This post explains bicycle front shifter compatibility, i.e. which shifters can be mixed with which front derailleurs, chains and chainrings.
Front shifter lever is used to control the front derailleur, that is to change gears in the front. There are numerous designs of various manufacturers. However, for compatibility considerations, the only important factor is the amount of cable pull. It should match the front derailleur (FD in the rest of the post) required amount of cable pull that the shifter is paired width.
There are three major types of front shifters: friction shifters, double and triple shifters. Compatibility will be explained by these groups.
1. Friction front shifters
With friction shifters it is irrelevant what type of FD is paired – each will work with each. They pull enough cable for full FD movement range – regardless of the FD manufacturer, or type (double vs triple, road vs MTB).
2. Double front shifters (indexed)
They are indexed with just one click – for shifting between the two front chainrings. Tensioning the cable moves FD and chain to the larger front chainring, while clicking to release the cable changes back to the smaller chainring.
Double shifters can be used with a triple FD, but they still only have one click. That means that, if there is a triple crankset, one chainring will not be used – either the smallest, or the largest.
Most double front shifters can be used with most FDs. Mixing different models of shifters from the same brand is no problem. Even mixing one manufacturer’s shifters with another manufacturer’s FDs is not a problem. Mixing road shifters with MTB FDs (and vice versa) works fine as well.
3. Triple front shifters (indexed)
They have two clicks, for changing gears between three chainrings.
Triple shifters work fine with double FDs, but one click will be unused. FD movement should be limited with limit screws (this should be done regardless of the shifter used on all derailleurs), so that shifter’s extra click doesn’t produced any effect and doesn’t move the derailleur.
In order to avoid damaging the shifter in case of moving lever hard, it is best to set the triple shifter on a double so that maximal cable tensioning puts FD over the larger chainring. That way, there are just two clicks left – first one will drop the FD to the smaller chainring, while the second will just loosen the cable, but the FD will not move because it is limited by limit screws.
The other possible setup, so that shifter is in the middle position when FD is on the larger chainring means that second click will drop the FD to the smaller chainring. The problem is when FD is on the larger chainring, there is still lever movement left to tighten the cable. Since FD is already on the large chainring, limited with a limit screw, this can cause damage to the shifter if the lever is pulled hard, since the cable will not move.
Mixing brands and models is the same as for double shifters – most combinations work fine.
Road vs MTB front shifters
Road double shifters can often be combined with MTB FDs and vice versa.
Road triple shifters with MTB FDs and vice versa can be mixed. Tuning is a bit more tricky with some models, since there are three speeds, not just two, but usually works fine.
Combining front shifters and FDs of various manufacturers
Each should work with each. Friction shifters always, while indexed ones (whether double, or triple) in most cases.
It was said before that double shifters have only one click, while triple have two. This, however, is not the whole truth. Many manufacturers and models have the trimming option. That is like a small click that doesn’t change gear, but moves FD cage slightly left-or right. It is used to avoid chain rubbing the FD cage when riding cross chained.
One exception in compatibility are Shimano road 11 speed shifters. They will work nicely only with Shimano road 11 speed FDs and Shimano Tiagra 4700 10 speed road FDs. Same goes for Tiagra 4700 10 speed shifters. Newest Campagnolo 11 speed system: Revolution 11+ (older one is Revolution 11) also requires matching (Revolution 11+) shifters and derailleurs.
Another exception is the new “gravel” group (with hydraulic brakes): Shimano GRX. Caple pull wise it’s the same as Tiagra 4700.
Compatibility posts are also available in eBook (printable and Kindle) and paperback editions on Amazon: