By Lennard Zinn
Ever since the father of the quick-release skewer, Tullio Campagnolo, founded it in 1933, Campagnolo SPA has been making highest-quality cutting-edge bicycle products in Vicenza, the leather-working capital of Europe.
Inside the vast factory just off of the West Vicenza exit from the A4 Milan-Venice Autostrada, polished parts hanging from high conveyors move around like candy in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. The production area is spread out over a single floor with extremely high ceilings, and despite the countless parts being dipped into long anodizing tanks or being painted, there is very little odor inside.
Within these walls lies the capability of and equipment for making every single part in the Campagnolo catalog, but after 70 years of producing all high-end parts in Vicenza, some of the more labor-intensive products (like wheels and carbon-fiber parts) are now made in a 200-person Campagnolo factory in Romania. That doesn’t mean Campagnolo completely eschews production in Asia; on the contrary, supply-chain issues require Asian production if Campagnolo wants to be an OEM supplier to bicycle factories (which it does).
So, entry-level Campagnolo and Fulcrum wheels (like the Fulcrum Racing 7 and Racing 5, the Campagnolo Khamsin and Scirocco, and the Fulcrum Red Metal 10 and Red Metal 5 mountain-bike wheels are built in Asia. Concerns about the inadvertent transfer of cutting-edge technology to Asia, Campagnolo builds its high-end labor-intensive products in Eastern Europe, where it’s easy to send engineers and the technology is less likely to find its way into competitors’ products.
For similar reasons, Campagnolo produces much of its clothing in Italy and some in Croatia.
Like so many other companies have done in the past year, Campagnolo took advantage over the winter and spring of the worldwide economic malaise to lay off 60 workers in Vicenza. While executives claim that Campagnolo’s sales volume in dollars was up in 2008, the recession offered the company the opportunity to look forward to its anticipated staffing needs and reduce accordingly without provoking a battle with its trade union.
I find Campagnolo’s production line fascinating, from the raw forgings through CNC machining, tumbling in ceramic media to round off edges and apply a sheen, through anodizing and hand screen-printing of the logo on each part. I especially love watching the fully-automated production of 11-speed chains. Did you know the “virgin hole” in the end of each Campagnolo chain has actually had a pin through it at one time? Indeed, the chains are built as one continuous chain that is then broken up into 114-link chain sections. But that end hole in the final outer-link pair has not been damaged, because its pin was not peened (to enlarge its ends and prevent it from pulling through the holes in the outer link plates) like the other pins have been. A machine feels for each unpeened pin and pushes it out to break the endless chain up into individual chain segments. A worker uses a go/no-go gauge to check the virgin hole for size.
The factory runs three shifts, and each shift makes about 220 chains, so over 600 chains/day come out of it. Discovery Channel devoted a “How It’s Made” segment to Campagnolo’s 11-speed chain production.
Even though I find it all very fascinating, I will not go into the details of production of any of the parts. That is because it’s less interesting to read a description without photos, and since Campagnolo forbids the use of a camera inside its factory, there are none to accompany this story.
It’s a shame, too, because I toured this factory with my former colleague Don Karle, a brilliant photographer who has done remarkable work involving industrial processes.
Campagnolo was, however, willing to supply its own photos, carefully selected to make sure none showed any new products under development or technology deemed dangerous to let out. These were mostly of the central part of the factory, namely the test lab.
Campagnolo’s test lab
Testing is divided into three phases at Campagnolo. Phase 1 is intended to discover the forces and environmental conditions a component must endure during use on the bike. Wheels, for instance, are instrumented with sensors inside to measure and transmit braking-surface temperatures correlated with lever force, bike velocity, mass of bike and rider. This information is used to design the Phase 2 test protocols, which are fatigue and impact tests designed to mimic actual usage in the field.
Phase 2 testing also ensures that the components are in compliance with industry standards; Campagnolo sets its testing bar considerably higher than the industry standard on every test and can assure us that all of its parts are safe and far exceed the CPSC and EU standards. For instance, test engineers measure such things as fatigue, braking friction, modulation, cable friction, and power of brakes, or release force, surface plate and cleat durability, and friction and lifespan of bearings in pedals.
Phase 3 is corrosion testing.
Campagnolo test development manager Franch Valentino says, “In my area, time is money,” so he develops ways to perform component tests faster, by using high speeds and higher powers to mimic long periods of road use in a short time in the lab.
Making bike parts that are lighter and more attractive than those of competitors yet have a longer lifespan is not easy. Campagnolo depends on a bevy of test machines and the test engineers running them for the know-how to evolve its products.
Why didn’t Campagnolo react to BB30?
Campagnolo, like Shimano, has stuck with a 24mm integrated spindle on its cranks. According to chief media officer Lorenzo Taxis, it would have been easy to make a BB30 crank, but it offers no performance advantage.
While it is less sexy to offer adapters rather than an entirely new bottom bracket, Campagnolo sees its system as advantageous. It allows a rider to upgrade to a BB30 frame and still use his or her expensive Campagnolo crankset, all while saving weight and improving stiffness.
What about Campagnolo electric shifting components?
Even though Shimano is well launched in the market with its Di2 electronic shifting system, Campagnolo not long ago had the lead in that arena. In fact, Nico Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques) notched the first pro win on Campagnolo Electric in the 60th Dwars door Vlaanderen in Belgium on March 23, 2005, beating Roger Hammond (Discovery) and Gabriele Balducci (Acqua & Sapone) in an eight-up sprint after 202 km. And Campy electric components performed well through a number of Tours de France and Giri d’Italia.
Even though Campagnolo staff finds it hard to watch Shimano taking the electronic market when the Italians were leading the Japanese in this area not long ago, the company had to let it go in order to develop the 11-speed drivetrain that now goes all of the way down into the Athena line.
It certainly can’t continue to develop a 10-speed electronic system when it has staked its future on 11-speed cable-actuated components. So until the company is ready to invest in developing an 11-speed electronic system, it will remain on hold.
And in many ways, according the PR director Lerrj Piazza, the company is content to let Shimano blaze the way while it assesses the market’s enthusiasm for it.
“The current economic system makes it too risky,” asserts Piazza, pointing out that big production quantities are required to make it feasible to industrialize the production process.
Piazza also points out that retailers are still not fully prepared for electronic shifting. A good service network is essential for long-term success of such new and different products, and it will take a while to put that in place.
Among other reasons for Campagnolo’s reluctance to enter the electric-shifting arena is the fact that electronic devices become obsolete in a much shorter time frame than do mechanical bicycle components.
Batteries are also changing rapidly right now, with new developments in the field continue to offer less bulk with longer duration. And the issue of waterproofing will always be a high hurdle for electronic components.
Campagnolo’s online community
While tech weenies abound on the Internet who are enamored with Campagnolo components, and 20- and 30-year-old mint-condition Campy parts command a much higher price online than components of similar age from its competitors, this online enthusiasm was not generated by the company other than by making components that have become the object of lust.
One benefit of the four-year warranty on 11-speed groups was to increase the company’s interactions with its end consumers. The consumer must go online and enter the serial numbers of all of his or her 11-speed components in order to be granted the warranty extension from three years to four years; dealers may assist the consumer with this, thereby demonstrating commitment to Campagnolo as well.
This electronic community of dealers and consumers would be critical to the success of electronic Campagnolo components as well. It also is good for a brand with so much history, since it can revitalize its image as young and dynamic. Another lure to become part of the database is that two dealers and two consumers were randomly selected from it to ride, all expenses paid, the Maratona dles Dolomites this past July with 11 Italian Olympic and world champions from other sports, including cross-country skiing, motorcycle racing, gymnastics, and kayaking.
Campagnolo enters the second decade of this new millennium with more speeds than anyone else and a clear eye on future trends.
Technical writer Lennard Zinn is a frame builder (www.zinncycles.com), a former U.S. national team rider and author of numerous books on bikes and bike maintenance including the pair of successful maintenance guides “Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance” – now available also on DVD, and “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance,” as well as “Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes” and “Zinn’s Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists.”
Zinn’s regular column is devoted to addressing readers’ technical questions about bikes, their care and feeding and how we as riders can use them as comfortably and efficiently as possible. Readers can send brief technical questions directly to Zinn. Zinn’s column appears here each Tuesday.