Ever since bicycles were first given variable gears, cyclists (bar a few diehards such as Henri Desgrange) have been calling for more and more. Now Campagnolo has become the first to introduce a 12th sprocket to a road groupset – but will the Italian brand's leap to 12 speed usher in a new era for the cycling groupset or is it simply more of the same?
If it is a revolution, it's a modest one. There are no dinner plate-sized sprockets here, nor enormous mountain bike-sized rear derailleurs. Instead the Italian brand brings stylish, functional and modest updates to some of the most famous groupsets in the world. Here's our report and first ride impressions.
Which groupsets does it affect and how?
For the time being, it’s only mechanical Record and Super Record that are receiving the additional gear, with Campagnolo strongly hinting that an EPS 12-speed update will be landing at some point in the future. While the addition of one more gear might seem insignificant, it actually takes a significant amount of change to make it work. But, as you might expect, Campagnolo has managed to do it with both subtlety and panache.
For starters, it obviously requires a bigger cassette but in accommodating the extra sprocket Campagnolo hasn’t created any additional standards. So it’s good news for Record or Super Record users, as the new 12-speed model will fit on the same driver as the old 11 speed one, making swapping them over a breeze. This compatibility is thanks to a shrinking of both the sprockets and the spaces between them. It’s a design change that also necessitated a new, thinner chain which Campagnolo says hasn't sacrificed any of the durability of the 11-speed model.
The last two triplets of the cassette are made of monolithic steel for maximum stiffness, signalling the racing intentions of the two groupsets.
A wide cassette also necessitated a new longer-cage derailleur which, at 72.5mm long, should offer uniform shifting across both the 11-29 and the 11-32 12-speed cassettes – the only two that will be available. It's made of an ultra-light technopolymer and it weighs a claimed 181g.
It's now possible to mount it via a hanger or direct to the frame, and it sits closer to the cassette than before, and now engages a greater number of teeth at once, which Campagnolo says will increase the longevity of both the chain and the cassette. To help tension the chain a little bit, Campag has also added an upper body spring to help absorb any choppy road surfaces. The two pulley wheels have grown in size and now have 12 teeth, which are longer on the upper and more rounded on the lower.
Thanks to the aforementioned thinner chain, the RD now has a slimmed down cage which creates more space between it and the spokes of the wheel.
Any visual design changes are most pronounced on the crankset. The new cranksets will have the same 145.5mm Q-factor and carbon-fibre body and Ultra-Torque axle. They're the same four arm, eight-bolt spider design with a 145mm BCD for the outer ring and 112mm for the inner and are compatible across all of Campagnolo's platforms.
Although cranksets have the four-arm spider design, Super Record gets a reinforcing lip at the top and bottom to stiffen it in the areas where the highest torque acts on it.
Above this, the front derailleur receives a more significant overhaul. It now has an unlinked upper semi-rod that makes for noticeably less free stroke on the upshift, with any lever movement now having an immediate effect on the derailleur. It has also allowed for more derailleur positions, giving greater amounts of trim and a thinner cage that should handle cross-chaining situations more fluidly. There’s a more pronounced lip to the cage, too, which should aid shifting. The cable grip bolt now has two different positions to give clearance for up to 32mm tyres.
At the top of the bike, the changes to the cockpit are also subtle, but retain those classic Campagnolo industry-leading ergonomics. Both upshifting and downshifting levers are increased in size making it easier to hit them first time. Ultra-Shift also remains, making it easy to dump up to five gears in one go if you start sprinting or three if you start heading uphill.
Other subtle changes include bringing the brake lever pivot inline with the handlebar, while the levers angle slightly outwards and have a deeper curve, making it easy to brake on the drops.
Finally, the new 12-speed Record and Super Record groupsets are available with both mechanical brakes and hydraulic ones. The mechanical version is available in a traditional frame mount option or as direct mount, with the latter receiving a brace for stiffness and rigidity. Both types will now gobble up 28mm tyres, which is Campagnolo recognising the trends within cycling.
Campagnolo says that the complete Super-Record groupset will weigh 2,041g while it the Record rim brake weighs a supposed 2,213g.
Is it the new cycling revolution?
If 12 speed is the revolution, it’s a modest one – especially how Campagnolo has done it. The 29 and 32-tooth cassettes aren’t exactly ground breaking, and many potential 12-speed users might have preferred capacity for a 34 or a 36 sprocket.
That said, even on the 10-plus kilometre climbs of Gran Canaria our 11-32 cassettes didn’t exactly leave us wheezing. In fact, the only real difference in feel between 11 speed and 12 speed was the smaller gaps between the sprockets on the cassette.
The first seven are spaced in ones, and out on the road and the hills there’s no straining from the rear derailleur, with the mech walking up in very modest steps making it easy on the legs with no sudden lurches. Something that will be welcomed by racers we're sure.
For the duration of the trip, we had 50/34 cranksets partnered with 11-32 cassettes and on the long climbs there was never a moment where I felt like I couldn't find the right gear.
The redeveloped hoods on both the Record and Super Record were luxuriously comfortable. Incorporation of the master cylinder meant the Super Record hoods were 8mm taller, but the additional height makes for a comfortable aero position, which was particularly useful in the strong headwind on the 10km drag back into town.
As primarily a Shimano user, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take a bit of time to get used to how the Italian shifting works. Campagnolo proudly boasts “one lever, one shift”, but that didn’t bring any clarity early on. Once used to the system though, being able to dump gears on big climbs was quite welcome and from our peloton you could hear the crisp shifting of rear derailleurs like rounds being loaded into rifles.
Trying out both the updated direct-mount brakes and Campagnolo's disc brakes made for smooth descending. It's only the second time Campagnolo has tried direct-mount rim brakes, and there's now a new brace on the rear side to help with power transfer and rigidity. They can now also accommodate 28mm tyres.
Both disc and rim brakes offered plenty of feel, which is vital when you're faced with 10km descents. It was a process of setting up, getting on the brakes, before letting off and leaning into the corner. At no point was there any numbness or ambiguity about how closer the brakes were to locking up. The disc brakes fared equally well on a steep twisty descent, with no overheating but a satisfying sizzle when splashed with water at the bottom.
Only time will tell, but it will be interesting to see how far down the Campagnolo line 12 speed will drop. For now though, the Italian brand dedicates its 12-speed groupset to the racers out there.