Every Type Of Bike Shifter (Explained For Beginners)

On a bicycle, shifting gears is simply a matter of retracting or releasing derailleur cables.

But you might be surprised how many ways there are to accomplish that simple task!

Today, the most common types of shifters are:

  • Trigger
  • Twist/grip
  • Integrated brake-shifter levers (a.k.a. “brifters”)
  • Bar-end, downtube, stem, and thumb levers

The first three only offer modern, indexed shifting. They’re on the vast majority of bikes today.

The latter (bar-end, downtube, stem, and thumb levers) are functionally about the same. They’re necessary for friction shifting, but some also have indexed shifting.

I’ll cover all those types in more detail below.

First, we’ll go over the trade-offs between indexing and friction. That’s the overarching category that determines which shifters you can even consider.

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Here’s the difference between indexed & friction shifting

Indexed shifting “clicks” into place for each gear. It’s easy and precise when properly adjusted. Friction shifting doesn’t have those clicks, so it relies on the rider to shift precisely. It’s harder to get used to, but more robust and easier to work on.

There are two ways to line the derailleur up with the new gear.

One is to use built-in stops (index points) that simply fall into position. Each click of the shifter tightens/loosens the cable enough to let the derailleur move exactly one position up/down.

That’s indexed shifting.

It’s a breeze to use when properly adjusted. There’s no particular learning curve, and higher-end derailleurs these days feel almost psychic.

The other way is to let the derailleur move freely, not to fixed points, and instead rely on the rider to shift until it settles into gear—no more, no less.

That’s friction shifting.

It takes practice to get comfortable with. Missed shifts are easier to correct, and not a big deal, but they happen all the time at first.

I also find friction shifting difficult on rough ground, since vibrations make it hard to feel feedback from the derailleur.

But the trade-off is a simple, robust system that requires less maintenance and is easier to work on.

Some also find it’s a more relaxing experience. You don’t have to listen to the clicks, and you aren’t tempted to shift continually just because you can.

Most modern bikes have indexed shifting

If you close your eyes and point to anything at your local bike shop, it’s practically certain to use indexed shifting. It’s been the norm for at least a couple decades at this point.

Does that mean friction shifting is a clunky old pain in the butt that belongs in a museum?

Some might make that argument, but I’d beg to differ.

Friction shifting does have advantages

What friction shifting lacks in instant precision, it makes up for in simplicity and robustness.

Indexed shifters snap precisely into place, so they don’t have much tolerance for getting out of adjustment. As shifter cables naturally stretch over time, each index point will drift slightly away, which causes stubborn or partial shifting.

Have you ever shifted gears only to find it just wouldn’t settle in, but rather kept clicking or dragging? That’s probably why.

With friction shifting, the alignment isn’t built in via indexing. It’s the rider’s task instead.

Setting the derailleur’s outer limits is basically a one-time task. Beyond that, friction shifters require amazingly little fine-tuning, and with much less precision.

So, what’s the bottom line? Are friction shifters good or bad? Friction shifters have a higher learning curve and require more conscious effort. However, they’re almost universally compatible, extremely durable, and often cheap to replace.

Who uses friction shifting today?

Friction shifting is still popular among touring cyclists, who might need to make roadside repairs in the middle of nowhere.

They’re also the only choice on most vintage bikes.

Some utilitarian cyclists—myself included—prefer friction shifters for durability and low maintenance on a commuter bike.

For the curious, then here’s a great guide to modern rear derailleurs. Friction shifting is basically this…without the middle adjustment.

Types of shifters

1. Trigger

Trigger shifters became popular after Shimano introduced its S.I.S. indexing mechanism in 1984.

Triggers shifters, sometimes branded as Rapidfire, are a simple idea. One trigger loosens the derailleur cable (by a single click) and a second trigger tightens it (potentially by several clicks).

Here’s a quick example:

Trigger shifter pros

  • A very ergonomic design that’s easy to reach from typical riding position.
  • Minimal learning curve.
  • Can keep your fingers over the brake levers.

Trigger shifter cons

  • Can only upshift one gear per click.
  • Levers may snap off in a crash, especially on lower-end shifters made of plastic.
  • Indexed only.

2. Twist/grip

Twister shifters replace the innermost couple inches of your grip, just like a motorcycle throttle.

SRAM has sold them since the late 1980s, and they’ve remained especially popular on mountain bikes.

Twist shifter pros

  • Simple, perhaps downright obvious, even for new riders.
  • Unlike trigger shifts, these can shift through several gears at once in both directions.
  • Can keep your fingers over the brake levers.

Twist shifter cons

  • Easy to shift by accident, since they’re by or under your hand at all times.
  • Less ergonomic, especially for shifting more than one gear, since you have to rotate your wrist.
  • Indexed only.

3. Integrated (“brifters”)

Back in 1990, Shimano integrated braking and shifting into a single lever back in 1990. These integrated levers, often called brifters, have been standard for drop handlebars ever since.

On the most common version, you push the brake lever inward to tighten the derailleur cable. There’s also a small, secondary lever which you push inward to loosen the derailleur cable.

More recently, SRAM combined all all shifting into that secondary lever: push it slightly inward to upshift and farther inward to downshift.

Virtually every road/cyclocross/gravel bike on the market uses one of these two styles.

Here’s a great example of both styles in action:

Brifter pros:

  • Intuitive, even for most new riders.
  • Can keep your fingers over the brake levers.
  • Comfortable and ergonomic hand position.

Brifter cons:

  • Expensive to replace.
  • Especially complicated to repair.
  • Indexed only.

4. Bar-end, downtube, thumb & stem levers

Bar-end (a.k.a. “barcon”), downtube, and stem shifters are basically the same thing with different mounts.

They’re levers, plain and simple, which retract the derailleur cable in one direction and loosen it in the other.

They’re ubiquitous on bikes from the 1980s and early, since trigger and twist shifting were rare or non-existent back then.

Bar-end shift levers are still common on modern touring bikes.

Here’s a nice example of one in action. Other mounts, from downtube to handlebars, are the same basic mechanism in a different location.

Shift lever pros

  • Sturdy and (often) cheaper.
  • Both friction and indexed versions are available.
  • Compatible with most derailleurs in friction mode. Without indexing, derailleur speed count doesn’t matter.
  • Downtube mounts look nice and clean, since the cables don’t have to reach (and loop around) the handlebars.
  • Even indexed ones can use friction as a back-up if something breaks.

Shift lever cons

  • Takes more practice. Even in indexed mode, they require a finer touch, which can be tricky on rough terrain.
  • Less ergonomic than other styles.
  • Most mounts require taking your hands far from the brake levers.
  • Downtube mounts in particular require reaching down, which can throw you off-balance on unexpected bumps.

What shifters should you choose?

You have to go out of your way to find bikes with friction-only shifting these days.

Besides touring bikes and a few boutique offerings, nearly everything on the market uses an indexed drivetrain.

(That includes internally-geared hubs. There’s no room for error with their elaborate planetary gears, so indexed shifters are important.)

As for which indexed shifters, I suggest you try as many styles as possible. That said, here’s my take after owning all the above for several years and tens of thousands of combined miles:

For mountain, hybrid, and city bikes, I find Shimano-style trigger shifters more comfortable (and hard to shift accidentally) than twist shifters. It’s also nice to dedicate one finger to each direction, rather than navigating two levers with my thumb.

For road bikes, I’m partial to SRAM-style brifters. All brifters are pushed inward using the same fingers in both directions, so I prefer to use the same lever, too.

However, for city and commuting bikes, I like thumb or bar-end levers working in friction mode. Albeit less precise, it’s a great way to minimize maintenance.

Remember, these are just preferences, and plenty of experienced cyclists would disagree.

What’s more, your preferences may change along with your riding. That’s especially true in your first weeks or months of cycling.

Avoid the temptation to pay more for top-notch components until you’ve racked up enough miles to have a clear, firsthand preference.