Time To Compare Downtube And Bar-end Shifters

This post compares the pros and cons of downtube and bar-end shifters in regards to one another.

The Advantages of Downtube Shifters

1. Simplistic Cable and Housing Routing

Downtube shifters are positioned on the frame and subsequently eliminate the need for cables and housing on the handlebars. As a result, the cockpit remains clean and it’s easier to install/remove bar tape as well as handlebar accessories.

3. Crisp Shifting

The more cable housing there is, the more friction the shifter has to overcome.

Downtube shifters use a minimal amount of cable housing and cable length. Subsequently, they’re very responsive (crisp shifting).

4. Low Price + Easily Obtainable

Downtube shifters can be bought for very little on the second-hand market. Meanwhile, bar-end shifters are not only a bit hard to find in certain areas, but they could also be quite expensive (e.g., USD 100+) in comparison to downtube shifters.

5. Protected

The chances of damaging downtube shifters during a crash or when carrying the bike are lower thanks to their position.

Conversely, bar-end shifters often hit external objects and even the rider when manipulating the bike around.

If a bicycle falls to one side because it’s not secured, the bar-end shifter could easily get damaged whereas the downtube models are highly unlikely to even touch the ground.

6. Easier To Install and Maintain

Downtube shifters are as simple as shifters can be. Subsequently, they can be installed fairly quickly.

The installation process is as follows:

1. Tighten the shifters to the downtube. Make sure that the shifters are parallel to the downtube in their starting position. If a shifter is perpendicular to the downtube, it’s placed wrong.

2. Insert a gear cable into the front downtube shifter. Slide the cable under the downtube and then clamp it with the front derailleur’s pinch bolt. If the tension isn’t sufficient, unscrew the pinch bolt, pull the cable again and tighten the bolt.

Done. The front shifter is installed. You don’t even need cable housing for it because the path to the front derailleur from the downtube has only one bend (under the bottom bracket).

The cable of the front shifter (the one pointing up) goes under the downtube and then directly to the front derailleur.
Bottom pull Front Derailleur

Note: This is the process for a “bottom pull derailleur” (image above). As the name suggests, a bottom pull derailleur is a model whose cable pulls from underneath the bottom bracket.

There are also top pull derailleurs that operate with a cable pulling from the top. Those models are reserved for mountain bikes and have one main goal – to avoid running a cable under the downtube because it can easily be damaged and/or contaminated during off-road riding.

If you have a road bike or a touring bike with downtube shifters, it will have a bottom pull front derailleur, unless someone has replaced it.

3. The installation of the right shifter is similar. You have to slide the gear cable through the shifter, under the downtube, under the drive-side chainstay, and then clamp it with the rear derailleur pinch bolt.

Gear cable routing on a retro road bike

The rear shifter requires a short piece of cable housing running from the cable stop on the chainstay to the barrel adjuster of the derailleur. (image above)

If the right shifter is indexed, you will have to index the gears as with a modern shifter.

6. Convenience During Transport

Downtube shifters are discrete and do not widen the profile of the bicycle excessively. Consequently, it’s easier to pack the bike for transportation.

7. Can Be Operated With One Arm

Downtube shifters allow you to change gears using one hand by reaching through the frame.

Obviously, bar-end shifters do not offer that option.

The Disadvantages of Downtube Shifters

1. Instability, Extra Risk

The number one downfall of downtube shifters is that the rider has to move their hand away from the handlebars to shift. As a result, it’s not possible to shift while braking, and every shift reduces stability because the rider isn’t holding the handlebars with both hands.

Bar-end shifters require the rider to move their hands away from the hoods too, but it’s still possible to shift while holding the handlebars.

This is the main reason why some people stay away from downtube shifters.

2. Require Braze-on Bosses or a Clamp

To install downtube shifters, you will need a frame with braze-on bosses on the downtube or a separate clamp with mounts on it.

Bar-end shifters are different. They don’t require braze-on mounts. However, you will still need cable stoppers on the downtube because the most common bar-end shifter set-up uses the following routing schemas:

Front Derailleur

cable housing from the bars/shifter -> cable stopper on the downtube -> cable only to the front derailleur

Rear Derailleur

cable housing from the bars/shifters ->cable stopper on the downtube -> cable only to the cable stopper on the drive-side chainstay ->cable housing to the rear derailleur

3. Visible Shifting

If you’re going to race on downtube shifters, the other contestants will see when you’re making a shift. This will expose your plans to attack.

The same applies to bar-end shifters but to a lesser degree because the shifting motion is shorter.

The Pros of Bar-end Shifters

1. Safer position

Bar-end shifters are located on the handlebars and do not require the rider to move their hands away from the bar. The result is faster, less distracting shifting.

That said, some people say that they still have a hard time remaining stable due to the force applied to the handlebar ends when shifting.

2. More Up-to-Date Models

Downtube shifters are considered a thing of the past whereas bar-end shifters are experiencing a revival thanks to touring and other forms of adventure cycling. Subsequently, many companies (e.g., MicroShift) produce fresh models.

3. Can Be Turned Into Downtube Shifters

A bar-end shifter can be used as a downtube shifter with a little tweaking. The opposite is not possible because downtube shifters come without the inserts required for the installation of bar-end shifters.

4. Superior when Installed On Bullhorns or Aero Bars

You won’t see bar-end shifters on modern road bikes, but they’re the norm for TT (time trial bikes).

The bar-end shifters are installed on the aero bars and allow the rider to shift with minimal effort when riding in the aero position.

Bar-end shifters are also superior when mounted on bull-horn bars because the rider can easily operate both the brakes and the shifters without moving their hands away from the bars.

The Cons of Bar-end Shifters

1. More Complex Cable Routing

The technical characteristics of bar-end shifters and their position require you to run cable housing from the handlebars to the downtube.

There are two common routing paths:

  • Mid-way exit (before the hooks)

In this case, the housing of the bar-end shifters “exits” through the bar tape mid-way.

  • Full install

One could also run cable housing across the entire bar up to the stem. This approach requires longer cable housing and adds bends to the system which result in greater friction and more difficult shifting.

Regardless of the approach, the cockpit cannot be as clean as with downtube shifters.

2. Expensive

Bar-end shifters can cost a lot of money relatively. For example, a decent set could easily be USD 100. For the same amount of cash, plus maybe a little more, you can buy an entire second-hand road bike equipped with downtube shifters.

3. Reduced Clearance

The chances of bumping the shifter with your thighs or knees are high. Also, the shifters can easily get scratched or scratch an external object when carrying the bike.

4. Fighting with Other Accessories

Bar-end shifters prevent you from installing other accessories such as a bar-end mirror.

Table Comparison

Downtube ShiftersBar-end Shifters
Minimalistic cable housingInstabilityHands stay on the barsExpensive
Neat cockpitSlower shiftingNewer modelsExtra cable housing
Easier installationGreat for bullhorn handlebars and aero barsNot compatible with bar-end mirrors
Cheaper and accessible“Crowded” cockpit
Compatible with a bar-end mirrorCan hit the thighs of the rider
Can be operated with one arm
Comparison Summary

Final Points

At the end of the day, both bar-end shifters and downtube shifters are retro-shifting solutions that do not find themselves on modern road bikes.

They sacrifice convenience and speed for resilience and simplicity.

Both can work just fine in the following situations:

  • Casual road bike riding
  • Touring
  • Commuting

However, if you want to increase your performance to the max, you will have to go for brake-shifters such as STI.

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