NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.
I just installed Simplex Retrofriction shifters on Full Slab, my commuter bike. It’s been way, way too long since I’ve had them.
Other websites, like this one and this one, provide technical information about these legendary shifters, but they don’t tell the whole story. To capture the full mystique, you need a little history. Personal history. This post unravels the mysterious flow of this schematic:
(Maybe you stumbled on this post because you’re a fan of the Simplex tea kettle from England. Well, I am too! Even though these are different companies, you should read this post anyway because if that kettle were a shifter it would be Simplex Retrofriction.)
If you couldn’t care less about bike shifters, read on, because you should care, and maybe this will help. Meanwhile, anyone with a love of bike lore and nostalgia for cycling in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and a fascination with this improbably wonderful French bike component, will find here many nuggets of gratuitous trivia. Zut alors!—it’s lore galore!
Simplex sucks, for the most part. The Retrofriction shifters are the exception that proves the rule (and proof that even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in awhile). As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my brothers’ first bikes had Simplex shifters and derailleurs, and they were made of fricking plastic! They didn’t shift for beans, of course—the chain was just dragged across the cogs like a clattering crab trying to get traction on a polished tile floor. These components were also hideous to behold.
Working at a bike shop in the late ‘80s I came across a plastic Simplex derailleur on a ‘70s-vintage bike that was in for an overhaul. I didn’t try very hard to make the derailleur work; I simply replaced it. I told the customer, “I noticed that your derailleur was Simplex, so I replaced it.” She said, “Simplex? What’s that?” I said, “It’s a brand. It’s French.” She said, “Is that bad?” I replied, “Oh, yes.”
The French aren’t known for great bike parts, or great engineering in general. At one shop I worked at, one of the mechanics liked to sneak up behind another guy and suddenly whisper in his ear, “French … nuclear-powered … submarines.” The guy hearing this would, according to an unwritten script, scream in terror. (The exception is rims. The French are really good, perhaps eerily good, at rims.)
My first Simplex product was a front derailleur on an ancient Schwinn commuting bike I bought at a police auction. Oddly, this derailleur was operated by a handle, not a shifter and cable.
It didn’t say “Simplex” on it, by the way. Schwinn was in the business of fooling patriotic Americans into buying foreign stuff by putting their own label, “Schwinn approved,” on whatever parts they provisioned for their bikes. (I had another Schwinn with a Huret derailleur; also French, also terrible.) Needless to say, that front derailleur shifted terribly, and also tended to get caught on my pant leg. In fact, that’s how it met its death—it got snagged so hard it was torn from the bicycle, after which I shifted the front chainwheels by hand.
My historical components of choice
Prior to owning my first pair of Simplex Retrofrictions, my bike component choices were determined mostly by economics. My first ten speed, bought by the ‘rents, had cheap Suntour , as did my second. By 1983 I was ready for some real racing components and, like almost everybody, coveted Campagnolo but, on my paperboy’s salary, could only afford Suntour Pro Superbe. In 1985 I finally got my dream bike, an English-made Mercian with full Campy Super Record. I was perfectly content with the Campy shifters, which I’d also had on my previous bike, because they were affordable and looked cool. Over the years I somehow acquired several pairs, the oldest of which were made in Vicenza instead of Milan and had raised, rather than engraved, lettering. My friends and I made keychains out of our extra Campy shifters. We should have had girls throwing themselves at us for this reason alone, but oddly did not.
The only non-Campy component on my Mercian was the brakeset. For some reason, Modolo was really popular at the time, despite being ridiculous, and I got swept up in its popularity. (One of the features of these brakes was that each brake caliper was stamped with its own unique serial number; this should be a case study for business majors in the difference between a feature and a benefit.) When, in 1985, Shimano came out with its totally revamped Dura-Ace line, on a lark I bought a new Dura-Ace brakeset and liked it.
A year later, my brother sold me his Team Miyata frame and begged me to build it up and ride it. This was when the dollar was really strong against the yen, so for $400 I bought a full Dura-Ace gruppo from Colorado Cyclist. (Back then, Colorado Cyclist was a garage-sized outfit in Estes Park; they’d recognize my voice when I called them.) So now I had two bikes, one with Shimano, the other Campy. Living the dream, really. This was a bit unusual: bike people are often fiercely loyal to one manufacturer over the other, so this was like being a member of two different religions.
I became disillusioned with Campagnolo when they came out with their disgraceful first-generation indexed shift levers, which were called Synchro. We called them Stink-ro. The click-action was awful—it felt like you were breaking glass inside the lever—and the whole system was a miserable failure. I might not have cared except for a traumatic experience involving them. I was at the big bike industry trade show in Anaheim with the Coors Classic director, Michael Aisner, a diehard Campy fan, and delighted in showing him, in the giant, gorgeous Campagnolo booth, how bad Stink-ro stucked. On a stationary trainer, pedaling a slick-looking bike with a gleaming white disc wheel, I could make the derailleur mis-shift at will. (With indexed shifting, of course, it should be impossible to miss a shift.) Mike told me “wait right there!” and disappeared.
I instinctively started trying to make the Stink-ro shift properly, and was still fighting with it when Aisner reappeared with a small, swarthy fellow in a beautiful chocolate-chip-ice-cream colored suit. They watched for a minute as I continued to mash away with the gears. Finally I dismounted and walked over to them. Aisner turned to the gentleman and said, “This here is a big fan of yours.” Turning to me, he said, “Dana, meet Valentino Campagnolo!” It was indeed the company’s president, who was also the playboy son of the company’s founder, Tulio Campagnolo. I shook his hand and mumbled something bland and hoped he didn’t speak English. After he left, Aisner said, “If you had any balls at all, you’d have told the man to his face that his stuff is shit!”
What you can’t have failed to notice through all this history is that (except for the police auction bike) I never considered buying Simplex. But why would I have, given the horrible plastic crap on my brothers’ first bikes? What happened instead is that the Simplex Retrofriction shifters found me.
Another bike I didn’t need
Though I was perfectly happy having just two pro-quality racing bikes, a third one came sniffing around. It was just a frameset, actually, and my friend Dave Towle (whom you might have heard announcing bike races) was trying to sell it. It was a Panasonic team issue Raleigh that he bought from a friend on the team. I sure didn’t need that Raleigh, but it was so damn cool I couldn’t resist. It looked like these bikes:
Besides how cool those bikes look, what do you notice about them? That’s right: both have Simplex Retrofriction shifters! Now, this is actually kind of remarkable. You’ve got a Dutch pro team riding English Raleighs, and the team’s component sponsor is the Italian company Campagnolo, but their guys are using French shifters made by Simplex. I don’t know if all those Raleighs had Simplex shifters, but those two clearly do, and so did mine: though it was otherwise a bare frame, the shifters were already mounted on there, so Dave threw them in. I built up the rest of the bike with a mishmash of parts, just to have it on the road, and that’s how I became introduced to the Retrofrictions.
Instantly I realized they were the greatest friction shifters ever made. They have a spring in them that works against the spring in the derailleur, so they don’t require so much friction to keep the chain from slipping out of gear. This has two benefits. One, the action is glass-smooth. Two, the shifter doesn’t work its way loose, a chronic problem with friction shifters that you often don’t discover until your bike jumps out of gear. Remember in “Star Wars” how Darth Vader, in the final dogfight sequence, keeps fiddling with these knobs on his Tie-fighter’s joystick? Racers used to do the same thing with the D-rings on their Campy shifters toward the end of a race, just to make sure they didn’t have any unpleasant surprises.
Simplex was the first company to make a spring-loaded shifter, but not the only one: Suntour had their “Power” shifters in the early ‘80s:
I had these on my second road bike. The problem with the Suntour Power shifters was that in addition to the spring they had a ratchet, which was pointless and noisy. Plus, they were cheap and pretty ugly, whereas the Simplex Retrofriction are beautifully made. I can’t figure out how a company as generally lame as Simplex managed to produce such an excellent product. I’d be no less astonished if Burger King introduced a grass-fed Kobe beef burger with prosciutto and imported Gruyere on an artisanal semolina bun.
My second pair of Retrofrictions
Alas, it was too good to last. My best friend, Peter, won a Rossin frameset in the Red Zinger Mini Classic and—being on a paperboy’s salary himself—built it up with Suntour Pro Superbe. I can’t remember if he begged me to sell him my Retrofrictions, or I just took pity in him for his terrible Superbe shifters, but suffice to say I felt honor-bound to help him out. In retrospect, I’m surprised I felt that magnanimous, given that if it hadn’t been for him, I’d have won the Mini Zinger and that Rossin! Then again, this was his flagship racing bike, and I barely rode the Raleigh. (By the time I got it, that bike had been all ridden out. I’d describe its road feel as “cadaverous.”) So Pete got the Retrofrictions, and by the time I bought the Rossin off him five years later, he’d worn them out.
(The Retrofriction springs have a lifespan. I have it on good authority that you can replace them, but am warned that “the spring is a tight fit around the central shaft and its removal and replacement will test your ingenuity and patience!”) I didn’t need the shifters anyway; I was firmly committed to indexed shifting by that point. (I was the first guy around to have the new Dura-Ace 8-speed drivetrain, because the shop my brother worked for was gradually going under and his paychecks tended to bounce, so he paid himself in components, which he ordered via the shop’s line of credit and then sold to me.)
Not needing any more shifters didn’t stop me from getting another pair of Simplex Retrofrictions when I got the chance. While working at a bike shop in Berkeley I stumbled across a pair in a box in the office. They weren’t for sale; oddly enough, these shifters never seemed to be available in any shop or mail-order outfit. After the demise of the Peugeot pro team, I don’t think any team officially used them (though at least a couple of teams used Mavic-branded Retrofrictions). These shifters I found in the shop, provenance unknown, were just sitting in the box doing nothing. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I held them out to the shop owner and said, “Do you know what these are?!” He said oh yes, he was well aware of what he had there. I looked him right in the eye and said, “I’m taking these.” I had no plan for them, other than to own them. My boss didn’t object; perhaps he knew, as I did, that you can’t stand in the way of destiny.
I didn’t have a bike to put them on and considered acquiring one just for that purpose. (It’s a testament to the glory of these shifters that I can’t even remember which friend of mine had expressed the same idea. I think it was John Pelster, my old UCSB and current EBVC teammate.) Alas, I had no money, and as a starving student could no longer afford to buy another bike just because I felt like it. But I ended up using those shifters before I expected to.
Simplex saved me!
That year—it was 1990—my Team Miyata vas the victim of a car rack accident (follow that link and look closely at the first photo and you’ll see the broken-off fork tip and caved-in top tube). So I bought a new frame from a buddy; he’d been given it years before from his team, and hadn’t ever built it up. It was a Guerciotti, with old-school Campy dropouts, and I think the derailleur hanger was longer than what had been on the Miyata. What’s worse, my rear derailleur was slightly bent, which—combined with the longer derailleur hanger on the Guerciotti—meant my indexed shifting wouldn’t work right. I had just moved to the Bay Area, had run out of money, and was trying to earn a spot on the UC Berkeley cycling “A” team, all with a bike that wouldn’t shift right, and I was so overwhelmed and frustrated I almost quit the sport. I mean, if a seasoned mechanic, who’s down to just a single racing bike, can’t even get it working right, what hope does he have in life? But the Retrofrictions saved me! I slapped those babies on the Guerc and everything was fine. After five years of racing with indexed shifters, it was actually fun going back to friction. I ended up using those shifters for the next eight years, until a freak bike tune-up accident ruined the right lever.
Here’s the sad tale. I don’t know if this is a French thing or what, but the little socket where the gear cable’s head sits is a bit small on these shifters. In other words, the cable head has a snugger fit to begin with, and—unknowingly compounding this—I had, somewhere along the line, installed a Campy cable. Campy cables had a slightly oversized head, and it must have worked its way into the shifter over time. So when the cable wore out, I absolutely could not get that cable head out of the shifter. I finally clipped the cable off at the head and tried to drill it out, but I aimed poorly and did terrible cosmetic damage to the shifter without accomplishing anything. I was so bummed out at the loss of the shifter, and the inability to replace it (this was before eBay), that to cheer myself up I bought a whole new gruppo, 9-speed Dura-Ace with STI shift levers (i.e., shifters built into the brake levers). See? There is some benefit to finishing college and becoming a working stiff!
Back on Retrofriction
Recently a friend, who is restoring an old Campy-equipped road bike, asked if I had any Campy shifters I could sell him. Well, I couldn’t lie: I had a pair on Full Slab, my beloved commuter bike.
Actually, my friend offered to trade a crankset for the shifters, which is a pretty sweet deal. The only problem, of course, is that I use Full Slab regularly and would need something to replace the Campy shifters with.
I knew my ruined Retrofriction shifters would be waiting for me, buried in The Box where I’ve been accumulating cast-off parts for decades. It’s always a little scary cobbling together something from The Box, and I wasn’t looking forward to reliving the torment of the Retrofriction shifter I so stupidly ruined. Sure enough, I found it right away. I also found Pete’s (i.e., Dave’s) old Retrofrictions, and wondered if I could possibly move the (good) guts from my badly-drilled shifter to the handle of Pete’s worn-out one, and thereby cobble together a perfect shifter.
But I’m an adult now, with a career and a wife and two kids, and my hands have gone soft from decades of office work, and when it comes right down to it I’m just not a good enough mechanic to tear into anything that’s both a) French-engineered, and b) bound up with a spring. So I charged up my drill and had another go at the old cable head. This time I started from the flip side of the shifter, and though I missed the original hole completely, I ultimately (re-)created a good hole to feed a cable through. Note that in the process I came up with a valid use for a phone book, of which I’d been previously convinced there was none. The yellow pages provided an expendable surface to catch the drill after it finally burst through the back of the shifter.
The result? Life is good! Full Slab has never been so smartly attired. The left shifter is perfect. The right shifter ends up being pretty worn out after eight years and some 50,000 miles, but it still works. Best of all, just riding that bike to the train station and reaching for one of those levers is a trip down memory lane, a sped-up review of everything you just read here along with about a hundred more things I couldn’t manage to fit in to this story. Ah, the splendid nexus between bikes and memory!
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