MicroSHIFT, SRAM, and now Shimano all offer gravel brake levers with built-in dropper post remotes. And there are ways to hack most left shifters to work great as dropper remotes. But if you aren’t currently in the market for a new drivetrain, or if you run a front derailleur, there aren’t many good plug-and-play options that work from both the hoods and the drops. Travis Engel found just four of them, from ENVE, Crankbrothers, PRO, and Easton/Fox. It turns out they’re all very special in their own little ways.
I feel like we’re in the awkward adolescent phase of the drop-bar dropper remote. We went through the same thing on mountain bikes about fifteen years ago. Gravel and road haven’t yet fully embraced them, so there’s no industry-wide effort to find a solution. And just like the early days of mountain bike droppers, there’s often still a front derailleur to contend with. You can get bar-end- and top-bar-mounted remotes, which I guess are better than nothing. But they lack the crucial ability to actuate the dropper in technical, high-speed situations when you need constant coverage on the brake, not to mention the handlebar. That’s why these nifty inboard-mounted dual-action levers caught my attention. Seems like they’d be perfect. From the hoods, you just pull up with a middle or ring finger, and from the drops, you push down with your thumb. The cable is oriented upwards, so the housing routes alongside whatever you’ve got coming out of your left brake lever. Pretty ingenious. But every one of them is shaped very differently. Again, like we’re still figuring out how to do this.
So, I brought in these four options. I used each on an Otso Fenrir with very shallow, wide Ritchey Beacon bars. It’s set up a bit like a drop-bar mountain bike, and that’s kinda how I ride it. I’m very often down in the drops, choking up on the brake lever for security and control. So, I need a dropper lever that won’t inhibit my preferred grip, but also is comfortable to reach and easy to use. I also paid attention to the installation and cable-pinching procedure, which flat-bar remotes only just figured out. It turns out all were good at some, but none were good at all. This should be interesting.
The Crankbrothers Highline Drop-Bar looks exactly like how I’d expect this concept to look. The pivot is centered between a front lever that gets pulled up, and a horizontal rear lever that gets pushed down. It seems almost unrefined, amid all these oddly shaped devices. But in fact, this is the only one in the mix that’s on its second generation. Which is weird, because it appears to be just a re-skinned remote from TranzX, but there’s a lot of re-skinning in the dropper-post game.
The original Highline Drop-Bar looked more like the ENVE. It’s also the only one in the mix without a flexible steel, band-style bar clamp. I expected that to be a problem when dealing with bar bends, but it worked fine. Cable installation is tricky, though. The housing stop is kinda loose and shallow, so it was hard to be sure I was aiming the housing in at the optimal angle. To be fair, all but the Pro had a similar issue. Pinching the cable was also tricky. There’s a lot of hard-to-undo creases to get the cable routed through and nestled down. Once that’s done, though, the pinch bolt has a unique advantage over its competitors. The cable approaches it in a clockwise direction. Since there’s no room for an anti-rotation tab like you’d see on a brake or derailleur cable pinch bolt, this was the only one that pulled the cable tighter as you pinched it. Doesn’t seem like that big a deal until you consider that all of these remotes rely on an in-line barrel adjuster to pick up the inevitable slack that develops. Every little bit helps.
Reflective of its simple, straightforward design, the function of the Highline Drop-Bar, again, seems almost unrefined. But as we’ll see when I get to the other options, this is not necessarily a bad thing. So, from the hoods, all of these remotes performed fine. It’s the thumb action from the drops that’s the hardest to get right. Though Fox is definitely on to something with the Transfer Drop-Bar, ENVE and PRO were trying a bit too hard with their fancy ergonomics. I had to reach up and in a bit more with the Crankbrothers remote, but it took the least physical effort to actually pull the cable. That’s partly because the low-profile shape isn’t side-loading the pivot, so there’s minimal friction.
The only disadvantage, at least in my grip style, was that the thumb lever crowded the space my hand used when covering the levers in the drops. It wasn’t grinding into my flesh, but I could feel it. I think if I wasn’t death-gripping on steep, bumpy terrain as often, this wouldn’t bother me. If it’s most important that the lever be as unobtrusive as possible, this may not be the one. But if you just want low-strain dropper actuation from the hoods and from the drops, this was the best in the bunch.
- Light-action cable pull from the drops
- No side-loading on pivot
- Somewhat fiddly cable install procedure
- Will crowd some peoples’ hands when in the drops
See more at Crankbrothers
I was surprised to see an option in the mix from PRO, Shimano’s touchpoint side-hustle. Seems like a pretty new market for, let’s say, a pretty slow-moving company. But it’s actually one of the more refined-feeling levers I tested. As if a direct address to my ergonomic complaint about the Crankbrothers Highline Drop-Bar, the Pro Dropper Post Lever tucks the thumb side of the lever forward, but also widens it out to give you some solid purchase. In an odd way, it looks the least conspicuous. In fact, I think it just looks the best overall. I’m a sucker for flush-fitting edges between moving parts.
The steel band is nice to see, as is the 4mm clamp bolt (not 3 or 2.5mm like the rest). And not only did the cable housing end actually sit firmly and well-supported in its stop, it was angled in a direction that took some of the guesswork out of the setup process. Instead of pointing straight up, it pointed back a bit, and I found that allowed me to more easily route it around my brake lever mounting hardware, and join it more naturally to the rest of the wires. That entry angle also meant the pivot location was uniquely forward of the rest of the pack. Having just come off the Highline Drop-Bar, I was optimistic about how the Dropper Post Lever would do on the trail.
Sure enough, this was the most out-of-the-way model in the bunch. Not just when in the drops, but also when up top. All of these levers allow you some freedom in where to position them, but I found the Dropper Post Lever was happiest when sitting a little further down from the hood, offering more room to wrap my fingers for climbs or sprints. It’s also got a shorter forward-facing lever, which does take a bit more force than any of the other three in the mix, but that force is easy to come by when pulling directly upward with your finger. Now, it’s also got the shortest rearward-facing lever, which was a problem. I did appreciate it being out of the way, but there is so little leverage against that cable, that I really had to use all my thumb strength to get it to move.
That issue is compounded by the fact that, to get that extra real-estate, they extended the paddle inboard, away from the pivot. None of these levers feature a ball-bearing pivot, and all of them would benefit from one. I know space is limited, but the Fox and PRO levers force a lot of side loads on the pivots because of how far off-center you’re pushing your thumb from. That might have been enough to save the PRO lever. Instead, I actually got in the habit of giving my thumb an assist by pushing up with my index finger. It wasn’t ideal, but I got used to it. Basically, this takes an opposite approach to the Crankbrothers Highline Drop-Bar. If you’re not addicted to instant actuation of your dropper, and are ok with some added effort from the drops but you won’t notice until you need it, you need the PRO Dropper Post Lever.
- Most out-of-the-way design in the mix, both from hoods and drops
- Steel band-style clamp that can be adjusted after bar is wrapped
- Clean look
- Requires significant force to actuate from the drops
- Most expensive lever in the bunch
See more at PRO
Ok, so, I like ENVE. I like what they’ve done to elevate carbon rims. I like that they’re innovating in carbon frames. I like that they still make 31.8mm MTB bars. I like their warranty, I like the Grodeo. ENVE is great. But in my experience with their G-Series drop-bar lever, I think it needs some work. It started with the housing installation. It wouldn’t be fair to single ENVE out here, because all of these droppers but the PRO had issues with the housing stop. In the G-Series’ case, it was too tight a fit for my housing, and I had to whittle it down slightly to get it to seat in. I get the protective benefits of a tight fit, but a housing end will protect just fine. There was room for them to widen that stop a bit to work with one. Nit-picky, I know, but I had high hopes for this one because of its unique design.
So, the forward-facing lever works fine. A bit longer than it needs to be, but that just makes the action easier. Plus, it’s angled down a bit and never got in my way. It was the thumb lever that, in my experience, disqualified the G-Series. I understand why they went the route they did. Straightforward shapes like that of the Crankbrothers Highline Drop-Bar are likely to get in the way when you’re reaching for the brake. And shapes like the Fox and PRO force you to lift your thumb high out of its wrapped position. So, ENVE took the novel approach of not just angling its thumb lever down 90 degrees, but also positioning it forward. So far that it’s in front of the pivot.
It’s an even more extreme version of the original Crankbrothers Highline Drop-Bar, and I think I know why Crankbrothers abandoned it. Yes, the ENVE lever is completely out of the way. In fact, getting my thumb to it was more comfortable than any other lever in the test. And talking to ENVE, I learned this approach worked perfectly on their own handlebars, which have what most call an “ergonomic” bend in the drops. A 45-degree flat spot just behind the brakes. That would make this lever almost mimic the feel of a flat-bar dropper lever, which is one reason I enjoyed my time on the Surly Corner bar. But on my shallow-drop Ritchey Beacon bars (which I think naturally pair with dropper-post use), I just couldn’t actually do anything once it got there. The lever has to go forward and upward to pull the cable. But the natural arch of my thumb is downward. I had to rock my grip inboard and sort of jam my wrist forward. It destabilized my grip on the bar and my control of the brake. Eventually, I just switched my grip to the hood to actuate the post and then returned my hand to the drops. Again, I like you, ENVE, but this one was a miss.
- Long, light-action front-facing lever
- Steel band-style clamp that can be adjusted after bar is wrapped
- Rear-facing lever is out of the way when riding in the drops
- Rear-facing thumb lever has poor ergonomics
- Front-facing lever may crowd the brake lever for some riders
See more at ENVE
Hopefully, the Easton EA90AX (identical to the Fox-branded Transfer Drop-Bar remote) will be a good palate cleanser here. It’s got a lot going for it, at least on the surface. There’s something nice and techy about how the AX clamps to the bar. I’m a sucker for cross-dowels and barrel bolts. It’s also got that slightly forward-shifted pivot location that I liked about the PRO. It gave it that angled cable entry, though it did miss the mark, diameter-wise. Too narrow for a housing end, too wide to snugly fit bare housing. But at least Easton includes more flexible housing for the sharper bends under the tape. The cable pinch is a little rough, with the same less-than-ideal counterclockwise entry, plus no clean place to tuck the end into. But I never noticed it during testing.
What really intrigued me was that the design seemed to split the difference between all three of the other levers in the mix. The rearward-facing lever is down at a sort of 45-degree angle, presumably to make it less of a reach than the Crankbrothers, but still allow you to actually move it better than you can the ENVE. Similarly, it’s angled inboard about halfway between the straight-back Crankbrothers and straight-out PRO. And most impressively, this is the only model with a ball bearing in the pivot. Seemed perfect.
Of course, none of these are totally perfect. I found the finger trigger felt a little small. And there’s not much of a hook to it, making it require a somewhat intentional up-and-back motion. But honestly, that’s my only fair criticism here. And after my first ride, I got used to it. I actually found myself using my ring finger (not middle as pictured above) which allowed me to keep a wrap on the hood. but the lever action was light enough that my ring finger had plenty of strength. It wasn’t as comfortable or easy from the hoods as the ENVE, but eventually, it wasn’t distracting.
What really stood out was how it worked from the drops. The ENVE or PRO were more out-of-the-way, but it never rubbed my thumb like the Crankbrothers. At first, it did feel like I had to sort of snipe my hand into the right position. The thumb lever’s angle does “wrap” a bit just inboard of my thumb when I was firmly grasping the drops. Kinda locked me in almost, just not in a helpful way. But like the slightly snug forward-facing lever, I stopped thinking about it after my first ride. And actuating that thumb lever was pretty natural. I did have to lift my thumb out and around it to get into position, which wasn’t ideal. The ENVE and PRO were easier to reach. But neither was as easy to push. Part of that is the shape, but also the ball bearing. It makes up for the outward angle of the lever, which would side-load the plastic bushing that added to the stiction on the PRO.
- Clean, easy-install / removal clamp design
- Ball bearing in main pivot
- Best thumb-lever ergonomics in the bunch
- Small forward-facing lever
- Takes a second to reach thumb lever
See more at Easton
I’ve never compared such different versions of the same product. That was cool, because each did have its merits. The Crankbrothers gave the easiest access from the drops, and those without shallow-drop bars probably won’t have the issues I did. The PRO is totally out of the way in the drops, while still being usable in a pinch. Using the ENVE from the drops would require you to be in a real pinch, but from the hoods, it worked better than anything else in the mix. But for my money, the Easton / Fox lever is the most well-rounded. Good from the drops, good enough from the hoods, and great design.