22 January, 2016

Downtubes are the Shift

by Igor

"They're like grandpa's shifters!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Plus, downtube shifters just look damn good.

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

27 comments:

Janice in GA said...

I have an early 90's era Cannondale with downtube shifters. They were Suntour friction shifters when I got the bike. I replaced them and the rear derailleur with Shimano indexed shifters. Still work fine, though I don't use the bike that much these days.

It does feel pretty old-school to ride it, though.

John-Paul said...

You're not in the Paleozoic. I just built up a Campeur, and put on it the same friction downtubes you show in your first picture. I also have a black zip-tie just below them helping to hold the light wiring in place...indeed, until I saw the different-colored fenders, I was a little worried you'd stolen my bike! :)

Anonymous said...

I still use down tube shifters on my Raleigh Randonneur tourer. Still works fine and is ridden regularly.

komenda said...

One bike with the asymmetrical friction setup: 1 on DT and 1 bar end.

jsk_online said...

Dunno what era I'm in anymore. I just ordered a set of Shimano 7900 10 speed D/T shifters for a new project ... it's hard to get away from the purity of them (even though I have to endure a near constant ribbing from people who can't imagine why anyone would use D/T's in this day and age). I've used bar ends, dual control and down tube shifters on six different bikes running 8, 9 and 10 speed drive trains over the past 7 years ... the only tricky part is remembering which bike I'm on and reaching or pushing for the wrong lever mid-ride!

Joseph said...

I love the way they look, but I'm afraid I've gotten used to Bar-end and thumb shifters. No brifters, though: I've tried them a couple times and never could get used to the counterintuitive sideways throws of a mechanism that should be pushed/pulled.

Jofus Braylor said...

I've got the asymmetrical setup on my touring bike - JTek bar end for the Alfine 8sp, and a suntour downtube shifter for the massive chainring shift: 28-46! Glad to hear that configuration has some pro-racer pedigree, though I chose it for ease of packing (it's S&S coupled) and necessity, as that 18 tooth jump requires some finessing to go.

Unknown said...

Suntour symmetric self-trimming downtube shifters on a Centurion Pro Tour that is my main ride. Accurate shifting is second nature at this point.

Anonymous said...

I find that years of riding with downtube shifters in my youth scarred me for life. When I get really tired on a long ride, my natural inclination is to reach for the downtube. I have 4 bicycles with 4 styles of shifting, Shimano mountain STI, Shimano road STI, Campagnolo Ergo and JTec bar end for Alfine 8. The mental programming for the downtube shifter is permanent - pick a system and stay with it forever!

Srad said...

I've got a 1x9 bike Friday - single bar end shifter that the indexing broke on about 5000km ago -
friction works fine (also helps with folding bike extra long cable lengths that gum up quickly)

RoadieRyan said...

After replacing my 3rd pair of brifters in less than 10 years, it dawned on me there must be another way and so I found DT shifters or in my case a single bar-end for my 1x9 set up, DT's will get cleaned up and rebuilt on my Motobecane Grand touring project to shift the 46/30 VO crankset I have set aside for it.

Anonymous said...

Love the simplicity of the downtube shifter, but not when paired with the big 16 tooth jump that you see on 34/50 or 30/46 cranksets (often needing a double shuffle on the brifters). With a 10-12 tooth gap up the front and the less shifty style of riding, they are tops.

Tim Diamond said...

For those with smaller hands, there are some other advantages. Its often difficult or awkward for smaller hands to push sti levers far enough. Some models are worse than others. Also on some models, in order to fit the shifter gubbins in, the pivot point for the brake is lower and harder to operate. I also prefer the smaller, narrower brake hoods on normal brakes, especially on long rides

Chris said...

I like the simplicity and adaptability to all types of gearing that downtube shifters allow. To me, there is a sense of satisfaction shifting in friction mode - hitting the cog you want smoothly, quietly and precisely.

Joe said...

I still occasionally ride my 1982 Univega Viva Sport with an upgraded drivetrain, however it still has the original Suntour down tube shifters and front and rear Suntour ARX deraillers. Works great and shift far less frequently since it's only a 6 speed freewheel.

Anonymous said...

Yep!
I am still rocking the "Steed for Speed" with Suntour "Cyclone" downtube shifters. Those are the "Cyclone's" with the nifty sliding left shifter. That adjust the front derailleur as the chain positions itself on the rear sprockets! My old 531 frame has been upgraded with several VO components, headset, bottom bracket, crank set, and hubs! Thanks for keeping my old racing steed going!

The Oldcyclist

Bowen said...

I rode an old Maserati 10 speed with downtube shifters for years--the cheap, classy looking, old campagnolo clamp-on unit. When I found a slightly nicer, more modern touring frame with downtube cable stops, I clamped the old downtube shifters on right below them. My current ride is an on/off road tourer with flared drops, and I "upgraded" to bar-end shifters. Bad idea with flared drops! Now running suntour command shifters converted to friction :)

Jon said...

My favorite bike has no shifters...

Anonymous said...

I never had a single issue with my down tube shifters for loaded touring, and i love the uncluttered space on the bars and the primal look of them.. but now I have to ride more upright than I used to, and they are just to far away to reach without a big position shift. I'm moving on with life and replacing them and the drop handlebars with something else.

Wes Ewell said...

Even in the 1970s I used bar end shifters - still do. -Grandpa

Unknown said...

The downtube is too far away, but I love friction shifters. The only time I feel differently is when trying to get into low gear while already on the hill. ;) My old Suntour kit beats any indexed setup I can afford: smooth, responsive, capable, and rarely needing maintenance.

I might change my mind at a $2000+ bike with thumbies or bar tips, but not for less. I tried many below that threshold and didn't like them. Trigger shifters felt unresponsive. Brifters felt as though my brake levers had broken. Both tended to sound like broken derailleur. I also missed the feel of a steel frame. So I did the smart thing: bought a $100 used steel ten-speed, swapped out a few absymally cheap bits for better ones, and built a nice little theft-resistant commuter!

John Ellsworth said...

I find bar-end shifting to be spooky -- getting down and back to the shifter for whatever reasons upsets the bike more than going to any other spot -- whether that's me tensing up or something else (that's probably it). I'm totally happy with brifters on my fast bikes and trigger shifters on my MTBs. Thumb shifters are great, too, and I even like stem-mounted shifters for city/commuting rides. But my (right) hand reflexively goes to the down tube to shift, most of the time, even to shift the front (I tend to reach through the frame rather than use my left hand).

lawschoolissoover said...

I used to convert bikes away from DT shifting. I tried everything--drop-bar Gripshift, two types of Command Shifters (converted to friction), barcons (Suntour *and* Shimano), Ergo and STI.

I finally got sick of it.

I now use friction DT shifters,and everything works fine. 2x9. I find 3x fronts to be difficult with DT shifters, but it's probably psychology. 2x9 works great, and some day I may even play with 2x10 or greater.

BTW, the last generation of pure friction Shimano 600 DT shifters is my favorite. They have just the right shape to the lever...too bad there will never be any more!

John Irvine said...

Lesser mentioned keys to smooth friction shifting are using narrower modern chains: on a 5-7 speed cluster, an 8 speed chain will find the gear more cleanly. Also modern (SIS era) derailleurs with self-centering "certeron" guide pulleys help reduce the need to fine tune the shifter. I've been slowly finding retrofriction DT shifters for my bikes and they are just the best. Old Simplex or Campy C-record Dopplers. They can't be beat.

Chris said...

Great tips, thanks.

Chris said...

Porteur handlebar with barends perhaps?

Dave Feldman said...

Grandpa's shifter!!!?? Hey, I resemble dat remark!