Facebook Pixel Image

Campagnolo: Part Two

Posted on
Photographs: Taz Darling

If Tony Butterworth ever wondered where all the smudges on his shop window came from when he opened up on a Monday morning, I publically apologise here and now for any I left there. Tony’s bike shop window in Sheffield was crammed with classic racing bicycle components and full of offerings from legendary brands of the time: Cinelli, Gipiemme, 3ttt, Miche, Ofmega, Modolo, Zeus, FT Titanium, Galli, OMAS and, of course, Campagnolo.
So, each Sunday, as I stopped off during my training ride to peer longingly through the window of Butterworth’s lightweight Mecca, I occasionally bumped my head while straining to get a closer glimpse of Europe’s finest bicycle wares. Sorry, Tony, but I suspect I was not the only one.
Then, one day, there it was: my first Super Record component. The allure of that classic royal blue box, adorned with world championship bands, had been unbearable and calling me for some time. Every week I had seen that rear derailleur in the window, displayed on top of its box with a handwritten price ticket taped to the end. I knew I had to have it. And now I had my own Super Record box, in front of me, sitting on the dining room table.
I already owned several Campagnolo parts, but this was significant, because it was my very first bit of Super Record. After carefully lifting the lid to reveal the prize inside, I was greeted by a thing of beauty, the polished alloy contrasting perfectly with the satin black anodised finish that immediately separated this mech from its plain Record counterpart. The titanium bolts of the upper and lower pivots and the classic Campagnolo script – printed rather than engraved – gave this derailleur a classy look that, for me, set it above all others.
I had seen countless images of Continental pros, the likes of Giuseppe Saronni, Francesco Moser and Silvano Contini. Posters of them adorned my bedroom wall, and all of their bikes were equipped with this very jewel. Now my bike would have one too, and that was even more significant.
If I am honest, the reason I fixate on this particular component is not because of its performance. In hindsight, my dull old Record rear mech seemed to run a little smoother and, much as I hate to admit it, shift a bit sweeter. It was because this was the first time I had the box and the pride of being the very first person to remove the little blue card tab (complete with embossed Campagnolo logo) that held the top pivot bolt in place for safe transit.
I was also the first person to unfold its wrapping – a greaseproof paper instruction sheet. This simple crinkly bit of paper, with rudimentary drawings and minimal text, told you all you needed to know: it released into the air the smell of oil, the smell of metal, the smell of industry.
Today when you receive any modern bicycle part it is accompanied (or should be) with a heap of warranty information, disclaimers and a comprehensive instruction manual written in several languages, labelled with repeated warnings about excessive torque, use with non-associated parts and danger of injury – or even death – if you choose to ignore the manufacturer’s recommendations.  In 1982, all you got was a simple picture of a rear derailleur sitting underneath a set of sprockets with sparse text explaining how the travel adjustment screws should be set – nothing more, nothing less.
It was not the mech itself but this greaseproof paper instruction sheet that set me thinking. There was no question about the emotional gratification of finally getting my hands on my very first bit of Super Record gear, but that shiny instruction sheet that lay flattened out in front of me had been carefully folded by someone and placed in the box, prompting me to think about how that iconic component part ended up sitting on the dining room table.
Up until then, a product was simply a product – lovely as it may be – but the moment I opened that box I began to consider that there might be more to owning it than simply ownership itself.
In the early 1980s, when my interest in bicycles and cycling started, my thoughts and understanding about components was often stimulated by photos in magazines, mostly Italian or French in origin, giving me limited access to another world. I am not fluent in either language, but sometimes you do not need words. I cannot truly explain my passion for all things Italian that still affects me today, but it slowly dawned on me that I was indeed Chesterfield’s very own Dave Stoller – the Italo-obsessed hero of Peter Yates’ classic 1979 movie Breaking Away – influenced equally by the glossy posters, catalogues and magazines in circulation during that formative period of my life.
I started to think about Vicenza, the home of Campagnolo. Exactly what was their factory on the Via della Chimica like? I was not well travelled and could only let my imagination run wild creating a mental image of the source of my new possession. As the years passed, my appetite for Campagnolo’s offerings carried on unabated.
My first bike to be completely adorned with Super Record was a joy, even if I did have to economise ever so slightly and settle for the steel Nuovo Record bottom bracket axle and Strada XL pedals. The titanium axle equivalents were out of reach financially, which was perhaps a blessing given the problems Campagnolo appeared to experience sourcing consistent quality titanium in the early ’80s.
The intrigue about what life must be like at Campagnolo never left my mind for long and somehow I felt closer to the Italian manufacturer than I had any right to. Maybe it was because of my poster collection which provided a portal to another world: pictures of great riders, almost exclusively Italian, but certainly riding Campagnolo equipped bicycles.  These were the giants of the sport at the time and they all rode Tullio’s top-of-the-range equipment. Of course, in hindsight, public relations and sponsorship was at the heart of much of this; all I could do was admire their gleaming machinery.
As bikes came and went along with their corresponding groupsets, alliances with alternative brands always left me wanting, emotionally if not mechanically, leading me straight back to Campagnolo’s portfolio for inspiration. All the while I dreamt of an opportunity to visit Italy, arguably the home of the best cycling components in the world. There was no doubt in my mind that Tullio’s creations were designed with inspiration and pride.
The efforts of a truly creative man with principles and standards were there for all to see, and thanks to his dynamic personality and insatiable hunger for success on the pro racing circuit, almost every winner’s bike back then was equipped with Campagnolo.
When Campagnolo Senior died in February 1983, the cycling world lost a real force in innovation and bicycle development. His son Valentino openly admits that he was reluctant to step out from his father’s shadow with an almost impossible task in hand. He needed to take forward one of the most prestigious names in cycling armed with a very different set of skills to his father.
His problems were compounded by a dramatic reduction in the global racing bike market share as road cycling took a nosedive in popularity across the world, especially in Italy, a country inextricably linked with bike racing and manufacture, where 30 per cent tumbled to five almost overnight. The mountain bike arrived in Europe as unexpectedly as the Great Storm of 1987 that battered the South of England, leaving Campagnolo and other bike companies on the continent holding on for their very existence. It is testament to Valentino that Campagnolo still exists as a force to be reckoned with today. 
This deserves recognition, considering the company’s unsuccessful early attempts, not to cash in on the off-road market, but to work with it, in an effort to allow the firm to do what it really loves: innovating, experimenting and producing some of the best road bike equipment money can buy. Valentino could not have achieved this without his dedicated workforce. 
When 1 got the opportunity to visit Campagnolo’s headquarters in Vicenza in December 2010, it was the end of a very long wait. I can speak truthfully here when I say I had given up on ever getting to visit Vicenza, certainly on walking through the gates of Campagnolo as a guest.
The world is a very different place from when Tullio set up his company, and road riding has seen a renaissance in recent years. It has captured the imagination of millions of people who are hungry for knowledge, performance, technology and (to a lesser degree, sadly) quality and durability. The staff at Campagnolo are hungry too, but like company founder Tullio, they have principles and standards that are not easily compromised or relinquished without a fight. 
Only now do they seem keen to share their methods and principles more openly with the world at large. The doors are about to open, and for better or worse, I will have the mental picture that I have created over a quarter of a century validated or destroyed.
The area we enter is vast and impressive from the start. It is obviously a place of work and actual manufacture, not just a glorified warehouse. Real people are here, doing real jobs. The machinery and infrastructure are obviously old but still adequately fulfil requirements. Huge industrial presses, many painted in the ubiquitous green that seemingly all big factory machinery is finished with, actually have sheet steel and even titanium being fed into them and systematically converted into the individual sprockets that will carry enthusiastic granfondisti over the Dolomites and the gregari of the peloton to countless victories. They really do make things here.
However, there are no rows of smiling Italian ladies chatting away as they work, so one of my overly romanticised preconceptions is immediately dashed. Solitary individuals sit at their machines with a definite sense of purpose creating each part in turn and making an invaluable contribution to the very fibres that make up a Campagnolo component.
It is a revelation to see individual chainring bolts being put through several stages of manufacture before they are ready to head off for finishing. I am almost dumbfounded by the hands-on approach to the manufacture of such a tiny part, which I expected to see ready-made and outsourced.  This obsession with quality control only underlines the company’s commitment to do things the Campagnolo way. Despite openly admitting that many of its finished components are assembled at their facilities in Romania, Valentino’s desire to keep as much in-house as economically possible is admirable.
I, for one, am saddened by the mass exodus of manufacture to the Far East, not just in the bicycle industry but in general. This is not misguided xenophobia but a concern that if everyone ups sticks and abandons their roots, ultimately the local communities will be irreparably affected, and we will all lose out in the end. The principle of retaining European manufacture where possible comes at a price not only for the consumer, but likewise for Campagnolo, which almost completely excludes itself from the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) bicycle market by taking this course of action. The product is worth paying for, provided the end product is of high performance and quality.
Carousels are hand loaded with raw alloy components destined for anodising baths. Piece by piece, each part is carefully placed on a sprung retention device that holds hundreds of items and, once full, is carried away on a conveyor system running constantly above our heads. Practically silent and graceful, these carousels travel the entire length of the shop floor before entering the anodising baths, finally emerging with their cargo of silky smooth components. In an attempt to ensure the very best integration of their drive train products, Campagnolo retains total control by doing everything itself.
The chain has a fundamental influence on shifting performance and reliability and its importance is reflected in the company’s significant investment in its manufacture. An almost disproportionate amount of the factory seems dedicated to chain production, as hoppers of side and inner plates together with the rollers are shaken into position and fed into substantial pieces of machinery for riveting.
Once assembled, an endless length of chain spews out of one device and heads on an inexplicably tortuous route: up-hill and down-dale, over sprocket, under sprocket, round roller, through X-ray cabinets. Areas designated for magnified visual study are also passed through before arriving at the other end of the plant for the personal attention of staff who carefully check each pre-cut section before getting it ready for packing.
Campagnolo is equally committed to rigorous in-house testing, not to mention material and product development. Large sections of the factory feature devices created to push their designs and equipment to breaking point. Surface treatments are tested for reaction to acidic attack and ultraviolet fatigue, whilst chainrings and drivetrain components are condemned to many hours of abuse on jigs – and even mudbaths – that replicate thousands of kilometres on the road. 
Brake block compounds are formulated and tested in-house too, with new wheel technologies and rim designs thoroughly tested before real-world application. Ergopower test rigs in sealed glass enclosures can be seen running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, putting the prototype Record electronic shifters through their paces together with the derailleur and battery systems. 
Certain voices in recent times have commented on the supposed demise of an Italian icon, but I beg to differ and politely ask our valued readers to consider for a moment the type of company Campagnolo is. Born from frustration thanks to the inadequacy of design (Tullio suffered defeat in a bike race that he would have surely won), Campagnolo invented the quick release mechanism for the benefit of himself and racers like him.
Likewise, he pioneered work to design a system that allowed selection of an alternative gear ratio without the need to remove the wheel. Subsequent development of the parallelogram rear derailleur followed, and it is mainly Tullio we have to thank for that.
A successful company was started on the basis of his designs; further developments and close study of materials led to the adoption of aerospace alloy and manufacturing techniques that resulted in Campagnolo providing their specialist services to prestigious marques in the motor industry and even contributing towards the space race.
Yet in simple terms, for the majority of its life, Campagnolo has been dedicated to producing a select range of bicycle components and indeed pioneering the concept of an integrated one-brand solution, ensuring improved interaction and performance.
The idea of a groupset is now commonly understood but it was Campagnolo’s approach to design that led in no small part to this. Competitors such as Shimano came from a very different background, being initially a manufacturer of utilitarian products such as single speed freewheels specifically aimed at mass production for the millions of bicycles used in everyday life around the world.
I will not for one moment try to undermine Shimano’s contribution to the modern racing bicycle because of their origins; that would be churlish, as the Japanese manufacturer’s influence in more recent times is without question, funded in the main by financial strength garnered in more pedestrian and profitable markets. This strength allowed it to contribute massively to improvement and innovation in ergonomics, and enhanced performance of top-level racing equipment.
It is hard to make direct comparisons between Campagnolo and Shimano as they are in essence very different companies with totally different backgrounds swimming in similar waters.
Now SRAM has arrived to the road market in search of a share, but the Americans, like Shimano, have their eyes on a wider plan. That’s not to say SRAM hasn’t brought some innovation to perhaps the most stimulated market in road bike history, but the company and the history is dramatically different to that of Campagnolo. One cannot help feeling that perhaps each company now feeds off each other but still has its origins and manufacturing principles in very different camps.
Campagnolo has miraculously survived its darkest days – the death of its founder, a radical change in the market and the onslaught of competition from all sides, but now leads again instead of following,  and it does so with an air of optimism and confidence. The successful adjustment to the manufacture and use of composite materials, despite historically working with alloys, is also a testament to the fruit of forward thinking and significant investment in this area.
The Italians are proud and especially secretive about this side of the business, so much so that during our visit we were not allowed to view their composites manufacturing section. This slightly overprotective attitude perhaps stems from a different era where spying and piracy of designs were rife. You only have to look back at all the wannabe designs of hubs and chainsets that were around in the ’70s and early ’80s to see that Campag’s designs were very often blatantly copied.
Campagnolo has simply found its niche and seems content to work within it, keen to look forward, not back as so many companies steeped in tradition tend to do. The products are creatively different and a refreshing alternative, functionally and aesthetically, to its rivals’ products.
The company has taken the first steps in opening up its doors to the outside world to ensure that the story is heard and its products are understood, but it will need to work closer with the distribution and retail chain if Campagnolo product is to hold its own against more their more aggressive and – some would say – pro-active rivals.
The firm’s Pro-Shop programme was introduced to help alleviate this but in essence needs to be more than a sticker on a shop door. Likewise, the retail of Campagnolo components has always been something of a lottery with incredibly unstable pricing, which ultimately confuses and frustrates the customer. A retail environment that currently resembles the Wild West also plays a large factor in why so many shops today don’t even stock Campagnolo, which is a crying shame.
Visit your local bike shop in search of a Campagnolo spare part and you will struggle. Availability is generally poor and pricing often disproportionate to the item you are trying to repair.  A premium product should be sold through the appropriate channels, not fly-by-night internet-based operations, selling solely on price with absolutely no interest in long-term customer satisfaction.
Perhaps my face is still stuck too closely to the proverbial specialist’s shop window, but today’s market is perilously close to becoming a pile-it-high, flog-it-cheap environment which does not support the long-term use, maintenance and after sales support that I know the majority of Campagnolo’s customers demand and deserve.
The economic pressures that any manufacturer faces are now considerable, but as the tide of consumerism turns and legislation demands more recycling and reduction in consumption, surely the manufacture of long lasting, high performance product with long-term service and support is something to build a thriving business on? Well, it certainly worked for Tullio.
In reality, there is no time in a busy factory to carefully lower each derailleur into its box, azure blue or otherwise, and place it lovingly in its greaseproof paper instruction sheet. Nor is there time to think about the destiny of each component as it sets off on its journey from Vicenza.
Walking the factory floor at Campagnolo, I can’t help but wonder if the staff have any empathy with the end user as they go about their work. I have been very lucky during my working life to have united enthusiastic recipients with the bikes of their dreams, and in many cases to have handed over life-enhancing machinery.
Does the person testing prototype electronic shifters or doing quality control on chains have even the slightest inkling of how much joy the final product will bring the end user?
The Dave Stoller in me still hopes so…

Leave a Reply