Stem Mounted Shifters

Stem mounted shifters were often standard equipment on bike boom “10 speeds”.  Consequently, they picked up a reputation of being low-end components, even though the only difference between these shifters and others (downtube, bar-end, and handlebar-mount) was their placement on the bicycle.  During the 1970’s no one thought that bike boom 10 speeds were bad, per se.  In fact, Americans embraced these bicycles, which were a welcome alternative to the heavy, clunky, no gear bikes of their childhoods.  Stem shifters were not derided back then and even high-end bikes were sometimes equipped with stem-mounted shifters, including treasured Schwinn Paramounts of this era.

What would be the reason to use stem-mounted shifters instead of bar mount or bar end shifters, which also offer the option to shift without changing your posture on the bike?  As many cyclists know, downtube shifters can be tiring to use if you have to do a lot of gear changing.  That’s one reason why transportation cyclists prefer bar mount shifters, and touring cyclists love bar ends.  Bar ends work well with drop bars because they are positioned well on the lower drops, pointing straight back at the rider and offering easy access.

But stem mount shifters offer several advantages that bar ends and handlebar mount shifters don’t:  for riders using upright bars they free up the bar to allow for multiple hand positions, and even if you love bar end shifters (as I do), not all handlebar shapes are ideal for their mounting position at the end of each bar end, depending on the shape of the handlebar you are using. Bar end shifters can only be used with road diameter 23.8 bars, as opposed to 22.2 bars which are the standard width for upright bars (although note that many upright bars are now offered in both widths).

And that’s where the lowly stem shifter comes in.  Recently I have been converting some of my drop bar bikes to upright style bars.  Since I’d like to be able to keep as much “real estate” on the new upright bar as possible, for multiple hand positions, I thought about using stem shifters.  I went to my parts bin to see what was there, and that’s when it dawned on my why these shifters are not necessarily desirable.  First of all, the levers on some of these examples are HUGE.

This SunTour model towers over its counterparts of this era.  And, SunTour offered such a clunky-looking mount to the stem, with a lot of unnecessary material.  That made me think about using an alternative system to get the shifters up onto the stem.

Before taking to the internet for research I experimented with using V-O’s thumbies mounted on the stem.  While maybe not such a crazy idea if using a single chain ring up front, the two shifters mounted on the stem may look pretty whacky, depending on your perspective.  But the main problem with this idea is the positioning of the cable stops which point straight down.

With new ideas welcome, I researched the current stem mount shifters available in the markeplace.  The above pictured Dia-Compe ENE stem mount shifter is an interesting innovation.  First of all, the shifters are designed to be at rest pointing forward, which means that when engaged they will not be pointing ominously toward one’s private parts.  And, the cable stop is fully adjustable, as shown on the above technical diagram.  That is a very nice feature.  However, it looks like these shifters may no longer be available, at least in the U.S.

Before heading that direction by purchasing a new component or shifter mount, I made several attempts to install vintage stem shifters on a current project.  One must firstly separate the characteristics of the shifter itself from the stem mounting issues.  These Shimano FingerTip shifters have always baffled me, but today I decided to put dismay at bay by setting these shifters up.  These ratcheting shifters have a manually operated stop (see photo above) which allows one to set up the shifters by pushing in the stop to keep the shifters in their upright position.  Once the stop is released, the counterbalance spring offsets the pull from the derailleurs, keeping everything in balance for easy shifting.  Shimano made a bar end version of this as well.  The cable stops on these shifters point straight ahead. It would be ideal if they pointed more downward.

After ruling those shifters out I ended up installing SunTour’s ratcheting shifters, which have a nicely angled cable stop and look okay from the front of the bike.  While I don’t care for SunTour’s over-engineered clamp style, the appearance is not terrible and I can live with it.  But, best of all, these are SunTour ratcheting shifters which were so well-engineered and offer easy and subtle gear changes.  As part of setting up this shifter mechanism, I disassembled the shifters, cleaned the parts with alcohol and lightly abraded the washers with emery cloth to improve the shiftiing quality.  Mission accomplished.

Stem mount shifter clamp – photo courtesy of Rivendell

Another option is to use a new stem mounted shifter clamp, allowing one to use any shifter of your choice.  This component from Rivendell looks interesting.  The cable stops are angled at about 45 degrees, and that might be just about right depending on the placement on the stem.  Meanwhile, I’m going to use my stem mounted ratcheting SunTour shifters and will follow up again with an evaluation of their performance.

7 thoughts on “Stem Mounted Shifters

  1. I had stem mounts on my Schwinn Varsity and that’s all I knew for years until I got my first”racer”. After that I never looked back , down tube shifting became my normal. I have bar ends on my Mondia and I catch myself reaching for the down tube. Habits are hard to break! Great post, Joe

  2. Hi Nola,

    Thanks for giving some credence to the merits of marginalized components like stem shifters. I feel the same way about many of the simpler, “less attractive” bike components common on vintage bicycles. My absolute favourite stem shifter in the Suntour Power Shifter. I find it silky smooth and seldom needs trimming once it locks in. I even kind of like the size of the large shifters. They stand above the stem and are easy to find. All the best, Daryl

    • Thanks, Daryl. SunTour’s Power Shifters are very subtle and have a light touch. The only thing I would add to your commentary is that sometimes the washers lose their grip, so it can help to clean and abrade them. I took the Meral out with the SunTour shifters yesterday, and I was impressed with their performance – very little trimming needed and very intuitive. Not to mention how kind of groovy the shifters look!

  3. I owned a Schwinn Super Sport with stem shifters and loved them when I was growing up. With drop bars the stem shifter is closer to your hands. If the bike had the auxillary brake levers that followed the top bar on your drop bars then your hands were very close to braking and shifting. Recently I tried some stem shifters on an upright riding bicycle with bars that had rise to them. How inconvenient the stem shifters felt with this setup. I went back to thumbies. I love bar end shifters but the extra width they would impart with my upright bar setups would make some of our bike trail entrance gates a little too tight. So again thumbies.

  4. I really like Suntour Power Shifters…they just look RIGHT (probably because I had them on my bike-boom Raleigh in the ’70s. Unfortunately, I’ve not found a way to make them compatible with downtube braze-ons, or I likely would own several pair, or would have.

    For the past decade or so, my shifters of choice have been the last generation of Shimano 600 friction-only models, as they have a nice feel and a bend near the tip that works well for me.

    It’s funny to be using “ancient” tech like this. I went through bar-end shifters (because during the bike-boom, these were the ne plus ultra), Suntour Command Shifters(!) (both kinds), indexed DT, STI, and Ergo (I did like the ride feel of Ergo), and ended back at the most basic end (well, not MOST, but close).

    I think the reason is a photograph that is, or was, posted on Sheldon Brown’s site, showing a red bike that he built in France, complete with an aero rear wheel. It just looks…elegant. And it has, of course, downtube shifters. So, as with many other things, I blame Sheldon.

  5. I became the proud owner of a lower line 80″s Nishiki Sebring model 10-12 speed freewheel bike of that era. This bike has the clunky stem shifters and extended brake levers on the drop bars. I’m thinking about keeping all that when I change the rear end over to a 130mm cassette hub. I’m planning on keeping the drop bar and run shoes and cleats. I end up with low end bikes of the era because of my height. Several manufacturers made 67cm size frames but they were mostly in their lower end offerings. But even these lower quality bicycles have something to offer and I love them.

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