Battle Royal, Part III: Campagnolo Super-Record
Campagnolo wins. There, that’s one of the two acceptable conclusions it would seem most readers will accept as just. I’m willing to bet that for most readers the sentimental favorite, the group of components that if—for any reason, any reason at all—I fail to find Campagnolo’s Super Record group the absolute winner of this little comparison, this subset of readers will feel justified in coming to the conclusion that I simply don’t know what I’m talking about.
I understand that sentiment, I really do.
The other alternative, of course, is that I’m supposed to come to the conclusion that these three groups and our love for them are as beyond question as religion. If you’ve had the impossibly good fortune to have had a love of Campagnolo passed down to you by your father, conceivably even a grandfather, you, sir, are lucky beyond measure and are thusly awarded a dispensation from this discussion. In your case, Campagnolo, by virtue of the fact that it was as inherited by you as your actual religion, is beyond question the winner.
But most of us made a choice. Maybe it wasn’t all that conscious, but we had to make a choice, so for most of us, it’s not like religion.
It’s a helluva prelude, but I had to do it. And here’s why: When I bought my first racing bike in the 1980s, it was both used and equipped with Campagnolo Super Record. I had a sense that what I purchased was an investment in my future. That my bicycle was without an expiration date. It was not, however, impervious to ham-fisted wrenching. The headset had been brinnelled, “indexed,” as we joked. When I replaced the headset (with a Chris King), I took the opportunity to overhaul the entire bike. I recall my shop’s manager turning the brake’s quick release and saying, “This works so well … why would Shimano want to go and change that?”
That was a direct quote recalled verbatim more than 20 years later.
Campagnolo’s Record group carries with it an air of elegance. Record has the enviable distinction of combining components of obvious function with a wash of art that rises above good industrial design. It reminds me of the work you find in a great guitar, fine silver or some of the best German sedans.
It seems unlikely that either Dura-Ace or Red will ever be as pretty as Record. This is a level of unlikely akin to me winning a Pulitzer or peace breaking out in the Middle East, although I’d welcome either or both. Campagnolo’s sense of the interplay of artful design and function are readily apparent at almost every turn, to be found in the use of carbon fiber in the front and rear derailleurs. Even better are the flowing contours of the Ergo levers. There’s something Eames-like in the way the lever bodies curve inward at the rise and the brake levers flatten and wrap outward at the hook.
Out of the box, the skeleton brakes remind me of some German shower fixture: minimal, functional and almost endlessly adjustable. On the road, however, they accumulate more dirt, sand and assorted road grime than any other brake I’ve encountered. Not surprising, I suppose, they’ve got surface area like Norway has coastline. And getting in there to clean them has forced me to amass a set of brushes I didn’t previously need.
Best Features: Their creativity. They were the first to add 10 speeds and then 11. They added carbon fiber to components like shift levers and derailleurs before anyone else did. They embraced both triples and compact cranks before Shimano did. They’ve offered a greater array of cassettes for their top group than Shimano has for some years. It’s a fact that Campagnolo has done more to meet the needs of the everyman than Shimano has by virtue of its willingness to offer smaller chainrings and bigger rear cogs on its cassettes. For an executive with taste and too few hours to ride, there isn’t a better choice than Campy with a compact crank and a 13-29 cassette, that is unless he lives some place relatively flat where he can get by with the compact and a 12-23.
I appreciate that Campagnolo offers cassettes with a 12t small cog. I don’t climb as fast as I did when I was racing, so I like having a 27t large cog. My unabashed love of climbing combined with my even greater love of technical descents (where my speed rarely hits 50 mph) makes my absolute favorite cassette the 11-speed 12-27. It has worked for me in the canyons above Malibu and makes great sense in the Alps as well. I can’t defend this preference in any remotely objective way; it suits my fitness and the terrain I prefer.
One great feature of Campagnolo’s Ergo shifter is your ability to dump the chain down the cassette after getting over the top of a climb. Where I live I rarely need this feature, but I have ridden loads of hills in New England that had a sharp finish to them and being able to drop three or four cogs instantly was pretty handy. Even better than this is the mechanical advantage of their shifters. It requires less force to execute a shift with Campagnolo shifters than either of their competitors’ shifters. And then there’s trim. Whether you’re in the small or large chainring, you get trim and I’ve yet to ride a Dura-Ace bike adjusted so perfectly as to prevent me from desiring at least a touch of trim.
Campagnolo has also endorsed the concept of running changes in a way Shimano doesn’t appreciate. If you didn’t like a feature of 7800, too bad; it stayed until the release of 7900. With Campagnolo, every year there are a few tweaks. The downside is that sometimes the new group isn’t all that new, but that process of tweaking has meant that the pressure required to shift the thumb button has decreased but the chance of overshifting has dropped as well. It used to be that in a sprint, by the time you generated enough pressure to execute a shift, you were well on your way to yet another shift. I was careful about the smallest cog I’d run on my cassette when I raced to make sure I didn’t risk overshifting. Running changes also means that each year Super Record gets a bit lighter; no matter what Shimano is doing, the fact that each year Super record gets lighter will keep the group competitive and push Shimano to catch up.
Worst Features: Their creativity. Let’s face it, three of the biggest game changers in component design—integrated control levers, large diameter BB spindles and dual-pivot brakes—all came from Shimano. It pains me to write that. Five or six years ago a friend summed up the reason he thought Campagnolo was OTB in component design with this: “Two words dude, square taper.” He was referring to the Italian company’s ongoing use of the square taper BB spindle, something they did finally abandon.
It’s not that Campagnolo isn’t creative. God knows. The problem is that the company used to lose the plot line periodically. Two more words: Delta brakes. I covered this ground adequately in peloton‘s issue 8, but I’ll remind you that the Delta brake, while as gorgeous as Riedel crystal, worked only as well as something spec’d by Huffy and was even harder to adjust. Imagine something as pretty as an iPod but with circa 1990s system software by Microsoft.
As much as I love the shape of the Ergo body and brake lever, I’m dismayed that Campagnolo has yet to offer the ability to adjust the reach on the brake lever. This is never more frustrating than when I move back to my Super Record-equipped bike from either a Dura-Ace or Red-equipped bike. It seems to me that ideal ergonomics would mean that lever reach would be adjustable so that any rider could open their hands while in the drops and their fingers would immediately reach the levers. It’s not a huge reach, but it’s a reach, nonetheless, that many of us are forced to make. That the quick release for the brake is on the lever is a feature I’ve never liked. A broken spoke will result in a brake lever that can only be reached from the hood.
Campagnolo’s extensive use of carbon fiber has a downside. Lay a Campy-equipped bike down and you’d better sharpen up your American Express card. I once had one of their chains blow apart at the shop-installed with the $100 tool masterlink (an abandoned design) and the broken link caught in the rear derailleur pulleys as I pedaled. The carbon parallelogram snapped like dried pasta. I still find the fact that their chains are non-repairable and require a $100 chain tool irksome. And that’s putting it mildly.
Assembly and Maintenance: The last iteration of Campagnolo 10-speed Record set a new standard in functionality for the Italian manufacturer’s top group. It was by far the quickest to set up and adjust, save the chain, but we’ve covered that. Unfortunately, Super Record 11 has proven to be fussier to set up. If the front derailleur set up isn’t perfect a dropped chain can result in chewed up carbon fiber, either in the front derailleur (no bueno) or perhaps at the frame (really no bueno).
Worse is the company’s decision to use aluminum Torx fittings to secure the levers and brake pads. Gone are the days of slipping a 5mm driver below the hood and giving a firm twist. Now you have to peel the hood back to a crazy degree and try to shove a Torx driver in there squarely enough that you don’t end up with aluminum shavings all over the lever. Your results may vary. To get the lever clamp tight enough I had to snug a crescent wrench on the driver’s handle. To see a picture of me doing this you can check out the Wikipedia entry for “awkward.” Not publicized by the company was the release of some alternative cassette spacers some months after the introduction of Super Record. There was an acknowledgement that some users might not be getting the best possible shifting performance. I was Googling for information on optimal adjustment of Super Record drivetrains when I happened to run across info about the ever-so-slightly thicker spacers.
Running new cables in a lever is less fun than changing a diaper. By a long shot. Those little white cable guides may give you choice, and they pop out to aid installation, but getting them back in is a bit like trying to replace a AA battery with a D cell.
The good news is that once it’s working properly all it needs is the occasional wash and chain lube.
Group Weight: 4.3 lbs. (1950g)
Best Internet Pricing: $2199