Having witnessed Campagnolo’s original (and forgettable) dirt foray, my first question with the arrival of their Ekar gravel group was, “Would history repeat itself?”
“As elegant and well-made as Campy’s Euclid mountain bike group was, it was heavy, clunky and simply over-designed. It didn’t last. It all started in the fall of 1989. It was a shock! Outrageous! Nobody could believe it. At the 1990 NORBA National Finals at Big Bear, California, a British rider (Tim Gould) on a French bike (Peugeot) using Italian components (Campagnolo) romped America’s best racers.
“The American racers were stunned. Bicycle builders were amazed. And, Shimano was embarrassed. How could Campagnolo, the roadie icon, beat them? Well, it’s 1990—and it happened again!
“The 1990 NOBRA National season began like no other, with Campagnolo fielding an impressive group of teams (Klein, Yeti, Gary Fisher, General and Fat Chance). The Italian manufacturer spent a lot of money over the winter acquiring some of the best riders and mechanics in the sport. The intent was obvious: the Campagnolo dynasty, long known in European road racing circles, was about to begin a new era in American mountain bike racing.
“When the weekend was over, Valentino Campagnolo got the good news that riders using his components had won both the Pro Men and Women cross-country events.”
THE CAME, THEY RACED, THEY DISAPPEARED
Those were the words I wrote in the August 1990 issue of Mountain Bike Action in my coverage of the Big Bear NORBA National. Little did I know at the time that, despite a wholly successful SoCal race day, within two years Campagnolo’s mountain bike effort would be all but forgotten.
Worse, just as occurred with Cannondale’s motorcycle some 10 years later, the Campy parts, too, found themselves branded with the “epic fail” tag. While the Italian effort was filled with the best of intentions and competitive instincts, Campagnolo’s move into the mountain bike world was undone due to their misguided, and really expensive, origins.
Because I was there in 1990, because I saw it all go down, and because I eventually had to pan Campy’s Euclid off-road components upon review, when I first heard that they would be producing a gravel groupset, a part of me shuddered in fear. Would Campy’s gravel-specific Ekar gravel group rate as a “Oh no, they’ve done it again?” moment or, as with their late entry into the disc brake wars, would it be something that would succeed beyond expectation and rise above the rest?
“Because I was there in 1990, because I saw it all go down, and because I eventually had to pan Campy’s Euclid off-road components upon review, when I first heard that they would be producing a gravel groupset, a part of me shuddered in fear.”
WHAT ABOUT THE EKAR GRUPPO?
By Troy Templin
The venerable Italian component brand that introduced the world to the quick-release lever back in 1930 now brings us their version of a gravel drivetrain. The Campagnolo Ekar groupset is named after the Cima Ekar mountain in Italy, with a peak elevation of 4475 feet and known locally as the home of Italian gravel.
While Campy follows in the tire tracks of Spanish component maker Rotor with a 1×13 drivetrain, the Italian company brings a more conventional design with a cable-pull versus Rotor’s hydraulic shift system. And although the Ekar component group is not Campagnolo’s first attempt at a dirt-oriented drivetrain, unlike the short-lived late-’80s MTB drivetrain, we’re happy to report that this effort is much more on point.
NEW SHIFT SHAPES
To start, Campy has taken advantage of a new freehub design that allows for the use of a 9- and 10-tooth cog. There are three cassette options—9-36t, 9-42t and 10-44t—and our test bike is fitted with their 9-42t option. This is matched to a 38t chainring on the new carbon crank. Campy says there is a new sealed bottom bracket to minimize bearing contamination from the more rugged elements found when you leave the comforts of tarmac.
The hand controls are in line with what we know as Campy’s road designs, with each action having an independent control and adjustability. For the sake of durability, but mostly cost savings (always an issue for the Euro-produced parts), the crank is the only component made from carbon.
There is a new thumb-shifter design that adds a textured element, as well as a new C-shaped, dual-position trigger. This made for much easier shifting in the drops, as well as hoods, and if you ask us, they should definitely adopt it to their road bike shifters. The alloy brake levers have a lightly etched surface treatment for added tactile feel.
ON THE ROAD
The thumb shifter only shifts one gear at a time, while the sweeping inside arm shifts up to three gears at a time. This function was nice because, when riding off-road and using the thumb shifter, you could potentially over-shift on bumpy terrain if it had multiple shifts (up to four) like the road versions. The left control only has a brake lever, and there is no shifting or dropper-post function.
“We’ve been mighty impressed with the performance of Campagnolo’s hydro disc brakes since the launch a few years ago, but in the dirt, their quality and performance are further amplified.”
We have been riding the group on the road, as well as the dirt, and have been impressed with both. On the road, the 38t wide/narrow 1x chainring matched with the 1-tooth cog spacing from 9-14t made for easy cadence and pace matching. The big jumps don’t seem to affect the road riding and start at gear 9 (21t) all the way to gear 13 (42t). These were used as things got steep in the dirt, but on our harder and steeper road climbs neither the 36t (12th gear) and 42t were needed.
The cranks are two-piece with a claimed weight of 650 grams. They are easily interchangeable alloy rings with a narrow-wide tooth design. Our crank has an ultra-torque 630 steel axle and UD carbon arms.
The drivetrain is cable-actuated, and like other Campy shifts, they are solid and precise but a bit on the clunky side. Not a bad clunky, but a fast and abrupt sort of shift. We didn’t have any mis-shifts that can be attributed to the added derailleur cage tension and clutch design. There is also a clutch lock that holds the system open for easier removal and installation of the rear wheel. Inside the derailleur cage you’ll find a 12t upper and 14t lower pulley.
The two-piece cassette mixes steel gears with an aluminum carrier for both durability and weight savings. Our 9-42 cassette has a claimed weight of 390 grams and the derailleur is 275 grams.
Since we received our components on a pre-built 3T Exploro Race Max (RBA, September 2020), we were unable to weigh the components independently, but Campagnolo touts a claimed weight of 2435 grams for the complete group with the 9-42 cassette.
One gravel-specific grumble we had was the choice of 42t and 44t chainring options, which, when matched to the 9t and 10t cog on their cassettes, provided a gear range seldom needed in the dirt.
For comparison, the 44×9 combo delivers the same 54×11 top-gear ratio favored by time-trial bikes! And with the 42×9, it’s nearly the same ratio as a 52×11 mid-compact setup. And while that could be friendly for some (strong) riders in the flatlands, both of those options lean more towards road-friendly gearing and will likely be underutilized in the dirt.
If there’s one complaint we seldom hear from gravel riders, it’s that their top gear is not fast enough. However, if there isn’t a low-enough gear to grind up a steep, rocky climb, they will definitely be complaining. We got by with the smallest 38t chainring, and we never had any trouble hanging with the road bikes when descending. By offering a 36t or even a 34t, the drivetrain would cater to a larger audience of gravel/all-road riders who frequent steep climbs.
THE PIZZA PIES
Smaller rings would bring us closer to the gear ratios found on mountain bikes but minimize the need for the pizza-pie 50t and 52t cogs that you find matched to them, along with the massive gear gaps that those cassettes have too.
Like Shimano and SRAM, Campy realized that the added tension from their rear clutch means a better riding experience. The side effect comes when removing or installing the rear wheel so, like the others, they have added a locking mechanism to hopefully ease the process. The trouble is, the Campy system locks the top pivot closest to the hanger in a back position but doesn’t reduce the tension of the lower clutch and cage. Both Shimano and SRAM systems directly reduce the lower cage tension for a true benefit. The Campy version does help, but there is no reduced tension, so it is still fairly difficult in our opinion.
BUT, OH, THOSE BINDERS
The real highlight for us is the feel and modulation of the hydraulic brakes. We’ve been mighty impressed with the performance of Campagnolo’s hydro disc brakes since the launch a few years ago, but in the dirt, their quality and performance are further amplified. With traction being a constant battle in the dirt, the modulation of the Ekar brakes is, in our opinion, the best balance of power and feel.
“If there’s one complaint we seldom hear from gravel riders, it’s that their top gear is not fast enough. However, if there isn’t a low-enough gear to grind up a steep, rocky climb, they will definitely be complaining.”
Unlike the aluminum brake spiders found on the road group, the Ekar rotors use stainless-steel spiders, which, yes, are heavier but also more durable and, best of all, cost-conscious.
When Campy first hinted that they were working on a gravel drivetrain, we weren’t surprised but a bit worried. It seems they did some serious research, because their offering looks to be a true top contender. There will be four chainring options—38, 40, 42 and 44. The cranks have a narrow 145.5mm Q-factor and will be available in 165-, 170-, 172.5- and 175mm-length arms.
“There is a new thumb-shifter design that adds a textured element, as well as a new C-shaped, dual-position trigger.”
Pricing is also a bit surprising, as it seems a full kit from our calculations will only set you back $1770, not including wheels. For wheels, there is a new N3W hub driver body needed to accommodate the 13 speeds. Campy is offering their new Shamal Carbon, as well as two alloy wheelsets from sister brand Fulcrum, alongside the release. Campy has also partnered with DT Swiss, Roval, Tune and others to offer hub bodies for existing wheels.
Unlike their early-’90s foray into mountain bike components, Campy kept things simple with the Ekar parts. Even the riders who were surprised at the level of “chunkiness” to each downshift (compared to Shimano and SRAM) came away content with the predictability and quickness. Those riders with Campy-equipped bikes of their
own fell in love with the new pronged shifter and wished dearly that Campy would make a running change and retrofit available.
And then, of course, there were the disc brakes. Everybody raved about the brakes, and hopefully by now Valentino has seen fit to reward the designers and engineers with a nice bottle of Prosecco for their efforts.
Keeping in mind that when it comes to gravel-specific groups to compare Ekar against, there are a lot of variations. Matched against them all, however, RBA’s group consensus (between both frequent and first-time Campy riders) was that in terms of performance and price, Vicenza has scored a gravel bullseye with Ekar.
CAMPAGNOLO EKAR PRICES
Bottom bracket: $33
Right control with caliper: $395
Left control with caliper: $316
Rotor: $41 (each)
THE GEAR COMBOS