Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Campy Only

For the last several years, it has become almost impossible to buy a “bad” bicycle. As the competition has increased, prices have come down, and it’s common to buy a really good bike for a fraction of the cost of just a few years ago. Perhaps it is even more difficult to buy a set of components that are not top shelf. We now have three major players (Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM) with a fourth coming soon (FSA). Even a gruppo priced in the lower range from any one of these manufacturers is of high quality, and will perform exceptionally well. Competition can be a wonderful thing.

The purpose of this column is not to denigrate any one marquee, or even to try and attempt a heads up comparison, much less to imply one is better than another.

Most of the people I ride with know that I am a Campy only kind of guy. For me, there is Campagnolo, and …the others. I’m going to discuss why I feel that way.

First, a little disclosure is order. While I have owned bicycles with Shimano 9 speed and ridden them many miles, I have never owned a bike with Shimano 10 speed, nor have I owned a bike equipped with SRAM. I have ridden 4-5 bikes with Shimano Dura-Ace 10s a total of maybe 30 miles. I have ridden four SRAM Red equipped bikes a total of 20 miles.

Since converting to Record 10 speed in 2003, I have not even had a stray thought about building up a bike with another manufacturers’ gruppo. It’s not that Shimano or Sram don’t make great products, they do, and that defines part of the issue with me. They just make “products”, and there is a lot more going on with Campagnolo than just manufacturing products.

It’s not really about the mystique and the racing legacy of the Campagnolo company, or the fact that they are about the last Italian bicycle company still making all of their hardware in Italy. For me it is about the quality and the durability, but most of all it comes down to how they components operate, look and perform.

I love the ergonomics of the shifters and the use of three separate levers for the three separate functions: braking, upshifting, and downshifting. In my opinion, the pushing down of the thumb actuated shift lever to move the chain down to the smaller cogs is intuitive and simple. Braking is superb with great feel, and the rear derailleur rewards you with lightning fast, positive shifts in both directions. The brake lever is only the brake lever, and therefore it moves only inward and outward, and is fixed in the lateral plane.

All of the Campagnolo components are designed first and foremost for racing, and even though I don’t race Grand Tours, I really like being able to dump the chain from the largest sprocket as far down the cluster as I like with just one movement of the lever. The front derailleur’s shifting has always been Campagnolo’s weak spot, at least in the modern era, but that has been addressed with the new 2009 11 speed groups. More on that later.

Perhaps an analogy is in order. Toyota makes incredibly good products, but you don’t often hear about a Ferrari, Porsche, or Mercedes being referred to as a “product”. Toyota has had great success in racing, and over the years they have made cars that can be driven very fast by the average driver.

Both Ferrari and Porsche demand more from the driver, but either one can be driven wickedly fast in the hands of a very talented driver. Just like with a Porsche (especially the older versions), get it wrong with a Campagnolo rear shift, and you will be punished with a clunky, noisy shift.

Oh, but get it right, and it’s like a symphony on wheels, a sequence of perfection, as the chain cleanly, fluidly, and silently moves from cog to cog. Campagnolo makes you earn every shift, where as the others pretty much shift the same for everybody, regardless of skill. Some will argue about the inherent superiority of a system that works the same for all users, regardless of skill, and I have no counter argument. I simply don’t like anything that makes something I am passionate about somewhat rote and automatic. Which brings me to…

Electronic shifting. Shimano (and Campagnolo-you know their hearts are not in it, but there are competitive market forces that can’t be ignored) is about to introduce a pricey electronic shifting system. The major sales point is that it will make rapid, high quality shifting pretty much an automatic thing, and there will of course be a big market for that type of product. Just as with a Porsche, I question whether “automatic” shifting will be rewarding when riding a fine racing bicycle.

I won’t be pushing a button to shift my bicycles any time soon.

Go to Ebay, type in “Campagnolo rear derailleur" (or any other component), and you will be directed to page upon page of vintage derailleur’s from the 60’s, 70’s, and even older. Part of this is due to the passion that Campy lovers seem to have for all products Campy, but mostly it is due to Campagnolo making every spare part of every component available, even for very old pieces. There is no planned obsolescence; in fact, often a new feature can be retrofitted to an older piece. When 9 speed shifting came about, the 9 speed index ring could be popped into an 8 speed shifter, and then you had a 9 speed shifter. Old parts become collectors’ items for classic old bicycles, not refuse for the landfill.

Bicycling Magazine published a survey a few years back. Bike shop mechanics were asked two questions
1) What manufacturer’s components are installed on most of the bicycles you service?
2) Which manufacturer’s components do you install on your own bicycles?

I’ll get the exact numbers wrong, so don’t quote me, but the survey results indicated that around 90% of the bikes they work on had Shimano, but 90% of the bikes they ride have Campagnolo. Perhaps it is because Campagnolo takes 1000 miles or so before it begins to perform at its finest, whereas with the others, they are as good as they ever will be on the day you buy them. I think a mechanic would appreciate that, as well as the serviceability of Campagnolo components.

Campy gradually breaks in, while the others gradually break down. When, after many miles, your rear shifting isn’t quite as crisp, with Campagnolo you take it to your mechanic (or do it yourself if you have the skills), and for the cost of $5 worth of parts and $45 of labor he rebuilds your shifter, and viola, your shifting is like new again…and must be broken in again. With the others, when your shifting deteriorates after many miles, you throw away your shifters and buy new ones.

As close to perfect as many Toyota products are, some would say that they are a little “soulless”, that there is no sense of spirit associated with them. I like to think that Campagnolo has the spirit and feel of a Ferrari, with the precision and reliability of a Porsche or Mercedes.

For the last six years I have led a weekly group ride that focuses on climbing at a hard pace. During the course of these six years, I have met cyclists riding just about every possible incarnation of nice bicycle. As in the general public, the majority of these bikes have had Shimano components, although many of the bicycles referred to as “dream” bicycles seem to have Campy.

A couple of things do stand out for me, based on all of the many conversations. Many riders, even very experienced ones, have never owned a bicycle equipped with Campagnolo, yet they all purport to have strong opinions on the brand. For what it’s worth, I have always thought that Campagnolo was one of those things that have to be owned, and not just “tried”, to be fully appreciated. Sort of like a fine automobile as in a Porsche or Mercedes.

Another thing worth noting is that of the people I have met who have made the switch to Campagnolo, only one has returned to Shimano, and I believe the issue there was mostly related to a particular shop’s service, rather than the equipment itself.

So for me it really is Campy only, and I just had to be the first kid on my block to have the new 2009 Super Record 11 speed.

You can bet I’ll be back to discuss that.