“Dude. Is that a thumbshifter?!”
Looking down at the bar on my brand new bike, I nodded in response. Yep, 2021. New bike. Thumbshifter. At least it was on a steel hardtail. But still, running a thumbie was proving a bit difficult to explain to anyone born after about 1975. At least it was an indexed thumbshifter, and it seemed to be pulling accurately across all 12 gears.
To understand how I wound up running a thumbshifter, BY CHOICE, in 2021, we need to backtrack to a different conversation in March of this year, when I called my secret contact at SRAM to ask about sourcing some parts: “Hey BB, what’s up? I was wondering if you could clue me in to that new GX AXS stuff. I’m building up a new bike, and was thinking that might be just the ticket. Don’t need a whole drivetrain, just the shifter and derailleur. Any idea when they might be available?”
The laughter from the other end of the phone line was immediate and long lasting. “What do you want to hear first – the bad news or the REALLY bad news?”
BB continued once his laughter had subsided, “We are backordered to hell on that stuff. And everything else. First shipments were sold out before delivery. My next tracking of available units is, ummmm, September.”
‘B-b-but it’s March,” I stammered. “How the hell am I supposed to build this bike up now?”
“Beats me,” BB replied. “I can put in an order for you now, but can’t promise anything until September. I’ve got some XX1 AXS slated for June, if you want to crack open the gold card.”
I hung up and looked at the yellow frame sitting naked in the workstand. I’d ordered it from my friend Cameron Falconer a little over a year beforehand, before the pandemic; a steel hardtail that looked sort of like a tribute to an old ProCruiser, complete with the superfluous but ohhh-so-rad extra top tube, with modern geometry. 29” wheels, Boost spacing, room for 2.6” tires, nothing too fancy. At the time, I had imagined that the only thing that would be problematic about getting the bike built up would be choosing whether to run black or silver componentry.
After BB dropped the bad news on me, I attempted to pull in some favors. The response was universally the same: Go fish. Didn’t matter whether I was looking for a discount or willing to pay full retail, the answers were uniformly predictable. Get in line, everything’s backordered.
Enough pixels have been dedicated to the cause of the pandemic-induced global supply chain spasms, so it’s not worth rehashing it here. Suffice to say, demand is way the hell up, and supply has been mightily challenged. Tires, chains, cables, handlebars. Everything. The local bike shops in my area look like they have been gutted in a riot. They started looking like that last April or May, and they still look that way.
There are very few occasions where being a hoarder with a barn full of obsolete junk can be thought of as advantageous. But this has been one of them, if you are willing to accept some glaring areas of compromise. After a couple weeks of completely futile parts hunting, I decided to see what the junkpile would yield.
At the time, I had imagined that the only thing that would be problematic about getting the bike built up would be choosing whether to run black or silver componentry.
A set of wheels from Project Reasonable Compromise, complete with lightly used Rekon 2.6” tires and a plenty functional XT cassette. Boost spacing, thank dog. Score! Deeper digging found the original XT brakes from that same build, as well as the XT cranks. That was most of a bike! A pair of Hunter Smooth Move aluminum bars that I had bought a while back, and the original Ibis grips from Operation Reasonable Compromise. So what if the bike was yellow with black and white decals and the grips were green. Nobody looks at the grips anyway. Things were looking up! A Fox 34 Factory that had been swapped out from an earlier build was icing on the cake.
Then things got weird. I found a used Reverb seatpost, then a used Fox Transfer. Both in 31.6. I needed a 30.9. Further excavation, digging back to somewhere around 2011, unearthed a brand spanking new Crank Brothers Joplin post. With the Michael Jackson approved moose-tongue non-remote lever, no less. Maybe 100mm of travel. Dear lord, those were horrible. Notoriously bad at keeping their oil inside, I had ended up with a handful of them as warranty units from a demo fleet I was running. On it went. Along with a roughly thirteen-year old Fizik saddle from the same era that had seen far better days. This creeping sense of shame and doom was offset slightly by the arrival of a Chris King headset. Some mail order scouring found a Thomson stem in what I hoped was the right length, and digging around in the drawers revealed a slightly used XTR derailleur cable and about six feet of housing. And a half empty quart bottle of Orange Seal with a strange rubbery crust on top of it but enough liquid sealant beneath to air up the tires.
For a derailleur, I found an XT on the junkpile that I’d managed to smear the clutch off on some rocks the previous June. It looked otherwise straight-ish. On it went. Leaving only the shifter to complete the build. At this point, the other build components had landed me squarely in Shimanoville. This led to literally days of phone calls and scouring mail order websites looking for an XT shifter. “Out of stock” and “backordered” became very familiar words. I could find an XTR shifter, but that seemed too Gucci for this bike. Or I could find a Deore shifter, which seemed too cheesy. Somewhere during the endless scroll of searches, Google’s algorithm spat out a Microshift thumbshifter. Indexed, Shimano 12-speed. Looking for all the world like an EXACT replica of a 1991 Suntour XC Pro. One of the last great thumbshifers. I had no idea these even existed. A little more expensive but way more elegant than a Deore shifter. Much, much less expensive than an XTR. In stock. Sold!
The shifter may be my favorite thing about this bike. It is subtle, accurate, can even be switched to friction mode if things go sideways. It weighs almost nothing. I can dump as many gears as I want, up or down, whenever I feel like it. Every time I shift, I wonder why we abandoned thumbshifters in the first place.
My riding partner couldn’t contain his glee. “Hey Old Man! Are you gonna swap sides and mount it under the bar? I hear that was all the rage back in ’89!”
Duh, joke’s on him. I can’t swap the side and mount it under the bar. It would interfere with the remote dropper for the used Reverb that Palmer sent me after the Joplin predictably barfed its oil down my seat tube. Unless, and I’m just spitballin’ here, unless I find a pristine old Hite-Rite, and machine up a 30.9 clamp for it. Pretty sure there’s one hiding somewhere in the junkpile, right next to a tube of Phil Wood grease and some Alfredo Binda Extra toestraps …
Photos: Kelley Richardson