It may not be as popular as it once was, but the Campagnolo name still has a resonance that runs thorugh the whole of cycling. Ask most riders what groupset they’d put on their dream bike, and most will say Campagnolo Super Record, a decision based as much on the aura that surrounds the Campagnolo brand as the performance of the components.
While Campagnolo would make its names making groupsets, its foundations lie in the humble quick release, and the story of these beginnings is a well-established part of cycling folklore.
Back in the day, bicycles had two gears, with a sprocket on either side of the rear wheel, so when Tullio Campagnolo wanted to change gears when climbing the Croce d’Aune during an amateur race in 1927 he had to remove the rear wheel to switch it around. Unfortunately, the race was taking place in snow and sub-zero temperatures, meaning that the nuts that held the wheel in place had frozen, leaving Campagnolo stuck struggling away in a single gear.
Vowing to never lose a race in such a way again, Campagnolo set to work inventing the quick release lever, which was patented in 1930 and put into industrial production in 1933.
Campagnolo’s next big innovation was the Cambio Corsa derailleur, which was the first derailleur to come out of its Vincenza factory, even if it is unrecognisable from the parellelogram derailleurs that we see today.
The Cambio Corsa had two levers mounted on the seatstay of the bike. Riders would reach down between their legs to flip the upper lever, which would release the quick release within the horizontal rear dropout, before using the other lever to move the chain onto the desired sprocket of their three speed cassette. The wheel would then slide forward or back in the horizontal dropout to take up the slack from the chain, before the rider would retighten the quick release lever.
However, by the 1949 Campagnolo had abandoned this derailleur design, switching to the parallelogram design that had been pioneered by French manufacturers. The first Campagnolo rear derailleur to come with this design was the Campagnolo Gran Sport, with a front derailleur following seven years later in 1956.
Over the next couple of decades, Campagnolo continued to grow to become the most prominent component manufacturer in professional cycling, introducing new groupsets in the form of Record, Nuovo Record, and Super Record, notching up countless Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World Championship victories.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, while the company’s traditional groupsets continued to prove popular, some of its innovations, introduced as Campagnolo tried to keep pace with the rapidly growing Shimano, did not prove so popular.
The first such product was the Delta brake, which were a beautiful work of engineering with a centre-pull design that used a parallelogram to actuate the break. Unfortunately, sleek as they may have looked, they were incredibly fiddly to maintain and adjust, and couldn’t match the braking power of normal brakes. Introduced in 1985, they were discontinued in 1993.
Campagnolo’s attempt at producing mountain bike groupsets met a similar end. Despite bringing out no fewer than five different off-road groupsets from 1989, the technology lagged behind what was offered by Shimano, and Campagnolo moved back to just producing road groupsets in 1994.
Despite these setback, Campagnolo continued to push the envelope in component technology, introducing the first aero road wheels in the form of the iconic Campagnolo Shamal wheels in 1993, and the first full carbon wheels with the Campagnolo Boras in 1994.
On its groupsets, Campagnolo introduced the first titanium groupset in the mid-1990s, and the first carbon-fibre groupset in the mid-2000s, before introducing 11-speed shifting in 2008, and electronic shifting in 2011.
However, even with these innovations, Campagnolo has been losing significant ground on Shimano and, more recently, SRAM, over the last 20 years. These days it is rare that you buy a complete bike equipped with Campagnolo components; instead these are the choice of riders putting together their bikes piece by piece, selecting the exact components that they want to create their ideal bike.