Retroshift is a combined braking and shifting system straight outta Portland in Oregon in the U.S of A and touted as an alternative to dragging your expensive mechanical STI/Ergo/DoubleTap levers around dirty, muddy, crash-prone cyclo-cross races, although obviously their use can be extended to be capable on tourers, commuters, expedition bikes, winter bikes, or any bike that might utilise what some would call a brifter.
So what do you get for your dollar? Retroshift is basically a Tektro R200A brake lever with a specially machined part attached so you can fit a Shimano bar-end or down-tube shifter to it. The Tektro brake has its lever removed so it can be polished, etched with a logo and drilled for the Retroshift part to be bolted on. Then it's all put back together again. The levers come with all the washers needed to fit a Shimano bar-end or down-tube shifter to them but you'll have to supply those geary bits yourself at the moment. All of this creates a system that's lighter, potentially cheaper and considerably less complex than your usual integrated brake/shifter combo. The whole idea might seem somewhat bodge-shed-technology but the quality of workmanship is top notch. The Tektro brake lever is as you'd expect a Tektro lever to be but all fancy shiny with an etched logo and the bolted on Retroshift adaptor is very well made.
The Retroshift system definitely has its plus points on paper, you can sweep across the whole range of gears with one long swipe of the shifter, the indexed shifting can be switched to friction mode if needs be, and if you crash on them bits are going to be significantly easier and cheaper to fix than your usual expensive and complicated STI shifter as all the parts are replaceable and a complete re-build can be done in as little as 15 minutes according to Retroshift. If you're into saving weight then they're lighter than a brifter by some way despite Retroshift saying they're built to be durable and not dainty. Naked Retroshift units weigh 325g a pair on the kitchen scales, and go up to 397g with these 9 speed bar-end shifters found in the shed, which is still about 50g lighter than a pair of Ultegra STIs. Hmmm.
With Ultegra levers punishing your wallet at about £270 a set and less spendy 10-speed 105 at roughly £170 they're not necessarily a cash attractive alternative. A pair of Retroshift 'Two' brake levers will set you back $119, plus $15 postage. That's about £85 at the current rate, and don't forget the customs charge, which was about £25 for these, so £110ish all in, and on top of that you'll need to source some shift levers if you don't have some gathering dust anywhere. Dura-Ace ten-speed sets can be had for about £50, so you can have indexed and rebuildable ten-speed shifting from your levers for £160. There's more money and weight to be saved if you only want to shift at the rear by purchasing the Retroshift 'One' set with a single shifter mounting point on the right hand lever for $89, and you can buy just the unadapted 'Zero' levers if you're after some singlespeed brake levers and find the standard Tektros ones they're based on not special enough as they still come polished and etched with the Retroshift logo even if they don't have any Retroshift hardware on. Retroshifts come with either grey or red finishing components on a standard black and silver lever, if you want to co-ordinate.
Installation is easy, the brake levers fit to the bars as usual and your choice of shifters bolt onto the machined Retroshift unit via the supplied spacers and then it's a simple job of fitting the cables, those that control the gears angling out the tops of the Retroshifts rather than under the tape.
Before the Retroshifts are even out the door there's a couple of issues. First off there's a lot of play in the system, it's nothing to do with the Retroshift units which are solidly bolted to the levers, but with the actual Tektro brake levers themselves which are very very sloppy on their pivots, and this translates to a lot of movement at the shifter before it's even clicked a shift. Luckily this bagginess isn't really noticeable when riding along but it's not very confidence inspiring initially. Oh, you'll need to keep an eye on those Tektro lever pivots, they can slowly work a little loose out the body with all that wiggle. And you'll need to put some threadloc on the bolts that hold the shifters onto the Retroshift units as they'll want to come undone too.
The second issue, which might be more troublesome for some, is that the Retroshift units extend above the lever and hinder the quick-release function of the Tekro levers; release the spigott on the lever and the brake releases only minutely as the Retroshift unit fouls the lever body. This could be awkward if you have a brake system that relies on the lever having a release function to ease wheel removal past the brake calliper.
Let's start with the advantages of putting some Retroshifts on your bike. Multi-gear changing can be a pleasant experience because it's possible to grab a handful of right lever and rattle across the cassette changing a whole bunch of gears in one swift move, which is something you can't do with other integrated shifters, so they're great for power dumping or frightened scrabbling for easier cogs.
The change certainly isn't a whispered chorus of smooth and silent clicks though, the right-hand changer has that old-school and reassuring clunk to it, but that will largely depend on which shifter you use. The front friction shifting reintroduces you, or teaches you the old school art of 'feeling' the front mech onto the required chainring rather than frantically jabbing at paddles and levers and hoping for the best which after a bit of practice makes for smoother, less chain-wrecking shifts with reduced potential for chain-suck. And the front shifter can cope with either double or triple chainring set-ups too, so you're not committed should you fancy a change. So that's all good.
Next up on the positives is that they're beautifully simple. Like to ride miles from anywhere and need something that's reliable? Regularly crash on brifters requiring expensive replacements? Then the Retroshifts might be for you. Free from the complicated magic wizardry that resides inside your standard combined shift and brake units with their multitude of teeny tiny intricate parts there's very little to go wrong with the Retroshift units. Should something get knocked out of whack the right hand shifter can just be switched to friction mode, and should they be crashed on and broken it's easy and cheap to get spares. It's all wonderfully basic and harks back to a simpler time, if a little ugly though, and it has been commented upon that as the Retroshift units sit proud of the lever with the gear lever often sticking out sideways then there's more potential for damage should you crash. Thankfully, or not, there hasn't been the chance to test that as of yet.
Finally initial skepticism that the gear shifters would get in the way of the brake levers, especially when directly in-line with them was unfounded so the brakes levers work exactly like brake levers. The Tektro levers are a nice choice for Retroshift to choose as a base unit, with a decent square platform on the hoods giving a lot of palm support, and the external edge of the lever ergonomically waved to fit the hand.
Unfortunately all those good bits of the Retroshift levers are somewhat outweighed by the bad.
Shifting gears, which is quite an integral and essential part of any combined braking and shifting mechanism, at least 50% of the time, can frequently be awkward, often impossible and sometimes just plain annoying. There's a lot of throw on the shift levers, which is fine for their intended position on a bar-end or a down-tube, useful in fact, but mounted on the Retroshift it's quite a lot for digits to deal with. The rear shifter travels almost 180 degrees from pointing out at about the 9 o'clock position at one end of its range to nearly three o'clock at the other, that's a lot of lever sweep and it can be a rather large throw of an arc for some small hands to deal with and even with regular sized paws a lot of hand and wrist movement is needed to make some shifts. And that's not the half of it...
Depending on where the shift lever lies and how dexterous your hands are it needs to be moved by either a push of the thumb or a pull of the fingers going one way, and a push of the fingers into a pull of a thumb going the other... It's not so hard to execute but it does require a lot of hand dancing on the hoods to switch from finger clicking to thumb pushing, and at the extremes of hand stretch your palm migrates from the safety of the body of the hood up to the horn just to reach the gear lever and after a while your hand really misses the simple tap-tap-tap of your favourite integrated unit. In normal riding around this isn't too much of a bother, even if it is unnecessary level of finger fidgeting but in the cut and thrust of a cyclo-cross race, which is where the Retroshift say they've tested their system and shoo it towards it's a major brain-ache trying to remember how to manipulate the lever when you're trying your best just to breath without vomiting, and shifty fumblngs are enhanced when trying to do this over bumpy ground when instead of feeling safe inside the curve of the brake hoods you're wrapping most of your digits around the brake lever and onto the shifter trying to awkwardly change gear.
The front shifter is slightly easier to use with a much smaller arc of travel of only about 90 degrees, which is still quite a lot and by no means a breeze to perform. Initially the front shift-lever was mounted with its neutral/small ring position being straight down, and shifts executed by swinging it into the bike but it became quickly apparent that this was a really cack-handed way of doing things as the left hand had to rotate a long way over and around the hood to make it work and it felt like a really great way to encourage wrist pain and even breakage when trying to do it over rough ground, so the lever was shifted to its alternate mounting position so it rested sticking to the outside of the bike and shifted so that it moved to the 6 o'clock position, and thus it was significantly easier to shift but still required more thought and effort than possibly necessary.
But the big flaw in the Retroshift design is that shifting from the drops is completely impossible, quite tricky even if you are Edward Shiftinghands. This aspect is initially just a drawback and the more time you spend on the bike the more annoying it becomes and then it eventually starts to plain old spoil the ride. If you want to shift when you're in the drops you have to take your hand off the bars, move it around the outside of the bar, grab onto the brake hood and then change gear, an operation that's a simple digit stretch with any other brake/shifter combo is a majorly complicated operation with the Retroshifts. It would be easier to shift from the drops if you had some bar-ends shifters in their rightful place where they would be a simple hand shuffle away, the irony that you've removed them from where they might actually be useful to somewhere that's a right royal pain is not missed. Every time you want to change gear.
Retroshift say their product is designed for cyclo-cross where you spend a lot of time on the hoods, this is a debatable issue as there are plenty of times in a cyclo-cross race, and a multitude of other occasions when you're likely to be in the drops. On a downhill and want to shift down to anticipate the upcoming rise? Impossible. In the drops on the 'cross bike for extra control when rattling over bumpy stuff and just want to change one gear to keep the legs going the right speed? Awkward, because taking your hand completely off the bars to move it up to the hoods to change wouldn't be possible without crashing. Just spinning happily along in a headwind-cheating tuck in the drops and want to shift? Something that would take a micro-second with other shifters? It's a long-winded and increasingly muttered swear-words affair with the Retroshifts and has hands frantically signing for the return of the STIs.
Retroshift are the kind of company that you really really want to like because they're thinking a bit differently, they're making an alternative and they're the small man standing up against the big guys. Sadly it's actually quite hard to like what they've done as despite the Retroshift levers looking good on paper they're frustrating in the real world, on the whole.
Putting the shifters on the outside of a brake lever simply isn't very ergonomic, basically. And having those levers move in a plane that they weren't designed for doesn't work well either. Riding hands have to wander all over the hoods with dancing fingers and thumbs just to make a shift and it all seems unnecessarily clumsy, and the basic and glaring error that Retroshifts make it impossible to shift when in the drops will put off many riders, certainly a large majority of the cyclo-crossers that they're specifically marketed at. But if you spend your entire time on the hoods then these might appeal, or if you do the kind of riding that doesn't require fast and easy shifts every ten seconds to keep a decent cadence or to close the gap on the rider ahead then these might find a place in your heart. If Retroshift are to find fans they might be among the dropped-bar back-woodsy expedition type of rider who appreciates their mechanical simplicity and potential ease of mending over speedy and in-the-drops shifting.
It doesn't help that once a UK rider has paid for them, then been charged carriage and then stumped up for import duty on top of that and then further dipped into their pocket for some bar-end or down-tube shifters if they haven't got any gathering dust in the shed then the Retroshifts don't work out amazingly cheap compared to an integrated brake/shift unit, especially if you don't mind rummaging around internet bargain-bins. If the Retroshifts were half the price of an integrated unit then their foibles might be forgiven, but sadly they're not.
Price at top of review is for the Retroshift levers at current exhange rate, excludes shipping and import duty
road.cc test report
Make and model: Retroshift Levers
Size tested: na
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
Retroshift say that their design provides a new integrated shifting option for drop bar bicycles especially for cyclo-cross and maybe other cycling disciplines. It's not pretending to be a replacement for your STI, ErgoPower or DoubleTap but another option for the cyclist to consider for their particular needs.
True, they're an option, and despite thinking they'd be a great alternative to other integrated systems certain flaws suggest they're not, especially for the cyclo-cross application Retroshift say they're perfect for.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Retroshift is a Tektro brake lever with a machined mounting for a Shimano bar-end or down-tube shifter.
The Retroshift unit is a well machined chunk of metal but the Tektro lever it's attached to is a bit low-rent and sloppy even if the lever has been nicely polished and etched.
In many many ways not up to the standard of a regular STI unit.
There's really not a lot to go wrong with these and they're specially designed for ease of repair if anything does.
Considerably lighter than your usual integrated brake and shifter unit.
The hoods on the Tektro levers offer solid and reassuring base for a palm but the constant choreography of finger twiddling and resulting hand movement to get the gear levers to work somewhat counteracts that.
The added cost of carriage and import duty impacts severely on the value for the UK rider.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
You can't argue that Retroshift are an alternative to the rest of the integrated shift lever market, it's just one that has it's downfalls. The lightweight simplicity will appeal to some while their basic user-unfriendly shortcomings will put others off.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Um, the retro charm, the return of the proper front gear shift.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
The all fingers and thumbs shifting, not being able to shift from the drops.
Did you enjoy using the product? Not really, no. Not being able to shift in the drops was a right ball-ache, and having to work out whether to push, pull or tug the right-hand shifter was unnecessarily annoying.
Would you consider buying the product? No.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? No.
About the tester
Age: 42 Height: 180cm Weight: 73kg
I usually ride: It varies as to the season. My best bike is: The one I\'m on at the time
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, cyclo cross, general fitness riding, fixed/singlespeed, mtb, Fun
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he’s not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he’s not doing either of those he’s pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he’s agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours doesn’t. He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.