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Of all the bicycle brands, Campagnolo has arguably the most storied history and ardent fan base.
Interestingly, for the Italian company that invented the quick release — arguably, again, one of the most significant innovations in cycling — this reputation doesn’t result in a major presence in the average bike shop’s showroom.
One often has to seek out Campy, to specifically request it, to transfer it over from old frame to new, if there’s still life in the parts — and often, there is.
In 2015, only three of the 17 UCI WorldTeams teams are running Campagnolo.
So why should you, or any of us, consider the Italian brand?
Straight away, it is nearly always fruitless to convince a devotee to cast aside their Record or Chorus in favor of Shimano or SRAM. No, this Stress Test isn’t for them. It’s for someone who’s never laid hands upon the curvaceous carbon blades that rest on the front of the Record shifters.
At the risk of devolving into the usual Italian stereotype, Campagnolo’s Record groupset immediately provides a striking, almost organic aesthetic. The design is purposeful, but not at the expense of beauty.
Utilitarian is never an appropriate descriptor, except, perhaps for the chain.
From the visual, we move straight to the tactile impression. The Record hoods are comfortable and supportive. If you’ve ever felt like Shimano hoods are a bit too round, Campy’s ergonomics provide a flat, solid platform. If SRAM’s hoods seem to lack a nub at the end for security, Record cradles your hand’s crook.
If you’re inclined to stretch out and rest your forearms atop the handlebar bend for a more aerodynamic position, the Record levers afford a small bump, which sits like a wizard’s hat atop the brake lever, that can be firmly grasped.
Of course, Campagnolo’s shift lever configuration has always differed from competitors, and that too affects ergonomics.
The Record hoods seem best-suited for riders with larger hands. The lever that rests behind the brake may be a bit of a reach while on the hoods, if your fingers are short. In the drops, those with short thumbs may stretch a bit to actuate the button that resides inboard on the hood. However, that second concern could be remedied with a different handlebar curve or lever placement on the bars.
Those quibbles aside, the Record levers feel fantastic when riding in the drops. Shift lever placement encourages a firm, confident grip, and it’s easy to run through the gears in either direction.
The brake lever’s blade is wonderfully flat and comfortable, offering confident one-finger braking in the drops. It should be noted, however, that the levers do not afford any adjustment to bring the brake lever closer to the handlebars. The brakes themselves are powerful, although the rear caliper is a single-pivot, which doesn’t offer quite the same crisp confidence as the dual-pivot unit up front. Tire clearance is a little tight as well — we just barely squeezed a 28mm Clement LGG inside the rear caliper.
Unlike mechanical groups from Shimano or SRAM, Campagnolo shifters can shift multiple times in a single lever-throw in either direction, which is great for when speeds are dramatically changing — like at the top of a fast descent or just before a stoplight.
Whether you’re shifting one gear or three, the shift action is firm and purposeful, as if there might be a single, meticulous designer at Campy’s factory in Vicenza, Italy, working day and night to ensure the actuation is just so.
But we do have a few critiques of the shift action.
As mentioned earlier, the lever, which downshifts the rear derailleur, and shifts to the big ring on the left unit, requires a more inward stroke than Shimano or SRAM levers. This requires a bit of retraining, or else a finger — especially one in long-finger gloves — is liable to slip from the lever.
As for the thumb button, we occasionally found ourselves over-shifting, getting two clicks when only one was needed. Again, with finesse, it isn’t a problem.
Lastly, we occasionally experienced an odd case of the shifter jamming, albeit only momentarily, if we were simultaneously pressing both the lever and the thumb button, often absentmindedly.
All of these quirks became a rarity once we grew more and more familiar with the Record group.
The derailleurs and drivetrain all delivered trouble-free performance. The rear derailleur deserves special credit, having suffered a blow in a crash on a dirt road. The scratch on its bulbous carbon fiber body did nothing to keep it from its duties.
At the bottom bracket cluster, the front derailleur facilitated brilliantly snappy changes from little to big ring and back. Perhaps it doesn’t quite match Shimano when it comes to stunningly effortless changes, but Campy holds its own.
It should be noted, however, that the front derailleur requires careful adjustment to perform its best, as most units do nowadays. With a bit too little cable tension, and a slightly off limit screw, we suffered a few dropped chains.
With a little attention that was fixed, and it serves to demonstrate how eagerly the Record derailleur is to drop the chain into the little ring when asked.
Though it doesn’t perceivably affect performance, Campagnolo deserves credit for adopting a chainring bolt pattern that, like Shimano’s, allows riders to pick whatever chainring combination they like. Compact, semi-compact, and standard sizes are all welcome. We chose a 52/36t, which has excellent versatility.
However, tall riders beware: Campy’s cranks only come in 170, 172.5, and 175mm lengths.
The bottom line
Campagnolo parts aren’t for everyone. They haven’t been for awhile now, and perhaps that lends to the mystique.
When it comes to pure performance, the Record mechanical parts are, overall, out-classed by Shimano Dura-Ace, but the Italians put up a good fight.
At $2,409 for the complete group, Record is $210 more than Dura-Ace 9000, which fared very well in another recent Stress Test.
However, some riders are particular about ergonomics. Some desire a certain shift action that is more reminiscent of the latches on an expensive briefcase, rather than the buttons on a MacBook.
For those riders, Campagnolo Record delivers as a timeless group with a beautiful finish, durability, as well as longevity — Campy shifters can be disassembled and rebuilt, unlike Shimano or SRAM — and functionality.
In a time when hand-built frames are becoming increasingly popular, it is nice to have a component option that has a congruent aesthetic and is clearly built with love and care.