I have bought a vintage Campagnolo road bike, so the shifters are on the down tube.

I own a mountain bike and i am used to changing gears on that one, but don't know the proper technique to change on this one.


  • I am concerned about the technique (which hand to use, how do you keep the other on the handlebar)
  • how do you know to shift in the correct position without an indexed shifter
  • other tips and tricks

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  • What exactly is your concern? Is it the fact that you can't reach the shifter with your hands on the bars? Or the fact that it's not indexed? Or something else?
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Jan 25, 2011 at 16:36
  • This sounds like the questioner is asking how to switch gears smoothly, and is concerned in particular with letting go of the bars? @solomongaby, can you please confirm and edit your question to be clearer? Commented Jan 25, 2011 at 19:22

7 Answers 7


Downtube shifters will really get you in touch with your bike--more than with many other shifting systems, I believe that I can actually FEEL the rear derailleur moving in my hand when I use them.

Needless to say, I ride a lot of old road bikes.

You will quickly gain the control to shift either from various hand positions on your road bars. Assuming the bike fits you, you should ultimately be able to use the shifters from nearly any position. You will, of course, use the right hand to shift the rear derailleur and the left hand to shift the front.

I will talk mostly about shifting the rear derailleur, as it will require the most control and finesse.

Note also that these shifters each have two main parts that are pertinent here, the LEVER and the BARREL. The lever is pretty obvious--it's the usually-flattened handle that sticks out. The barrel is the round bit which is attached to the frame. The cable wraps around this round bit--as you turn the shifter, more or less cable is wrapped which is how the shifter moves the cable and thus the derailleur.

Ordinarily, when I reach down and the bike is in high gear--with the shift lever all the way forward and parallel with the downtube--I will grasp the lever by wrapping the thumb of my right hand over the end of the shift lever. I press the side of my pointer finger against it and slowly pull back. This motion has less control over precise gearing and is best suited for quickly downshifting before climbing.

If I am already in low gear and the shifter is out away from the downtube, I usually actually grasp the entire lever with my right hand. In this mode, the tip of my thumb is on the barrel and my fingers are all wrapped around the shift lever. Motion in either direction from this position can be very precise. As I said, you can feel the derailleur move if you're cables are new and well-greased.

It's a good setup for shifters, in my opinion. I can't say that I prefer downtube to integrated, but as far as simplicity is concerned... nothing beats it.

Except, perhaps, Sheldon Brown reaching down and putting his forefinger on the chain to move from upper to lower chainrings.

If you get a chance at the library, check out Understanding, Maintaining, and Riding the Ten-Speed Bicycle by Denise De la Rosa and Michael Kolin (Rodale Press, 1979). This book describes shifting and using downtube shifters rather well, right down to the groovy 70's costume. De la Rosa describes another method of hanging the thumb (I think) off of the top tube while reaching with the same hand's fingers down to the shift lever. This only would work on a frame smaller than mine, but it's another piece of cycling history.

I hope this helps. It certainly took my mind off my work for a few minutes!

  • Nice answer! Where you write "reaching down and putting his forefinger on the chain", do you mean the shifter cable? (A shop once gave me advice indicating that, until I could replace the broken shifter, I could shift by pulling on the cable and holding it.) Commented Jan 26, 2011 at 0:00
  • 6
    No--the actual chain. I have done this. One of my bikes is a triple but has no front derailleur. While coasting, I reach down, put my finger under the chain, lift up, and drop it down or place it on the next chain ring. I am not suggesting this is ultra-safe in traffic, but it works. I read that somewhere on a Sheldon Brown site, tried it--once you've done it a few times you don't even have to take your eyes off the road (which is nice).
    – DC_CARR
    Commented Jan 26, 2011 at 1:20
  • 1
    I've seen DC do it, and it's kinda horrifying and cool at the same time.
    – zigdon
    Commented Jan 26, 2011 at 7:52
  • @DC, How on earth can you reach it while on the bike? That sounds really crazy. I would love to see a youTube demonstration. Commented Jan 26, 2011 at 11:27
  • I will admit freely that I have a rather large ape index. I noticed this morning, riding in, that I tend to also brace my hand against the top tube while reaching down for the shifter. This may also improve stability. This is a modification of the technique described in la Rosa & Kolin's book.
    – DC_CARR
    Commented Jan 26, 2011 at 16:16

There's not much too it.

Reach down, move the lever until it's in the gear you want and adjust so there is no chain rattle. You'll get the hang of it quick.


Downtube shifters can be hard to get used to. When I first used them (after having more experience with on handlebar shifters) I would feel a bit wobbly when trying to shift. It really just takes practice. If they are not indexed (click into gear) then just push the lever (up or down) until the gear changes. If there is some chain rattle, then adjust until it goes away. After a while it will be second nature.


I ride a Dawes Scorpion and it uses downtube shifters as well. I learned how to shift both levers with my left hand, because I prefer to keep my dominant hand on the handlebars so to prevent wobblin' out on the road.


Spend some time on the bike, if your bike has down tube shifters I would suggest riding in a low position and get used to the balance of the bike when letting go with one hand. It doesn't take long and you'll have no problem at all. Simply ride only this bike for a couple of weeks and you'll be all set. After that go ahead and ride both. I have two bikes as your describing and this is what I did. Just a new habit to learn, don't over think it.


One thing downtube shifters will let you know right away is if your position is setup with your weight too far forward. If you've got too much weight on your hands it will be very difficult to take one hand away without first sitting up.

If you want to make life simpler, replace the cog set on the back with a more modern Freewheel that has hyperglide cogs. ( Sunrace is reasonably good and easy to find ).

If you stick with the old stuff, you'll need to learn the art of slightly overshifting and then trimming back.

Eventually, you will learn to shift either lever with either hand, or even both at once with the same hand. But it's simpler to start out by just using your dominate hand for both. While it's hard at the start, try and keep your eyes on the road and learn to shift by the sounds. Headphones and downtube shifters really don't mix very well.


The only thing I add is always shift with your left hand. With only one hand on the handlebar, which means only one hand can immediately brake, you would want your right hand so you pull your rear brake. No sense going over your handlebars if you have to brake fast.

  • 1
    Left/right brake handed-ness varies around the world. And rear-wheel braking is nowhere near as good as controlled front wheel braking. Some people are more dexterous with one hand over the other. Do consider taking the tour to see how SE works.
    – Criggie
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 5:20

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