Is it time to remove shifters from levers?

With digital shifting, why have big buttons on the levers at all?

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Shimano Total Integration revolutionized the way we shift our bicycles. Instead of taking our hands off the bars and reaching way down to the down tube to change gears, we could shift right at the brake lever. Revolution!

But now that digital shifting has allowed us to put buttons and switches wherever we like, is the brake lever really the best place to shift? What if we scrapped STI in favor of shifters at other places on the bar?

Stages Cycling VP Pat Warner floated this idea by me the other night and now I’m running with it.

I’ve been using sprint shifters with Shimano Di2 since 9070 launched, and I love the ease of shifting with my thumbs from the drops and the hoods. The left button moves the rear derailleur inboard; the right button moves it outboard. It’s the same logic as the rear derailleur shifting on SRAM eTap.

Di2 sprint shifters are easy to use
Ben Delaney / Immediate Media

I use the sprint shifters more than the shift buttons on the levers themselves, except for the front derailleur shifting. 

SRAM eTap has larger satellite shifters called Blips that you can stick wherever you like. 

SRAM Blip shifters work like Di2 sprint shifters, just in a bigger format
Ben Delaney / Immediate Media

With Shimano’s latest Di2 groups (and firmware updates for 9070), you can configure not only the sprint shifters, the two-button ‘climbing switch’ and the two buttons on each lever, but also the buttons atop the hoods.

What’s that you say? Buttons on the hoods? Yup — Shimano left buttons underneath the rubbery top of the hoods and early uses included Garmin Edge integration (which Shimano’s Dave Lawrence called “a happy accident”). 

Point is, be they buttons or switches or little levers, a simple electronic switch can be put just about anywhere now. 

Dura-Ace Di2 levers have buttons atop the hoods that can be used for shifting
Ben Delaney / Immediate Media

I’m just starting to test SRAM’s new eTap Hydro group, which blends wireless shifting with hydraulic braking.

The big, single buttons on each lever are super easy to use, both in reaching out with a finger from the drops or hoods, or even just bumping it with a knuckle with fingers wrapped around the drops.

I have Blips up by the stem and regularly shift with my thumb knuckles.

Crowded hydro house

One issue I have with both the Shimano 785 Di2/hydro levers (I haven’t spent ample time on new 9170 Dura-Ace Di2/hydro yet) and the eTap Hydro is that the levers have to be pulled pretty far back to engage the rotors, compared to rim-brake levers.

I have pinched my ring and pinky fingers more than a few times when riding on the hoods and braking hard; you have to slide these fingers up or down to clear the shift levers.

The new eTap Hydro has an excellent pad-contact adjust feature — but it only pulls the levers in closer, not further away. 

Road hydraulic levers pull back further than rim-brake levers, on both SRAM and Shimano models
Ben Delaney / Immediate Media

STI moved shifting to the levers for good reason: having your hands on or near the brakes at all times is a good thing. Also, Shimano (and then Campagnolo and SRAM, etc.) needed the leverage of a lever to pull and release shift cable.

With electric, we no longer need leverage for shifting. And, in my experience, we need more room for brake-lever movement with hydro systems than rim-brake levers. 

SRAM’s left brake-only lever is cropping up on more and more bikes, as 1x gains steam. Imagine a bike with two of these — and buttons and little switches tucked all over the handlebar.

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So, what do you think? Would eliminating shift buttons from the back of brake levers be a good thing? Or is it a stupid idea?