How easy are "brifters" (e.g. Shimano Total Integration or Campagnolo ErgoPower) to maintain and adjust as a hobby cyclist at home?-- Although quite a lot of road bikes have them (including even light touring-oriented/adventure bikes such as the Salsa Vaya or Genesis Croix de Fer 10), I have often heard even from competitive cyclists that they are extremely fussy and hard to keep working optimally. How true is this?-- I keep hearing that, for example, long-distance tourers and others focused on dependability avoid them due to their apparent fickleness and complexity. However, are brifters really that unreliable, or are these people just in the "tail" of the distribution of cyclists, those who cannot afford failure in even the rarest of cases?
There was a questionnaire on Bikeforums on this topic and here you can see the results: Brifters - how reliable are they? 39 people gave their votes and obviously for most people brifters did not break at all.
The second question is about working optimally. To be honest I am yet to see a brifter which does not work optimally. Brifters have very little to no setting up, so they either work or don't work, no middle line there. Campagnolo brifters are known to be easily serviceable (assuming you have the parts), but Shimano are serviceable to some extent as well.
This is an opinion question. But this is my take on it.
I have bar-end shifters on our tandem, brifters on my race and commuter bikes, and downtube shifters on a training bike.
They are all extremely reliable.
The bar-end shifters that I have are indexed, but they can be adjusted to run in a 'friction mode'. That is handy for swapping rear-wheels around with different cassette sizes--no worries about indexing and cog pitch/etc.... And that's the main advantage of levers over brifters... flexibility. If you have a mechanical problem... even a wal-mart bike rear will probably be enough to get you to a LBS for real-help... or if the bike shop doesn't have many parts, you can get going with whatever they have laying around. This is because you can 'disable' the indexing feature... which is not possible on brifters (or any index-only system like ratchet or grip shift systems)
Also, the brifters physically stick out quite a ways and if you drop your bike or it falls over... they tend to take the worst impact of the fall... and if they do break, you can't shift without stopping to move the chain/derailer and may lose more than 50% of your braking ability. Sorta' bad if you are out in the woods or unsupported and 100's of miles from help. This is not as much of an issue with downtube or bar-end shifters and even worst case... you'll only lose the brake or the shifter--not both. Bit of a 'eggs in one basket' sort of situation (e.g. all the rear controls in one place, and all the front controls in another)
I would say that in my experience there is MORE maintenance required of the shift levers (Bar end and downtube) and less on the brifters. This is because the friction adjustments need a little tweek at the beginning of winter and spring for me. But that may just be my preference. (There's this exact slap motion I can do to go exactly 1 cog--and it aggravates me when the bike doesn't behave) Once a brifter is setup, you may only need to adjust the RD stops for things like wheel changes or cassette swaps, but like any shifting mechanism--that is not always required if the cogs are in the same place with the same pitch.
I enjoy the brifters more when I'm fatigued and don't have to reach down to shift... I also shift more with brifters than I do with bar-end or downtube setups. I think it is because it is so easy/quick in relation to the other systems.
The reliability depends on the quality of the brifter itself but, for most brifters, all you need to maintain, adjust, and them and keep them in good working condition is a hex key set, some spray degreaser, and a high quality grease. I use mostly sram brifters and they just work when they are set up right.
To keep them in good working order I remove the hoods and blast out the internals with degreaser, working the levers into different shifting positions until everything is clean and working smoothly. After they are dry I apply some high quality grease with a small brush to the mechanical parts inside, and then put the hoods back on. Extremely simple maintenance. Not fussy at all.
I'm not sure why some competitive cyclists are that are telling you brifters are so unreliable, but, they are wrong. I believe 100% of the tour riders rode some sort of brifter in 2015. These are the cyclists who demand the utmost durability and certainly wouldn't use brifters if they were inherently flawed or fussy somehow. But, like any part, if they are low quality to begin with they will require more maintenance and will tend to be less reliable.
My brifters date from 1997 and are "early tech"
When I got it, they shifted poorly, with a really annoying habit of changing down and then not changing back up. I blasted them with brake cleaner and various oils and fluids which helped, but the only fix was a teardown and soak the guts of it in petrol for a day, to soften the old hardened grease.
Now it changes like a beast, missing perhaps one shift down in a hundred rather than 19 in 20.
These brifters are Shimano RSX 3x7 and they do not have any trim support, so I get clackity if I cross chain, and I can't wheel the bike backwards out of the garage in big/big, it shifts on the front chainring down to the middle.
That said, 18 year old brifters cleaned, lubed and reassembled, working fine.
Standing back a bit, shifting problems tend to come from every other part except the levers, which are the most reliable part of the transmission system.