Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why I will never go back to brifters

My Move away from Brifters, and why I won't be coming back to them.

At first glance, this title might sound retro-grouchy, even draconian towards the use of new technology. I might make readers assume that I refuse to see the benefits and performance gains that new components, such as brifters are offering cyclists. In part, that is true, and I won't deny my personal preference on the matter. However, I have found that after almost a year of riding a bike without brifters, or integrated shifters and brakes, I am now ready to leave them behind altogether. I have seen my riding technique improve dramatically since riding my new-old Woodrup steel bike, this summer attaining an average speed of 18 miles an hour, something I haven't done in a really long time since previous years past.

Riding in a modern day group ride or a criterium race, and you will constantly hear the clicking of gears, even going up or down the slightest elevation change. The ever increasing number of speeds on a rear cassette means riders really don't know what to set their gear ratios to. Riding with downtube shifters has made me realize how much of a handicap brifters are in covering up errors in one's riding and shifting technique. There are several component changes that have come up in recent years, such as the compact crankset, where riders don't even have to shift to the small chainring when climbing with the gear range they have on their rear cassettes. Most cyclists here in my area will not shift to the lower chainring for climbing, and I find that many of them churning their pedals slowly up hills, standing off of their saddles as they ungracefully climb to the tops of them. 

Prior to this year I was one of those cyclists that could sprint well but could be overtaken over a long distance by others who knew how to conserve their energy. Cycling is all about energy conservation and efficiency, and how to outperform other cyclists while using less effort. Through owning a bike with downtube shifters my pedal stroke while climbing has improved, I am able to pedal smoothly and efficiently up hills while passing other struggling cyclists, and my times have improved by almost two miles an hour. By not falling back on a wide range rear cassette ( I am currently riding a 7 speed 12-21 freewheel) and not having brifters, I have learned how to push through harder gears that I would have normally shifted down from, as well as to use my smaller chainring while climbing and calculating the terrain changes and adjusting my gear ratios accordingly.

I would compare the learning experience of riding a bike with downtube shifters with my experience in photography. My first photography class was a black and white photography class where we used traditional film cameras and developed our own prints. If it weren't for that class, I would have never developed an interest in photography. Just like a traditional photography class taught me the principles of lighting, shutter speed and lens aperture, the traditional downtube shifter bicycle has taught me the principles of shifting on a bike. It makes me want to ride my bike all the more, at a time when my interest in cycling in general waned a little bit, because of no longer having aspirations to do any serious racing (you can thank the Lance Armstrong culture for that). I might show up to a few races in the future, but it will be on my retro bike with downtubes. I will still try to place if I race again, though I am not realistically expecting to do so. So the serious intent isn't there anymore. Neither is the obsession with carbon fiber groupsets or $10,000.00 bikes.

By the way, did I mention that riding a bike with downtube shifters is way more fun than riding one with brifters? Learning how to coordinate a shift with one hand on the handlebar and another one on the shifter will be a challenge at first, but then it becomes one fluid, natural movement. Since downtube shifters are less accessible than brifters, the need to shift will be less and the rider will learn the gear that they will need to be in before they shift. 

I am now selling the very first road bike that I purchased new, my 2007 Raleigh Sport road bike with brifters. Anyone living in the Dallas metro area is welcome to it for 250 bucks.  Any takers?

Editor's note: Since I wrote this article, I acquired a lovely, new-old-stock steel Atala frame and equipped it with a pair of Shimano RSX brifters a co-worker sold to me for 25 bucks. Being the most economical option at the time to use brifters instead of downtube shifters, the brifters have stayed on the bike and I now once again have a bike with brifters, only that it is steel and that it is my size as well. Whatever you ride, love it because you use it, not because it cost you a lot of money.


  1. Hate to say it - but this article is drivel.

    The only point it attempts to makes is, "ride a heavy tank with poor gearing and you'll be faster than riding an overpriced high-end bike". It negates any factual or scientific physiologic information to prove the point.

    Riders on lighter bikes with less resistance use less energy, so they can ride longer and faster. Riders on bikes with more gears can more easily achieve and stay within their target zone on climbs, so they can ride further with less fatigue.

    There is no mythical secret. If old, heavy, downtube shifter bikes actually had more beneficial pros than cons, every pro would be training on one. But they don't. About the only use for them is someone looking to burn as many calories as possible with zero intention of speed.

    1. Ryan, as the average speed for 19 miles on my cycling computer proves (see photo in the article), riding on a bike with downtube shifters does not make you ride slow. And furthermore, my custom steel bike from the 80's weighs less than most medium level road bikes you can buy brand new. Do you like spending your life's savings on a bike because you think that's what you need to go fast? Keep drinking that Kool-Aid that marketers want you to believe. I worked in the industry, and I for one can tell you that Carbon fiber bikes don't come in sub 23 pounds unless they cost three grand or more. You might have that cash lying around or like to think that you do but most of us don't. My steel bike weighs 23 pounds with a Brook saddle and it cost me $300 used. On eBay it is still worth a couple of grand, research the brand Woodrup and you will see what I am talking about.

      I recently equipped one of my steel bikes with brifters because it was actually the most economical option at the time. I have the best of both worlds, road vibration dampening and accurate shifting combined into one lightweight package. That is the bike I plan to use in competition this year. I hope you get over your prejudice against steel bikes and downtube shifters. That way if one day you are passed on a hill by someone riding one you do not get bent out of shape and spend another ten grand on a carbon fiber bike only 10 grams lighter. At a certain point it's no longer about the bike but the person who rides it. Today's peloton doesn't ride on steel bikes? Madison Gensis rode steel bikes for the Tour of Britain last year, and Rapha Condor is another professional team that also rides steel bikes. Even if that wasn't the case (which it is), you and I will never appreciate the marginal gains that an uber-expensive carbon fiber bike is designed to give us. For that we would have to average 27 to 30 miles an hour on varied terrain, with headwinds and on any kind of bike like the pros do. At the local and amateur competition level steel is fine and will get the job done.

      Have fun riding on your plastic bike and keeping up with me on my steel steed. I'm on Edomondo and Map My Ride you can check out my speed if you're curious about what a steel bike can do.

    2. Erm, yeh. I really don't know why people won't embrace technology. I mean, brifters are so much easier to use than your shifters. Less effort. I'd like to see you shifting with those at 40mph on a descent. You cannot change your hand position that much to change gears without losing balance and control. Furthermore, carbon is much more comfortable than steel. I think it absorbs more road buzz.
      As for the comments about compacts, if you can pedal with a cadence of 80+ in the bigring then that is fine. I really don't understand your logic. Most of your shifting should come from the back. There is a reason why there are 10speeds. Any way, using the big ring gives you more torque owing to the larger gear. That is why generally even if the gears give you the same progression, using the bigring will give you more speed.

      Anyway, a lot of it is psychological. I'd rather have a nice looking carbon bike than an awful steel thing. And weight plays a huge part.

    3. 100th that where you ranked in your last race? Let's stick to the facts, and the fact is that I have bombed descents at 40mph on my steelie. The reason why there are 10 speeds on the rear cassette isn't as innocent as to have a wider range of cadence options. When bicycles went from 5 speeds to 6-7-8 speed freewheels, manufacturers had to stretch out the rear triangle to accommodate the extra gears. The axle diameter has gone from 126mm to 135mm in the last 30 years or so. With 11 speed, that axle length will get even bigger, making your current carbon fiber frame obsolete to the "new and improved" technology. Companies profit from selling the consumer new product, not from maintaining a bicycle over the course of more than 5 years. Unless someone shops around Ebay or craigslist, people have no choice but to upgrade. That's money out of your pocket, my friend. As regards to it subject being a psychological one, the argument can then be turned in favor of the steel bike. There are people who look the part and then there are people who are the part. Someone can look fast on a carbon bike with all of their gear, then get passed on an uphill by a guy on a steel frame wearing cargo shorts. I can prove this to you as of last week, when I rode my steel road bike 100 miles and droped a few guys my age (25-29 group) on their carbon fiber aerobar equipped bikes. I wasn't the fastest one, but I wasn't dead last.

      Look at the TDF peloton averages from the 80's and 90's, where guys were running 6-7-8 speed cassettes and freewheels. With all the new technology that has come out, pack averages have gotten about one mile per hour faster. Like you said, it's all psychological. 23 pound steel isn't awful, it's actually quite nice. Try it out sometime.

    4. The point of this article is...steel is real and downtube shifters are AWESOME. If steel bikes weren't all they were hyped up to be, they wouldn't hold so much prestige among custom bicycle manufacturers. Want a bicycle that came out of a factory mold from China? Buy a carbon bike. Want a bicycle that was hand brazed by an artisan? Get a steel bike. A new steel bike made to order costs a fortune. But wait, there's another option; and it's sitting in a garage sale near you for about $20. Used bikes are cheap. And when I say cheap I mean affordable to the average person. Without a coach, doping, a cycling team sponsorship and a $3,000.00 bike I average 18.5 miles an hour, on every ride. I'm just your average family man with responsibilities here.

      If you ride an aluminum or carbon bike, I'm not saying that you should sell your bike in a heartbeat and hurry to buy a steel bike. I'm not saying to get rid of your brifters. I writing an article of how riding a bike 21 years older than my first aluminum bike has given me steady progress year after year. Every year I'm just a little bit faster. That's more than I can say for many who hang out in the 16 to 17 mile an hour average, and that's just about every recreational cyclist out there, whether they are on carbon or aluminum. To all the skeptics I say buy a Reynolds 531 steel road bike off Craigslist and ride it for one summer. Come back to me and let me know how it went. If you're still not a believer, at least you can sound like you know what you are talking about when you post on my blog.

  2. The commentator who said this article was drivel was obviously trying to be incendiary and get a response from the author. Sometimes I publish these comments in order to prove that bike snobbery is alive and well today, especially with those people who are scared of getting beat on old technology or do not want to admit that they spent way over their heads on a bike they didn't need. As a kind reminder to my readers, please be thoughtful of the comments you leave on this page. I have to look at them before that are approved and published. Thank you again for your readership.

  3. Not sure if I quite agree (or maybe I don't understand what you're getting at).

    "...such as the compact crankset, where riders don't even have to shift to the small chainring when climbing with the gear range they have on their rear cassettes."
    - I don't see the link here; surely if they're riding a 12-25t cassette, their range isn't going to change if they're still in the same ring? OK, with the loss of 2 or 3 teeth in the compact big ring, it may be slightly lower gearing, but the range is still 50x12 to 50x25, no? The cassette range doesn't increase with compact cranks, the range just shifts down a little.

    I also don't see how their preference to stay in the same ring is connected to their inability to pick the correct gear for a hill. If they're in too high a gear, they're in too high a gear, regardless of chainring.
    I see the beauty of compact cranks being that there's less of a gear ratio 'overlap' between the rings, meaning if you were to work your way up the gears from very lowest to very highest, then you would not need to keep switching the chainring; I have a 53-43t crankset I've used for a while, and when laying out the gear ratios in a table, it's a zig-zag between rings as you move your way up the table.

    That said, if the rider is still grinding in the lowest gear of the big ring, then they clearly need to get better at picking their gears before the hill, I agree on that.
    Although again, I don't see the connection with their preference of brifters over shifters? Surely if anything, it would be easier to chain down a ring half way up a hill with brifters than downtube shifters! A couple of times starting out I tried powering up a hill in the big ring, only to curse myself halfway up as I slow and have to stand, knowing I can't sit back down, and can't reach the bloody downtube to change to the lower ring!! A knackered achilles taught me not to be so stupid in future.

    My argument then, is that I don't see how using downtube shifters and giving yourself a more limited gearing setup has improved your riding, aside from you having to use slightly higher gears on steeper inclines, improving your leg strength (or possibly slightly lower gears on lesser gradients, improving your cadence); is it not more likely, that you're simply more suited to the feel of a steel frame over an ali one? Or the geometry on your Woodrup is more suited to you than the Raleigh?
    I prefer a nice lugged steelie myself (with DT shifters), but it's more aesthetics and feel than anything (I particularly like friction shifters over indexing; I find it more satisfying to pick your own sweet spot, and a HELL of a lot easier to set up correctly).

    I've tried explaining myself enough so you don't think I'm trying to disagree for the sake of it, and I'd love a reply, especially if I'm way off; I don't race, and any riding is for my own weekend fun/fitness, so it's fair to say I'm inexperienced when it comes to the theory of higher end bikes.

  4. Hi Sean, thanks for your reply. The point of my article is that someone who is skilled at shifting on a bike with downtubes will be just as fast as someone who is skilled on a bike with brifters. I have both kinds of bicycles, and between my Atala with brifters and my Woodrup with downtubes the Woodrup is always the faster bike. The frame material on the Woodrup is lighter steel than the Atala and it absorbs vibration better so it's my go to bike when I know I will be riding out in the countryside in unkept roads.

    Riding a bike with downtube shifters will teach you that the majority of a bike's shifting should come from the front of the bike rather than the rear. When I ride my Woodup, I normally end up using only 3 out of the 7 gears in my freewheel, unless I have an incredible tailwind and in that case i'll gear down all the way to the 12 in the back with my 53 in the front, but it's a rare occasion, and we're already talking speeds of over 30 miles an hour. The advantage of having a 53/42 crankset is that you can usually leave the chain on the 3rd or 4 gear in the back and never have to shift during a ride. Just leave it on the 53 for flats and shift to the 42 for hills. You couldn't do this with a compact crankset with 50/39 gearing, the smaller gear range in the front forces you to have to shift down or pedal with a much higher cadence, usually going through the entire gear range of the rear cassette. Some guys get used to that cadence but others will burn out trying to keep up with the pack on a bike with smaller chainrings and bigger gears. Downtubes, and a 6 to 7 speed freewheel, just minimizes the process of choosing gears or having to click up or down at the slightest elevation change.

    I am not claiming that I will win any races on my bike with downtubes or that one bike or one riding style is better than another. But the perception of most cyclists today is that an old steel bike with downtubes amounts to as much as a beach cruiser when having to ride with other cyclists. My point is that a top of the line 1980's bike is still a top of the line bicycle today and can still keep up with the best bicycles. I wouldn't give it a second thought to ride my 80's bike in a long distance race or a triathlon, for example. The criterium based racing where I live makes me lean towards by bike with brifters because these races have tight cornering and are unpredictable.

    I love old bikes. They're cheap, they're fast, their durable and replacement parts can still be found for many of them. For the majority of my riding, I use a classic road bike with downtubes. The Atala with brifters usually sits nice and pretty in the shade. Just my 10 cents.

  5. I'm reminded of the weight obsession my buddies and I had in the 70's and 80's. Getting that bike under xx lbs. Then one of the "gurus" we hung with said, "After the first mile, tell me you can actually feel that weight difference you worked so hard at to achieve". Heh, he was right, you can't.

    As I write I'm building a steelie from the 70's with 80's "upgrade" components. I think the bike will weigh in at 20-21 lbs. Light enough in my (older) book.

    I say, ride what like, and like what you ride.

    OH, I love down tube snifters, wouldn't have it any other way.

  6. I ran across your blog looking for the term "Brifters" as that was new bikie term to me. I've been riding for over 40 years. Raced from the late 70's through the mid 1980's on steel friction shifting bikes with toe clips. Shifting a friction shiftier bike is second nature to me. I grew up on it. I rarely miss a shift ever! I never opted to get a new bike until this spring after all these years. I've been using friction shifting exclusively till now. Till 2014 my newest bike was a 1985 wilier triestina I bought new. Bronze Cromovelata, all pantographed SR components. It's a beautiful bike.

    I can say I can't quite agree with your reasoning, about brifters vs down tube shiting. I've put about 4,000 miles this year on a 2010 Merckx , 2005 De Rosa and a 2003 Masi, all Carbon bikes. All fitted with Campy 10 or 11 speed setups. My Newish Merckx having a brand new 2014, 11 Ti SR gruppo. There is no doubt in my mind the CF frame and modern shifters allow me to average higher speeds and also climb more effectively. I can now climb out of the saddle and shift when climbing. Something I could never do with down tube shifters. I live in WA state, not exactly a flat place. My 26 mi training route has 2,000 ft climbing. I do that 3-4 times a week. I've been on several rides this spring with over 7000 ft of climbing in a 70 mi or less route and some centuries with over that. Having a bike that climbs well is important to just finishing a ride like those.

    To think you can actually shift a down tube bike and go just as fast as a "brifters" equipped one is unsound logic. I cannot shift the down tube bike nearly as quick as my modern one. It physically isn't possible. Shifting fast is key to going fast. Being in the right gear at the right time is the key to winning or loosing a race. In my case, I've dropped over 5 minutes on my 26 mile route over the best I could accomplish with any of my nearly 50 steel bikes in my fleet of vintage rides. I own all race bikes from the 1960- mid 1980's not touring bikes. All lightweight vintage steeds. You simply cannot climb as fast on a bike that is 3-5 lbs heavier and that takes over twice as long to shift. Sure I can nearly match my speeds on the flats and downhills on a steel bike that I can on a carbon one, but that's where it ends. Climbing with the older bike is well just slower, sometimes 2-3 mph slower. Sure I can go over 40 mph and I can also sprint at 35 mph+ on a steel bike, but the carbon bike still gives me higher performance in all areas, downhill, uphills, sprinting etc. According to Stava, I'm usually 5-7% faster all the time on a CF bike over steel. Even faster on the climbs! All due to better shifting and lighter weight of the new bike. The carbon bike is also more comfortable on long 100 mile rides. I know I've done 4 this year.

    So not one to rain on the steel parade as I own many such bikes myself. I would think about if you really can go just as fast on a down tube shifting bike as you can on a modern "brifters" equipped one. I think if you push yourself on each to maximum output and skill, you may find the modern bike is simply faster.

    White Salmon,WA

    1. Thanks for your comment Frank. If you ever need to sell any of your bikes in the future, let me know! It sounds like you have an impressive collection. I'm in the market for a Colnago or Wilier myself.

      This year I pushed my average speed up to 18.5 miles an hour on every ride on the same steel bike pictured in this article. I can only remember one single ride on my aluminum brifter equipped bike where I rode 19mph over 25 miles. It was a freak event, there must have been no wind at all that day.

      Here in Texas the topography is much flatter than in Washington state. However, we do have strong plains winds and lots of rolling terrain, so it's not exactly a cake walk to ride against a 20mph headwind, or ride 100 to 200 foot rollers for miles on end. In the summer, the heat can get over 100 degrees a day for 90 days or more. Each place has it's own set of challenges, and bikes have to be geared up accordingly. My gear ratio will probably not work in Washington, as you might find yourself over-spinning your gears here where you would normally find your cadence going uphill.

      Shifting quickly could be the key to winning many sprint finishes, I can't argue with that. However sometimes there are technologies that go too far, or simply don't work when they have to. Many professional riders have already turned down Di2 on their bikes because it can break down if the battery runs out. Mark Cavendish threw is bike in frustration after a race because he said that the hydraulic caliper brakes were locking up and slowed him down. In my opinion, having a mechanically sound bike is better than having the latest technology. Either way unless you're a sprinter or a points leader or breaking away from the field shifting that quickly will not matter. These are strictly race situations, unlike training rides and centuries which are usually not in the race format.

      I finished my last century in under 8 hours. I had my 23 pound Woodrup, A Camelbak backpack with a Nikon digital SLR, a frame pump, a spare innertube, a flanel long sleeve shirt and 2 liters of water. The high that day was 103 degrees. I had a headwind of 20mph for the last 30 miles of my ride. Had I ditched the backpack and made about 3 less stops, I would have finished it in under 6 hours. But again, I wasn't racing, only racing the cutoff time and racing for my own survival.

      Some people simply don't like to make payments on a bike. I'm one of them. If I can buy a nice steel bike for a couple of hundred versus putting a carbon bike on a credit card, I'm buying the steel bike every time. This blog leans sort of retrogrouch because of that. I'm sure all you just stated about your experiences with carbon vs. steel is true. However, what's old becomes new again and my generation is bored of riding carbon and aluminum bikes, it's all we've ever seen. That's why there's a misconception that to get into cycling you need a $5,000 bike, when that shouldn't be the case at all. Thank you for sharing your point of view as I am sharing mine.

  7. Hi Johnny,

    Yes, every area has a different terrain to ride in. Texas is hotter, flatter than where I live. Here in what is called the Columbia River Gorge, an area famous for it's high winds, sometimes exceeding 40 and even 50 Knots! Windsurfing and kite boarding are extremely popular as are all outdoor sports. Hiking, mt biking, road cycling, kayaking, sailing etc. I commonly ride stiff headwinds of 20-30mph often, on super windy days over 40 mph I often don't ride much, Too easy to be blown sideways by crosswinds and wreck. It's also hot, maybe not Texas hot, but 2 centuries ago it was 96 and it's been in the 90 and over 100 several weeks this summer.

    I understand you discovering vintage bikes and down tube shifting as maybe you're bored with the bikes you grew up with, but I can assure you having raced for nearly 10 years on a down tube fiction shifting bike, the modern ones allow faster shifting which is important even on century rides, not races. Being in the right gear at the right time is always important. Sure you maybe not going for the best time on such a ride but still being efficient at climbing or going down hill finding that perfect gear for the next up hill is always a good idea.

    When I was racing growing up in Iowa I did a lot of centuries, with best of 4:15. One summer I did 15 in training for state roads. Most where sub 5 hr centuries (including) stops. This was on a down tube shifting bike in my 20's. Out here with the mountains and climbing, I have not gdone under 5.5 hrs this year. I'm now 51. So I feel that the terrain it so much steeper than Iowa (which is mostly rolling hills and flats). So I'm thinking I'm not much slower than I was then. My age rage is seems to be the most comp

    On my old school bikes I run a 13-26 rear cluster with a 53/42 front chain rings around here. When I was racing in Iowa I used a straight block 13-19 or 13-21. We didn't have 12 tooth cogs often available before 1984 I think. On my modern bikes due to the hills I run a 52/42 with 12-29 11 speed. Most of my fiends run 11-25 rear cogs with a compact crank. They think I'm silly for using a "normal" crank.

    Technology is always changing our environment. With bikes it's been a natural progression. I don't always agree with what the big manufactures do and their marketing ploys and underhanded ways, so I use my buying power and shy away from the ones I disagree with, namely Shimano, Trek and Specialized. This is my choice. I have never spent more than $3,500 on a bike which is in line easily with my first new bike I bought in 1980, a new Columbus SL Viner frameset with campy NR for a total of $1,200. Take inflation into account and the new bike was nearly the same!

    My newest bike:
    2010 EMX-3 Merckx frame: NOS for $500,
    Campy SR Ti gruppo (new from various sources): $1,800.
    Used wheels 4 years old: $550
    Bars/stem/saddle/WB cages $500
    = $3,450

    So that is my most expensive bike. The other two Carbon bikes (2005 DeRosa and 2003 Masi) I paid less than $1,500 each for. You'd be hard pressed to find a super nice steel bike with nice SR components for too much less. Sometimes I have found nice SR equipped bikes for as low as $600, but those days seem to be gone, most are now offered for $800-$3,000 depending upon the Marque and the venue it's sold at. Ebay more, craigslist less. Word of mouth best. Sure you can buy a trashed bike for far less, but then fixing it up costs $$$$$. Better to just buy a nice one that's been well cared for.

    Anyways, enjoy your vintage bike. I enclose a link to my Wilier on Velobase here, you can also see my user name and probably a couple other bikes I posted there as well. I have not put all of them up! No time to take pictures of them all! Only the nicest ones.


    1. That is a very nice Wilier Frank! The Woodrup featured in this article cost me $300 on craigslist, most components on it are Campagnolo C-record. The least I spent on a campy equipped bicycle was $160 for a nearly mint Guerciotti with all campy victory. I have been able to buy other campy equipped bikes for less than $300 as well, not in collectable mint condition, but pretty well kept or in restorable condition. Sometimes I would comb over the classifieds for months to find one, other times I have responded to obscure ads with poor pictures and other times through word of mouth. I've yet to find the bike I'm really after, which is a Colnago Superissimo, an Art Decor or a Master X, in my size with super record on it. I hope to be one of those garage sale or goodwill stories you read about on about the guy who scores the Colnago for $20. Alright, I'm sure I'm sounding like a cheapskate, but finding a deal on a bike makes it all the more enjoyable for me.

  8. I'm a big fan of old steel bikes, and I have no issue with down-tube shifters; but to say they have some sort of built in advantage over brifters is pure nonsense. You're not riding faster because of the down-tube shifters; you're hitting higher speeds because changing gear less often is helping you develop stronger leg muscles and maintain a more steady cadence. But this could still be achieved with brifters if you resisted the temptation to change gear at every given opportunity. Regardless, the actual speed any bike is capable of - ignoring the person who's riding it - is determined by things like bearings, the weight of the frame, the quality of rims, and has nothing really to do with the method of transmission.

    1. You may be onto something here, James. I especially agree with what you said about bearings and rims being determining factors for speed on a bicycle.

  9. I read your article and first few comments and holy sour grapes. Also stem or bar end are much better than down tube that is dumb as hell

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read all the way through an article and comment section you perceived as being dumb, only to provide input that was not so intelligent in of itself. No sour grapes here, I ride what l like to ride because it works for me. I also have a bike with stem shifters on it, however I don't see how that is relevant as that wasn't part of the article in the first place.

      Fat cyclists with overhanging, bulging waistlines obviously are on a disadvantage on a bike with downtube shifters, seeing as how many of them can't even reach down to shift. A bike with brifters, or like you said, stem shifters might suit the beer gut, out of shape cyclist better. I personally ride my bike with stem shifters during the winter when I gain about ten pounds and I'm out of shape, and I have no where to go fast. be real for a second; If you can't ride a bike with downtube shifters, you're better off on a mountain bike or a hybrid. Where does that leave you, Anonymous poster?

  10. I have several old steel bikes, some with downtube, one "upgraded" to brifters. I've had a ti Litespeed, and just got my first carbon bike. I've always hated the thought of carbon, but I have to weigh in after a few rides:
    - my personal records are falling fast. My first ride on carbon beat my best daily commute to work (took almost 1 min off of a 56 min effort) and home from work (similar 1 minute). I came back a few days later and bested one of those again. these were routes that I've ridden MANY times.
    - Carbon smooths out the road a bit better than my triple butted univega nuova sport (my Superstrada does ride pretty nice though)
    - I smash my climb times on carbon
    - the control while descending on modern carbon blows my steelies away (could be in the setup, as I haven't been fitted).

    Now the author here buys old steelies on the cheap, but then refers to modern carbon costing many thousands. How about buying lightly used carbon - my Felt F4 with original tires, minimal wear, and full ultegra and ksyriums was less than $1k.

    Another issue: author loves shopping for old steelies (as I do). If you count that effort as a cost (heck, I'm a teacher and I earn over $40/hr), these aren't as cheap.

    In the end, I'm thinking of selling the carbon bike, as I don't like the sound it makes and I feel bad for my neglected steel bikes. But make no mistake, if I had to be fast, I'd pull out the carbon in a big way.

    1. I have to agree that the cost of carbon fiber bikes, as well as good bikes in general, has fallen due to online retailers driving down prices. I just bought a Motobecane Super Strada (Is that the same bike you own, by any chance?) with Ultegra 11 speed components and Mavic Aksium wheels for an even 1K. It is an aluminum frame with a carbon fiber fork, so I can't say that I exclusively ride steel bikes anymore. The only reason why I bought it was the price point and the fact that I really do want to be competitive. I still ride my steel bike on all of my training rides as the added weight is good strength training for my legs.

      I'm not telling people to get rid of their carbon fiber bikes or their bikes with brifters. The point of this article is to inform people that they don't need an expensive or modern bike to enjoy cycling or even to hang in the group rides or centuries. I rode my 1980's downtube shifter bicycle at the Hotter N' Hell Hundred last year and finished the ride in 7 hours and 45 minutes. I know that I would need something a lot more modern to podium in the same event, but the old bike does just fine if I'm not planing on being competitive. To each his own, don't sell your bike if you really don't want to or if you're not being pressured to by your spouse. It's nice to train on the old stuff and leave your racing bike race ready and gently used.

  11. Somehow my comment was deleted :(

    Long story short: congrats on 19mph avg. You are where I strive to be.

    My bike: circa 1978 Windsor Pro frame (and some original components), custom wheel set, downtube shifters. ~23lbs

    Main point: after shopping for a lighter bike that I am told will make me go faster, I discovered that bikes in the $1-2K range are at or BARELY lighter than mine. I am a big fan of vintage steel frames, I think they are obtainable priced and have competitive weight. I still think I might try out brifters, but like a wise man once said, "there are no fast bikes, only fast riders."

    Conclusion: I think that brifters might work better for some beginning riders, like the parallel you draw to photography; although film allows for a deeper understanding and relationship with the art, digital has a gentle learning curve and is more readily accessible. I am right there with you on steelies but I disagree on the brifters: I think they will let me simultaneously turn/shift/go uphill, but I'll let you know if I change my mind after a few miles.

    Take care,

    1. Thanks for your comment Josh, I'm glad you grasped the point I was trying to convey in my article.

      Going above a 19mph average is a hard endeavor no matter what bike you ride. It takes discipline and riding consistently at least a couple of days a week to achieve this. I'm just showing people that it can be done on an original 80's steel bike with no upgrades. Most recreational non-racer cyclists will hang in the 16-17 mph range, even with nicer, more modern equipment. I say train hard on the vintage bikes to appreciate the marginal gains modern bikes have to offer. It's a process and there are no shortcuts.

  12. hi,i love 531 framed bikes but have changed to brifters on all mine for the simple reason that if i use downtube shifters for a bit and then use another bike with brifters i find myself reaching to the downtube looking for the changer, same as with cross levers only fit them if you can fit to all your bikes.
    back to tube shifters all a mater of personal perferance if thats what you like then go with it, i would rather see someone on a bike should it be a steel framed bike like most of mine or an ultra morder bike with electric gear change than someone in a car, main thing is get out on your bike enjoy it and respect other cyclists no mater what there bike is.

  13. like johnny guzman my perferance is steel framed bikes, only difference is i now use brifters but agree that downtube shifters can be great,last summer i borrowed a bike with tube shifters for a week and thought of changing my bikes.
    main thing is unless entering races then pick a bike that you are confortable with and happy to use that way you will use it all the more and thats what cycling is all about.

  14. Stripping my 2014 Madone 4.7 next week and putting all the components, except a vintage campy post and cinelli stem and bars, onto a Colnago Mexico frame. This will be a brifters group, mix of Dura Ace and Ultegra, but I will definitely be building a full on Eroica bike too. Carbon leaves me cold. I'm an extremely fit 55 year old, but I ride for the the feel and frankly could care less if the bike makes me 1 mph faster or slower. As long and I stay lean and mean and do the Eroica in CA next year.

    1. Awesome! Wait..the Eroica is going to be held in California? That's news to me, maybe I might make the trip over there too!

  15. Johnny, it's sad how many people invoke "logic" as their appeals to authority, while they obviously fail to realize that logic leads to false beliefs when the wrong variables in the equations are assumed. The cycling/human system is way too complex to rely on logic to prove or disprove anything. It is a useful tool to point one in the right direction, sometimes. It is a nice tool for explaining why a given phenomenon MIGHT be exhibiting. But we are all actually quite logical enough, and the logic-insults are unnecessary, unless that's all you got.

    But, Johnny, I like your points (perhaps because I am able to understand them. That helps.) It seems that when shifting at the speed of thought became the marketed/raced norm, power-meters became necessary in training and even competing. Adding scientific units is a poor middleman to understanding the perception of exertion and understanding gears. Lemond didn't want to know his heart-rate in his historic time trial that led to and 8 second TDF win. Merckx knew his gears - so he didn't need a power-meter. A very good case can be made for the brifter's role as crutch, as you have done. Crutches can be good. To deny that brifters are crutches for many, at least, is imperceptive.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I also wanted to add that since I wrote this article I purchased a cycling computer and have tracked the same cycling route for several weeks now. I have done the course on my bicycle with Ultegra 6800 brifters and my Woodrup with downtube shifters. I actually got a few personal best times on my Woodrup on some of the climbing segments that I normally do and I clocked an 18.2 average for the ride, proving to myself at least that this bike is capable of being ridden in the group rides that I participate in.

  16. This is a great article, I'm glad I've found it.
    I've bought my first race bike a month ago and it's an Atala Olympic from 1988. I took it twice for some 130 km rides and it performed well only some minor glitches came up during the ride due to poor maintenance. The reason why I'm here is that I also found downtube shifters cumbersome and even dangerous because you can lose control while shifting. So I decided to replace it in the near future with some convenient equipment, but having read this article I think it is not that important afterall. I was able to adjust them to shift from top to bottom and back quite smoothly so they actually work. Nevertheless I've already replaced the brake levers while re-taping the handlebar and I should be replacing them again to have brifters.
    Biking as a hobby has become a matter of social rank lately (like many other sports) but that's not why I wanted to own a race bike. I have had the opportunity to try a 3000$ value bike with Shimano Ultegra d2i equipment before and I don't really feel the difference (except that I'm not deadly afraid of the bike being stolen). Compared to my former mountain bikes I find the weight extremely light, the ride is comfortable and pleasant. Probably my bike was mainly used for fancy urban purposes by the former owner (to the pub and back home) so I had to give back its dignity to serve as was intended to. The frame, wheels and the mechanism were in a good state, however I had to make some improvements to make it suitable for longer trips (maintenance, worn part replacement, saddle replacement and spd pedal installation). Simply by changing the light colored parts (saddle, tyres, handlebar tape and cable housing) to black it has a more contemporary look already and it cost me around 200$ only. I'm riding it because I love it and I want to do some sports not because I feel the pressure to go out and show the world how rich and cool I am,
    Besides, during my trips I met some people who wanted to take a look at my bike just because they were also fans of Atala.

    1. Thanks for sharing. Every time I bring my 80's bike to group rides, all I get are compliments about my bike. Very few people will snob it for it being 30 years old, rather people are impressed that I'm keeping pace with them without the latest technology. Most of the guys who compliment me own bikes that cost them over $3,000. Cycling, even road racing shouldn't become a spending contest to see who has the most expensive bike or the one Peter Sagan uses. Sure it's not the cheapest way of getting into a sport but most people should be able to ride a good racing bike, even if it is an Atala or a Woodrup.

  17. I ride alone on a collection of restored Chicago Schwinn lightweights from Varsity's to Paramount's and everything in between. I could not care less what anyone thinks about it. I just love old steel.

    1. Ride on follow Schwinn enthusiast! I have only come across Schwinn Le Tours and a Traveler in the area where I live. Every time I find a Paramount or a World Traveler, I usually can't afford to buy it at the moment or I'm busy with other projects.

  18. I wrote this blog post two years ago. It's nice to see I'm still getting feedback from it. I recently averaged over 18mph an hour again over 3 laps around White Rock Lake. Just to show you guys that it wasn't a one off experience, here's the Strava link...

  19. Hi Johnny,

    Late to the party having just found this article Googling "brifters". I've been riding for 40 or so years, used to raced and up until the bike I just bought (12/2015) I have ridden steel. Last bike was a custom build and a beautiful bike to ride. It met it's death via a pickup truck in 2000 and I haven't had a true road bike since. Due to carrying numerous injuries I opted for a Trek Domane 5.2. It's a carbon frame designed for endurance and comfort. Weighs about 17-18 pounds with all the mod cons - Shimano Ultegra groupset. (not discs brakes though). This thing eats up rough roads with off the shelf sizing that fits my 6'3" build, and the shifting is great. I got a good deal on price and there's no way I could get a custom steel this light for the same price. The reason that custom builders often still build in steel (titanium etc.) is that the knowledge, technology, machinery, and time to construct a high quality custom bike from carbon are simply out of the reach of most bike builders.

    I agree that spending more time building strength and technique will bring you benefits, this would also occur when applied to modern equipment. I always trained on heavier bikes for that reason.

    Overall, downtube shifters don't offer the same safe shifting that integrated shifters do. There really is no arguing that point, taking your hands off the bars can during certain situations is just asking for trouble. I should note that I have been using integrated shifters since about 1993. (As an aside, I know a one armed cyclist and integrated shifters and expanded cassettes have allowed him to get back into cycling following his accident).

    I still love the ride a steel frame offers, but since your article was written Carbon has come even further. Most of the effort we put into pedaling is to overcome wind resistance but having a light, nimble and responsive bike makes a big difference and carbon is the option that is now within most people's price range and offers a nicer ride than most alloy bikes. Most certainly the ability of a steel bike to take a hit and be repaired beats a carbon, and even alloy, bike hands down.

    Tech for tech's sake is never wise but I think that both the public majority and pelton's choice's over time illustrate that there leaning towards carbon and tech on bikes. Marketing power notwithstanding, the fact that these choices have been sustained over a decade now does seem to speak to more than just perceived benefits.

    1. Thanks for reading my article and posting a comment. I'm glad to see this article is still getting views. Since I've written this article I have bought a few road bikes that come with brifters, so I can't say that I have been true to my stand against them. That being said I have two personal climbing records on Strava that I achieved on my steel bikes with downtube shifters that I haven't been able to beat with my modern bikes. There is a number of circumstances that will allow someone to be better on an old steel bike. The rider's fitness, weight and skill have a lot to do with it. An unskilled cyclist isn't going to be better on an old bike, but then again they would be inexperienced on a new bike as well. There are however, have bikes that fit like a glove and sync with the bodies bio-mechanics, even though they are vintage. Last year I rode a century in 5:38 on my new bike. When I got to the finish line, there was already a guy on an old Rossin who had beat me to it. In the end, it's just a matter of choice I guess.

  20. Yes, as a general rule the bike you ride isn't going to make a crazy amount of difference, and a better rider on an "old" bike is going to crush a weaker rider on his new 14lb carbon bike with deep section wheels.

    In other words, you can ride pretty damn fast on a steel bike. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that a lighter bike is faster on climbs and to accelerate. Will most people notice a 2kg weight difference? Probably not. Definitely if you compete and are a decently competitive racer though.

    Shifting wise is where I really begin to disagree with you.

    "Riding a bike with downtube shifters will teach you that the majority of a bike's shifting should come from the front of the bike rather than the rear. When I ride my Woodup, I normally end up using only 3 out of the 7 gears in my freewheel The advantage of having a 53/42 crankset is that you can usually leave the chain on the 3rd or 4 gear in the back and never have to shift during a ride. Just leave it on the 53 for flats and shift to the 42 for hills."

    This is exactly how I wouldn't want to ride. To maintain a reasonable cadence of even 90 rpm with a 42/27 you're going a little over 11mph. On an 8% climb you're talking about 5.5 w/kg to hold that pace, something the typical rec cyclist would struggle to do for 3 minutes going to the well as hard as they can. For a typical 2.5 w/kg strong hill pace for the rec cyclist they would be going about 5.5 mph which would mean a cadence in the low 40s. That's ridiculous grinding.

    That sort of gearing works okay if you're on the flats or on rolling terrain with short hills that you can power over. Get into decent sustained climbs of 10 minutes or more and a 42 low gear is the last thing the typical rec cyclist needs. Even guys like Contador and Froome are routinely using setups like 34-28 or 39-32 on climb heavier days.

    "You couldn't do this with a compact crankset with 50/39 gearing, the smaller gear range in the front forces you to have to shift down or pedal with a much higher cadence, usually going through the entire gear range of the rear cassette."

    On a 50/34 pedaling up to 100rpm gets you all the way to 35mph. For short emergency siutations you can certainly pedal in the low 40s. That's about as fast as you'll ever go on flat terrain unless sprinting. Unless you're a sprinter or racing a TT with a long pedalling downhill there aren't that many cases where you desperately need a 53 to keep up with people.

    "Downtubes, and a 6 to 7 speed freewheel, just minimizes the process of choosing gears or having to click up or down at the slightest elevation change."

    This again, I rather disagree with. That shifting on each slight elevation change is precisely what is best to do on the bike. It allows you to maintain your optimal and comfortable cadence at all times. In other words I can keep myself at 100rpm all the time, and not have to jump down to 70rpm when I get to a steep climb.

    Not to mention on a 6spd the gaps between gears are larger. This means many more situations when I would have to pedal 92 rpm when I want to be pedalling at 100rpm. Doesn't have a major impact on speed as the watts can be put down just the same...but it does make the ride less pleasurable not being able to pedal as desired.

    The lack of grinding keeps the legs fresher deeper into the ride, makes for a comfortable ride, and of course has no effect on the ability to lay down the watts. You can murder yourself just as easily on a 50/34 11spd as you can on a 53/42 6spd.

    1. Now that I also own a bike with compact gearing and brifters, I also agree on some of the points you are making, namely on riding up sustained climbs over 3 minutes long. Last year I took an older Marin road bike with a triple chainring and 11-23 cassette to climb the mountains of Puerto Rico. I ran out of gears on a steady 10% gradient of the mountain, and couldn't summit that day because my legs were shot.

      As far as rolling hills and short bursts of effort, I have dropped the A group on my rides using my 1980's steel bike, as well as on my fixed geared track bike and my modern bike with brifters. These guys are all seasoned riders on $3k carbon fiber bling bikes. Many of them compete in local Cat 5 races and do Triathlons. Here is a link to one of the rides I did recently.

    2. Also I would like to add that holding a 90rpm cadence is generally easier to do a bike with compact gearing and an 11-32 cassette, however the same cadence can be achieved by dropping down to the middle chainring on a traditionally geared bike and staying around the middle of the 11-28 cassette. I have used both, I ride both and it really doesn't make a difference until you are climbing mountains. Now that I have experienced what a 25% grade looks like in person, the next time I am climbing something that steep I will be on mountain bike gearing for sure!

    3. Oh yea, 25% is something else, especially if it's sustained for anything more than a minute or two. I've been on 350w and going under 4mph before up some really steep stuff. Something that steep it's just about doing whatever you can to keep the gear turning.

      On flats it should be no trouble to keep 90-100rpm at all times. I think even if you have 39-25 or something like that you can go all the way down to 13 or 14mph before you're out of gear to keep at 90. If you've got a 34-28 you can keep 90rpm all the way down to around 8.5mph.

      As someone who lives in good ole mountainous Colorado and likes to keep 95-100rpm cadence I definitely like having that 34-28 in the back!

      And yea, it's always a nice feeling when you drop the person on the 8k, 6kg, 303 zipp wheels bike on an old beater. Weight and aerodynamics make a modest difference in the right circumstances...but are no match for differences in rider fitness!

  21. What modern tech would Eddie Merckx have liked on his bike back in the day? "Click pedals and the shifters in the brake levers." Brifters, yeah, I love them too.

    1. Whatever worked for Eddy in 1976 works for me too. He's an old guy now, of course he is going to want brifters, he can't even reach the downtube shifters anymore! All kidding aside, I use both and alternate between them frequently (almost every other ride). Many people have only used one or the other. As far as performance goes, the skill and fitness of the rider is 90% of the equation. The rest is the weight of the bike and the tech advancements that are made.

  22. I've been riding road bikes since I was a kid in the late 70's. It's funny now that there's whole generations of cyclists who never rode a bike with DT shifters, who struggle with finding a gear, worry about taking their hands off the bars, don't think ahead about shifting- all skills I take for granted. But I did finally switch to Campy Ergo, then Ultegra brifters. They are indeed smoother, faster, I never drop the chain. When I did fast group rides with DT shifters, I couldn't match the cadence since everybody had more gears- and slowing while fumbling a shift was a problem, too.
    No, I'm not any faster- sometimes I am on my fixed gear! I still love steel for the road feel.

  23. Wow. Post is almost 3 years old and still getting comments. Nice! (I see you've reversed yourself a little in the comments. It's all good!)

    You still riding that Atala?

    I brought my own Atala out into the daylight literally just weeks ago after mouldering in the basement for over 25 years (which is to say, I haven't ridden a bike in over 25 years).

    So here's the thing... not long after that, I tried an indexed, trigger-shifter bike for the first time. Ever. (Not brifters, but the flat-bar equivalent?)

    The simple fact is that the new stuff is FUN!

    I almost immediately ordered new wheels, cassette, derailleur and shifter to replace my old 6-speed downtube friction shift. I have no regrets. None at all. It's FUN, so I end up riding whenever and wherever I can.

    And that's it, right? If it gets me riding more, it's a good thing. If it gets others riding more, it's a good thing.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Some time ago I a bought a aluminium framed bike with brifters and thoroughly enjoy it, but just before doing a hilly Audax ride I broke my gear hanger so I quickly fitted my wheels, gears, saddle and pedals onto my old 531c bike, which still had its original brakes and dt shifters. I was pleasantly surprised how much fun it was to ride, no slower and of course it benefited from newer and more gears, and friction dt shifters give a very slick gear change with modern cassettes. So both frames are in use now, steel in winter and ali in summer.

  26. As a child I rode at the velodrome in trexlertown PA and rode on the roads around my house in emmaus PA. shifting was on the down tube and having a 12speed was a big deal. At some point my bike was stolen and I had started to loose interest in riding.

    Fast forward 20 years, after two knee surgeries, not replacement but significant amount of work done, still have two titanium screws in both and never thinking I would ski again I was fat shamed by my 66 year old father to start riding. He had a new Scott and I was using a old Nishiki and I got mauled by the big bug and purchased a new bike with campy veloce group. To me having the shifting and the breaking all at my finger tips was the biggest most awesome improvement. I LOVE IT!!! So to say I could disagree more would be an understatement but to each his own.

    But you're not alone Mr. Bob Roll feels the same way. Happy riding!

  27. Love the passion this post created. End of the day, if you are out there riding loving your bike, more power too you steel or carbon or whatever but:

    I'll just say that I "upgraded" to a used carbon bike this year (2017 Felt AR2 with (shock, horror) electric brifters. Probably cost me $1500 in your money (I'm in Aus). On my regular ~43k ride over varied (490m of climbing) terrain I went from From 1h 56mins to 1 hour 44 mins on the day I changed bike. i.e from about average ~ 14mph to 16mph. I started riding this year. I like the look of my new carbon bike. I am slowing my faster friend down less.
    And it is just a joy to ride. If I ever get my overly large 95kg posterior up to an 18mph average I'll let you know.