Replacing Grip Shifters on a Mountain Bike

Grip shifters were prolific on mountain bikes during the late 90’s, were replaced with thumb-index shifters, and recently made a comeback due to the fatbike craze. For that reason, it’s worthwhile learning how to replace/install a grip shifter.

I recently decided to fix up an old mountain bike to sell in the spring. Among other things, I wanted to replace the broken grip shifters that didn’t work anymore. The bike would autoshift about four gears (of 7) whenever I started from a stop in 1st gear. This made it so that I had to constantly keep my hand on the grip shift while riding. The reason for this is that the shifter body was cracked and the detents (or click-stops) wouldn’t hold the shifter in place at each gear. Here’s how I replaced my grip shifters.

Replacing the Grip Shifters

This is a job I’ve never done before, but was willing to tackle because I’m mechanically inclined and careful. The best advice from my repair class instructor was to go slow, take pictures, and be careful of flying parts and springs.

The first step was to detach the cables from the front and rear derailleur and remove the grip shifts from the handlebars. I like to work on one side at a time so that I don’t mix-up cable housings. To remove the grip shifters, the bar-ends were removed, then using a bit of soapy water, the grips were removed. My trick for this is to slide in a flat screwdriver a ways, then pour in a dribble of soapy water. The grips loosen up and slide right off.

Grip Shifter and grip.

Grip Shifter and grip. Cracked shifter housing is obvious around the setscrew.

Grips removed.

Grips removed.

To remove the grip shifters, find the setscrew(s) that hold them on to the handlebars. Some have more than one. The grip shifter should slide right off once the setscrew is backed out a bit. One important note: I found a thin plastic ring in between the grip shift and the handle grip on each side. I believe this is to allow the shifter to turn against the grip without sticking against the grip.

Plastic ring in between shifter and handle grip.

Now the tricky part: replacing the cables through the shifters. There are who-knows-how-many styles of grip shifters out there and I don’t claim any expertise in this area, but if you’re careful and take pictures, you might just be able to do it. The original bike came with SRAM 7-speed shifter for the rear and 3-speed for the front. The replacement parts I bought were some non-brand-name ones of two different styles: micro-shift and handy shift. Even though the SRAM was broken and going in the bin, I took it apart anyway. There was a spring, and a plastic ratchet-thing inside. I never figured out how it went back together (because I didn’t bother to be careful or to take pictures).

The Handy Shift was pretty simple. The cable end was easily seen at one end and there was one screw to remove a small cover at the other end.

Handy Shift with cover and cable end.

Handy Shift with cover and cable end.

cable end.

cable end.

cover removed.

cover removed.

One important note: shifter cables are meant to be installed with the shifter in a certain position; usually when the cable is the most slack (when the chain would be on the smallest sprocket or smallest chainring). If it’s not in that position, you may not be able to see cable ends or pull out or install the cable. If things look wrong and you can’t find the cable end, try moving the shifter to one or the other extreme. It should become obvious.

Once the small cover was removed, I gave the grip shift a twist and it popped apart. I was able to see how the cable was routed so that I could route the new cable.

Outer grip removed on Handy Shift.

Outer grip removed on Handy Shift.

It would probably be more tricky if there wasn’t a cable installed in the used shifter I bought. It was a simple matter to put in the new cable and close the shifter back up with the cover in place.

The Micro-shift grip shift I got for the left side was even simpler. There was a pry-out cover over a hole in the body, and once it was shifted to the right position, the cable end was right there. I just pushed it through the hole and installed the new cable the same way, then popped the cover back on.

Handy Shift and Micro-Shift with new cables installed.

Handy Shift and Micro-Shift with new cables installed.

A note about shifter compatibility: Indexing shifters (with distinct clicks for each gear) have to be compatible with the derailleur and number of gears (i.e. six notches on the shifter, six gears on the sprocket set or cassette). This goes for grip shifts, bar mounted shifters, etc. Non-indexing shifters may have clicks, but they will be able to shift through a range of positions from one end of the sprockets to the other. There may be clicks, but many more than there are gears. Most rear sprocket sets are the same or close to the same width, just the spacing between sprockets changes as you have more gears. So a 5,6,7 gear bike can use the same non-indexing shifter. In a pinch, a newer bike with a broken shifter can be used with an older non-indexing shifter with no clicks. Even 8,9,10 speeds!

According to my repair instructor, bike race pit crews sometimes have an older non-indexing shifter in their toolkit so they can repair any bike and get the racer back out, rather than trying to carry a spare shifter of every make and number of gears. Pretty smart!

When I first went looking for parts, I didn’t know about shifter compatibility and was looking for a 7-speed Grip Shift shifter. I left the store empty-handed. Later I realized that I could use a non-indexing grip shift, so I went back and that’s what I got. The Handy Shift is a non-indexing grip shift and it worked just great on my bike.

The shifters were then installed back on the bike by sliding them up the handlebars against the brake levers, with the first set of cable housings in place. Orient the shifter so that the cables aren’t twisted as they go into the first cable stops on the frame and so that the don’t interfere with the brake levers as the brakes are pulled. Tighten the setscrew(s) to lock the shifter in place. The crappy picture below shows the used Handy Shift grip shift installed beside the brake lever, with the handle grip slid in. Don’t forget the thin plastic ring in between the grip and the shifter! I decided to put my bar ends on the inside of the brake handles as more of an aero-commuting thing. I’ll test ride this bike and see if that works before selling it.

Newly installed Handy Shift grip shifter.

Newly installed Handy Shift grip shifter.

Well that’s about it for installing the shifter itself. The remaining steps are to run the cable back through the housing (be careful if it goes below the frame to get it in the right spot on the cable guide) and to attach the cable to the derailleurs. Adjusting the derailleurs is not covered in this post, but there are many online resources such as Sheldon Brown and Park Tools Repair Help. Thanks for reading!

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About Kurt (Lightning) Bredeson

I am a married man, a follower of Jesus, a Mechanical Engineer, and a lover of cars, cycling and music. Things haven't always been easy; things haven't always been hard. I'm just trying my best in this life to enjoy what's been given to me by God and make the most of it.
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17 Responses to Replacing Grip Shifters on a Mountain Bike

  1. Alex says:

    Could you please tell me how I can remove the cable cap on the MicroSHIFT gripshifter? It just doesn’t want to open.

    • I think on my Microshift the cover for the cable end was able to be pried out with a small screwdriver. It may have a slot for a screwdriver, but I don’t remember. You could also try pushing the cable into the shifter, which might force the cap out.

  2. hoomi2 says:

    Thanks for the write-up. My SRAM X7 grip shifts still work fine, but I recently bought a pair of brake levers with the lock-pin for my Catrike, to replace the stock brake levers that use a Velcro strap for the “parking brake.” To change the levers, I’ll need to remove the grip shifters, and wasn’t sure how that was supposed to be done.

    I’m half-considering upgrading to thumb shifters when I change out the brake levers, too, but have not decided on that part yet.

  3. Luci says:

    Hi, Great article, love a person who uses photos. My bike has been in storage for a long time (it was working fine before) but when I got it out to use I sprayed it with WD40 and shain came offf the gears to clean it up and then noticed the grip twist shift on the handlebars are very hard to move, maybe one click only on both sides. The cables are OK and it occured to me that the chain has to be on the correct gear front and back for the shifter to twist? can you please give a description of alignment for numbers on handlebar shift and gears front and back? with pics?

    • Luci says:

      Oh I mean the sprockets the chain goes on when the gear changes

      • Sorry for the delay, I’ll try to get back to you with an answer soon. The short answer is that you need to be turning your cranks in order to shift, so if you are trying to shift the grip shift with the cranks not moving, you may break it.

    • There are a few reasons your shifter may not be moving the derailleur when you twist it. One, make sure you don’t try to change gears without turning the cranks while you shift. If the bike is sitting on the ground and you try to keep shifting without the cranks moving, you will just stress the cables and mechanisms and something may break. It will likely move over one gear or so, but with nothing turning, the chain won’t go anywhere.

      Another reason things get hard to move, especially if bikes are stored outside or used in the rain a lot, is that the derailleurs themselves may be seized up. If you’re rotating the cranks as you try to shift and it only moves one sprocket in the rear, the pivots in the derailleur may be seized. While turning the cranks (with the rear wheel off the ground), shift the rear such that the shifter releases all of its cable tension. This is usually by putting the rear into the smallest sprocket (the highest gear). While turning the cranks, try pushing on the derailleur by hand to shift back up the cassette to the larger sprockets (be very careful of the rotating rear wheel). If the derailleur does not go by hand or is fairly hard to move, you may need to lube the derailleur pivots. Use chain oil, not WD40, to lube each of the derailleur pivots, then try working the derailleur back and forth by hand again and wipe off excess oil. If it is still seized it may be time for a new derailleur.

      If the derailleur does move by hand, and while turning the cranks the shifter does not shift the chain up the cassette to the larger sprockets, you may have either a problem with cable tension (which is easy to adjust) or the shifter itself may be broken. If the shifter gets really hard to move but the derailleur doesn’t move, then the shifter may be worn, dirty, or broken. If you are able to move the shifter through all the clicks but the derailleur goes nowhere, then you just need more cable tension. This is done by turning out the barrel adjuster either at the shifter or at the derailleur. One click should move the derailleur one cog and if it doesn’t then add more cable tension.

      Check the sheldon brown article I linked to in my grip shifter post or bring your bike to your local bike shop. They should at least be able to tell you what’s wrong in a matter of minutes.

      I can’t post pics in a reply, plus I sold the bike, and also my shifter did not have gear numbers printed on it. Usually, if you twist the shifter all the way one way to let out all the cable, it should be in the highest gear on the rear. The front is opposite and twisting to let out all the cable will put the front in the lowest gear.

  4. jef ray says:

    I have many mountain bikes i’v salvaged and many have broken shifters . Can I robb a shifter froom another bike and fix another eaisly.?all are low $ bikes like. from walmart .. I just love to ride and wish to fix em up

    • Hey Jefray, there are a couple of basic things you need to check to make sure a shifter from one bike will work on another:
      1. Same number of gears. Count your rear cogs or the number of gears indicated on your shifter. If they’re the same on both bikes, the shifter may be compatible.
      2. Same brand of shifter. Some brands (i.e. Shimano, SRAM) don’t mix and match well, so it’s best to stick with the same brand. But for most department-store bikes, the brand will likely be the same. Probably a lower-end Shimano shifter like Tourney or one that has no name like SIS.
      3. There is at least one exception, and that is Shimano Rapid Rise derailleur; which works completely opposite of all other derailleurs and won’t work with any other shifter. These pull cable for higher gears and release cable for lower gears, which is opposite of all the other shifters.

      The catch-all shifter: If you have an old-style thumb shifter that has no clicks (non-indexing), you should be able to make it work with just about anything. At worst, it won’t go into the highest or lowest gear, but by adjusting the limit-stops on a non-indexing shifter you can get it to work on almost any bike. I’ve read about mechanics of expensive cyclocross bikes keeping a non-indexing shifter in their toolbox in case something really goes wrong so they can replace any brand shifter with these.

      Also, check on http://www.sheldonbrown.com and browse the repair articles for shifters. There’s good stuff on that website and likely more info than I have given here.
      Hope it helps!
      -Kurt

  5. Veronica says:

    How did you get the handlebar grip off? Mine is solid at the end and has no plug. I can’t seem to remove it without cutting it.

    • On grips with no hole at the end of the bar, like lots of modern mountain bikes that don’t have bar ends, I’ve had some luck prying back the grip a bit with a flat screwdriver. You’d have to get between the grip shift and the rubber grip with the screwdriver and pry the rubber grip up a bit. Then dribble some soapy water in there (if you tilt your bike over, it helps get the water into the grip). Work the grip back and forth to get the soapy water around and eventually it should start working its way off the bar. Hope that helps!
      Yes, you can also cut the end of the grip off, but when you put it back on, buy an end cap or plug for it, since there will be a hole, which can be dangerous in a crash. I did this for some grips that got ripped on the ends, I cut off the end and bought a plug for it.

      • Veronica says:

        Thanks for the help. I got the grip up a little with some needle nose pliers. then I shoved a screw driver in there. It two screw drivers, lots of lubricant, and lots of pulling and twisting to get them off without hurting the grips. It starched the paint underneath some, but you can’t tell when the grip is on it.

  6. Doug says:

    Can you use a right handed grip shifter ont eh left side?

    • You might be able to switch left for right, as long as your cables still route to the correct derailleur. You couldn’t use the three-speed shifter for the rear though. Also, i’m not sure if you’d want to twist the grip shift the opposite way. Brake levers could also get in the way of the cable exits, since they’re designed to work together on the same side.

  7. tuckamoredew says:

    Good descriptive write-up. Fixing up bikes at the community bike shop has made me hate cheap grip shifters a little bit; putting in new cables is so often needlessly aggravating. Also, over the years of riding and wrenching I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity and reliability of friction shifters.

    • Thanks! I thought friction shifters were a thing of the past, but found out that they can be useful in a pinch. My Shimano trigger shifters, on the other hand, are eating cables every year now.

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