Downtubes are the Shift

5 comments by Igor Shteynbuk
"They're like grandpa's shifters!"
Dia-Compe Downtube shifters on Velo Orange Campeur
If you simplify what a shifter does to its absolute bare bones, it purely creates and releases tension on a cable which pulls a derailleur cage. With friction downtube shifters, you have to know where each gear is in the shift lever's throw. Too far in either direction can lead to a noisy drivetrain, but don't stop trying! Practice is key and you will learn derailleur and lever positions to keep your bike quiet and happy.
Velo Orange Campeur loaded up with bags and cats
Downtube shifters are still popular with cyclotourists because of their simplicity and compatibility. Break a cable on tour? Throw out the old one, put a new one in. Break a cable in an integrated shifter/brake lever (brifter) on tour? Break out the pliers and magnet because you're going steel head fishing. Not #bikefishing, but #aaahhhhhhhF***thisbikefishing.
Microshift downtube shifters on Velo Orange Pass Hunter
Friction shifters work all of the time and are compatible with pretty much every derailleur and cassette available. Want to mix Suntour and Campagnolo? Awesome. Shimano and Simplex? Done. Shimano, Campagnolo, Simplex, Suntour, and Microshift are pretty much all cross compatible with friction shifters.
Bike packed into bike box for traveling
In addition, downtube shifters are excellent for travel. Packing up your bike for a tour is significantly easier than brifters and bar-ends since there are fewer cables and housing lengths to worry about while positioning the handlebars.
Gunnar roadie road bike with one downtube shifter
Scott's rando setup on his Gunnar reminds me of Lance from his USPS days. One downtube shifter and one shifter on the bars. Having a right shifter on the bar-end makes it easier to reach the shifter which is used most often.
Orange Cannondale with Dura-Ace downtube shifters
More recently, mid-80s on, indexed downtube shifters have made sprints and climbs significantly easier. Indexed shifting means that there is a *click* in the shifter for each gear selected. You can throw the shifter around and you'll hit a gear without worrying about being stuck between them. Most Shimano shifters and Microshift bar-ends even have a friction mode in cases where the derailleur hanger is bent or indexing isn't functioning properly. Keep in mind, you need to stay within component families (Shimano with Shimano/Microshift, Campagnolo with Campagnolo, etc...) for proper indexed shifting.
Schwinn Super Le Tour with Suntour Cyclone downtube shifters and Velo Orange Fenders and Racks
Plus, downtube shifters just look damn good.

Do you still use downtube shifters or am I just stuck in the Paleozoic era?



    I grew up on down tube and bad idea stem shifters. Brifters are cool. But thanks to the above authors who stressed how much easier it is to replace a dt shifter cable; how connected to your bike you are once you’ve ridden it enough to know without thinking how to throw that lever; by the way for the front chain rings if its a double (your left shifter) is a preset distance whether friction or index, so you really only have to ‘learn’ the spacing on the right or rear derailleur-it doesn’t take long. With downtubers you spend more time on the drops.

  • Keith Benefiel

    simple, light, cheap, reliable. organic

  • Rick Bidgood

    After five back operations I wanted a more comfortable riding position on my mid 70’s Univega Gran Rally. So I replaced the drop handlebars with a flat bar, replaced the stem, and replaced the combo brake and shift levers. I love the simplistic look and functionality of the down tube shifters which were probably how the bike was originally outfitted. Now that I’m in my 70’s comfort is my priority.

  • Douglas M

    I got started with downtube shifters on ten-speed, cotter pin crankset bikes in the later 60s and am still using them today, although I do not miss those cotter pins at all. Road racing was enjoyed by only a small minority of riders and nobody had ever heard of mountain biking at all. Basic transportation and recreational riding were what nearly all bikes got used for and for that sort of riding downtube shifters worked fine on 5- and then 6-speed bikes having double and then triple cranksets. A great feature of downtube shifters is in how sensitive they are and once having become used to them then shifting is almost like moving the chain directly with your fingers from one chainring or sprocket to another, closely connecting you to your bike. And then came 7-speed freewheels having its sprockets spaced a little closer which made downtube shifting a little more challenging but was still easy enough to do.

    Then in the mid-80s came index shifting which was just what mountain biking needed to take off like a rocket with fast and accurate shifting. And a new term got coined, friction shifters, which for years were known simply as shifters. But let me stop there because this topic is about downtube shifters which would also include stem shifters and bar-end shifters too. Another great feature of what became known as friction shifters, along with the development of 8- and 9-speed gear trains, was an ability to mix-and-match gear train components which caused yet another new term to get coined, Frankenbike gear trains. For instance, not for mountain bikes but for commuters and tourists, an old bike with 126mm dropout spacing can have a 6-speed Megarange 14-34T freewheel, a 7/8-speed 22T capacity triple crankset, 9-speed high capacity front and rear derailleurs, running on 8-speed chain, friction shifted, and on 27-inch or 700c wheels can produce, depending on the sizes of the chainrings, about a 19 or 20 gear inch low gear, 90 or 105 gear inch high gear, with an evenly spaced selection of gear ratios between high and low, altogether as a gear train which can be more durable and reliable than what is being made today. But unfortunately the bicycle industry had other plans and so some of the components I mentioned are no longer in production.

    By the way, I occasionally pester Velo Orange about bringing back the Campeur and Mixte framesets, but that has not happened yet.

  • Clyde Reese

    Been using down tube shifters pretty much daily since my service days in Asia in the late sixties. Friction on my sixties Japanese Bridgestone and seventies Fuji rain bike (fendered The Racer), ratcheting friction on my other fendered winter snow bike (Fuji S10S), and indexed/friction on my daily exercise bike (eighties Fuji Club). I put usually six or so thousand a year on the Club, less on the others. One frayed cable in all that time. Found it when the breaking ends started poking through my finger tips while shifting. Simple fix.

    I often find myself trying to downtube shift our tandem and other brifter equipped road and cross bikes, especially at the end of a day long organized event. So natural to drop the arm and grab another gear. Like in my cars, which tend to be manuals.

    I am pushing 80 now but still enjoy Simple and engaging machines. I do see the value of brifters on our road tandem, given the need to control/muscle a seriously big fast machine full time with two lives at stake, and road bikes when climbing and enjoying rolling terrain at speed during organized events. But when I return to my daily rides on the Fuji Club, start hearing the comforting clicking of those shifters and feel the grace of the bike under me, I feel at home again, totally connected and relaxed, and focused on the National park road ahead. Two very old friends getting up the road together.

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