A few notes before my Retroshift CX2 review: 1) The difference between a cold day and a miserable day is whether it’s raining. This was a cold day in central Illinois.
2) When you’re out of shape, even a short ride on Centerville Road in Peoria County can be an adventure–as long as you don’t have a watch or bicycle computer. When you can’t easily determine time and speed, it’s a lot easier to enjoy the ride. And this was a very enjoyable ride.
3) I realize the target audience for Retroshift is the cyclocross crowd, those people who derive great satisfaction from successfully traversing the most difficult path between A and B at speed. This review is not for you. I do not cyclocross, though I admire those who do, and I do not claim any special knowledge of that sport. For me, mud is something you drink, not something you wear. I recognize some will identify this as a moral failing; I’m at peace with that.
So let’s talk about those down tube shifters bolted to the brake levers. Are they different? Yes. Do they work? Yes. Are they ergonomic? Depends on what you mean by ergonomic.
There are at least a couple of schools on this. One school believes a properly adjusted ergonomic chair provides nearly perfect positioning at all times; another school, and the one I subscribe to, believes it’s easier to read a book when you can throw one leg over the back of a couch. You’re more comfortable because you can move around while you’re reading: head up, feet up, belly down, belly up–you get the idea.
Retroshift levers definitely belong to the second school. If you like riding the hoods (Retroshift can’t be shifted from the drops, no way, no how), the shift levers are close at hand, just like Shimano, Campy or SRAM “brifters” (combination brake/shift levers). But you’re going to move around a bit more with Retroshift, and you’re going to use your fingers differently depending on where you are in the shifting arc.
I’d compare my tandem’s old Shimano STI controls to a dual bass drum setup: slap one lever to shift one direction; slap the other lever to return. Simple. Minimum movement. I ditched them because I couldn’t tell what gear I was in.
Retroshift is more like playing a piano. To reach all the keys (all the gears), sometimes I used my thumbs, sometimes a combination of fingers. My middle fingers were especially effective (more so than as communication devices). One moment I grabbed the main body of the brake lever, like a Shimano STI; the next I felt the back top of the hood closer to the center of my hand.
And I always knew what gear I was in with Retroshift; all I had to do was look at the shift levers. When you turn shifters 90 degrees to bolt them onto Retroshift, they turn into clock hands. (To read the clock from the seat, just remember this: “Left is Low [Gear]” for both shifters.)
The Goats behind Retroshift say “treat them rough and they will treat you well. What we mean is don’t be afraid to grab them any way that comes to mind when shifting as they just don’t operate quite like STI and you will limit your shifting ability if you shift them like STI.”
I didn’t feel the need to brutalize the controls during my first ride with Retroshift, but Centerville does have sharper ups and downs to it than the other roads I habituate, and I punched the levers from different angles depending on how quickly I was slowing down during a climb on loose dirt, soft earth or pea gravel.
It’s important to consider my set-up for this review. I was running old Shimano Deore derailleurs front and rear, a low-end triple crank and a seven-speed Shimano cassette. I mounted my own down-tube shifters to the Retroshifter CX-2: 7-speed Shimano 105 units that I had liberated from an early Trek 1420 touring bike.
Here’s the big benefit of moving my hands and wrists around to operate the shifters: I didn’t lock into position riding the hoods because I couldn’t. As a result, I avoided the numb hands that sometimes bother me on perfectly smooth roads.
A few potential issues I considered during installation proved to be non-issues.
- When I operated Retroshift in the repair stand, I was concerned that stabbing at the levers from all angles might also cause me to engage the brakes at an inopportune time. Nope. Not once.
- Cables above the handlebars? Won’t I get tangled up in them? Nada. I didn’t get tied up in brake cables in the 1970s, and I didn’t pay any attention to the derailleur cables on this ride, either. However, if I wanted to install a handlebar bag–again, not a concern of the target audience–I’d probably run the cable housings over and behind the handlebar.
- Shift levers are likely to be at any angle when I want to get out of the saddle during a climb. Would they trap my hand? No. Sometimes I hooked one finger over a shift lever, just because I could, and held the brake hood with the rest of them. In book-reading terms, it was leg over couch time. Ah, good times, indeed.
I imagine it would be easier to shift a double crankset than a triple because you don’t have to hunt for that center chainring–just shift all the way left or right. However, I didn’t have any more problems shifting the triple with Retroshift than with any other solution.
Rear indexed shifting was just as precise as it would have been had the Shimano 105 down-tube levers been affixed to the actual down tube, an impossibility in the case of my Fisher because the frame didn’t have shifter bosses and my shifters weren’t attached to a down tube clamp.
The biggest surprise for me on the ride was how well the system worked in friction mode, a mode unavailable to the larger brifter-equipped community. I rotated the shift lever D-ring from indexed to friction on the fly and rode non-indexed most of the way back.
I thought I’d get tired of centering the rear derailleur right where it needed to be, but I didn’t notice myself doing any fine-tuning at all. That’s the thing about drivetrain development over the past 20 years. Indexing forced makers to create better chains, derailleurs, cables and housings.
As a result, friction shifting works incredibly well these days, especially if you remember using a Campy Nuovo Record derailleur once upon a time–and replacing it with a cheap Sun Tour after one too many missed shifts.
The greasy parts of my index-compatible drivetrain are far from state of the art, but they are vastly superior to the mechanisms available to Bobet, Merckx, Hinault or LeMond.
So, a favorable review from one road rider’s perspective. Are they the right move for you? Depends.
- If you don’t shift from the drops, Retroshift might work for you.
- If you always complained about the lack of friction capability among brifters, Retroshift is an alternative, again, as long as you don’t want to shift from the drops.
- If you like the unusual, and you’re not cyclocrossing in the immediate Retroshift breeding grounds of Oregon or Japan, you could be the first kid on the block with this solution. Retroshift introduces a sort of biplane ethos–with cables and shifters hanging out in the breeze, I imagined myself something of a Teddy Roosevelt in a Wright Flyer.
- And if you are cyclocrossing in Oregon or Japan–or anywhere else–Retroshift could be a great way to save your expensive Shimano, Campy or SRAM brifters from early replacement.
On the other hand, if you’re satisfied with what you have, you might want to keep using it in the name of sustainability. Though I’d still recommend borrowing somebody’s Retroshifted bike just to make sure you’re not missing anything.
Me? Big fan, no doubt. In fact, I could see adding Retroshift to my (currently bar-end equipped) tandem.
Note: Retroshift is available in three configurations. The CX-2 model works with cantilever brakes (which is what I have) or road calipers. The CX-1 is the same as the CX-2 minus the left shifter boss–for people who either don’t have a front derailleur or prefer to operate that derailleur from a bar-end shifter. Otherwise, you get the CX-V, which The Goats recommend for “Linear-pull, V-brakes or MTB Disc Brakes.”
See the system in action.