Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shifter Placement on a Mixte: an Aesthetic and Functional Challenge

Porteur Bars, Elkhide Grips, Inverse Levers, Silver Shifters
I've been asked to describe how the shifters are set up on my mixte, but I hesitate to write about it, because I don't necessarily recommend this method. My handlebar setup consists of inverse brake levers, elk hide grips covering the entire handlebar, and bar-end friction shifters mounted upon "thumbies" up toward the front. The rationale here was to leave as much of the handlebar area uninterrupted as possible, allowing for a variety of hand positions. It works nicely in that context, but it is not for everyone - which brings me to the issue so many have written to me about: There seem to be few options for mounting gear shifters on a mixte with upright handlebars that are both elegant and convenient. Personally, I find my own setup not entirely elegant: Too many cables up front. And it's not entirely convenient either: The levers can only be reached when the hands are in the aggressive forward position on the bars. But what other possibilities are there?

Shimano Shifters and Paul Thumbies on Betty Foy
One alternative is to move the shifters closer to the edges of the handlebars, so that they are near the brake levers. This placement is more convenient if that is the position where you tend to hold your hands the most, and since I've been using my own mixte more and more as a city bike I am considering switching to something like this. The problem, however, is that placing the shifters here interrupts the handlebars and limits potential hand positions: It will not be possible to slide my hands back and forth along the bars the way it's possible on my current mixte set-up. Also, it's essential to get the angle of the shifters just right, and doing so does not always result in attractive placement. Finally, both with my current set-up and with the set-up pictured above, there is something messy-looking to my eye in having so many cables sprouting from the handlebars. I have not been able to find a way to make handlebar-mounted shifters look attractive.

Royal H Handlebars, Take 1: Porteur, Guidonnet, Bar-Ends
A potential way to clean up the handlebar setup from the "messy cables" look while keeping the shifters within reach is to opt for bar-ends. I tried this prior to my current setup, but quickly discovered that this works well only with the wide Nitto Albatross bars used by Rivendell, and ideally on a bike with a long virtual top tube and/or with the handlebars raised high. Otherwise, you may discover that the bar-end shifters will poke you in the knees to the point where it could interfere with pedaling on turns. That is exactly what happened when I tried them on my small sized mixte with narrow Porteur bars.

Mercier Updates
If none of these methods appeal to you, you can go the vintage route - one possibility being to mount the shifters on the stem. However, generally this is not recommended for a number of reasons. Some claim that mounting the shifters in this spot is dangerous, because they could potentially "impale" you if you fall forward on your bike. To me this seems rather far-fetched: After all, it's common to have bruises on your thighs from bumping into bar-end shifters, yet no one claims they are dangerous. I think the real reason stem shifters are disliked is that they are considered to be a symbol of lower-end bikes: In the '70s, stem shifters meant that a bike was marketed for amateurs who held their hands mostly on top of the handlebars and were unable to reach downtube shifters.

Mercier Mixte: Headtube Lugs, Downtube Shifters
But while downtube shifters offer elegance and simplicity, removing the second set of cables from the handlebars entirely, most cyclists who are looking for an upright mixte find them difficult to use. In order to shift gears, you have to remove you hand from the handlebars are reach quite a ways down. Particularly if you are sitting upright, this is inconvenient - not to mention beyond the skill level of some cyclists.

Belleville Handlebars, Dia Compe Levers
As far as aesthetics go, a mixte frame is a challenge to set up, because the twin lateral stays already add a degree of visual complexity to the looks. If you add a cluttered handlebar set-up to that, it can get pretty messy. In vintage photos and in handmade bicycle shows, the cleanest looking mixtes tend to be set up either as single speeds, with hub gearing, or with single chinrings - ensuring that there is, at most, only one shifter to deal with. But in practice, most mixtes today are set up with derailleur gearing and either double or triple chainrings - presenting an aesthetic and functional challenge. 

While I cannot offer a solution that would suit everyone's tastes, I wanted to share the methods I know of and the pros and cons of each, as I see them. How have you set up the shifters on your mixte, and are you happy with them in terms of user-friendliness and looks?

45 comments:

  1. I don't have a mixte, but I went the bar end shifters route on my bike. Very easy shifting and no problems with my knees hitting the shifters while pedaling--which would have drove me crazy. Oh yes, the bar ends were at saddle height.

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  2. Which handlebars do you have, how long is your stem, and how big is your frame?

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  3. Forgive me, but I don't feel this is a mixte-specific issue at all, as I have seen mixte-style bicycles wit pretty much every handlebar style. To be sure, one could argue that the aesthetics of a mixte can get crossed up with certain handlebar styles, but we all know that there is no accounting for taste. Really, then, this is about the bars more than it is about the frame they're attached to.

    My wife has north-roadesque Wald 8095 bars on her vintage mixte; it's got some non-descript dia-compe upright short-pull levers on it, with a sturmey-archer 3 speed trigger and tape from the brake levers to the ends of the bars; the central part of the bar is bare. Looks fine to my eye, and works very well. If this were a derailer-equipped bike, I reckon we'd have gone with bar-end shifters. The point is, the mixte aspect of the build had little to do with it; i'm building a fuji diamond frame to sort of "go with" her bike (for me) and it'll likely sport the same bars and brake levers, with bar-cons. The bars used and the overall positioning of the rider on the bike are, imo, more important to the shifter-placement conundrum than the frame style is (aside from insofar as the frame style impacts the rider's position and the bike's intended purpose.)
    -rob

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  4. Screech - See second to last paragraph. It's an issue common to all bikes with derailleur gearing and upright handlebars, but on a mixte it is especially noticeable due to the already complex frame design. I get lots of questions about this from mixte owners and none from diamond frame owners.

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  5. On my Fuji, I wrapped the bar tape out almost to the curve on the Porteur bars, then put the shifters right (where the curve starts). This works out ok for me, since I have small hands and not much reach if I want to keep my hands near the ends of the grip area. The shifters are angled out and down a bit. I'm considering moving the shifters into the curve and wrapping the tape out more, so as to have more room to move my hands out if I need to. I wish that there were a more elegant solution for the cables though! The brake cables are tucked away nicely under the tape.

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  6. I bought an old low-end mixte for my wife which has drop bars and stem shifters that seem to be functional and attractive. My bike has down tube shifters which I love, but that is what I grew up riding and I don't want to change. I have yet to get my wife on the mixte, but she enjoys our tandem that has ugly but effective grip shifters mounted near the stem. For what its worth, I think stem shifters are the cleanest solution for a mixte with upright bars.

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  7. I have always used stem shifters on my mixtes. I find them easy to use there and out of the way of using multiple positions on the porteur bars, which is important to me. On my current mixte, I was going to change thing up and use bar end shifters-- with my body and the way my bicycle is set up, there is no way I could ever hit my thighs into bar end shifters if I were to put them on.

    The reason that my legs are out of harm's way could be due to these bars being both shorter and narrower than the V-O ones. The frame in question is a 1979 Motobecane Super Mirage mixte, with a 70mm stem, and the bars are about even with the saddle.

    a rather unattractive picture of my current set-up

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  8. Thanks for posting about this topic. I have a twist shifter on my mixte and I do not like having one grip shorter than the other. Since I have an internal hub, only a small company makes compatible bar end shifters, which I'm not really sure would fit into the stock handlebars on my bike - which I actually like.

    Anyway, knowing the bar end shifters might hit me in my knees is good to consider as well. Had I not read your guide to assessing vintage mixtes, I would've ended up with a super pretty mixte, but the toe overlap would have driven me insane

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  9. I have the Velo Orange Milan handlebars with the shifters on the side. I don't have any issues with my knees and the handlebars/shifters.

    I have my handlebars slightly above my saddle. My frame is a SOMA Mixte (White) 50cm.

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  10. I have seen, now that I can't remember where, some darn beautiful "high-end" vintage mixtes that were limited runs of very high-end standard diamond frames. They had their shifters on the stems, though the diamond frames had dt shifters. It just makes sense with a mixte to put the shifters there. That's where I would put mine, were I to finally indulge myself in this style of bike. Sometimes, the practical should win.

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  11. melissatheragamuffinJuly 13, 2011 at 11:32 PM

    I'm fascinated by where your brake levers are. I have similar handlebars on Miss Surly, but I have bar end shifters. Originally I wanted mustache bars on Miss Surly, but they couldn't mount the brakes where I wanted them. I'm wondering if setting them up like yours would have solved the problem, but then what to do with my bar end shifters....

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  12. I personally like the elegant inverse levers and the thumbies on your mixte. Previously I had looked down my nose at stem shifters but have grown to love the long Huret stem shifters on my wife's Raleigh Sprite. Last summer I fixed up a Nishiki mixte as a surprise birthday present for a friend. The Suntour stem shifters work well with a Jitensha swept-back bar and city brake levers.

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  13. "minxielove said...
    I have the Velo Orange Milan handlebars with the shifters on the side. I don't have any issues with my knees and the handlebars/shifters"


    Nice, didn't realise those took bar-ends.

    Milan bars are really flared outward, so hitting knees should not be an issue. Porteur bars are super swept back, with the the bar-ends basically pointing straight at the cyclist. I had Milan bars for a few months on my old mixte, but my hands weren't too comfortable in the flared-out position.

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  14. For upright bars, I like the look of having the the thumbie mounts located near the brake levers or, alternatively, going with the bar-end shifter setup (subject to the space already mentioned).

    My Raleigh mixte has drop bars, but I've still been struggling with a decision on this issue. Currently, I've got the original Suntour stem shifters but, as I am planning to have a new wheelset built for this bike, I've been really wanting to change my shifter setup to something more modern - either bar-end shifters (which, sadly, would necessitate re-doing the taping) or the bar ends on thumbie mounts which might save me from having to tear it all apart.

    Here's a photo: http://img819.imageshack.us/img819/1904/dsc0058vg.jpg

    (I know this topic is about upright bars, but just in case anyone else was wondering what to do with drops, I thought I would mention it!)

    As kind of an anecdotal thing, I've had at least five people ask why I don't switch do upright bars on the mixte - does anyone else run into this? The reason I don't want to is because I think my bike was designed to have a roadbike ride, not a relaxed, city bike one and I think it wouldn't work very well as an upright "grocery-getter". But, then again, that's all subjective since I've seen tons of vintage mixtes converted to upright riders.

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  15. This is not just a mixte issue, but i do have a mixte with stem shifters which I quite like. The bike is low end, but you can get high end stem shifters, and I have a set of those beautiful simplex stem shifters awaiting a bike build. I had stem shifters on a mixte road bike years ago and I liked them because they were right there and easy to reach. Having become used to mountain bike twist shifters on the handlebars, it was nice having something easily accessible and having the friction shifter experience again without feeling like I am going to fall off my bike just reaching for the shifter.
    Downtube shifters are nice, classy and near perfect, but I cannot reach them. Why are they never on the top tube? I have a lady raleigh bike with one shifter on the downtube. It is clamped on with a stem and is as high as possible so I can just reach it and in certain situations I use my foot. My modern surly and my trek road frame have the doodads for downtube shifters, but I would never be able to reach them safely. I have short arms, women generally have shorter arms compared to men, so I can see this being an issue.
    So, I do have bar end shifters on my nitto albatross bar on the surly and I get poked in the knees and thighs all the time. So, I disagree that albatross bars and bar end shifters work. Bar end shifters on drop bars look good and work, but many including my husband complain about being poked in the knees too.
    I have had many bikes and gear shifter thingies over the years...never had a problem with the handlebar thumbie sort which you have on your mixte and on the photo below of what looks like a betty foy.
    If a mixte is designed to be a road bike, then why not have drop bars?
    Some mixtes were city bikes. There also seemed to be a sexist notion that drop bars were too much for lady riders so mixte road bikes would have upright bars or at least upside down upright bars. Hence the confusion: is this a road bike or a fun around town bike?

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  16. My wife has a Univega Super Ten mixte with Suntour stem shifters. They work well and stay out of the way.

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  17. mine's on the stem: http://becksldrt.posterous.com/introducing-harry-edwards-the-worlds-bestest

    this is the first bike i've had with shift gears and it took me a while to get used to the gears being there, but now i find them easy to use and i don't have any stability issues or anything. the only real problem comes when trying to break and change gear as i slow down. it does jab me sometimes on the thigh when i hop off the saddle though!

    still, i think it's a neat solution.

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  18. Whilst not a mixte, our tandem has a lateral tube and I have the downtube shifters mounted on that. It is much more convenient than on the down tube proper. It is a full size tube though not the skinny twin laterals. Whether you could get/frig a mount I don't know

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  19. I'm so glad you posted this today! I'm having this very dilemma with a Peugeot UE-18 I just bought and started stripping apart. She came with Phillipe porteur bars and original plastic simplex drivetrain with the Peugeot name on them. The shifters are on the stem.

    When I put drop bars on my gazelle mondial mixte, I changed her to down tube shifters so now I have these lovely suntour thumbies I was thinking of putting on the porteur.

    The mess of wires don't bother me so much as the debate over keeping the original simplex stuff that was made with plastic. The plastic is a bit sun faded and I suspect it will break eventually. I don't know how to get the beautiful black color back and I don't know if keeping this bike all original is even safe. I know the original AVA stem needs to go (so says Sheldon, so I trust him).

    The porteur bars already smack me in the knees when I take a turn, so a taller stem is in order. End shifters are right out. Now I just have to figure out how I want to configure it... meh.. choices choices choices!!!!

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  20. This very issue lead me to put drop bars and brifters on my mixte.

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  21. I've refurbed many step-thrus & mixtes, both for resale (local bike coop) and for family members (wife's 1973 Motobecane Mixte). We generally use Wald 8095 bars and either stem- or thumbshifters. My favorite are the vintage ratcheting Suntour thumbshifters. Customers seem to prefer thumbshifters, but I've never had any complaints about stem shifters. We've had a few complaints about downtube shifters with upright bars.
    We mainly use Sunrace friction thumbshifters. They are around $16 and include cables and housing.

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  22. When I was a mechanic at Broadway Bicycle School in Cambridge we had many mixte customers come in not wanting stem mounted shifters, we always went the cheapest route (since changing bars/levers/shifters can easily be over $100 after parts and labor) and did the first method of shifters near the brake levers.

    I personally prefer bar end shifters but understand those bars aren't for everyone. There is nothing wrong with stem shifters as you mentioned just a sigh of a cheap bike from certain years. My wife's old Schwinn road bike with drop bars had em and she loved it, we did a century together while she road that old beast.

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  23. I got used to the flared out position since my old bike was an Electra. I'm working on becoming a more confident and better rider where I can opt for a drop bar (on a differrent bike, of course!)

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  24. For bikes intended for a more upright position, down tube shifters are too low to be within easy reach. In the 1930s, many bikes mounted the shifters on the top tube, including mixtes like this one.

    It seems like an obvious solution - the shift levers are a bit closer than on the stem and thus easy to reach, and since they don't turn with the fork, you eliminate all the cables and housing that spoil the elegance of the bike and can cause maintenance problems.

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  25. Jan - I love that setup and considered it for my own mixte when the frame was being built. But note that the vintage mixtes have only one chainring, so there is just one shifter, on the right stay. With two shifters - one on each stay - it would become visually overwhelming. I mocked it up on an older mixte and it looked cluttered. Also, a couple of framebuilders have expressed concern that the lateral stays are not strong enough to withstand the brazeons and frequent shifting in that spot. Wonder whether any of the older mixtes that were set up this way have broken or bent right stays.

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  26. on my old Bridgestone mixte, I did what another poster did: put in an internal 8 speed hub, then had a Shimano brake/combo twist shifter on the bars. very clean. stem shifters didn't seem safe enough (I've got a toddler in a trailer in tow and in traffic to boot). looks clean, works great.

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  27. We used to have a Motobecane Interclub "lady-back" tandem that had twin laterals like a mixte but a top tube at the front as well. I'm pretty sure the shifters were mounted to braze-ons on the lateral tubes. I would guess the tubes where a larer gauge than on a solo mixte.

    We got rid of that tandem because it was so flexible. On a twisty down hill it felt like the back end was going to overtake you. After a short tour in the Yorkshire Dales we got a new custom tandem. I'm still somewhat guilty for selling "Lady MacBeth" to a blind woman and her husband.

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  28. If an IGH is sufficient for your needs, it is a nice solution. Personally I would prefer a 1x9 setup with a single chainring and derailleur, which would also leave me with just one shifter to deal with.

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  29. I've tried just about every kind of shifter on my albatross bars, and what I've ended up with is old-style, top-mount thumbies placed just ahead of the grips. This gives me two hand placements: on the grips, and on the "flats" of the bars on either side of the stem. Yes, the set-up looks more cluttered than either downtube shifters or stemmies would look, but I love having the shifters at my finger tips. I try to improve the aesthetics by using cable housing that complements the bike's frame color and/or decals. I have a Univega Gran Turismo in gunmetal metallic with mainly silver decals, and I find that silver cable housing (clear, really) looks very nice on it. Kind of turns the clutter into an asset rather than a liability. (Or maybe I'm just rationalizing.)

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  30. Steve R - I am curious, why did you not use bar-ends on the Albatross bars?

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  31. A custom stem with brazed shifter bosses?
    Part of the problem is the RH is basically gorgeous and non-gorgeous solutions won't do it.
    That Reyhand is magnificent.

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  32. http://link.marktplaats.nl/464327883

    it's for sale... 1951 mixte.. shows the single shifter lever... snag up the images while we can!

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  33. Velouria,

    I don't have barends on the Albatross bars for two reasons. First, I'm using PDW Dapper Dan leather grips, which I like very much, and there is no way (that I can see) to run the cable and housing under the grips in the way that one can run cable and housing under bar tape, foam, etc. Second, I just really like having the shifters at my finger tips. I do have a set of barends on my (lovely?) recumbent trike, where they are at my finger tips and where I think they are by far the best option.

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  34. I'm wondering at what point does function win out over aesthetics? Or is it the other way around?

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  35. I have a stem shifter on my Victoria, and the only time it has ever presented a problem is when I was pregnant when I managed to stab myself on it constantly. Aside from that it has been great- clean looking and very easy to reach. http://www.flickr.com/photos/61339233@N08/5937929861/in/photostream/

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  36. Anon 6:39 - I think that's a question each person can only answer for themselves : ) I could not ride a bike or use a component that was not functional, no matter how beautiful it is. But I would not get much pleasure out of a set-up that was functional, albeit horrendous.

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  37. V--I ask this question b/c I'm in the process of a custom bike and find myself losing sleep over this question. Ultimately, I'm leaning towards what works best.

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  38. kiwigem - That's interesting to place it mid-stem like that. Especially given that the shifter is small, to me this looks better than at the base of the stem. Hm..

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  39. I never minded the look or function of stem mounted shifters. I had them on my twelve speed as a child, and never had a problem with their function for the upright style of riding I tended to do. I think that they look best when the tops of the shifters are mounted at or slightly below (~cm) the bend in the stem. It sure tidies up the handlebars a lot.

    As I recall, I'd predominantly shift either derailleur with my right hand, while bracing my hand on the stem for more precise control. My left hand usually remained on the bar with ready access to either the brake, or the "suicide lever." Funny how I miss that crappy Columbia.

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  40. One issue with top of stem, mid-stem, downtube or toptube shifters is that you cannot access both at once. I frequently downshift my front derailer while upshifting the rear in preparation for a particularly steep and long hill while maintaining cadence (if I know that the big ring will run out on it).

    I am not saying it's impossible to first shift the front, then shift the rear or something like that, but it is certainly less convenient and you do lose some momentum.

    It's also true that city-bound mixtes likely never have to worry about that kind of terrain, but then again someone opened this discussion to diamond-frame bikes as well.

    With barends I can park my hands near the shifters and modulate them during the entire straight leading to a climb and well into it, switching to the tops of the drop bars only when the climbing speed drops such that the upright sitting position is better. If I had integrated shifters, it would be even easier.

    If you end up going with the thumbies and breaks together near the end of mountain-style bars like Porteur bars, you could still wrap the bars end to stem, going over the break/shifter clamps as you do with road brakes. It's not traditionally done, but--hey--why not?

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  41. I have this problem, curently on two bikes. They are not in use since I can not figure out what to do about the setup.

    I like Mixte`s a lot, and I agree they are mort difficult to set up than other bikes becouse of the twin toptubes.

    I like the colours (and the rest) of V`s bike a lot, but I am thinking maybe the gold cable housings are adding to the problem? I am thinking stemshifters w the frames coloutr in housing and then keep the gold for the brakes maybe?

    For both Mixte`s and other bikes w a geared hub (coaster brake) I think it works ok w gear shifter on one side and brake handle (front) at much the same position on the other side of the handlebar works fine. I do not much like the look of the twist shifters but I like to use them: Maybe we should hope for brown and tan colours on the twist shifters?

    i like the look of stem shifters but I do not like to use them. On my latest bike I tryed different things (and ended up scratching the lovely bars) but ended up with the original setup, just changed out the shifter for a less cheapo looking one. One shifter looks wrong on a Mixte, I want two or none (or maybe like I said, the frames colour on the shifter housing).

    Bar end shifters can look ok if on the right bars, and again TWO.

    I like the thumbshifters on V`s bike but still decided it easely looks cluttered with them so I did not order them. Also I think the plastic der is going to break soon so then I am more free to choose (I really do not like friction shifting you see..)

    On my older Gitane Mixte I used to run a three speed SA and liked it a lot. Then I put the wheels on my sons bike and wanted to put a 5 speed Torpedo Pentasport hub (two wires) on it, thinking the two wires would look right on the Mixte becouse of the two stays. I am not sure, becouse the shifter (w two wires comming out) sits on one side and I can not make it look right.. Then my friend showed up w Na lovely all white Mixte and a similar hub and I may just copy that setup. I want to start a post about this in the BF, CV section but I am soon going away on holyday so I must wait.
    badmother

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  42. Your post couldn't have been better timed. I just ordered and received all the parts to update my vintage Raleigh mixte. I have been waffling back and forth in my head between the bar end shifters and wider bars (which is what I ordered) or bar end brake levers and thumb shifters (which I keep waking up in the middle of the night wondering if I should have ordered). At this point, it sounds like I just need to try one method and see how I like it. So hard to know which option will work best!

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  43. Like your various cockpits and solutions. Says to anyone to imagine what makes you comfortable and then do it. Go to my blog domotion2011.wordpress to see the REV2 and many iterations of component placement on a DIY handlebar. Four very different bicycles and one handlebar type that are always comfortable, with multiple hand positions and an upright riding posture for urban situations.

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  44. I really like that handlebar setup with the elk hide leather grips!
    What kind of inverse brakes are you using?

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