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Campagnolo goes 13-speed with its Ekar 1x gravel groupset

24 Sep 2020
Verdict:

Packed with innovation, Campagnolo claims Ekar is the world’s lightest gravel groupset and is ushering in a new direction for the company

  

UAE Team Emirates rider Tadej Pogacar winning the 2020 Tour de France aboard a Campagnolo-equipped Colnago has generated a well-timed buzz around the Italian groupset manufacturer, for it serves as a nice platform from which to launch Ekar: its new 13-speed, 1x gravel groupset.

Campagnolo is a brand that blends heritage with innovation like few others. Tullio Campagnolo revolutionised shifting in 1951 with his Gran Sport rear derailleur.

More recently, Campagnolo was the first to 10-speed in 2000, the first to 11-speed in 2008 and the first to 12-speed in 2018. Yet by and large its product portfolio has remained the preserve of high-end road riding.

With the launch of the new Campagnolo Ekar, that all changes. Yes, it is the first mainstream 13-speed groupset, maintaining Campagnolo’s pedigree of always being the first of the big three to add one more sprocket.

But Ekar is gravel-focussed, sits at a far more accessible price point and is 1x only. These are all significant firsts for the Italian brand.

Jump to

Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed groupset: Launch overview  
Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed grouset: Pricing  
Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed grouset: First ride impressions  

 

What’s more, it is mechanical-only, features a 9-tooth sprocket, a master link for the chain, a very curious downshift lever and a new freehub standard. There are even matching bikepacking bags, kit and accessories launching too.

Campagnolo says Ekar sets the stage for a paradigm shift within the company.

 

New directions

Not only does the new freehub N3W standard pioneered in the Ekar groupset allow 13-speed to be adopted by all Campagnolo groupsets in the future, Campagnolo says Ekar is its first step in a broader modernisation process aimed at making the brand more accessible.

The brand is now designing its groupsets to be installed with less esoteric tools. Ekar’s packaging is made from recyclable and locally sourced materials.

Campagnolo is working with new industry partners for 2021 too: Specialized, Wilier, Ridley, Pinarello and 3T will all have Ekar groupsets as spec options for their frames.

The licence to the new N3W freehub standard is free for everyone as well, no matter whether they are wheel builders, hub makers or even students.

DT Swiss, Roval and Tune are a few of the big names known to be adding N3W options to their ranges, and Campagnolo says more brands are coming on board all the time.

 

Local origins

Campagnolo says the environment around its Vicenza HQ has been influential in the development of the products they create. Apparently Tullio Campagnolo had the idea for the modern-day quick release lever on the nearby Passo Croce D’Aune climb.

Similarly it says the slopes of another local cima, Ekar, were influential in the development of this new groupset, so Campagnolo named it in homage to the peak.

Military gravel roads left over from WWI criss-cross the mountain. With Mt Ekar as a testing ground and the feedback from 4,500 gravel riders worldwide, Campagnolo says it was able to crystallise the eseence of what was required in a gravel groupset.

 

Considered componentry

Unlike its competitors who have to some extent repurposed existing components or generalised the use of new components, the bits of tech that make up Ekar are specific and original. They comprise what Campagnolo claims is the lightest groupset on the market at 2,385g.

In similar guises, Campagnolo has measured Sram’s Force mechanical 11-speed at 2,471g, Force AXS 12-speed at 2,627g and Shimano’s GRX800 at 2,728g.

 

The Ekar rear derailleur consists of more than 70 moving parts made from a mixture of carbon fibre, polyamide and alloy. Its new trajectory apparently optimises its movement across the wide ranging 13-speed cassette, and a clutch keeps the chain secure.

The same derailleur is compatible with all three Ekar cassettes (which come in 9-36, 9-42 and 10-44 ranges). It is a smart move that should facilitate the ability to alter gearing ratios.

Built from two monoblock steel portions, Campagnolo says the 13-speed Ekar cassette matches or exceeds the gearing range of 2x. With single tooth jumps between the bottom six sprockets the changes between several of the gears won’t be too different either.

 

A 9-tooth sprocket is included on two of the cassette options. Previously 9-tooth sprockets have received bad press, for it is said their diminutive size causes the chain to bend at extreme angles which impedes drivetrain efficiency.

‘We haven’t found such a drop in efficiency,’ says Giacomo Sartore, groupset product manager at Campagnolo. ‘But in any case, gravel gearing is a lot different to road.

If the rider gets their chainring size right, the 9-tooth sprocket will only really be necessary on descents.’

 

Speaking of chainrings, Campagnolo will offer 38t, 40t, 42t and 44t options, which all feature a version of the ubiquitous ‘narrow-wide’ tooth profile in an attempt to boost chain retention.

The crankarms and spider are UD carbon fibre. For those wincing at the thought of rock strikes on that beautiful finish, Campagnolo looks to allay your fears.

It provides crank protectors as standard and apparently the glossy carbon is tough. The cranks come out of the mould as is and require no delicate surface finishing or lacquer, which is what would chip under impact.

 

An astute development Campagnolo is pioneering in Ekar before rolling out into all of its future chainsets is the ‘ProTech’ seal over the BB bearings. This works in tandem with the Ekar BB, which uses a sealed tube to connect the cups. It is essentially Campagnolo's long-standing Ultra-Torque standard, but sufficiently different to not be backwards compatible.

Together these features should do an admirable job of stopping the ingress of muck into the chainset’s bearings, prolonging their lifespan.

As you would expect, the 13-speed chain is now thinner than ever. Yet Campagnolo claims that has had no impact on its strength or durability.

Apparently the steel links are Nickel-Teflon coated to withstand wear and are factory-prepped in a unique ultrasound bath to impregnate each link with long-lasting lubricant.

In a momentous development, the Ekar chain will be the first Campagnolo chain available with a quick-link too.

 

Ekar’s Ergopower levers are likely to be one of the most hotly debated features of the groupset. Or at least the right-hand one will be, for the left simply houses a brake lever. The right Ergopower uses the same upshift paddle ergonomics as Campagnolo’s road levers, and can shift up three sprockets at a time.

The downshift lever, however, is altogether different. It is C-shaped – the top outside of the curve becoming a platform to push when riding on the hoods, the lower inside creating a flange that Campagnolo says should facilitate downshifting from the drops.

Campagnolo’s famous brake lever architecture now operates totally redesigned disc brake callipers. Previous Campagnolo callipers (and the hydraulic compartments within the Ergopower levers) were developed with help from German specialists Magura, but Ekar’s are the first to be made entirely in-house.

 

Consequently, they are visually different yet aim to retain the same stopping characteristics possessed by previous Campagnolo callipers.

There are 140mm and 160mm options in both callipers and rotors, which use the same design as Campagnolo’s road going equivalents but have stainless steel carriers instead of aluminium to make them more robust for a small weight penalty.

Ekar’s headline-grabbing 13-speed technology is made possible by Campagnolo’s new N3W freehub body standard. It is 4.4mm shorter than Campagnolo’s previous standard, allowing the smaller-diameter 10t and 9t sprockets to project off the end of the freehub while maintaining conventional hub spacings.

Thanks to a spacer lockring N3W is compatible with Campagnolo’s 12-speed and 11-speed cassettes too, but this standard will be adopted by all Campagnolo wheelsets in the future.

That is telling because it as good as confirms Campagnolo will not be long about rolling out 13-speed road groupsets alongside Ekar.

  

Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed grouset: Pricing

Rear derailleur: £210  
Cassette: £226  
Chainset: £297  
Chain: £40  
BB: £28  
LH Ergopower + calliper: £260  
RH Ergopower + calliper: £326  
Rotor (pair): £62  

Total: £1449

Jump to

Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed groupset: Launch overview  
Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed grouset: Pricing  
Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed grouset: First ride impressions  

  

Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed grouset: First ride impressions

Campagnolo sent through a 3T Exploro test bike equipped with the new 13-speed Campagnolo Ekar groupset ahead of the launch so I have had enough time riding it on home trails to form some initial opinions.

Apart from the odd quirk which has taken some time to get used to, overall my time using the groupset has been overwhelmingly positive.

The Ekar rear derailleur moves the chain across the cassette with precision and control. As is often the case during gravel rides, unexpected situations like traction loss, unseen bumps or sudden gradient changes occur all the time, so I often demanded the derailleur to shift under power or over bumpy ground.

I can’t think of an occasion where it missed a shift – gear changes were prompt and decisive no matter the circumstance.

The two levers initiating those shifts are chalk and cheese. On the one hand the upshift paddle is completely familiar, having been carried over from existing road designs.

The downshift lever though is unique to Ekar and I imagine it will be somewhat polarising. I certainly found it required some getting used to.

I haven’t found the upper platform to be as comfortable in use from the hoods as standard mechanical Campagnolo downshift levers, as the surface area is smaller and its edges are less rounded.

However, conversely I found the C-shaped paddle vastly improves shifting in the drops, providing a natural shelf within easy reach for my thumb from which to move into a bigger gear.

Ultimately the change is a trade-off that may be possible to grow fond of if I was using the groupset over the longer term, so for now I’ll reserve definitive judgement.

The Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed cassette is something of a marvel. The nine biggest sprockets are machined from one chunk of steel and their architecture is a feat of CNC design.

The four smallest sprockets form their own separate nubbin with the cassette lockring, which screws down onto the freehub body to clamp the cassette in place in a similar way to Sram’s XDr system.

 

Visually the sprocket arrangement is striking. The tiny 9-tooth starts a steady progression that widens seemingly exponentially from the 14-tooth sprocket, reaching 42-tooth in the subsequent seven jumps. Campagnolo explains the sprocket jumps were carefully selected to maintain as smooth a progression as possible.

‘The Ekar cassette options were the result of a long study,’ says Giacomo Sartore, groupset product manager at Campagnolo.

‘We ended up keeping a road philosophy in one half of the cassette, with a one tooth jump between each of the bottom six sprockets. In the top half of the cassette we have bigger jumps like on MTB cassettes, but not so big that the shift is hard on the rider’s legs.’

I found this rationale was borne out in real-world conditions. I was never lacking for range at either end of the cassette, no matter if I was barrelling along a road or grinding up a 15% loose track. This is because Ekar's range in this 9-42t, 38t configuration creates an effective top-end 50x12 gear and a bottom 34x38 gear.

The small steps in the bottom half of the cassette provided ideal options when my speed was high and therefore sensitive to cadence, while the top half of the cassette jumped sensibly when the terrain got technical and I rapidly needed lower gears to keep spinning smoothly.

 

While I welcomed the news Campangolo had brought the development of its hydraulic braking systems entirely in-house for Ekar, it did raise concerns that braking performance may be affected as a result of the shift.

Happily I can say that is not the case – the Ekar callipers maintain the (in my opinion) class-leading feel and power Campagnolo hydraulic callipers have become known for.

The brakes’ performance married to Campagnolo’s superbly comfortable double-curve levers meant lent a sensation of particular confidence when controlling my speed over technical terrain.

 

A longer term test would provide insight into Ekar’s purported durability, allowing me to assess the long-term effectiveness of new features like the ultrasonic chain lube impregnation and ProTech seals on the BB bearings.

However I can say that in acute performance terms Ekar is competitive from the get-go.

When the wider-reaching ramifications concerning the shifting attitude of Campagnolo as a company are considered too as part of the groupset release, I think it is one of the most exciting and significant product launches from Campagnolo for some time.

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