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Home » Cycling » Cycling: Tube Shifters Vs. Integrated Brake/Shift Levers (Brifters)

Cycling: Tube Shifters Vs. Integrated Brake/Shift Levers (Brifters)


November 2013

I’ve got three road bikes and I am solidly at S-1 (One less bike than will bring about separation from my wife).  I’ve got a 1990 Cannondale SR400 (my old-school bike), a 1999 Trek 5200 (an almost old-school bike) and a 2013 Venge (new-school, light and awesome).

The old-school bike presented challenges because it’s about 5 cm short on the seat tube than would fit me (it’s a 54 and for a straight top tube I ride a 59).  Adding to the short seat tube problem is the fact that it’s a Criterium bike – it’s got a higher than normal bottom bracket and the wheel base is shorter – both allow for more aggressive cornering.  Getting me to fit properly on that bike has been an exercise in futility but I hold onto the bike because I really like its looks – and it operates flawlessly.  On the other hand, anything more than 20 miles on that bike borders on self-torture compared to either the 5200 or the Venge – the Cannondale is STIFF.

When I bought that bike a little more than two years ago now, I chose it because it only cost $350 (Craigslist – no saddle, no pedals) – it fit my budget.  I figured I’d get it even though it had the old style downtube shifters and I’d be able to get used to it…  After all, if it really is all about the engine, I ought to be just fine, no?  Uh, no, it is indeed not just about the engine, unless you’re already strong enough to beat the field.  Allow me to explain…and humorously enough, only two years after the Cannondale and I’ve got ten times that $350 into the Venge – funny how things change.

Downtube Shifter

Integrated Brake-Shifter

Integrated Brake-Shifter

Having just spent 33 less than pain-free miles on the Cannondale, I noticed that my riding style completely changes between the Cannondale and the Venge/5200 – and it’s out of necessity.  With the modern integrated shifting levers on the brake hoods (aka brifters), shifting is almost an afterthought.  When I come up to a hill I can shift down a gear the instant my cadence slows…  I can then choose to muscle the rest of the hill out in that gear or downshift again.  With the downtube shifters because it’s such a stretch to shift, I have a tendency to try stay in a poor gear, just trying to get through it.  This presents all kinds of problems including tiring my butt out way too early.  On the other hand, if you can get strong enough to beat the competition on a bike with downtube shifters, when you upgrade to a modern bike, you will be able to decimate them – it can work both ways as long as you’re willing to be at a severe disadvantage.

Another problem with the older bikes, take mine for instance, is a lack of gears…  The Cannondale is a 7 speed with an 13-23 cassette with a 52/42 crank.  For gearing I’ve got 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23…  Great for flat-landing it but horrible for climbing, especially considering my Venge (11,12,13,14,15,17,19,21,24,28).  That 28 tooth sprocket makes a huge difference, not only on the steep stuff but on the rollers as well – I’ve only ever had to shift out of the big ring twice in the 1,000+ miles I’ve put on my Venge.  I’ve ridden on countless rollers and the 52/24 is more than easy enough for most of the hills I see day to day. [Side note for noobs:  When you’re in the big ring (52t in my case) you don’t use the last gear, the 28t sprocket on the Venge, because the chain has to cross too far to operate efficiently in that gear, so the lowest I go is 52/24.  If I’m on a hill that requires an easier gear I drop down to the little ring up front]

For noobs on a budget (like I was), this information can be extremely important.  Had I to do it over again, I’d have skipped the Cannondale and just bought the 5200 even if the C’dale did serve a purpose for a time and even if it does still look cool in the stable.  While it is more than possible to ride a downtube shifter bike just as fast as anyone else, I would never again choose to do so knowing what I know now…  They’re simply too inefficient.

Please, sound off in the comments with your perspective.


  1. I wonder if accidents are less now or more with integrated shifters? I can the old style causing problems as people would look down more if they had an issue with shifting.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Looking down is only necessary for a couple of days while you get used to them. I didn’t look down once riding mine the other day and I’ve only ridden the bike twice this year. That said, I’m a bad example because I’m very particular about making sure I’m a safe rider for others – I go a little further than many do. That’s a great point you make there.

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