Bikes

New Campagnolo Ekar groupset brings mechanical 13-speed to gravel

The existence of Campagnolo’s new Ekar groupset hasn’t exactly been an ironclad secret, but today it’s finally been revealed in all its glory, and the details are indeed pretty juicy. As suspected, Ekar is a 1×13 mechanical drivetrain developed specifically for gravel. It’s also quite light, sufficiently economical that we’ll see it come stock on a bunch of new bikes, and — now that we’ve been riding it for the past few weeks — it works really well.

Is this the rebirth of Campagnolo fans have been waiting for? It might very well be.


Story Highlights

  • What it is: Campagnolo’s first 1×13 mechanical groupset, designed specifically for gravel and endurance road applications.
  • Features: CNC-machined steel cassette construction, molded unidirectional carbon fiber crankarms, updated Ergopower lever shapes, multiple gear ratio combinations.
  • Weight: 2,385 grams (claimed, with 9-36T cassette)
  • Price: US$1,764 / AU$TBC / £1,449 / €1,696
  • Highs: Excellent total gear range, reasonable ratio jumps, narrow pedal stance width, improved control ergonomics, lightweight.
  • Lows: Questionable drivetrain friction, unproven reliability, yet another new bottom bracket design.

Lucky number 13

If you think about what you would ideally want in a single-chainring gravel-focused drivetrain, many people would likely come up with the same list of attributes: durability and simplicity, a wide range (and several gearing options in general), reasonably-sized ratio jumps, unflappable chain security, low weight, and reasonable cost. Yet as good as 1x drivetrains have gotten in recent years in achieving most of that, the combination of a generous total range with smaller gaps in the middle has proven elusive.

Campagnolo’s new Ekar groupset aims to finally crack that code with two main features: a 13-speed rear cassette, and outer cassette sprockets that go down as small as just nine teeth. The additional sprocket reduces the size of the ratio jumps between the two extremes, while the 9T sprocket allows Campagnolo to reduce the overall size of the cassette to save weight as compared to a cluster with a similar total spread that starts with a 10T or 11T one.

Each Ekar cassette is machined from two blocks of steel. Campagnolo says that each cassette requires an hour and a half of machining time, plus another hour and half on top of that for dimensional inspection (which is apparently done on every cassette).

Ekar is built around three different 13-speed cassettes: a 9-36T, a 9-42T, and a 10-44T.

The 9-36T is aimed primarily at endurance road riders who want the simplicity of a 1x setup, but don’t want to give up on total range. As compared to a conventional 2x drivetrain, the spread of that 9-36T cassette is almost exactly the same as running a 50/34T compact crankset with an 11-30T cassette, but in a much simpler mechanical setup that also does away with a bunch of redundant gear combinations.

The 9-42T cassette sits at the other end of the spectrum with the broadest range in the Ekar family, coming close to matching a 2x Shimano GRX 800 setup with its 48/31T crankset and 11-34T cassette. The 9-42T admittedly falls well short of the spread offered by SRAM’s latest 10-52T 12-speed Eagle cassette, but with a smaller total range and an extra gear in between, the average ratio jumps are substantially smaller, especially at the top end where riders are generally more sensitive to big changes in cadence.

Sitting in between, meanwhile, is the 10-44T.

Whichever way you go, the cassette obviously defines the total range of the drivetrain, but the actual rollout — how far the rear wheel travels with a single crankarm revolution — will depend on which chainring you’ve chosen. Campagnolo will offer just four for now — 38, 40, 42, or 44T — each with subtle narrow-wide tooth profiles to help keep the chain engaged on bumpy terrain.

A new freehub body, too

All of the new Ekar cassettes attach to a new freehub body design dubbed N3W, which Campagnolo first teased when it debuted the new Shamal DB wheelset in July. N3W comes across as a wholly new pattern at first glance, and its 4.4 mm-shorter length is required to allow room for the 9T and 10T cassette sprockets, which aren’t big enough to fit around the standard body.

There’s some quiet brilliance to N3W, however. Although it’s a fair bit shorter than the existing — and long-running — Campagnolo freehub body standard, the diameter and spline pattern are the same as they’ve been since the nine-speed era. Although Ekar cassettes won’t fit on older Campagnolo freehub bodies, every other modern Campagnolo cassette will fit on a new N3W freehub body once you add on a 4.4 mm extension.

The new N3W freehub body still works with existing Campagnolo 12-, 11-, 10-, and nine-speed cassettes when you add the little extension. Photo: Campagnolo.

New rear derailleur geometry, narrower everything

Moving the chain across those cassettes is a completely new design for the Ekar rear derailleur. There aren’t really any subtle ways to say this, so I may as well be blunt: the basic design is essentially a copy of what SRAM introduced with its groundbreaking XX1 mountain bike groupset (and given that Shimano has done the same thing, SRAM was clearly on to something).

Instead of the traditional diagonal trajectory of the parallelogram body, the plates on the Ekar rear derailleur are oriented such that the body moves more horizontally. SRAM referred to this as a “straight P” setup; Campagnolo calls it “2D parallelogram trajectory”. Either way, the reason it’s become so prominent for wide-range cassettes is because the derailleur is less likely to move left and right when riding over bumpy terrain than it is when the parallelogram is more slanted, thus improving drivetrain stability.

Those old slanted parallelogram setups were originally used to help the derailleur closely track the cassette profile, though, so in lieu of that, Ekar simply offsets the upper pulley axis relative to the pulley cage pivot (again, just like SRAM and Shimano have done recently).

The Ekar rear derailleur emulates the overall layout of 1x-specific models from SRAM and Shimano.

Adding additional drivetrain stability is a one-way clutch in the pulley cage pivot, which also helps minimize chain slap on rough ground. And where SRAM’s clutch-equipped rear derailleurs incorporate a pulley cage lock to ease the removal and reinstallation of the rear wheel (and Shimano allows you to manually turn the clutch on and off), Campagnolo goes about it in a different way, by including a locking mechanism in the main pivot up top. SRAM’s solution is arguably still the best of the three, but this setup is still handy nonetheless.

Nailing the geometry of the rear derailleur is especially important with Ekar given that the cassette spacing has gotten even tighter than it was before. Whereas Campagnolo’s 12-speed setups have a sprocket-to-sprocket spacing of 3.5 mm, Ekar’s 13-speed spacing is 3.35 mm.

The clutched pulley cage is key to good chain control on rough ground. This one looks like it might be serviceable, too, although it doesn’t sound like Campagnolo is officially endorsing the practice.

The Ekar chain has narrowed to match, although Campagnolo has — of course — claimed that there’s no decrease in chain strength or longevity as a result. Regardless, Campagnolo is using a new “ultrasound bath lubrication impregnation system” at the factory to ensure the innards of every link are fully saturated with lube for longevity, and for the first time ever, there’s an optional master link for easier assembly and maintenance (although complete bikes will likely be riveted as usual).

Ergopower upgrades

At first glance, the Ekar Ergopower controls don’t look very different from what Campagnolo offers in its other drop-bar groupsets, with single functions for each lever and that trademark thumb paddle on the inboard side of the lever body. In this case, however, there’s obviously just one shifter (housed in the righthand body), and the thumb paddle has sprouted a new “C” shape that’s far easier to actuate when your hands are in the drops.

The lever body feels the same as other Ergopower levers, including the comfy Vari-Cushion hoods and that convenient inwardly-turned knob up top.

The main paddle can downshift up to three gears at a time, but that C-shaped thumb paddle can unfortunately only upshift one gear per push — a configuration that Campagnolo felt was better suited for off-road use. But on the plus side, the controls are adjustable for reach, and the range of adjustment is much more amenable to people with smaller hands than anything Campagnolo has offered to date. And unlike SRAM’s mechanical 1x levers, Campagnolo has invested the effort to seal off the empty lefthand lever body so there are no weird pockets or sharp edges, leaving a pleasantly smooth and finished feel in your hand.

Yet another BCD, yet another bottom bracket

The Ekar crankset is a dedicated unit with narrow-wide chainrings that bolt directly to the four-arm spider via a proprietary 123 mm bolt circle diameter. The unidirectional carbon fiber arms are offered in 165, 170, 172.5, and 175 mm lengths, and the ends are protected by slip-on plastic caps. Campagnolo has maintained the same 145.5 mm Q-factor as on its road cranksets, which should satisfy riders that crave a narrower pedal stance width.

The crankset is arguably the visual star of the Ekar groupset, with those exposed carbon fibers glistening in the sun.

In between the arms is Campagnolo’s trademark split steel spindle design with a sturdy Hirth-type toothed joint. It looks like Ultra-Torque, and feels like Ultra-Torque … but it’s not Ultra-Torque. Instead, Campagnolo has dubbed the new system ProTech, and while the overall layout is essentially the same as Ultra-Torque with cartridge bearings pressed on to each split spindle, it’s apparently sufficiently different that it’s not backward-compatible, which is important given that Campagnolo plans to adopt ProTech for all new products moving forward.

One plus side of ProTech, however, is the fact that it’s sealed much better than Ultra-Torque ever was, and the bottom brackets finally incorporate a center sleeve to seal off the bottom bracket bearings from the inside.

The new ProTech bottom bracket design finally incorporates a center sleeve to better seal things off. Photo: Campagnolo.

“We have improved the resistance of the external seal ring, to let the dust/mud/water outside without compromising the smoothness,” said Campagnolo press and PR manager Nicolò Ildos. “This patented external seal ring has two touch points with the axle. In standard condition, only one is touching the axle, and this guarantees an extreme fluid smoothness, with even higher performance than our USB [bearings]. When conditions gets tough, the internal end of the seal ring is engaged and protects from harmful ingress of water, mud, and grit.”

ProTech bottom bracket cups will be available to fit English, Italian, and T47 threaded formats, as well as BB86, BB30, BB30a, BB386, PF30, and BBright press-fit shells.

A return to normalcy

Campagnolo shunned conventional flat-mount disc brake formats on its road groupsets by offering calipers that were not only front- and rear-specific, but also different depending on rotor diameter. The result was a cleaner-looking installation, albeit with a lot more complication in terms of part numbers.

For Ekar, it’s all back to normal with two-piece forged aluminum calipers that are the same front and rear, regardless of rotor size. The system still features mineral oil (Campagnolo’s hydraulic disc brakes were developed in cooperation with Magura), and the pads come stock with organic friction compounds to keep things running quiet. The pads themselves use the same backing plates as other Campagnolo road disc brakes for easy compatibility.

The Ekar hydraulic disc brakes feature a two-piece forged aluminum construction and the same pads used elsewhere in the Campagnolo range.

The rotors use the same 1.85 mm-thick stainless steel brake tracks as Campagnolo’s disc-brake road groupsets, and they’re also only offered in splined Center Lock fitments. However, Ekar rotors use steel carriers instead of aluminum ones so they’re a bit heavier. 140 and 160 mm diameters are both available.

A focus on durability and serviceability, but still light

I mentioned earlier that Ekar is quite light for what it offers, which begs the obvious question: exactly how light is it?

According to Campagnolo’s figures, a complete Ekar groupset comes in at 2,385 grams all-in (with the 9-36T cassette option). That puts it 86 grams lighter than a SRAM Force 1×11 mechanical groupset with a 10-42T cassette, 242 grams lighter than a SRAM Force AXS 1×12 wireless electronic groupset with the 10-33T cassette, and a whopping 343 grams lighter than a Shimano GRX 800 1×11 mechanical groupset with an 11-42T cassette.

If you’re counting grams, those are big numbers, and they’re even more impressive when you consider that Campagnolo has supposedly focused so much on durability with Ekar.

The pulley cage is a highly contoured aluminum stamping that feels impressively burly and stiff.

The rear derailleur is made almost entirely of aluminum, for example, with minimal use of fiber-reinforced plastic. Likewise, the Ergopower control bodies are made of fiber-reinforced plastics as is usually the case, but the brake lever blades are good old fashioned aluminum, not carbon fiber. Stainless steel hardware is supposedly used throughout, too, and instead of using decals or paint, all of the graphics are laser-etched so they won’t easily wear off.

And if you care about that sort of thing, it’s worth noting that Campagnolo is still manufacturing exclusively in Europe. Ekar cassettes, chains, bottom brackets, and chainrings are all made at Campagnolo HQ in Vicenza, Italy, and the individual bits for the shifters and rear derailleur are made there, too. Production of other bits and component assembly happens elsewhere in the EU (Campagnolo owns two factories in Romania).

What about friction?

Plenty of independent tests have repeatedly demonstrated that smaller chainrings and sprockets generate more drivetrain friction than bigger ones, and it’s hard to ignore the issue when we’re talking about a 9T sprocket out back.

All the independent data we’ve seen on drivetrain friction says that smaller chainrings and sprockets are less mechanically efficient than bigger ones – and a nine-tooth sprocket is awfully small.

For the record, Campagnolo claims no efficiency loss in the 9T or 10T sprocket relative to a conventional 11T one, although that seems hard to swallow. Adding to the skepticism is the fact that Campagnolo is basing those claims not on direct load measurements, but on chain wear.

“The chain has the same life duration and resistance on cassettes ending with 11T, 10T, or 9T sprockets,” Ildos explained. “During the same chain and sprocket tests, we are able to precisely detect also the wear of each sprocket, which is a clear energy dissipation index upon the same load conditions. Our 9T and 10T sprocket design have shown no difference compared to the 11T.”

Is your eyebrow raised, too? Thought so.

That said, drivetrain friction may be a decent-sized concern in the road world, but I’m not sure it’s perceived as such a big deal in the gravel space. SRAM has been using 10-tooth sprockets in its mountain bike drivetrains for about eight years now with few complaints as far as friction is concerned, for example, and I suspect it’ll be a similar case here.

What about Rotor Uno 1×13?

Campagnolo isn’t the first to introduce a 1×13 drivetrain; Rotor introduced a 1×13 version of its Uno drivetrain more than a year ago touting similar advantages in gearing steps and range. On paper, it does achieve all that, but in reality, the fancy full-hydraulic mechanism doesn’t work nearly as precisely as Ekar’s far simpler mechanical setup (nor does it offer anywhere near the same level of tactile feedback), the shifting performance is clunkier in general, and it also happens to be literally three times the cost of Ekar.

Rotor’s 1×13 Uno groupset offers something similar to Ekar on paper, but not in reality.

In short, Rotor Uno 1×13 exists, yes, but aside from the novelty factor, I really don’t consider it to be remotely comparable to what Campagnolo is offering here.

Still isn’t cheap, but not jaw-dropping, either

As for pricing, Ekar is pretty reasonable all things considered. However, this is still Campagnolo we’re talking about here, and the company isn’t exactly known for knocking it out of the park when it comes to value.

In Campagnolo’s hierarchy Ekar sits somewhere between Centaur and Chorus, and closer to the latter in terms of pricing. In the Shimano family, Ekar similarly sits between Ultegra and Dura-Ace, and, again, closer to the latter. So in other words, it’s far from cheap, but not necessarily outrageous, either.

Ekar is expensive, but unlike Potenza, what it offers is much more than being just as good as what’s already out there (and even that wasn’t true, anyway). Photo: Campagnolo.

It was just three years ago that Campagnolo launched its value-oriented Potenza road groupset, ostensibly to lure some buyers into installing it on their existing frames. Behind the scenes, though, Potenza’s true mission was to earn Campagnolo a bunch of OEM spec so as to bring the Italian company back into the mainstream public eye.

That never happened.

Potenza was too expensive, and its performance wasn’t sufficiently enticing to pull product managers away from Shimano’s superb Ultegra groupset.

But it’s a different story with Ekar, which is getting a fair bit of spec right at launch on complete stock bikes from Specialized, Ridley, Pinarello, Wilier Triestina, and 3T. Potenza may have been a sales flop, but it’s safe to assume that you’re going to see Ekar on more than just computer screens and magazine pages. All of this stuff is supposedly available through participating dealers immediately.

Official prices and weights are as follows (Australian prices are TBC):

The proof is in the performance

Campagnolo may well have played some tricks with Ekar’s OEM pricing to get it included on so many big-brand bikes, but product managers are never swayed by numbers alone; the stuff has to work well, too, and after spending nearly three weeks on a production Ekar groupset with the widest-range 9-42T cassette (all installed on a Pinarello Grevil gravel bike), I’m happy to say that Campagnolo really does seem to be onto something here.

Ekar is being included as stock equipment on bikes from several brands, which means it’s already won over the hearts of several product managers. We’ll see where things go from here.

Adventure riders and hardcore bikepackers loaded with gear might want a little more range than what the 9-42T cassette offers, but for most everyday gravel duties, it should be plenty. Combined with the 38T chainring on my loaner, the top end is the equivalent of a conventional 50x12T, while the low end is akin to running a 34x38T — well less than the 1:1 ratio that many gravel riders consider essential for tougher climbs.

As promised, the ratio jumps in between those two extremes are more reasonably sized than what you typically find in wide-range 1x gravel drivetrains these days. The jumps aren’t totally even from end to end, mind you, but that’s also by intention. As noted, there are slightly smaller gaps at the taller end of the cluster where you’re moving faster and are usually more sensitive to big changes in cadence, while the bigger leaps are reserved for the easier half of the cassette where you’re more likely to already be trudging along at lower cadences and more tolerant of variations in RPM.

The chainrings feature a subtle narrow-wide tooth profile to enhance chain retention.

Shift quality itself is quite good, although certainly on the same level of refinement as what Shimano provides. Gear changes are admittedly a tad clunky when you’re just casually pedaling along, but they actually get smoother with increased power. Either way, the chain movement from sprocket to sprocket is still quick and precise.

Helping matters along is that new C-shaped thumb paddle. Ergopower itself already requires a little bit of a mental reset if you’ve only ever experienced Shimano or SRAM controls, but for the Campagnolo faithful, that small change makes a big difference — so much so that I hope Campagnolo includes it on its road groupsets in the future. Whereas before it was very challenging to strain your thumb upward to operate that paddle from the drops, it’s now far more accessible, which is particularly helpful in the case of Ekar since so many gravel riders prefer to spend a lot of time with their hands down low.

Before you had to really arch your thumb upward to reach the upshift paddle; now it’s much easier to access when you’re in the drops.

I did miss the ability to upshift a bunch of gears with one press of the thumb as you can with upper-end Campagnolo road groupsets, but so be it, and I personally don’t buy the company’s argument that the single-shift configuration is better for bumpy terrain since the detents are so pronounced. In Campagnolo’s defense, each upshift on the Ekar cassette delivers a bigger ratio change than what you usually get on a road cassette, so it’s not as big a deal as it might sound.

Friction-wise, I can’t say I spent enough time in the 9T sprocket to make any useful comments on drivetrain friction. However, interestingly enough, I did detect a lot of drag when in the 42T sprocket. The chainline is at a fairly extreme angle there, and the clutch-equipped pulley cage is stretched to the max, neither of which is a good thing in terms of saving watts. Time will tell if the drivetrain wears in a bit for that friction to subside.

There’s otherwise not much to report on the drivetrain, which is a good thing — cranks, bottom brackets, and chains are just supposed to go about their business without calling much attention to themselves, after all. In the case of Ekar, the bottom bracket stayed quiet and the narrower Q-factor was nice to have (at least for me, although YMMV).

The narrow Q-factor will be a welcome sight for a lot of riders, but it might also make for a tight squeeze around some chainstays.

As for the brakes, Ekar continues on with the usual Campagnolo story here. The hydraulic calipers generate ample power, and it comes on more gradually than Shimano while still building to a similar level overall. Even under hard stops, they stay wonderfully smooth and quiet, too. There’s still some squealing when wet, but that’s hardly surprising with modern disc brakes. Rubbing wasn’t an issue, either.

While it remains to be seen how well Ekar holds up long-term, the overall first impressions bode well for Ekar’s future. Single-ring drivetrains have always offered a lot of potential, not just in terms of performance, but also accessibility since they’re so much less confusing for newcomers to figure out, and it’s high time the concept realizes its full potential in the drop-bar space.

In terms of the bigger picture, it’s impossible to ignore just how important Ekar is for the future of Campagnolo. Long-time enthusiasts still seem to have a soft spot for Vicenza, but emotion doesn’t put food on the table or money in the R&D coffers, and it perhaps goes without saying that Campagnolo could use a pretty serious boost right now.

Fingers crossed.

www.campagnolo.com


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