Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why I will never go back to brifters

My Move away from Brifters, and why I won't be coming back to them.

At first glance, this title might sound retro-grouchy, even draconian towards the use of new technology. I might make readers assume that I refuse to see the benefits and performance gains that new components, such as brifters are offering cyclists. In part, that is true, and I won't deny my personal preference on the matter. However, I have found that after almost a year of riding a bike without brifters, or integrated shifters and brakes, I am now ready to leave them behind altogether. I have seen my riding technique improve dramatically since riding my new-old Woodrup steel bike, this summer attaining an average speed of 18 miles an hour, something I haven't done in a really long time since previous years past.

Riding in a modern day group ride or a criterium race, and you will constantly hear the clicking of gears, even going up or down the slightest elevation change. The ever increasing number of speeds on a rear cassette means riders really don't know what to set their gear ratios to. Riding with downtube shifters has made me realize how much of a handicap brifters are in covering up errors in one's riding and shifting technique. There are several component changes that have come up in recent years, such as the compact crankset, where riders don't even have to shift to the small chainring when climbing with the gear range they have on their rear cassettes. Most cyclists here in my area will not shift to the lower chainring for climbing, and I find that many of them churning their pedals slowly up hills, standing off of their saddles as they ungracefully climb to the tops of them. 

Prior to this year I was one of those cyclists that could sprint well but could be overtaken over a long distance by others who knew how to conserve their energy. Cycling is all about energy conservation and efficiency, and how to outperform other cyclists while using less effort. Through owning a bike with downtube shifters my pedal stroke while climbing has improved, I am able to pedal smoothly and efficiently up hills while passing other struggling cyclists, and my times have improved by almost two miles an hour. By not falling back on a wide range rear cassette ( I am currently riding a 7 speed 12-21 freewheel) and not having brifters, I have learned how to push through harder gears that I would have normally shifted down from, as well as to use my smaller chainring while climbing and calculating the terrain changes and adjusting my gear ratios accordingly.

I would compare the learning experience of riding a bike with downtube shifters with my experience in photography. My first photography class was a black and white photography class where we used traditional film cameras and developed our own prints. If it weren't for that class, I would have never developed an interest in photography. Just like a traditional photography class taught me the principles of lighting, shutter speed and lens aperture, the traditional downtube shifter bicycle has taught me the principles of shifting on a bike. It makes me want to ride my bike all the more, at a time when my interest in cycling in general waned a little bit, because of no longer having aspirations to do any serious racing (you can thank the Lance Armstrong culture for that). I might show up to a few races in the future, but it will be on my retro bike with downtubes. I will still try to place if I race again, though I am not realistically expecting to do so. So the serious intent isn't there anymore. Neither is the obsession with carbon fiber groupsets or $10,000.00 bikes.

By the way, did I mention that riding a bike with downtube shifters is way more fun than riding one with brifters? Learning how to coordinate a shift with one hand on the handlebar and another one on the shifter will be a challenge at first, but then it becomes one fluid, natural movement. Since downtube shifters are less accessible than brifters, the need to shift will be less and the rider will learn the gear that they will need to be in before they shift. 

I am now selling the very first road bike that I purchased new, my 2007 Raleigh Sport road bike with brifters. Anyone living in the Dallas metro area is welcome to it for 250 bucks.  Any takers?

Editor's note: Since I wrote this article, I acquired a lovely, new-old-stock steel Atala frame and equipped it with a pair of Shimano RSX brifters a co-worker sold to me for 25 bucks. Being the most economical option at the time to use brifters instead of downtube shifters, the brifters have stayed on the bike and I now once again have a bike with brifters, only that it is steel and that it is my size as well. Whatever you ride, love it because you use it, not because it cost you a lot of money.