FIRST, some things you should know about friction shifting, even if you don't know what friction shifting is. This will tell you that, too.

Friction shifting is shifting without indexing. In indexed shifting, there are notches in the shift lever that regulate the movement, and when everything is in harmony, a skill-less person shifts perfectly. Friction shifting is shifting without the notches. The shifter moves linearly, like a ramp rather than stairs, and so, in theory, you can move the shifter in between gears and not quite be in the gear. But this is a case in which the theory is scary and reality is not. The reality is, it takes five minutes to get good enough so you hardly ever goof up, and once you're there, lots of good things happen:

  • Your shifts will be faster and more silent. When they're good, that is, and that happens more often as you continue to get better.
  • You have infinite freedom in mixing derailleurs, shifters, and cassettes. You don't have to use only components that are "index-compatible." This is not a huge benefit, because it's easy to pick parts that are index-compatible, but it at least is slightly nice.
  • If your chain, shifter, cable, derailleur, or derailleur hanger gets damaged, your indexing probably won't work, because indexing requires a near antiseptic shifting environment. But your friction doesn't care. It shifts almost no matter what. It's the difference between a human with every known food allergy, and a dog who thrives on everything from cat____ to steak. Friction shifting puts you in control, and many riders find it to be ultimately more satisfying. It will never, ever, be as popular as indexing, in the same way that stick-shift cars or manual camera will never be as popular as automatics and point-and-shoot digitals. But the shameless promotion of indexing doesn't even give friction shifting a chance, and as an independent and possibly curious (and adventurous?) bicycle rider, you might want to try friction shifting.

Historical note: Indexing was introduced en masse in 1985. Before that, people rode bikes, people didn't complain, and people shifted in friction.

The Best Way To Learn To Friction Shift
1. Find an open area and pedal in a medium gear. Any cadence. 2. Every two or three seconds, shift across the full range of cogs, not even stopping in between. Do that for a minute or so. Don't shift out of need, because there is none. Shift as though you're trying to wear out the shifters. 3. Try to mis-shift. If you successfully mis-shift, you'll hear the chain clicking and clacking between adjacent cogs. Once you do that, either push it back the way it came, or push it more the other way, until you're perfectly in a gear. That's called "trimming." This intentional mis-shifting routine will show you that it's a lot easier to hit the gear than it is to miss it; and when you do miss it, it's easy to correct it. But you'll be amazed at how infrequently you'll even need to trim the shift. I can't count the number of times I've found myself toting a load with one arm and having to shift with my foot (it's easier with downtube shifters than with bar-end shifters). Even with foot-shifting, I rarely have to trim.

The 1-2-3 Way to Shift on Hills
Shift before your pedaling gets really slow. With indexing, you can wait too long, pedal too slowly and the shift still takes. Whether you consider this a technological advancement or a quick way to learn bad habits, well, it just depends upon your approach to life. But that's the main difference between indexing and friction. If you're grinding slowly up a hill and suddenly find that you need to shift: 1. Point your bike across the road (traverse) to lessen the slope. 2. Pedal hard for a stroke to get up a small bit of speed. 3. Pedal lightly and shift. It requires a small amount of skill, but the skill comes quickly and stays with you the rest of your life. Neither Campagnolo Ergo nor Shimano STI shifters have a friction mode. They both work well, and if you love 'em, great. But their lack of a friction mode limits their use with out-of-series drivetrains, and makes them vulnerable to less-than-ideal conditions. And you can't shift either with your foot!

Related Note: You Can Shift Too Often
Modern shifters are built right into the brake levers, and are sold on their convenience. Folks who like them often say, "Now I shift so much more often!" Well, people sitting on couches and holding remote controls change channels more often, too. Often-ness isn't the goal. Convenience can take over, it can be distracting, and it can make you lazy. Absolutely, you should shift as often as you like and whenever it feels right, but there is satisfaction in grunting just a little to crest a hill, and there's refreshment to be found in pedaling both slower and faster than the textbook optimal range of 95 to 100 rpms. For a lonely rider on a homely road, there's a case to be made for grunting five-percent harder or spinning four-percent faster to get past the harder or easier part. It's a more natural way to ride. Today's interest in single-speed riding is a backlash against more gears and ever-increasing pressure to shift at the slightest provocation. These riders find it liberating to not even have the option to shift. If you need a role model, there's Lon Haldeman. Lon has won RAAM a few times and continues to ride 15,000 miles or so a year by himself and with his PacTour groups, and rides a derailleurless bike with a single chainring and three cogs in back. He rides it everywhere, over all terrain. And there are thousands of others out there who, like Lon, have figured out that constant shifting isn't all it's cracked up to be. Bar-end shifters are plenty convenient, but just not too.