How To Use Downtube Shifters [With Installation Guide]

If you’re trying to learn how to use downtube shifters, chances are you’ve recently come into possession of an old-style bike. These types of shifters are commonly found on road bikes from the 1980s and earlier. Since the shift levers are mounted on the downtube of the bicycle frame, using the downtube shifters requires you to master a one-hand technique, which can be tricky.

The good news is that it’s easier than you might think, at least in theory. In short, using downtube shifters involves using the right lever to shift the rear derailleur and the left lever to shift the front derailleur. Reach down, and shift the lever up or down until it’s in the desired gear. You then adjust until there’s no chain rattle. Hopefully, the downtube shifters are indexed, so you’ll hear them click into gear.

Downtube shifters you can use on a bike

Downtube shifters.

Keep reading for more helpful information about using downtube shifters.

What Are Downtube Shifters?

Downtube shifters are a type of shifter mounted on the bicycle’s frame and commonly found on road bikes, especially older bicycles. They’re rare now, and you’ll find that shifters mounted on the handlebars and integrated with the lever are more common. However, downtube bike shifters still retain some appeal for their sturdiness and mechanical ease of use.

They’re designed to reduce the amount of cable and housing used. The cables don’t have to loop around the handlebars, so they have a more streamlined look. The major disadvantage of downtube shifters is they require you to ride one-handed while you change the gears. Thus, this style of shifter might not be suitable for beginners or children as it exposes the rider to extra risk and has a steeper learning curve.

How To Use Downtube Shifters on New Bikes

Not many manufacturers today make bikes with downtube shifters. The good news is if you’re interested in this type of shift lever, you can always install your own. Let’s look at how you can install a downtube shifter on a new bike.

Downtube shifters you can use on a bike
Allen McGregor | Creative Commons)

Installing Downtube Shifters

One of the most significant benefits of downtube shifters is that they’re relatively easy to install, making them the perfect DIY project. Here’s a step-by-step process of how it’s done:

  1. Mount the downtube shift levers. Got a new downtube shifting system? The first step is mounting it on the frame. You can get braze-on shifters if your bicycle has bosses or clamp-on shifters if it doesn’t.
  2. Fix the cabling. You must install the cable housing and then fit the cable. Ensure the sceneshifter levers are closed, then run the cable from the shifters on the downtube to the rear.
  3. Connect the cable to the derailleur. Once you thread the cable into the hole, it’s time to connect it to the derailleur, ensuring the cable is pulled tightly. Make adjustments using the barrel adjuster to ensure that the tension is right and that there’s no slack. Clamp the cable in place and clip off the excess.

As you can see, downtube shifters are simple to install, mainly because they’re compatible with most cassettes and derailleurs. Whether you’ve got Shimano, Campagnolo, Suntour, or Simplex, this type of shift is bound to be compatible.

That said, it might be best to let someone more experienced do the installation if you’re unfamiliar with the bicycle mechanics involved.

Using and Adjusting Downtube Shifters

Downtube shifters have a right and left shifter that use cables to move up and down different gears. The left lever shifts the front derailleur while the right lever shifts the rear derailleur.

The rear derailleur is the most used one, and you have to press the lever up or away from you to shift to a harder/faster gear or push it down or toward you to shift up to an easier/lower gear. On the other hand, the front derailleur requires you to pull the lever towards you to go to a bigger ring and push away from you to go to a smaller ring.

After installing your downtube shifters, you must experiment while riding to get the hang of positioning and adjusting the levers until they line up perfectly with the gears. This is much easier with indexed downtube shifters because you’ll hear a click when shifting to a different gear.

How To Use Downtube Shifters on Old Bikes

You can skip the installation if you’re lucky to come across a bike that’s already got downtube shifters. Here are some pointers on using an old bike with downtube shifters.

  • Want to know if the levers are working? Adjust the shifter with one hand while pedaling, then briefly look down to see if the chain jumps to a different cog.
  • Generally speaking, old bikes are not indexed shifters. That means they don’t click when moving to a different gear position.
  • Not sure if the downtube shifters are in proper working order? It’s best to take the bike to an experienced mechanic that understands these types of bikes. Get the whole system checked, including the shifter levers and the brake levers. Using the downtube shifters becomes harder if things are not functioning properly and your derailleur is out of adjustment.
  • Keep in mind that ’70s and ’80s road bikes might be tougher to use for beginners because they are geared higher, so you might want to start with the smaller ring when riding.
  • Additionally, old bikes require you to shift the lever only when pedaling softly, so lighten up on the pedals when shifting.

Tips for Using Downtube Shifters

Here are more tips to keep in mind to maximize the use of your downtube shifters.

  • Adjust the friction setting. If your lever doesn’t stay put after adjusting, make sure the screw on the lever’s pivot is tight enough but not so tight that you struggle to move the lever.
  • Adjust limit screws. If the chain keeps falling off the cogs and chainrings, try adjusting the limit screws.
  • Watch out for chain noises. These noises usually mean that the chain isn’t correctly aligned, so shift the lever until the scraping or rattling stops.
  • Practice makes perfect. Learning to use downtube shifters requires practice. After a while, the process will likely be so intuitive that you’ll feel the gears engage.

Top image: © Russ | Creative Commons