The Golden Era: Downtube Shifters and Delta Brakes

The Golden Era: Downtube Shifters and Delta Brakes

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I miss downtube shifters.  I miss them in the same way I miss the days before the widespread use of race radios, when races were less choreographed and more unpredictable.  Racing on downtube shifters, a rider had to be seated and take one hand off the bars to shift.  Shifting had to be planned into race tactics.  These days, we can enter a hairpin bend in one gear and exit out of the saddle in another all while never moving our fingers off the brakes.  We can shift into any gear we want while mashing the pedals up a steep incline.  With downtube shifters, a rider had to plan for corners and enter the turns in the gear they planned to exit it in; they had to commit to the gear they were going to sprint in.  If they were in the wrong gear when an attack went, they had to stay (or get) seated, reach down and feather the derailleur into the proper gear – overshifting slightly and easing the chain back into the cog.  Similarly, a rider planning to attack had to choose a gear before launching themselves up the road.  A far cry from today’s bar mounted shifters.  Besides, downtube shifters were beautiful: simple, elegant, and light.

Flipping through my old cycling books, it feels like the late eighties and early nineties were the golden age of component design.  Even up to the early eighties, components were rife with nuts and bolts and square edges.  But in the late eighties, it seems manufacturers spontaneously mastered aluminum forgery; Mavic, Shimano, and Campagnolo suddenly poured out elegant parts with sexy curves and polished finishes.  In my opinion, the best and most beautiful groupo ever made was the 1989 and 1990 editions of Campagnolo C-Record.

Those were the years just before Campy put out the first version of the Ergo-Power lever which, to my taste, was always too bulbous and large; I much preferred their distinctive standard brake levers and their loose-fitting white hoods.  The Campy crankset and derailleurs were stunning, complete with that unmistakable aluminum finish, polished to produce a luster that looked like it was something from a dream.  The rear hub, with its sweeping curve from the freehub body to the axle, was mesmerizing to watch as it gleamed in the sunlight.  But the pièce de résistance of the groupset was the delta brake, in its full triangular glory.  In today’s weight-obsessed cycling culture, there is no possibility of such a brakeset ever being built again.

I already have plenty of bikes, but I think we all know that the correct number of bikes to own is n+1.  It is a dream of mine to hunt around and collect an entire ’89-’90 C-Record groupo and build up a bike around it, right down to a set of hand-built (by me) three-cross wheels, downtube shifters, and delta brakes.

Campy C-Record

// Nostalgia // Technology // Tradition

  1. I’d agree, that era of Campagnolo C-Record was one of the best looking groups ever manufactured. From what I’ve read, the Delta brakes didn’t work all that well and were also hard to adjust. Even so, they look fantastic and I always take time to gawk at a set when I run across them.

    Mavic had some awesome looking stuff in the ’90s. I remember the crankset – the best looking crank by far. In the ’80s I ran a almost complete SunTour Cyclone group – nice also.

    The simplicity of downtube shifters have much to offer, however there’s no going back. After using downtube, bar end and STI shifters – I’ll take STI hands down.

  2. @Dan O
    Dude, I hear you loud and clear. The advances in materials, technology, and shifting are undeniable. I could also never give up my tenth cog or deep-section wheels. But, wow, was that ever beautiful stuff!

  3. It won’t be long until we’re all reminiscing about cable actuated shifters either.

  4. @Marko
    Indeed. Di2 is amazing, from what I hear. Talk about taking the art out of shifting – it’s self-feathering!

    For a few seasons it was fun following the prototype development of both the Shimano and Campy foray into electronic shifting. Seems the buzz around Campy’s kind of died out, for the time being. But one thing that came out of it was all those sweet carbon components: derailleur cages, cranks, all that crap they had to make lightweight so they could add a battery to the whole package.

    I used to ride Mavic’s Mektronic, and it was a nightmare for me. The most promising thing that both the Campy and Shimano groupsets have is the motor in the derailleurs that allow under-pressure shifting. Mektronic seemed to collapse whenever you shifted under pressure. I don’t know about you, but when I need to shift, I am usually pedaling.

    @Dan O
    Oh, and by the way, YES. That Mavic crankset was one in a million. There is an Eddy Merckx hanging in Recycled Cycles built up with that complete group. It’s a museum piece and hanging over by the workshop, in case you get over there to take a look.

  5. Mmm….Eddy Merckx frame with Mavic group. I gotta swing by Recycles Cycles and check that out – just a few minutes off my commute route.

    Okay, STI for me – without a doubt. Electronic shifting, I don’t know – it all seems so very wrong. Then again, I’ve never tried it. Curious to see it in real life, instead magazine articles.

  6. @Dan O
    First off, I want to say that I feel there is something seriously wrong with a Mavic groupo on a Merckx. That said, the frame and the group are a sight to behold.

    As far as being an STI/Ergo fan who has suffered the misery of Mektronic goes, I have to say: Give me a cable and I will get my chain on the cog I want it on. When I’m suffering like a pig and need that gear, I need that gear (also why I don’t ride a fixie, incidentally, although if the right fixie came along, I would probably buy it).

    That said, I’ve been watching with great interest as the Pros are adopting the Di2 group. For me, though, the litmus test is Paris-Roubaix 2010. If the favorites riding Shimano choose it, it is real. This year, though, I noticed a lot of guys riding 10 speed Campy (not 11 speed – with a lot of exceptions, including my boy, Tom) and felt that supported my concerns that adding more and more gears makes a cable less reliable for guiding a derailleur to a gear (of course, that problem evaporates when you move to a computerized system).

    As a case in point, I have hardly turned a barrel adjuster on your old Zip. That’s 7 absolutely straight cogs with flawless shifting and absolutely no “hypercrunch”, which is I refer to as that sickening grind of the chain moving to the next gear under pressure in the early days of Hyperglide. Granted, I have to plan my shifts (as with downtube shifters), but when I do, those gears do not hesitate one bit.

    Oh, and I fucking love thumbshifters.

  7. I’ve just built a 1980s Colnago steel master frame with campy record and delta brakes, they dont work too well and with narrow rims, work even less well but hey they look great.

    My problem is fitting my Syncro 2 downtube shifters, I cant screw in the screw bit that bolts the shifter to the frame. Also the instructions are crap so any ideas or sites I could look at?

  8. At $3200 I know I won’t be getting a Di2 groupo any time soon. But then again iPhones were upwards of $300 when they came out and now I picked one up for under a-hundo. I’ve talked to a couple people who’ve ridden it though (thrifty Steve for one) and it sure sounds amazing. I’m still getting used to shifting under power, I mean heavy/mashing climbing or sprinting sort of power. Intellectually I know it works but I have a hard time with trusting it and the hypercrunch scares me a little.

  9. @Camion
    Wow, sounds like a dream project, right down to the Syncro 2! Everyone seems to agree that the delta brakes didn’t work too well, I guess I always thought they were anti-lock.

    As far as the technical issue you’re having goes, what is the nature of the problem; are the threads bad on the braze-on, is the braze-on damaged, or is the thread on the Syncro’s shifter bad or is the bolt too short? Or is it something else altogether?

    If it’s a problem with the braze-on, I would seek the assistance of a high-end bike shop, preferably a frame builder. In the Seattle area, it would be Speedy Reedy who has top-notch mechanics, or R&E Cycles who build frames.

  10. @Marko
    I’m hoping they get cheaper in the future; right now it’s just insanely expensive. And, the $3k is only for the shifters and mechs; you still need the rest of the group, which also isn’t cheap. Yikes.

    Accepting donations now.

  11. Frank, you are a dreamer. Oh for the polishing-o-the Campy bits, the simichrome german polish would make all those aluminum parts gleam. A man/boy would get lost in that process.

    Once in a blue moon my right hand drops down to the downtube for a phantom shifting, some atavistic behavior.

    For you Seattle-ites, there is a shop called Branford Bike that has relocated there from Branford Conn., and it is another Campy fanatic shop worth checking out. They have a good supply of retro Campy. All Hail Campy.

  12. @john
    Thanks for the tip; I haven’t been out there. I will make a point of it.

  13. Frank – The SunTour XC Pro goodies on the Zip always shifted well. I also dig the top mount shifters. On a side note: Paul Components makes a cool adapter to turn current bar end shifters into top mounts. Check it out.

    Another Zip note: For the last few years (before it hung getting dusty in the garage), the Zip was used on the road with slicks. Previously, for real dirt use – it occasionally suffered from chain suck – jamming the chain into the chainstay (ouch – but common). I ran a Ringle anti-suck device on the frame during that period. I pulled it off when retired for street use. You may want to dig something up for muddy use. It takes a bit of mud mess for that to occur, but possible.

    I’d sell or give you the Ringle piece, but I may use it on my current Cannondale hardtail in the near future, as I’ve experienced some chain-suck on that as well.

    As far as Di2, from what I’ve read – been tested and used for cyclo-cross. Stuff must be pretty durable.

  14. @Dan O
    I have noticed the chain suck already; not as much on the dry day out in Cle Elum on Sunday, but I have seen it. Anti-chainsuck device definitely in the works. Thanks!

  15. @frank
    Frank, Branford Bicycle might not be the Campy powerhouse it used to be. Its website does not make mention of all the retro stuff they used to carry. Just so ya know. j

  16. @john
    You broke my heart, Fredo!

  17. If we had a bike like this do you think the gap between us and the podium of the Tour de France would be a bit closer? We can dream!

  18. Looking back at this old article – Thought all would be amused, or at least the old farts – On a recent group ride I am on the old ’83 753 Raleigh with the Campy down tube shifters and a kid says “I can’t believe you take your hands off the bars to shift”.

    Nearly fell off laughing.

    I have been lent a bike with the new fangled stuff and I am glad I still have this bike and the groupo – simple, light, elegant and I still keep up on it.

  19. @Rob
    Kids these days, they just don’t understand anymore. Did they also ask you why your tubes are so skinny?

  20. Due to funding issues (being skint) I was still running downtube shifters on my ’97 season race bike. Did all right on it. Wouldn’t go back.

    Always wanted some of those Delta brakes. But probably glad that I bought a bike with 105 on it. That meant I never wanted to use the rubbery offering from Campag ever again.

  21. @Jarvis
    105 is actually amazing stuff. I’ve got a 105 group that I bought in…1992?…that I still use on my rain bike. To this day, it shifts better and is easier to maintain than my 2004 Dura-Ace set.

    But, I will never understand the Campy-bashing. They had a bad run in the mid-1990’s, but I have it on 4 bikes and each set is top-notch and works flawlessly.

  22. @frank

    @Jarvis

    The old 105 brakes are tremendous. I took a set off a Raliegh I bought in 89 or 90 and put them on my #2 bike. (And, they are elegantly designed, if that matters.)

  23. Ah, the ’89-’90 era Raleigh’s. My first “proper” road bike was a 1990 Raleigh Delta, 531 with 1051 throughout. I’d wanted the Quadra, as it was in the team colours, but that was out of my reach.

    @frank

    They had a bad run in the mid-1990’s

    The levers were so stiff you couldn’t brake on the hoods and when you did they were…vague…The thumbshift was so badly placed you need to be double-jointed to shift on the drops. So you either pre-selected your gear and rode on the drops, or rode on the hoods and hoped you didn’t need the brakes any time this side of winter.

    After that I never saw the need to try Campag

  24. Ah, the ’89-’90 era Raleigh’s. My first “proper” road bike was a 1990 Raleigh Delta, 531 with 1051 throughout. I’d wanted the Quadra, as it was in the team colours, but that was out of my reach.

    The nicest bike I ever had, I ran Dura-ace throughout, apart from 105 calipers

    @frank

    They had a bad run in the mid-1990’s

    The levers were so stiff you couldn’t brake on the hoods and when you did they were…vague…The thumbshift was so badly placed you need to be double-jointed to shift on the drops. So you either pre-selected your gear and rode on the drops, or rode on the hoods and hoped you didn’t need the brakes any time this side of winter.

    I even had the ’98, made of cheese, vintage Ultegra and still thought it better than Campag

  25. Ick…weird double-post. Apologies

  26. @john
    The original Branford Bike in Branford CT was a great place to shop. I remember when it was in the basement of the house…I spent a lot of hours there talking to Tim and Tom and spending money I didn’t have…

    Charles

  27. Delta brakes, I have had a pair since 1987. There are going to my time trial bike now, but what I have noticed is they need good pads, and then they are fine stoppers. Sometimes hard to get the right pads to fit, but that is something that can be managed. My wife used Modolo synt pads (the ones with World Champion 1983 on them.) Those work great. The white hoods that came with C-Record levers were horrible!

  28. @Nathan Scot
    Wow, it sounds like you and your Velomihottie have some pretty amazing bikes in the stable.

    Sure, there may be a challenge here and there to get them working right, but I’ve heard that once they are set up properly, they are great. The set on my dad’s Merckx seem to work so well, the act like anti-lock breaks. Amazing.

    But, like everything good in life, it takes work to keep them in proper working order.

  29. I have a set of these hubs, never used, never laced. Not sure what I’m doing with them, but I keep them.

  30. Another nostalgia piece, great stuff. Although I came to the road too late for down tube shifters I did have thumbies on the MTB, so I grok you.

  31. I still have my 1988 bike with Campa C-Record. Without the Delta brakes though.

  32. Totally agree on the C Record Groupset. I recently restored a Reynolds 853 and ran it with the Delta brakes for a while. They look superb and work OK, only thing is the lack of adjustment. Have to disagree on Shimano of the era even being mentioned in the same sentence though. In my view, the only Japanese componentry that was appropriate for a top end bike at the time was Suntour Superbe Pro, that was beautiful stuff! Being the traditionalist that I am, I don’t think anything has changed. Still running a 25 year old Suntour hub on my 853 training bike!

  33. @Pistolfromwarragul

    Totally agree on the C Record Groupset. I recently restored a Reynolds 853 and ran it with the Delta brakes for a while. They look superb and work OK, only thing is the lack of adjustment. Have to disagree on Shimano of the era even being mentioned in the same sentence though. In my view, the only Japanese componentry that was appropriate for a top end bike at the time was Suntour Superbe Pro, that was beautiful stuff! Being the traditionalist that I am, I don’t think anything has changed. Still running a 25 year old Suntour hub on my 853 training bike!

    Fantastic! I ran Superbe Pro as well, and it was truly gorgeous stuff. The 7400 series Dura Ace, to my reasoning, though, is just a little to angular but still pretty – certainly better than their new stuff.

    I’ll take those deltas off your hands.

  34. Guys, While I respect and love the bikes of the past, they are the past…. I have ridden both with capagnolo’s super record and the c record with delta brakes back in the day and trust me, the delta brakes were not only heavy, they were really poor ! – but only once you got them adjusted right, before that, they simply did not work. If you can get your hands on a super record, the performance is much better.

    Having said that, there is no comparison to today’s equipment, the di2 is just outstanding and I would not want to go back. I enjoy not needing to take my hands off the handlebars – and to be able to focus on the ride or the race …

    Happy riding ..!

    Lars

  35. I had the pleasure of riding with @Rob this past Saturday, and let me tell you, he is straight from the Milford Academy.  Neither seen, nor heard (a reference to Arrested Development).  While you could hear my shifts from a mile away, I dont recall once during our 60km tryst through Duchess county an audible peep out of his bike.  Whether I was behind him or sidebyside, if I wasnt watching him intently, the whole process was over before it even started.  There is certainly a heap of romance finished with grace I will now associate with Campy Record and dtube shifters.

  36. @Marko

    This

  37. @Dan O Yeah!
     

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