Stick Versus Automatic

I think of friction versus indexed shifting as being analogous to stick versus automatic. The former came first and is mechanically more simple and tactile, while the latter came later, is more complex mechanically, but demands less of the user and is now nearly ubiquitous. Certainly, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to friction versus indexed, but people do seem to have their preferences. I’ve been known to lean toward preferring friction, though my current stable is split at exactly 50/50. Here are a few pros to consider:

Friction

  • Not affected by cable stretch or housing compression
  • More forgiving in the event of a mechanical issue in the drivetrain
  • Wider cross-compatibility between various shifters and derailleurs
  • Some riders who started riding on friction prefer the more tactile lever action

Indexed

  • Quick and precise
  • Requires less input from the rider
  • Some shifters provide visual cues (i.e., gear numbers)
  • Some riders who started riding on indexed prefer the more precise lever action

I think it mostly comes down to personal preference. It’s clear the market has spoken and most people prefer indexed shifting. I cut my teeth during the era of downtube-mounted friction shifters, consequently I find finessing a clean friction shift satisfying in a way that I don’t experience with indexed shifting. I realize that’s pretty esoteric and not much of an argument for friction shifting… :-)

Which type of shifter do you prefer?

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48 Responses to “Stick Versus Automatic”

  • Mark says:

    How about those of us who prefer non-shifting? I’ve been riding single-speed bikes for years. I love the simplicity. I guess if I have to pick, I’ll go with indexed shifting so I don’t have to think about it as much.

  • Daniel says:

    I would point out that ALL friction levers provide you with a visual AND tactile clue in the form of the position of the lever itself. What’s important to me is not whether I’m in gear 5 or 6, it’s whether I’m getting near one end of the range or the other. Friction levers tell me that BY FEEL without needing to look at a tiny display on the bar.

    An indexed bar-end or downtube lever does this as well, so it’s possible to have the best of both worlds if you prefer indexing.

  • Ben says:

    I like that I get the best of both worlds (and choice between the two!) with my Shimano barend shifters. Though I voted for indexed, because to me it really is easier and quicker. I have used the friction setting when I have had drivetrain issues, however, and it has been very useful.

  • helton says:

    I had a recent problem with the rohloff twist-shifter, because (I guess) it requires too big a movement of the hand, and that becomes quite stressing on the wrists in the long run, specially if you need to shift often as I do (heavy bike, hilly terrain).
    My wife’s bike has trigger shifting (shimano rapidfires), and just after I experience other shifters I noticed the relief provided by the triggering system, which require a slight movement of only one finger.
    In the other hand, when I used thumbshifters a long time ago, I liked a lot using friction on the front derailer, because it could be always be in good position relative to chain, and there was three very definite positions, one for each crank (which is not the case with 6 to 9 cogs at the rear).

  • Zyzzyx says:

    Interesting thoughts, comparing bicycle and automotive transmissions. My thoughts haven’t focused so much on the shifter style, as the drivetrain style.

    While it does still involve shifting, I tend to see internal gear hubs (or rear derailer only) as the ‘automatic’ equivalent; while a front/rear derailer setup closer to a ‘manual’.

    I see a standard derailer setup can require more ‘thought’ and interaction then an IGH (or any rear-only shifter setup), where you can just simply move one gear to the other. Or more precisely, the derailer setup offers you options; change ranges in front, jump chainring and cogs at the same time, keeping a gear ratio but preparing for a hill. While the IGH you just move from one gear to the next, as needed.

    When I’m driving my car (manual transmission, thank you), I will frequently change gears in anticipation, and also will often skip gears up or down as needed (such 1-2-5, or 5-3), something most drivers (of automatics) would never think to do.

    I too started my riding on friction down-tube shifters, quickly transitioning to indexed thumb shifters on the mt bike. Which I found quite useful at times to be able to change over to friction when things got ugly. That said, its been at least 15 years on the mt bike since I’ve had the need (or want) to change from indexed back to friction.

  • nick says:

    Friday night while riding I had a great friction shift, dropped it 3 gears perfectly, it was nearly as perfect as could be. I was proud so I told my riding buddy, he just smiled and said ‘I know the feeling’

  • Alan says:

    @nick

    Doesn’t that feel good? (I know, we’re weird)… LOL.

  • Rob Sayers says:

    Friction, although when I switched I hated it for the longest time.

    My last bike had indexed twist shifters, it was nice having the shifter right there at my grip where I could look down and see exactly what gear I was in.

    If I had been given a choice, I might still be using indexed shifters, but my new bike had downtube shifters and I was force to get used to them, constantly mis-shifting, hitting my finger on the wheel, and generally being clumsy about it.

    Now I wouldn’t go back, I can shift in traffic without really thinking about it, I know what gear I’m in based on where the lever is and unlike indexed shifters, a little cable stretch doesn’t throw everything off.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    Once I learned how to use friction shifters (on my old Motobecane roadbike), I really can’t imagine enjoying indexed shifting. I like the tactile sensation of it too much and the feeling of direct involvement with my bike.

  • jonathan s says:

    What about adding options for people who have only ridden indexed but want to try friction?

  • Fergie348 says:

    I’m with Mark at the top. The less I have to actually pay attention to the act of shifting the better. That goes double when terrain is challenging, so I ride a 1×9 setup on my geared MTB and ride a single speed when I can. Road requires more gears to go fast efficiently but I still hate triples with all that shiting up front. I’d love a wide ranging internal rear hub with indexed shifting either on the bar end or on the brake lever like STI. Twist shifters are the worst thing to happen to geared transmissions in a dog’s age – give me trigger shifting and as little front shifting as possible and I’m happy.

  • Tali says:

    Using hub gears, I have to choose index.

    But like others in this thread, I’m not a fan of the twist shifter. I don’t hate it enough to seriously influence my choice of a new bike, but I miss the ability to know what gear I’m in by touch as is possible with levers.

  • Jim says:

    I have friction on all my bikes and love it for riding here in mostly phlat Phoenix. On a recent trip to San Francisco however, my girlfriend and I rented a Co Motion tandem and rode across the bridge to Tiburon. About thirty somewhat hilly miles and my first experience with “brifters”. I loved them in that situation. Don’t think I would use them on a single in Phoenix but I did purchase a tandem frame to build up and I may switch to indexed for that bike.

  • Jim says:

    I’m not going to vote–friction on two bikes, index on two. In rolling and hilly terrain, crappy road conditions or in a tight pack, simultaneous shifting & braking, brifters are a godsend. As the pace quickens, one demands more of the machine. Tootling around town, nothing more than friction is necessary.

    Being connected to your bike is a state of mind; enjoy the ride no matter the horse.

  • Stephen D. says:

    I voted for indexed shifting:

    I bought my first indexed bike about 10 months ago. Ever since then, I cannot believe how much I prefer indexed shifting over the bar-end friction shifters on my 25-year old touring bike.

    I like the speed of the shifts, the precision of each click of the control lever, the ability to make a one-gear change rapidly while simultaneously braking, going around a corner, and uncleating. After each ride, I am still amazed. I tell my wife that the bike has changed my life.

    BTW, I started riding to work yesterday, inspired by this website and to celebrate May. Based on some of Alan’s articles, plus some comments on the Rivendell website, I commuted in street clothes and took my time. This probably cost me five minutes each way, but I didn’t have to haul around a change of clothes and make time to clean up in the bathroom. Also, instead of an exhausting experience, I felt refreshed.

    Thanks for the great work, EcoVelo!

  • Alan says:

    @Stephen D.

    “BTW, I started riding to work yesterday, inspired by this website and to celebrate May. Based on some of Alan’s articles, plus some comments on the Rivendell website, I commuted in street clothes and took my time. This probably cost me five minutes each way, but I didn’t have to haul around a change of clothes and make time to clean up in the bathroom. Also, instead of an exhausting experience, I felt refreshed”

    That totally made my day, Stephen. Thank you and keep it up!

    All the best-
    Alan

  • David says:

    I just realized that there may be some confusion here (at least on my part!).

    In general, all friction shifters are levers but there are multiple methods of implementing indexed shifting, including levers, triggers, brifters (essentially a trigger), and twist grips. I have indexed levers on my bike and find them to be the best of both worlds, providing the speed and accuracy of indexing, with the visual and tactile feedback of the lever. Plus, they can be turned into friction shifters if required with a simple twist of a thumbscrew.

  • Sharper says:

    Friction. I’m converting my Specialized HardRock into a general purpose city bike, and I’d never realized how slow the shifting was with its otherwise good index levers until I’d replaced them with some $13 friction thumbshifters.

    And I was sold when the front derailleur cable slipped through its clamp on my road bike two weeks ago. One minute and a 5mm allen later, and I was back on the road, all of my gears available, even if the levers weren’t in the same position as before.

    But then, I’m the sort of guy for whom an automatic transmission is a dealbreaker on a car. Give me robustness and user-control any day.

  • Joe says:

    As most of my comments and thoughts on friction have been posted on Daniel’s gallery post, I’m just gonna make a fast point here. For me, and this may just be due to my preference, indexing makes me lazy on the bike. I shift too much, and too late. When I switched to friction, I noticed I was shifting less, and more thoughtfully. In turn, shifting less has made me a more efficient and smoother rider on town rides, commutes and even fast club rides. I notice club members shifting like crazy, and hardly ever using the front shifter. I have now learned to use the front more, and again, makes for smoother transitions and more thought out shifts. This is due, to me at least, the smoother and simpler action of shifting up or down one ring, rather than six in the rear (I run a 2×6 setup.) Actually, for most of my rides in the county (Adams Count PA) I could probably get away with three in the rear and two up front. As I seem to always be in one of the middle three out back. I also like he tactile feel of friction shifting. As Daniel post in is gallery thread. The “catch” of friction, the “thunk” of index.

  • Joe says:

    @ nick and alan

    Not weird, proud. Perfect friction shifts are a thing of beauty, in the simplest form.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    In response to Mark and others: I was assuming that we are presupposing derailleur use here. I too like single speeds, as well as 3-speed IGH bikes. My daily commuter is a vintage Raleigh 3-speed and it is wonderful for even the hillier parts of Boston Metro. However, for long-distance touring I prefer derailleurs. Everything has its use and its perfect context.

  • Daniel says:

    OK, here’s an interesting question: does anyone here prefer an automatic transmission to a stick shift when driving? (Not to work, of course!)

    I’m not trying to turn this into an automotive discussion, but I think the answer to this question (many have already weighed in on that one) says a lot about the mentality of people who are bike-crazy enough to check this blog daily, especially given that the overwhelming favorite of the general population in the US is automatic.

    For the record, I’ve had 7 different used cars since I was a teenager, all of them manual transmission. I find the ability to use the clutch to shift smoothly analogous to a smooth friction shift. In an automatic, when I move the gear selector to a lower gear for more power, the shift is often jerky and there is nothing I can do about it, much like an indexed shift.

  • EdLark says:

    All you friction guys – Luddites! one and all!! ;)

    I too came of age riding bikes with downtube-mounted friction shifters and would not own a car with automatic transmission, but when I got my first index-shifter bike I fell to my knees and praised the bike-design gods (and that was in the early days when indexing wasn’t that reliable). Maybe I just never experienced that “perfect friction shift.”

    Also, I don’t understand the “visual cue” reasoning. Unless I am riding a brand new bike that I haven’t yet gotten used to, I don’t need to look at anything to know where I am in the gearing. For me, indexed shifting means one less thing to worry about – I want to shift, I shift, I don’t worry about having to finesse it. But (knock on wood), I have also never had a mechanical failure with my index shifters of the kind that would have made me wish I had some old-school friction shifters instead.

    That said, I hate how fiddly an indexed triple can be to maintain and have either gone to compact doubles or IGHs on my current rides. Also, the twist-shifter is of the devil and should be shunned at all costs – triggers or brifters only, please.

  • Joel says:

    I’d never thought of it that way, but I do drive a manual (soon to be two) and my touring bike has friction shifting…

  • Androo says:

    I’ll definitely in favour of indexed triggers for rear, but I’m going to tentatively say friction thumbies up front, since I just installed one today to replace the indexed triple. Haven’t had a chance to give it a test ride, but I’m really looking forward to actually being able to take advantage of my middle chainring and the small cogs in the rear since I can now trim it properly.

  • Mark says:

    Despite not riding a friction shift bike in several years, I’m a big fan of friction. I like the no-fuss adjustments and the ease of use. I don’t care if I have a “visual cue” as to my gearing. I like being able to trim the shifter with a minor tweak to the lever, not having to twist some funky barrel on the cable while trying to ride.

  • Mark says:

    Oh, and the “Mark” immediately above is different than the “Mark” who kicked off the comments….hmmm…maybe I need to modify my name there…

  • David says:

    I much prefer a stick in the car, but indexing on the bike. I can’t wait for an indexed Shimano 11 speed IGH, ditching my front friction shift derailler once and for all. The only fly in the ointment will be finding an indexed lever rather than a trigger to go with the Shimano.

  • Rex in Phoenix says:

    I’m not a Luddite or retro-grouch but my only bike predates indexed shifting by over a decade and any investments to upgrade the transmission would be worth more than the bike itself. I’m currently rolling with a pair of $10 Falcon thumbies from VO, which I guess brings up another advantage to friction shifting: it’s cheap.

  • Cezar says:

    Depends on the shifter, I did vote index for this reason. If you can get your hands on old 7/8 speed Shimano Deore thumb shifters, you can’t beat them. They are solid. They have a switch that will allow the shifter to change modes from friction to indexed and back. Most people they know bikes for more than a few decades and have had the pleasure, covet them. An example of what I’m talking about is http://cgi.ebay.com/Shimano-Deore-SIS-thumb-shifters-7-8-speed-SL-MT62-/320525351372?cmd=ViewItem&pt=Cycling_Parts_Accessories&hash=item4aa0ccb9cc#ht_897wt_958

    These are going for $41 when I last checked and they are probably 20 years old, at least. :)

  • dweendaddy says:

    I usually ride single speed, but I occasionally ride my wife’s IGH three speed and just got a new cargo bike with grip shiftsand an eight speed rear derailer. I don’t mind the IGH grip shift. With the new ride, I don’t know if it just needs to be adjusted, but it is always falling in and out of gears, and I have to finesse it as much as possible with constant micro adjustments within the “click.”
    For a long time I had an old Cannondale with index shifting and I never gave it much thought, but I am going to see if I get used to this new twist shift or if I will have to switch it out for something else. What does it entail to switch?

    Yes, our two cars (1973 and 1995) are both manual!

  • AJ says:

    Friction!

  • Herzog says:

    Voted friction. Not that it matters much too me — I only ride 3-speeds now.

  • David says:

    I hear you, Rex. My bike is getting old enough that the most I want spend on it at any one time is ~$2 for new bearings (rear hub last month, BB this month)! When I get my IGH, it’ll be mounted in a new wheel and attached to a new frame sporting a dynamo and disc brakes.

  • Dottie says:

    Ha, I like the analogy. I was worried about getting friction shifters on my Betty Foy, but I absolutely love them. I always prefered a stick shift, too, way back when I owned a car :)

  • Erich Zechar says:

    This is an area where for me it’s hard to separate the mechanism from the design. The actual design of Indexed shifters is often wonderful – the brifters are easy to reach, use, never miss shifts, and never slip under a heavy load (disadvantage of friction!) However the parts themselves nowadays are so cheap, brittle, and complex that they often don’t work properly, and when they do they won’t stay set up properly for long. Setting them up is sometimes an exercise in frustration, even for a bike mechanic like myself. But using them is simple and quick.

    In terms of shifting performance, my Suntour barcons and micro-ratchet thumbies are not nearly as crisp or quick as the indexed shifters I own. The reason it feels so good to nail a friction shift is because it’s an event – it’s imprecise by nature. You’ll never get joy out of a beautiful index shift because that’s how it should work, 100% of the time. That said, the older friction equipment is beautiful in its durability and simplicity. My shifters are a good 25 years old most likely, and work perfect (for friction) without any fiddling, and they don’t care what components I use either.

    I really can’t say I agree with your auto/stick analogy though- an auto does everything for you, there are more power losses because of the torque converter, and you get less range in gearing usually. If anything, friction is like the old 5-speed and indexing could be a clutchless manual gearbox. Try one of those clutchless manuals (but not the one on the smart) and see what you think.

  • David says:

    Erich,

    This may be venturing too far into automotive gearhead territory (literally), but I think a better analogy than manual vs. automatic transmission is a synchromesh gearbox vs. a non-synchro gearbox. Both are manual transmissions with clutches, but one requires some training and finesse to operate well by matching the engine speed to the drive wheel speed. If you don’t, the gears grind. The other does most of the hard work for you by matching the speed between the gears so all you have to do is work the clutch and gas at the appropriate time.

    Since friction shifting seems to be winning the poll, I’d conclude from my analogy that EcoVelo is populated by quite a few bicyclists who also drive Model T’s and/or big-rigs!

  • Mark B says:

    I enjoy both. For most of my life, I rode bikes with indexed shifting, until about a year and a half ago when I started riding a late 1970s Miyata ten-speed, which has friction shifters. I very much like the simplicity of friction shifters, and it is kind of nice to be able to get a feel for the workings of the device. Currently, I own three bikes, and two of them are single speeds, so the only shifting I partake in is of the friction type. However, I do hope to put gears on my mountain bike soon, and I will most likely get indexed shifters.

  • Steven says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found front friction with indexed rear made the most since. The front isn’t used as often and the one that needs trimming, and most bar-end shifters can be switched to friction without tools. That eliminates the “More forgiving in the event of a mechanical issue in the drivetrain” advantage in my mind.

  • Bob Baxter says:

    With Shimano bar ends you get a bit of both, friction on the front and indexed on the rear.

  • Alan says:

    The thing to keep in mind with any indexed shifter (including the Shimano bar-end), is that they must be matched to the cassette to function properly. So, for example, if a person has an older 7 or 8 speed cassette/freewheel, they’re not going to be able to use a current 9 or 10-speed bar-end shifter in indexed mode. Of course, any of the Shimano bar-ends provide the option of turning off indexing in case of incompatibility. This backward-compatibility is one of the main appeals of friction shifting.

    Alan

  • Joe says:

    I’m sure most have read this, but for those who haven’t, its worth a look.

    http://www.rivbike.com/article/components/shifting

  • D'Arcy says:

    For years (42 to be exact) I used friction shifters. The elegant simplicity of the system really appealed to me. I recently switched bikes though, as my aging back didn’t like the low racing setup of my Bianchi. I now ride an upright Danish bike with Shimano 8-speed shifter. For the urban riding I do this system is superb. It flows easily through the gears allowing me to fine tune the gearing to just the right speed. In cities, being able to go from 8th to 3rd instantly while standing at a light is a very nice feature. On my good old friction shifter I would have to start off pedaling slowly in the high gear while working it down. I know I’m losing performance with the Shimano, but for me, the luxury of easy riding takes precedent. Performance isn’t really the issue when you’re riding a 45lb. Danish bike, it’s comfort.

  • Streetsblog.net » Pennsylvania Avenue Bike Lanes Provide Media Platform for Local AAA says:

    […] from around the network: EcoVelo on the virtues of friction versus indexed shifting — the bike equivalent of stick versus […]

  • Ron says:

    Howdy–

    I couldn’t vote, because my choice wasn’t a option: friction front, indexed rear. As some have already noted, friction in the front allows a full range of rear shifting because it can trim. For that same reason I like Gripshift on mountain bikes–the front has enough ratchet points that it may as well be friction.

    I’ve never found indexing to be too finicky. Cable stretch isn’t near as much of a factor as people believe–modern braided stainless cables don’t stretch much. Housing compression is more of an issue, but if you properly dress the housing ends and make sure everything is seated, it’s not a big deal. (Tip–after cable/housing installation, shift the bike aggressively in the stand by pulling on the cable between the top tube stops; this will stretch/compress the system quickly.) Both can be addressed with quick barrel adjustments, and the stretch/compression phase only lasts a few rides after installation.

    Happy trails,
    Ron Georg
    Corvallis

  • Justin N says:

    8-speed internally-geared hub. I’ve been riding one around for a few months and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to derailers for riding around the city. If I get into racing, maybe I’ll change my mind.

  • Jay says:

    Friction front triple, indexed rear 7-speed.

    I use Deore XT thumbies – best shifters ever – probably pretty old at this point. Solid as a rock, work flawlessly, simple, and I’ll never have to replace them. I like rapid fires, but the guts of rapid fires are so much more delicate than the thumbies – push one way or the other, that’s it. And you can choose between indexed or friction. Perfect!

  • Simon N says:

    I’m a little bit late to the party on this topic, but nevertheless…

    I tend to prefer indexed shifting.

    While friction is fine for up to 7spd clusters, it becomes far too fidgety the closer the cogs are spaced, and can cause unnecessary damage to chains and sprockets alike. Imagine if a car had “30 on the floor”. Sometimes it can be hard to tell 3rd from 5th in a car, so imagine jumping from 3rd to 9th – it’s just too delicate a system to be tinkered with as you ride.

    As has been mentioned, friction is also a big no-no for IGH bikes for reasons that are fairly obvious to anyone who has ridden them.

    For 5spd clusters however, I find friction is actually quite fun – it’s how I spent most of my cycling youth.

    And given the choice between friction and indexed twist grip, I’d choose friction every time.

    Having said all that, I would dispute the manual/automatic analogy, or at least modify it. To my mind friction is like a standard manual transmission, indexed is like a ‘triptonic’ shifting system that allows you to control the current gear but prevents the possibility of a mis-shift (so long as the system is correctly calibrated), which leaves Shimano’s ill-fated ‘Coasting’ system as the only truly analogous ‘auto’ transmission.

    Where Shimano’s ridiculous Di2 shifting system fits in with all that is anyone’s guess. Drive by wire?

 
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