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Gravel Gear

The Grind: First impressions of Campagnolo Ekar on a Chapter 2 AO

A carbon Kiwi chassis dressed in a 13-speed gravel group.

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The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

I realize I’m a bit off the back here, but I only recently got onto Campagnolo’s new Ekar gravel group, thanks to a loaner AO test bike from Chapter 2, so I thought I’d give you my initial impressions after a few rides. On the positive side of the group, I love the feel and modulation of the brakes but the thumb shifting bugs me. For the frame, I’m impressed by how buttery the thing feels, especially given the stout 31.6mm seat post.

Chapter 2 AO

The AO is a carbon gravel bike from the New Zealand brand Chapter 2, which sells its frames consumer direct. Photo: Ben Delaney

The AO, released early last year, is a carbon gravel frameset with an adjustable wheelbase thanks to swapping around some small parts at the axle. It’s a lighter system and visually cleaner system than a sliding dropout design, but definitely requires more fiddling, should you decide to change it.

At the center position, chainstay length is 420mm, with clearance for up to 42mm tires thanks to the dropped drive-side chainstay. I haven’t bothered to adjust the wheelbase.

What struck me immediately about this bike was how smoothly it rides. With 36mm Challenge Strada Bianca tires at about 40psi, the bike just floats on gravel but doesn’t feel spongy on pavement. Certainly the tires are pulling their weight in the equation, but I’ve ridden other carbon frames with similar rubber and pressure setups that don’t feel this smooth.

Challenge’s Strada Bianca tires are a plush treat. Photo: Ben Delaney

Pleasantly — for me, at least — the handling isn’t sluggish. It’s still relaxed gravel geometry, not crit-bike steepness, but it’s on the livelier end of things.

The tall head tube does make for a high handlebar and high stack. As always, do your homework regarding what fits you best before you buy.

The down tube graphics are cool, but the lack of any down tube protection makes me nervous. Even just a clear plastic sticker would be a good thing.

The threaded bottom bracket is a good sign for long-term durability. (PressFit bottom bracket designs are lighter and visually cleaner, but if you get any play, there is little that can be done.)

Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed gravel group

Campagnolo Ekar is a 13-speed group with a few configuration options. This one is a 40t chainring paired with a 9-42 cassette. Photo: Ben Delaney

Shimano has the 11-speed GRX group, in mechanical and electric shifting options. SRAM has the electronic 12-speed eTap AXS groups, in Force and Red configurations. Both companies offer 1x and 2x builds. And now Campagnolo has the 13-speed Ekar group, which is 1x only.

As I’ve written about in comparing GRX and eTap AXS, I believe 1x groups look cool but can be limiting in range, particularly for Shimano where you have two chainring options (40 and 42t) and your widest cassette option is an 11-42.

Campy brings more to the table with four chainring options (38, 40, 42, and 44t) and three cassette options (9-36, 9-42, and 10-44). Chapter 2 sent this bike with a 40t ring and a 9-42 cassette. On steep climbs and on gentle paved descents I had plenty of gear. Finally!

The Campagnolo Ekar hoods feel similar to the ergonomic shapes of the Italian brand’s road groups, and the thumb-lever design carries over with one modification. Photo: Ben Delaney

Now, Lennard Zinn could tell you that the smaller the cog, the more frictional losses you will suffer. So perhaps don’t use that 9-tooth for your hour record. But for me, I’m just happy when I can shift around to find the right gear for the uphills and the downhills.

True to Campagnolo form, the parts look beautiful, with lots of carbon and clean, swooping shapes. The crank arms have little rubber covers, which is probably a good idea.

The rear derailleur has a clutch, for keeping the chain relatively taut over rattling roads, and it seems to do its job.

I’m curious to see how easy the system is to maintain as the cable stretches. In my experience, Campagnolo road groups function beautifully but require a little more care and feeding than Shimano. And with tighter tolerances for a 13-speed group… we’ll see!

The thumb-lever extension is supposed to make it easier to shift from the drops — but it’s still awkward to reach. Photo: Ben Delaney

The brakes… oh, my, do they feel good. Operation at the rotors is quiet, powerful, progressive and so easy to modulate. They are absolutely on par with Shimano if not a touch better. The curved levers cradle your fingers from the hoods or the drops.

This leads us to the shifting mechanism. Campy added a dropped extension to the thumb lever, which is supposed to make shifting from the drops easier. On this wide-flare Whisky bar, I can’t hit the thumb lever without some contortion. Granted, a shallower-drop bar would reduce the reach, but still, it’s a far cry from being able to shift with your index fingers behind the brake levers like with SRAM and Shimano. It’s a major drawback, in my opinion.

The index lever can shift up to four cogs at a time if you twist the lever nearly up to 90 degrees. The thumb lever only does one shift down to a smaller cog.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll get some more time on the bike and will follow up with a full review of the Chapter 2 Ao and the Campagnolo Ekar groupset.

Ekar chainrings come in 38, 40, 42, and 44t options. Photo: Ben Delaney