Campagnolo Spoken Here, But I Will Need to Speak Shimano

by Chikashi

THE enduring question in road cycling is “Campagnolo or Shimano?” More recently, I think it has evolved to “Campagnolo, Shimano or Sram?” It’s a partisan issue. Therefore, one cannot have a sensible debate.

It’s a bit like “completely shaved, landing strip / trimmed triangle or bottomless bush?” It’s not a debate to be won.

Ever since I saw a pair of Skyway’s Graphite Tuff Wheels with golden Campag hubs (with something that sounded a bit voodoo: sealed bearings) almost 4 decades ago when I was racing BMX, I have been a card-carrying Campagnolo Party member. Life was very simple in this regard.

If I were to choose between Campagnolo and Shimano by relying solely on the left side of my brain, then I know that it would be Shimano almost every time. However, the right side wields considerable influence. It is probably fair to say that Shimano’s mechanical performance is superior to that of Campagnolo’s in almost every way. However, one aspect of Shimano that leaves me completely cold is the heavy-handed design, not so much the shortage of lore and myth associated with their name. In other words, aesthetics.

To be fair, Shimano’s design language is probably “on point”, judging from sports car designs coming out of Italy in recent years. Whilst I am tempted to think that Italian industrial design took a wrong turn, got lost in the wilderness and entered the dark ages, Campagnolo’s designs represent hope in my eyes. Who else can make a rear derailleur look sexy? The Super Record rear derailleur is nothing short of delicious.

However, I have concluded that my continued membership in the Party is untenable.

Over the years, Campagnolo have chosen to be selective with their product assortment after a few unsuccessful forays into mountain bike components and other diversification attempts. As a small company, their resources are comparatively limited, so the strategic decision to remain narrowly focussed may have been forced upon them if independence remained an over-riding priority.

One might not think that in a low-tech category like bicycles, such choices would matter. However, I have come to the conclusion that such strategic choices do matter.

We have seen a couple of developments in the world of road bike components. One is the electronic transmission, and another is the hydraulic disc brake. Both require proper R&D, which in turn requires money. One can make small, incremental progress over a longer period, or one can try to go from zero to sixty in a much shorter period, which requires a much more significant capital outlay within a shorter period of time if one is to be successful. And, even more money is required to keep ahead of the competitors.

If you are in the business of group sets, you need money to stay ahead, even relevant. It now seems abundantly evident that diversified, successful experience is a competitive advantage. Campagnolo have neither.

Campagnolo, once the leading innovator in the field, now seem rather quaint.

Putting aside people’s varying preferences in how an electronic drive train should function, I think it’s safe to say that, in the general sense, Shimano and Sram are way ahead of Campagnolo. Catching up, getting ahead and staying ahead of their larger rivals will require money.

And, Campag do not have the benefit of diverse experience that the others do. One can always buy experience by going on a hiring spree, but that costs money, again… Take for instance, Shimano’s new Dura-Ace Di2 group set coming out this year. The new rear derailleur design comes straight out of their MTB experience in designing a rear derailleur that tucks under the chain stay in order to make it less susceptible to damage in case of a crash. Also from their MTB experience is the new synchronised shifting feature that automatically avoids sub-optimal gear combinations. Clever stuff.

Sram’s Etap is a good example of what Americans call out-of-the-box thinking. The wireless shifting enabled them to take a leaf out of the paddle shifters used in motor sports and better sports cars. It is arguably a lot more intuitive mechanism than anything else that’s available in cycling today. Sure, you’ll need to unlearn some shifting habits, but that does not take anything away from the fact that it is a more intuitive system. If Steve Jobs designed the way bicycle drive trains works, then this would be it.

The good old bicycle isn’t so low tech any more. And Campagnolo are having to play catch-up.

One glaring setback suffered by Campagnolo is their utter lack of expertise and experience in disc brakes resulting from their absence in the mountain bike segment. Sram had a hiccup when they first introduced their hydraulic version for road bikes, but it was nothing more than a hiccup after having accumulated significant experience in the off-road segments. In contrast, Campagnolo had to resort to partnering with a third party to develop their first disc brake group set.

And, we’re still waiting.

In the meantime, Shimano’s hydraulic disc brakes have become the standard by which everyone else’s disc brakes are judged.

When Campagnolo finally come out with a disc brake group set, I do not want to be a guinea pig for Version 1.

I always thought that disc brakes on a road bike are ugly. However, my priorities completely changed one day a few years ago in the French Alps. Descending in biblical conditions, the limitations of rim brakes became rather frightfully obvious. Disc brakes still hurt my eyes, but I want them.

As Shimano have gained market share at the expense of other companies, most notably Campagnolo, it has become increasingly difficult to find bike shops that have the experience and stocked with spare parts and specialist tools to service Campagnolo parts. I usually don’t go abroad with my bike more than twice a year, but whenever I do, I worry about not being able to get help in a timely and expert manner if I need it. Essentially, Campagnolo (and Sram) are exotics in today’s world. It’s hard enough to find a shop that knows how to deal with Campagnolo’s little peculiarities; forget about finding someone in the middle of nowhere who knows how to deal with EPS problems.

It feels more unnatural than painful, but my conclusion is that I need to learn to speak Shimano.