Of Hills and Vintage Gear Shifters

Though I knew that the "outer Cape" (from Eastham to Provincetown) is hilly, I did not realise just how hilly until we began to explore it on bicycles. Those rolling hills with regular 100ft elevation changes really begin to take a toll - especially if you are riding the bicycle as a single speed as I have been doing with Marianne.

Marianne looks wearily at the road ahead: "Please learn to use the shifters!"

I have mentioned before that I find the vintage shifters troublesome and never use them, riding this bike instead in one very versatile gear that gets me comfortably through the Boston area terrain. Well, after one evening on the coastal road on the outer Cape, it became clear that this "versatile gear" was definitely not sufficient for these parts.

My problems with these shifters were multiple:

. The vintage shifter levers are very stiff and difficult for me to move. It takes a lot of physical effort to make them budge.

. The levers are located on the stem of the bicycle (see photo above), forcing me to take a hand off the handlebars and keep it off for the entire time I am fiddling with them - which is a long time, because of the previous issue.

. They are friction shifters, so it is not clear when one gear switches to another. I am not the best-coordinated person in the world, and frankly I find it difficult to pedal in a straight line, keep my sense of balance with only one hand on the handlebars, and play around with the levers at the same time - especially when going uphill, with cars speeding past me.

Perhaps you can understand why I have been using the bicycle as a singlespeed. Well, now that this was no longer an option, I had no choice but to learn to switch gears. I was finally able to do this by putting my left hand on the middle of the handlebars (right above the stem) for balance, and then reaching over with my thumb and forefinger to grab the right shifter, which controls the rear derailleur. I understand that it is generally bad practice to move the right shifter lever with the left hand, but trust me - there is no way I can take my right hand off the handlebars on this bicycle.

So - thanks to the hills, I have learned how to shift gears on Marianne. I still find friction shifting confusing, but my ability to "feel the gears" continues to improve with practice. One additional problem, is that there does not seem to be a mechanism in place to stop the chain from going past the lowest gear and slipping off the cog when downshifting. I will have to get this looked at when I return to Boston, since I do not know how to adjust a derailleur. For now, I just try to be careful and not downshift that far.

Honestly, I am finding it difficult to love derailleurs - so many problems compared to hubs. Still, having experienced these hills, I realise that they are a necessity. I have not yet decided whether my hypothetical future custom mixte will have indexed or friction shifters, but the shifters will definitely be placed in a way that does not require me to take my hands off the handlebars.


  1. dukiebiddle said...

    " ...there does not seem to be a mechanism in place to stop the chain from going past the lowest gear and slipping off the cog when downshifting."

    The good news is that there is a mechanism and it just needs to be adjusted. There should be two Phillips head screws on the back of your derailleur, like this. A mechanic should be able to tweak that up for you in about 10 seconds.

    I remember you have nerve issues in one of your hands. I wouldn't recommend friction shifters, especially on your rear derailleur.

  2. I know what you mean. Nashville is pretty hilly but I don't change gears on Le Peug nearly as often as I do on the Bat. My friction shifters don't require much force to move, though -- maybe yours need to be adjusted? And as dukiebiddle notes, the chain should not be slipping off the cog.

    Dottie's bar-end friction shifters seem to solve a lot of these issues.

  3. The best thing about this post is that most of the problems are pretty straightforward.

    If you want new shifters, i would recommend these: SunRace Thumb shifters, though based on what the last poster says about nerve issues, the bar end shifters allow you to use your palm to shift.

    But you can also loosen the screw that keep the stem shifters in place so they move a little more freely (though not TOO freely)

    and there are two little scress on the read and front derailer that limit how far it will shift. and yeah, th elast poster link to biketutor. awesome stuff.

    this makes me want to go ride on the cape! nice flowers on the bike!

  4. If the shifters are physically hard to move, something needs to be lubricated or maybe the cables need to be replaced if they've gotten rusty in their housings. Friction shifting is an "art" that I don't miss at all. But since you mainly use Marianne as a single speed, you could just continue to ignore the shifters completely.

  5. Would this help? The principle(s) applied is(are) I presume 'general':

    Shifting High to low and vice versa:


    How to Adjust Bicycle Gears (inclding preventing chain from 'overshooting'. :


    Useful web : http://bicycletutor.com/



  6. Btw. further to my earlier 'comment' which is awaiting your approval I would like to just mention that a few of my friends learn to fix up various parts of the bikes they are 'building' from scratch by using the 'search' facility of :

    At times they were quite impatient to wait for my 'return to base' to assist them so I referred them to the above website .(I travel 'a lot' out-station on business.)

    Smile: Have a nice day. ;-)


  7. My vintage Kabuki that I gave to Melissa has shifters like that, too. I also never changed gears :)

    I highly recommend bar end silver shifters. I was worried about non-indexed shifters at first, but now I prefer them. Shifting is so soft and smooth, especially for the rear derailleur. Overall, though, I still prefer hub gears.

  8. Can the bike shop adjust those shifters so they are easier to move?

    I like friction on the front and index on the rear. But the more you practice, the more intuitive the friction shifting will become. As you've noticed.

    Comfort in taking a hand off the bar may require an adjustment in body position. It's easier if your weight isn't on your hands. I've spent hours in parking lots with women, getting them comfortable with one-handed riding. It sometimes requires bike fit adjustments.

    Even on the flats, shifting gears makes starting up from a traffic light a whole lot easier — better acceleration, less stress on the knees.

  9. It does sound like your shifters and derailleurs need to be adjusted. If it's working properly, you should be able to shift with relative ease.

    Also, when you need to shift and you're having trouble, it's OK to get off the bike and shift. The first derailleurs that were invented actually required you to get off to switch gears.

  10. i second the above comments-- there are two "limit screws", one to limit the travel of the derailleur in each direction.

    regarding the stiff shifting, i'm betting the shifters just need to be dismantled and cleaned. the friction plates often get gummed up over time.

    it's not as daunting as it seems to upgrade to indexed shifting. it's a matter of finding a nice set of period-sensitive index-compatible parts (usually on ebay) and replacing them. this would mean the stem shifters, the cable, and the derailleur (and possibly, but not necessarily, the rear cassette and chain). since your bike is c.1980 (?), and index shifting didn't debut until around 1985-86, i would seek out parts from that era. they'd look fine on your mixte!

  11. Talk the Co-habitant into getting shifters with more mechanical advantage. That means you won't have to push so hard on the levers but you push them further. Both sound good for your problem.

  12. Hi Filigree, Like you I have similar friction shifters on my mixte. When I first rode my mixte I was unwilling to shift gears too as I found it affected my balance. But now you have moustache handlebars, you'll find it easier to use the shifters and keep your balance - I couldn't change gears at all with the drop handlebars on my mixte but it's a doddle with the moustache bars. Courage and practice... but with your right hand issues you may have to find a workaround to enable you to do it comfortably and confidently.
    If your shifters are very stiff, is there something a bike shop can do about them? Some kind of lube or service?
    I find feeling the gears on mine can be a bit hit and miss. Most of the time they're fine, but she does tend to change gear by herself going uphill which tells me I misread the shifter placement at my last change.
    As a last resort, have you thought about changing Marianne's gear setup to a 7 or 8 speed hub with thumb shifters? If you intend to keep her and make the most of her it might be the best option for you. My brother in law has done that with his wife's bike, a vintage mixte, and it worked a treat.

  13. Wow everybody - Thank you so much for the very helpful comments. We are both slowly learning how to do various things to our bikes ourselves, but derailleur adjustment had not come up until now. I will look at all the links and suggestions once we return to Boston in a couple of days.

    Re the tightness of the shifters: I was told by several people now that this is just how they are, and if I am finding them stiff it's my hands that aren't strong enough. I have this problem with a lot of vintage bike parts that require pushing or squeezing, like the brakes on the drop bars that I previously had on this bike and the SA 3-speed shifter on my Raleigh Sports. I can keep my hand on the handlebar when I use the SA shifter though, so it's not a problem.

    I am beginning to kind of enjoy the friction shifting the more I practice (hills all day again today - plenty of opportunities), and even the left-handed "grab and pull" shifting method seems to be working out better and better. Will see how it goes!

  14. As mentioned by others earlier, the shifters shouldn't be that stiff and new cables would probably be a big improvement. I've found that shift cables & housing (NOT brake cable housing) designed specifically for index shifting improves the shifting even on older frictions shift systems. The index specific cable housing is constructed differently than the old friction shift housing. It compresses less which results smoother, lighter shifting. *WARNING* Never, ever, ever use index shift cable housing for brake cables.

    Unfortunately, those stem mount shifters were often not great quality. I've a box of those shifters (removed from bikes that have been index shift-ified) and some models/brands definitely work better than others.

  15. some posters above recommended bar-end shifters. while very practical (and aesthetically elegant), they might not be the right solution in your case. they don't work well with milan bars, or other bars where the ends point outward. they work best on drop bars and mustache bars, where the bar ends point back toward the rider. finding indexing bar-end shifters is challenging, too, and they fetch a good sum on ebay.

    another solution would be indexing thumb shifters (as someone else mentioned above), which would allow you to keep both hands on the bars while shifting, although aesthetically i think they would detract from your mixte... definitely not period-sensitive.

    it sounds like you are getting the hang of friction shifting. after awhile it becomes second nature and you quickly learn to "feel" when you are in exactly the right alignment for a given gear, and it's a sense that gets lost when you have index shifting. and i don't necessarily believe when people say "that's just the way they are" when they refer to the stiff motion of the shifter. i recently removed a set of campagnolo friction shifters as part of a raleigh competition renovation project. my first impression of the shifters was "man, these are STIFF!". but after dismantling, cleaning and reassembly, they are smooth as butter (they are campagnolo, after all!). are your shifters suntour? suntour made nice shifters and should work smoothly. also, as others mentioned, the cables could also be gummed up and need replacing. cables and housing are cheap, and modern cable housing has teflon lining that makes shifting even smoother! (same applies to brake cables!)

  16. Using friction shifting is becoming a "lost art" I grew up on them so no issues for me. I have at least one bike that I actually went back to friction from the indexed stuff. There are several options, as pointed out, to getting the shifting to be more manageable. I suspect that the shifters, derailleurs and cables need a bit of attention, even a dryish chain can make the shifting difficult.

    Good luck on getting it worked out, to me a properly tuned friction shifting bike is fun to use and shows that you have taken the time to learn a skill. ;-)


  17. Learning how to use a friction shifter will not only give you the pride of having learned the skill, it will make you a bit more confident and self-sufficient on your bike.

    Just remember that sometimes you'll have to "twiddle" your shifters a bit until you get the hang of it. If the shift is not complete or if you have overshifted, you will hear your chain clattering and you may feel vibration. Just move the lever ever so slightly until everything quiets down.

    In time you may have to "twiddle" as your cables and/or chain stretch. But at least you'll be able to ride all of your gears. Indexed shifters don't allow "twiddle;" when they go out of adjustment, you won't be able to eliminate the clatter and vibration.

    If the levers are the kind I think they are (Sun Tour Power shifters, which is what was normally supplied with the bike you have), they should work perfectly well once they're lubed and have new cables. Your bike is about 30 years old and may never have been lubed and may still have its original cables.

    It's also likely that your chain needs oil and that your derailleur pulleys need cleaning.

    I speak as someone who went from using friction shifters to indexed shifters, and back again. And I worked as a bike mechanic when I was in college.

  18. Update: Thanks to your advice, we've adjusted the derailleur. It really was as easy as you said. Your help was very much appreciated!

    Justine and Aaron - I have to say that you are right. Once I was forced to use the shifters, it took me only a couple of hours to get the hang of the friction shifting, a couple of days to get comfortable with it, and a week to realise that I was actually enjoying them. Yes, I officially like the shifters now, and it was worth learning how to use them.

  19. I'm coming to this article a little late but I've just got my first mixte and it has the same gears and I feel so reassured now I've read this! My gear is overshooting too and that film makes it look much clearer, so I'll go home and tweak. Thanks very much!


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