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Campagnolo Ekar groupset review

24 Mar 2022
Verdict:

Ekar is Campagnolo’s first gravel groupset, and what a debut it is

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
Offers a wide range of nicely-spaced gears • Good-looking • Excellent braking • Tactile shifting • Good durability
Against 
Another new BB standard • Comparatively expensive • Thumb shifter limits upshifts • Cassette is expensive to replace

Ekar is the first gravel-specific groupset from Campagnolo. It launched in September 2020 and features a 13-speed drivetrain and 9-tooth sprocket on its cassette.

Ekar is available in a 1× mechanical guise only and costs £1,607. Campagnolo says it is the lightest gravel-specific groupset on the market, at a claimed 2,385g in its lightest configuration.

Campagnolo believes similarly priced competitors like Shimano’s GRX Di2 and SRAM’s Force eTap AXS XPLR are anywhere from 250g-350g heavier in similar configurations.



Ekar was an unusually important launch from Campagnolo. The amount of innovation Ekar includes extends beyond its headline features, to the extent that Ekar is distinct in both premise and function compared to other Campagnolo groupset designs.

Despite incorporating such fundamental changes though – and a smattering of foibles that come with them – Ekar preserves the core tenets that make Campagnolo products, particularly its mechanical ones, such high-performing and well-regarded components.

Campagnolo Ekar cassette, freehub and chain

Over the last couple of decades Campagnolo has made a point of being the first of the three main groupset manufacturers to add an extra sprocket to its cassettes. It was the first to 8-, 9-, 10-, 11- and 12-speed, and with the release of Ekar in 2020, was the first to 13-speed too.

Ekar was something of a double-whammy for the Italian brand, being its first gravel-specific groupset as well as its first 13-speed one.

Apart from a brief foray into a then-emerging mountain bike scene 30 years ago, Campagnolo groupsets have stuck exclusively to road shifting duties.

Consequently, it has been at risk of losing technological territory to the ever-increasing scale of Shimano and the innovation of SRAM, so Ekar was an important launch for the brand on several levels.

Aside from that extra speed, Ekar was notable too for its adoption of a tiny 9-tooth sprocket. To pack such a cassette design onto a conventional freehub meant something had to give in Campagnolo’s pre-existing standard.

Indeed, something did: the brand kept the same spline pattern but made the freehub body 4.4mm shorter, a standard it dubs N3W.

The N3W freehub can be retrofitted to existing Campagnolo wheels and new N3W-outfitted wheels can still fit 11- and 12-speed cassettes courtesy of an adaptor that extends the freehub back to the standard road length. Prominent wheel brands like DT Swiss and Roval have adopted the standard and now offer freehubs to fit their hubs too.

The new freehub allows the 10-tooth and 9-tooth sprockets of the Ekar cassette to overhang its end, a necessity as they are too small in diameter to fit over the freehub body in the way bigger sprockets can.

The contemporary data and opinion surrounding the use sprockets that small in terms of drivetrain efficiency and longevity is equivocal, with some saying that can be detrimental to performance. While I’m inclined to believe that (in a road application, at least), such effects aren’t really tangible in use.

Considering how little time I spent in those gears I’d say any such disadvantages are worth the increased range they create, and in general Campagnolo has managed Ekar’s gearing ratios neatly.

Campagnolo Ekar cassette ratios

  • 9-36
  • 9-42
  • 10-44

‘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,’ says Giacomo Sartore, groupset product manager at Campagnolo.

The 13-speed cassette, arranged in this way, manages to create both the range and progression necessary to put a 1× drivetrain at no discernible disadvantage to 2× systems on gravel, and much of the time on the road too.

The small steps in the bottom half of the cassette provided smooth gear progression when my speed was high and therefore sensitive to cadence, while the bigger jumps in the top half of the cassette were more noticeable yet welcome, quickly providing easier gears when the going got loose, steep or muddy.

The way in which Campagnolo reconciled Ekar’s wide range and close gear steps is great functionally but does leave me with questions practically.

The cassette is by necessity an engineering marvel, being machined from solid blocks of metal in two clusters (the largest 9 sprockets on one and the smallest 4 on the other).

Consequently, it’s expensive, over £100 more than the equivalent SRAM option, and three times the price of the Deore XT one used in Shimano’s GRX groupset. Therefore, riders would do well to be fastidious in their drivetrain maintenance so as not to prematurely shorten the cassette’s lifespan.

It’s a similar story with the Ekar chain: while its price is more competitive, the path it is asked to follow through the drivetrain is often more extreme both vertically and laterally than 11- and 12-speed chains, so without due care is likely to wear at an enhanced rate.

Campagnolo says the chain has a Nickel-Teflon coating and uses a ‘ultrasound bath lubrication impregnation system’ to guard against this.

The hardened coating is a nice feature, but the lube seemed too much like fairly normal factory grease to me in terms of how viscous it was and how much contamination it attracted.

I stripped it off early in the test period and conducted my regular cleaning and lubing regime from then on. That has seemed to mitigate any accelerated attritional damage, with the chain wearing at a similar rate to more conventional ones.

Campagnolo Ekar rear derailleur

Campagnolo sensibly eschewed any extravagant design in Ekar’s rear derailleur, forgoing its usual inclusion of carbon fibre for a more pragmatic blend of materials.

The brand changed the derailleur's trajectory versus its road-going designs too. The Ekar derailleur follows what Campagnolo dubs a ‘2D parallelogram’ trajectory.

Essentially that means it moves more horizontally (rather than diagonally), in an attempt to make it more stable.

While I can’t say whether this was the sole cause of the derailleur’s performance, the component has been functionally excellent. Shifts remained precise regardless of when I asked it to move, no matter if it was under load or over rough ground.

It is perhaps a little more prone to needing adjustment than 11-speed and 12-speed designs, for it required the occasional fine-tuning of cable tension to keep it moving the chain snappily.

However, considering the tighter indexing margins a 13-speed drivetrain necessitates I’d say that is understandable. Besides, the frequency of these adjustments decreased as the derailleur cable settled in over time.

The derailleur’s burly clutch meant chain retention was consistent too. I found the drivetrain to be uncommonly quiet, with little by way of chain rattle or slap even when the trail surfaces were particularly corrugated.

The derailleur body locking mechanism that facilitates wheel removal is situated in the main pivot at the top of derailleur. It is a little less user-friendly than Shimano’s clutch on-off switch but works well enough.

Campagnolo Ekar brakes

While previous Campagnolo disc calipers were made in conjunction with Magura, the brand says Ekar’s brakes are the first to be designed fully in-house.

Thankfully though I think these all-Italian units preserve Campagnolo’s class-leading brake feel. They offer plenty of absolute power but blend that with plenty of modulation, plus in my experience they tend to be the quietest of the big three generally too, although Cyclist website editor Matthew Loveridge says the samples he tested were noisy in truly filthy conditions.

Campagnolo has sensibly switched the design of the calipers themselves too. The brand previously had individual front and rear calipers for 160 and 140mm rotors (4 separate designs in total), but Ekar uses a single caliper design for front and rear brakes, with or without adapters to cater for different rotor sizes.

As well as being simpler in design, they are more refined in appearance too.

Controlling those calipers was fantastically familiar. Campagnolo carries its comfortable Ergopower lever ergonomics over to Ekar largely unchanged. The lever bodies didn’t pair particularly smoothly with the bars I was using though. A small ridge was created at the transition between hood and bar.

It is a quirk I’ve found to be consistently evident with Campagnolo levers almost regardless of bar architecture.

I personally find the resultant platform comfortable, though it is quite different to the flat, horizontal transition created by Shimano levers, so worth bearing in mind if you are sensitive to features like that.

Campagnolo Ekar shifting

Just as Ekar’s braking performance is pleasingly similar to previous Campagnolo designs, so is Ekar’s shift performance, despite the extra sprocket.

As Ekar is 1×, the left lever operates a brake only, while the right actuates the rear derailleur via separate upshift and downshift paddles.

Gear shifts are made with the same tactile thunks and clicks, but while the downshift paddle behind the brake lever is the same in shape as Campagnolo’s other mechanical groupsets and operates multiple downshifts similarly, there has been an important alteration to the thumb paddle.

This now sports a ‘C’ curve, creating separate upper and lower platforms for shifting from the hoods and the drops respectively, and the paddle has been limited to one upshift at a time.

While it looks a little ungainly, the change is, on balance, a success. Access to the paddle in the drops is much easier than on past Campagnolo thumb shifters, which is undoubtedly an advantage out on rough gravel trails.

I did find I miss the option of multiple upshifts though. With such distinct shift feedback, I don’t think there is much danger of accidentally dumping up the cassette on Campagnolo paddles (the reason Campagnolo limited the upshift capacity), so I would appreciate the extra functionality.

Campagnolo Ekar crankset and bottom bracket

The glossy unidirectional carbon construction of the Ekar crankset makes it easily identifiable as a Campagnolo component. Indeed, much of its design was informed by the brand’s road cranks.

Campagnolo says that so little change was required because despite the crankset’s beauty, it is robust enough to fend off rock strikes and scuffs as there isn’t any surface coating on it to chip or scratch.

I can attest to the chainset standing up to those claims. Even after several instances of solid contact with rocky trail debris while riding, the crank arms still look like new. That’s despite the removal of the protective plastic caps that cover the ends of the crank arms too, which I found to be a little naff visually.

The Hirth-joint spindle design Campagnolo uses is deployed unchanged on the Ekar chainset, but the bearings that are pressed on to it and bottom bracket cups that house it are new.

Campagnolo dubs the new system ‘Pro-Tec’ and it differs enough to be an entirely new standard that isn’t backwards compatible with previous Campagnolo bottom brackets.

The introduction of a new standard is a little exasperating; however ‘Pro-Tec’ does look to improve the sealing of Campagnolo’s standard ‘Ultra-Torque’ BB system.

Pro-Tec uses an extra seal over the bearings and a sleeve to securely connect the BB cups together. The design seems to have merit though, for despite facing consistently grotty conditions over an extended period of time the bearings still turn smoothly and the area seems particularly resistant to water and dirt ingress.

Campagnolo Ekar component weights

  • Rear derailleur: 275g
  • Cassette (9-36t): 340g
  • Chainset (172.5mm, 40t): 615g
  • Chain: 242g
  • Bottom bracket: 50g
  • Ergopower levers with callipers: 625g
  • Rotors (160mm, pair): 314g
  • Total: 2,461g

Campagnolo Ekar component prices

  • Rear derailleur: £249.99
  • Cassette: £234.99
  • Chainset: £309.99
  • Chain: £39.99
  • Bottom bracket: £29.99
  • Ergopower levers with callipers and adaptors: £673.96
  • Rotors (pair): £67.98
  • Total: £1,606.98

Campagnolo Ekar verdict

Ekar was a bold move in several respects by Campagnolo but I believe that on balance it is successful product.

The extra gears Ekar boasts over competitors, plus the way Campagnolo has organised them, are a definite draw.

No other 1× groupset marries wide range with such close gear steps quite as comprehensively. The gearing solution Ekar offers simply makes gravel riding that bit nicer, and in general it works nicely on the road too.

Backing the gearing up is excellent braking performance, a beautiful appearance and from what I can tell, solid durability.

A new freehub standard and BB standard complicate things slightly but aren’t deal-breaking factors in my opinion. The introduction of the freehub standard has been sensibly managed and the BB standard seems like a genuine improvement in a gravel application.

Of course, Shimano GRX Di2 and SRAM Force eTap AXS XPLR offer wired and wireless electronic systems respectively for similar money, but in terms of function at least Ekar’s mechanical design really gives little away, and may even be preferable dependent on taste.

Photography: Lizzie Crabb

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Price: 
£1,607