Man Adventures fame, wrote a few words in praise of Paul’s Thumbies, which he’s installed on Long Haul Trucker:
For the off-road biking I used to do, I preferred the indexed grip shifters. For the road and trail riding I do now, I much prefer the “bar-end” shifters mounted on top of my upright bars because they’re at my finger tips. The Paul’s Thumbie mount with the bar-end shifters on top of the handlebar has became my favorite. The Paul’s thumbie adapter is proving to be an excellent, well built design, and it even stands up to my misusing them.
You can read more about Barney’s impressions of the Thumbies, along with a description of the modifications to his stock LHT — and many other things, as well — in his folksy and entertaining blog.