Bargain Bicycles: Are Downtube Shifters a Good Deal?
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Bargain Bicycles: Are Downtube Shifters a Good Deal?

Before 1990, downtube shifters were the norm. This technology required the bicycle rider to remove a hand from the bars in order to operate a shift lever on the lower frame tube. Can you see yourself riding and racing such a relic? If you can, a world of interesting stories and significant savings awaits you, because bicycles equipped with this technology can't be purchased at your corner bicycle store.

Recently, I picked up a 1988 Bianchi Superleggera road bicycle for $150. Never having ridden a road bicycle, it was everything I dreamed of: light, fast, and innately connected to the road in ways that my suspension mountain bicycle could never approximate. Light, that is, compared to the average mountain bike (an '88 Superleggera wieghs about 23 pounds).

Everything was perfect and I was imagining myself winning bicycle races until I found my way to the shifting mechanism. To my consternation, it wasn't anywhere on the handlebars or even close to it! Instead, I found a pair of shift levers on the downtube close to the front fork. Although I, as an 80s child, had never even heard of downtube shifters, it was easy to see how the mechanism worked with the cables directly linking the left (to the front derailleur) and right (to the rear) levers to the shifters.

Downtube shifters are a bit intimidating among the ranks of today's "brifter" (integrated brake and shifter lever) bicycles. On an already highly responsive road frame, downtube shifters require you to take a hand off of the bars to click the shifting mechanism. The 1988 Superleggera has indexed shifters for the right lever, meaning they click when you reach the correct position, but you have to listen for the click of chain against the front derailleur to ensure that you have the left lever in the right position. The older technology, known as friction shifters, would require that you adjust all gears in such a fashion.

There are only three conceivable benefits to possessing a bicycle with downtube shifters. Since the mechanism is now obsolete, obtaining such a bicycle is a relatively inexpensive proposition. Second, the simple straight cable connection is very easy to repair and somewhat lighter than complicated integrated mechanisms. Third, a well-tuned downtube shifter can run through all gears in one single motion, making a transition between a flying downhill to a steep uphill nearly instantaneous (versus six or more brifter clicks).

There are disadvantages, too, however. Trying to shift in tight turns or in packs can be a bit hairy, because downtube shifters have a tendency to make you wobble when you remove a hand from the bars. Sometimes, terrain dictates that you plan your shifts ahead of time. For example, downtube shifting up a steep hill is nigh impossible without returning to your seat and losing momentum.

If, however, you think you can adjust to these quirks, a downtube shifter equipped bicycle can provide significant savings as well as some nostalgia about the way things used to be. You'll also get some crazy looks from less-cultured riders! A warning: you may not want to try the newer technology, or it could spoil your interest in downtube shifters. Sometimes, lack of experience has its benefits.

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