How to Use Downtube Shifters

Last week, I came across a garage sale and found an old, used bike that had downtube shifters. You rarely see those these days since it’s mostly present on old road bikes, like a vintage Campagnolo.

Downtube shifters are levers mounted on a bicycle’s downtube instead of the bar ends. To shift gears, you must take one hand off the handlebar and push the levers. If you’re used to handlebar shifters, you’ll need time to get used to them. However, you’ll enjoy minimal adjustments, shorter cables, and the least resistance to your handlebar once you do.

If you’re interested in installing them on your modern bike, here’s how to use downtube shifters.

How Do Downtube Shifters Work?

Downtube shifters contain two parts: the lever and the barrel. The lever is a flat handle mounted on the bike frame, while the barrel is the round part also attached.

Meanwhile, the cable wraps around the barrel. When you turn the shifter using your thumb, it pulls more or less cable to shift the cable and derailleur.

Note that the right shifter controls the rear derailleur while the left shifter shifts the front gears.

How to Use Downtube Shifters to shift gears?

Turning the right lever down downshifts the cassette while pulling it up puts it into higher gears. In contrast, shifting the left lever down upshifts the front gear, and turning it up moves it to lower gears.

Many people use their left hand to turn the left lever and use their right to shift the right lever. However, you can move them from any hand position when you get the hang of it.

Using downtube shifters takes practice due to the level of control you need to align gears precisely to your need. Specifically, shifting the rear derailleur requires more control than the front.

If you have a new or well-greased cable, you’ll feel the gears moving while shifting. If the gears don’t line up, you’ll need to adjust the lever accordingly.

Type of Shifters: Index Shifters vs. Friction Shifters

You need to know two shifting mechanisms: Index shifting and friction shifting.

If you prefer a precise way to change gears, index shifters push or pull the cable at a specific length to provide accurate speeds at every turn. They also click whenever you select a gear. This is much easier to handle while riding as you know exactly when the gear is shifted.

In contrast, a friction shifter allows more freedom when selecting gears. Estimating how much speed you’ll get in every push or pull is challenging. However, it caters to a wide range of speeds, so you’ll have more flexibility and control when accelerating.

Most bicycles use index shifters, but feel free to use either one, depending on the level of control you want.

Adjusting Downtube Shifters for Good Performance

Here are some tips for adjusting your downtube shifters for better performance.

First, check the limit screws. These screws show you how far the derailleur can move. If you don’t set them properly, they could jam between the cog and frame or fall off the bicycle.

If you want to set the limit screws, turn the lever and move the rear derailleur manually until it reaches the smallest and largest cogs. After setting them, position the derailleur and chain in the smallest cog.

Next, see if there’s enough tension on the shifter cable. If it’s too loose, it may not work. Meanwhile, a tight cable will make it difficult to use the shifters.

Finally, use the barrel adjuster to modify the index shifter. If it’s difficult to control the shifters, turn the adjuster clockwise. But turn it counterclockwise if the chain starts to fall off.

I recommend testing the shifters after adjusting them to ensure you installed them correctly.

Difference Between Downtube Shifters and Handlebar Shifters

Downtube and handlebar shifters work the same way; their only difference lies in their position.

Most people prefer handlebar shifters since they’re more intuitive to use. They’re also convenient for commuting since you can shift gears at a snap.

However, using downtube shifters also presents many perks, such as responsive shifting and a more durable shifter.

Getting either one will serve you well. It all boils down to your cycling needs and preferences.

Pros and Cons of Downtube Shifters

Here are the perks and downsides you need to consider before using downtube shifters:


  • More responsive shifting
  • One-hand operation
  • Less likely to receive damage in a crash
  • A cleaner cockpit
  • More affordable than handlebar shifters
  • Easy to find and obtain
  • Compatible with most cassettes and derailleurs
  • Easy to install and maintain
  • Retro look


  • Reduced stability while shifting
  • Not as intuitive as handlebar shifters
  • Requires precise control to align your desired gears
  • Can’t change gears while braking
  • Requires braze-on bosses or a clamp to mount the shifters
  • Visible shifting, which isn’t ideal in a race

Frequantly Asked Questions

Are Downtube Shifters Easy to Use Compared to Newer Shifters?

Compared to other types of shifters, it takes time to get used to how down shifters work. Since a downtube shifter is in the lower part of the bicycle, many find it challenging to reach down and shift the gears without going out of balance.
Nonetheless, they become easy to use once you get the hang of it.

Is Installing Downtube Shifters Easy?

Installing downtube shifters can be easy even without professional help if you have the right tools. Below is a helpful video on how to install downtube shifters.

Consider Your Needs Before Getting a Downtube Shifter

If you’re still unsure about getting downtube shifters, I recommend listing down all your cycling needs and seeing if they match the advantages of using them. What matters is what works best for you.