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Commentary: What Movistar’s SRAM partnership means for component sponsors

For SRAM, an opportunity is born — and for Campagnolo, a moment of reflection. What does Movistar's move to SRAM mean for component manufacturers?

Movistar made a significant equipment change this past week, switching from longtime component partner Campagnolo to SRAM’s Red eTap AXS HRD system. Team Movistar had been using Campagnolo components for 37 years (the team’s name has changed over the years, from Reynolds to Banesto, to iBanesto.com, and a few more iterations until Movistar took over the title sponsorship in 2011). SRAM launched its eTap AXS system in early 2019, and other teams such as Trek-Segafredo and Katusha-Alpecin rode the system throughout the 2019 season.

Perhaps even more notably, the 2020 season will be Movistar’s first with riders exclusively on disc brakes, joining the likes of Trek-Segafredo, which made a similar leap last season. In fact, Movistar and Trek-Segafredo will be the only WorldTour teams running SRAM’s drivetrain in 2020 at the WorldTour level, as Katusha-Alpecin shuttered at the end of 2019.

Why the switch for Movistar now? There are plenty of possibilities, but according to team owner Eusebio Unzué, “After 37 years, we are switching to SRAM and Zipp; this is a historic change that we do not take lightly, but we see a great opportunity to partner with technology leaders in drivetrain and wheels.”

Taken at face value, that means the draw here is SRAM’s wireless shifting technology, along with Zipp’s wheel designs. And that’s a fair assessment: SRAM has certainly upped its game in the last few years, making a big splash with eTap wireless shifting, and even poking at the status quo with a revamp of its 12-speed gearing in order to make jumps between cogs smoother and less dramatic. Zipp also offers components such as seatposts, handlebars, stems, and even bar tape, so it’s one-stop shopping for Movistar.

But in a sense, this is a lateral move for Movistar. Campagnolo supplied the team with drivetrains and wheels up until now, and SRAM will do the same. Campagnolo even launched its own 12-speed system before SRAM did, and the Italian company has had proven success with its electronic EPS shifting system. And while Campagnolo’s wheels are clearly quality products, it can be argued that the company hasn’t done enough to innovate over the last several seasons — at least not at the same pace as its competitors.

So perhaps it simply comes down to numbers — like, how much money has exchanged hands — and the details of the sponsorship. Or perhaps it’s SRAM’s wireless capabilities, which can simplify a mechanic’s jobs before, during, and after hectic Grand Tour stages. SRAM also acquired Quarq in 2011 and Powertap in 2019, which means SRAM has drivetrain, power, brakes, and wheels all under one roof — and presumably one point of contact for Movistar. That also streamlines the sponsorship relationship.

Canyon too has an existing relationship with SRAM, as the two companies have already joined forces to sponsor the women’s Canyon//SRAM team. Keep in mind that Katusha-Alpecin was also sponsored by Canyon, and the bikes were equipped with SRAM and Zipp components.

While this is only one team’s equipment choice we’re talking about here, there are ramifications for Campagnolo, SRAM, and even Shimano. Campagnolo loses its highest-profile team sponsorship, despite its investment in hydraulic disc brakes — which are arguably among the best brakes on the market. It also means Campagnolo will need to put more of a focus on innovation and rely less on its deep heritage to attract another WorldTour level team.

Of course, Campagnolo may not be in much of a hurry to attract another team anyway. Cofidis Credit Solutions makes the leap up to the WorldTour this year, which means Campagnolo will still sponsor three teams at the highest level of the sport. The Campagnolo name still demands respect, and it would certainly be folly to predict any sort of demise here.

For SRAM, the Movistar partnership is an opportunity to further prove its mettle, not only to the fans watching at home, but also to the riders in the peloton. While the Red eTap AXS system debuted to largely positive reviews last year, its performance wasn’t flawless, and some riders expressed frustration with some of the finer points of the system’s performance.

Meanwhile, Shimano still dominates the pro peloton. Is there reason for Shimano to worry about Movistar’s switch to SRAM? No, not yet, anyway. While SRAM has certainly built its name and reputation as a WorldTour contender, especially since the launch of eTap in 2015, Shimano’s primary competitor still has a long way to go before it has the same kind of sway and presence among pro teams.

But it wouldn’t be at all surprising if SRAM’s partnership with one of the most significant teams on the WorldTour didn’t at least get the attention with the folks over at Shimano, who have capitalized on a nearly flawless wired electronic system for years. If wireless is the future, however, Shimano’s moment to ditch the wires is now.

Or perhaps this move is much ado about nothing. SRAM, Shimano, and Campagnolo have all proven themselves on the WorldTour, and all three still have a presence there for good reason. Teams change equipment all the time — and more often than not, the decision simply boils down to dollars and cents, which is entirely possible here. But few make significant changes like this one, after such a long and enduring partnership. SRAM has an opportunity to shine, Campagnolo has an opportunity to reflect on its vision for the future, and Shimano has an opportunity to survey the landscape and plan its next move to maintain dominance.