Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cycling Coelecanths: The Downtube Shifter

I have retro/Luddite tendencies. Duh. But when I bought my much-beloved Raleigh Clubman several years ago, I convinced myself that it would be the bike that dragged me into at least the late-20th century if not the 21st. Threadless headset. Inch and an eighth steerer. 9-speed rear wheel. External bottom bracket with a giant hollow spindle. And -- gasp -- STI shifting. Bane of the Luddite. Grant Petersen's Great White Whale.

And for several seasons, all was good. Those newfangled gadgets worked just fine. But this year, the STI started to annoy my perfectionist tendencies. It worked, sure, but it got finicky. I spent a lot of time cleaning and lubing cables, twisting barrel adjusters mid-ride, and holding shift levers for an extra beat, waiting for that perfect engagement. For anyone else, it was tolerable, maybe not even noticeable. But I figured I could do better, because when have I ever left well enough alone?

Trolling the internets led me to a great deal on a set of new-old stock, fairly recent production 8-speed Shimano downtube shifters, shown above. Shimano hubs and derailleurs are fairly agnostic when it comes to 8 versus 9 speeds, so once I procured some 8-speed cassettes from regular reader/commenter Steve of Peoria, all was well.

After a few hunded miles on this perversely old-school/new-school setup, I'm pretty impressed. The ergonomics of reaching down for the lever are not as convenient as an STI or bar-end, but I haven't found it problematic, even while commuting (when a lot of simultaneous shifting/braking happens). The biggest difference, though, is in the shift quality. When you take those big loops of housing out of the equation, the indexing gets astonishingly precise. Plus, the friction front lever is leaps and bounds beyond any front indexing setup I've tried -- infinitely trimmable, and makes clicky front shifting seem like a kludge.

Now, if you're only accustomed to modern indexing, with its cottonball-soft detents, the right shifter will come as something of a shock. It definitely have that throwback feel, to the days when Shimano wanted everyone around you (and a few people in the next county) to know that YOU HAVE A SHIFTER THAT CLICKS! You aren't going to sneak up on anyone. In fact, you're going to startle people with the sound of your shifts. Having come up in the early days of click-shifters, I like the feel, but it could be an acquired taste for others.

I've prattled on enough, so I'll save the review of the associated brake lever swap for another day. Suffice to say, while I fought my Luddite tendencies for a while, they're clearly sneaking back in.


John Romeo Alpha said...

I yearn for a set of Dura Ace downtube shifters mated with a Dura Ace 8 spd derailleur. That is my ideal: like being directly and instantly attached to the shift. But, contrary to Petersen and Heine, I find my 10 spd Ultegra STI setup very crisp and precise. I keep it adjusted and clean, with a non-old chain, which is a finicky process, but multispeed derailleur setups always get twitchy as the chain, cogs, and derailleur wear out anyway. I think those guys need to publish some actual objective comparisons of shift time or lag between comparable systems setup well with compatible components to support their criticisms of STI.

Anonymous said...

Is it my imagination, or are indexed DT shifters the rarest of all shifters? Seems like there are plenty of friction DT shifters out there.

I've owned one bike with indexed DT shifters, and it did work quite well. One of my bikes has 8 speed indexed bar ends, and it works well too. Another has 9 speed bar ends installed on Paul thumbies, and its performance is degraded by the long cables (it's on a 'bent).

As much as I like the performance of my indexed bar ends, I find that I'm not so fond of bar ends themselves. I do a lot of double shifts, where I'll shift both derailleurs at the same time. The need to drop both hands to the drops at once is just too clunky. DT shifters work better for this, since one hand can do both shifts.

Anyway... glad that simpler shifters are working out for you. There's something to be said for parts that will run forever without maintenance.

Steve in Peoria