ShiftersSRAM motion 3 shifter
The evolution of shifter technology is intimately connected to the development of gearing mechanisms. The earliest of these was the internally geared hub, which was patented in 1895 and used a handlebar-mounted lever for switching between two or three speeds.
It wasn’t until 1951, when Campagnolo’s Gran Sport derailleur was introduced, that shifters became truly important. The original shifting interface was operated with friction shifters. Often located on the down tube, friction shifters use lever-based mechanics to manually adjust the derailleur and chain line. Some riders still prefer this style.
In 1984, Shimano introduced the first successful index shifting (automatically aligned shifting) with its six-speed Dura-Ace group. These shifters were still mounted on the down tube. It wasn’t until 1988, when SRAM introduced grip shifts (twist shifts), that index shifting migrated to the handlebars.
Originally used on road bikes, grip shifting is now popularly used on mountain, hybrid and commuter-friendly flat-bar bikes. Grip shifts get their name from being mounted next to (and sometimes integrated with) the handlebar grips. Giving them a simple twist, which draws out or retracts the cables, allows you to maintain full control while shifting.
Shimano then introduced the rapidfire trigger shifting system in 1989. Still handlebar-mounted, trigger shifters use a two-lever system and work internally like a ratchet, contracting or alleviating tension on the derailleur cables. They are most often used on mountain and hybrid bikes, mounted next to the brake lever. They allow you to shift with your thumb or forefinger, rather than your whole hand.
Shimano further adapted this indexing technology for more efficient road bike ergonomics. In 1990, they introduced their Shimano Total Integration shifters, which use a similar lever/ ratcheting system as rapidfire while incorporating the shifter and lever in one unit. This is now standard for road bikes. Shimano, SRAM (Double Tap) and Campagnolo (ErgoPower) all make their own competing versions of these integrated road bike shifters.
Benjamin van Loon is a writer, editor and cyclist from Chicago, IL.