Drivetrain, gruppo, transmission… Whatever you want to call them, the drivetrain components are just as much the heart and soul of a bike as the frame or wheels, and something riders often feel very personal about. In our last discussion, we spoke broadly about our thoughts on mechanical vs electronic drivetrains. Evolving from that, we’re dialing in our focus, and comparing our thoughts on the three major contenders in the marketplace. Campagnolo, Sram, Shimano. This will be a two part series. For the first installment we’re looking strictly at mechanical, groups, where manual levers pull steel cables to actuate gear changes.
For a lot of people, preferences stem from nostalgia and familiarity. What was the drivetrain on your first “real” bike?
Derek: My first road bike was a single speed I hobbled together from a mix of vintage road and BMX parts that were lying around my garage. After that though, I was given an 80’s Cannondale frame that I built another franken bike out of. I had a random mix of Shimano 600 and 105 parts of differing speeds that thanks to friction downtube shifters, that I was able to make work. My first bike with a more modern group was a cyclocross bike built with 9 speed Shimano Ultegra.
Robert: Nostalgia - haha pre-Robert in the bike industry - back in highschool to help me get to and from 5am swim practice the coach had agreed to sell me his Red Fuji Club steel bike that must have had 6-8 speeds on the back with SunTour or Shimano downtube shifters & weighed quite a bit. I come from humble beginnings ;) and I loved that bike - the later would be a Lemond my friend Dino gifted me & my uncle had tossed me a Dura-Ace 9s group.
Chad: I bought my first race bike when I was 16 years old I think. I was framing apartments one summer and saved up to buy a Centurion Ironman with Suntour GPX components. If you’d have started cycling in the past 20 years, you most likely have not even heard of this brand. Suntour was fantastic though. It was a Japanese company and rivaled Shimano and Campagnolo in function. The GPX group was an Ultegra level group while Superbe Pro was the top of the line and what I really wanted. The Bike was $800 new and I got it on sale for $550. Kinda wish I still had it, it was a cool bike with bluish grey smoke fading into white.
Would you consider yourself to be well versed in riding the three major component brands? Tell us a little about your history with them all. (and for the relevance to this conversation, let’s just consider bikes in the “brifter” era, and mechanical of course)
Derek: As rider/racer I’ve definitely put all three through solid use. I’ve had race bikes with Shimano dating back to the nine speed days. I’ll always think of the 7800 era as the golden age of Shimano. I really hated the 7900 stuff, and that pushed me to stick with Sram and Campagnolo. The 9000 series put them back on track.
I didn’t start riding Campagnolo until the 11 speed era. My first Campy build was a vintage 80s Basso Gap that I rebuilt with the alloy Athena group. I really loved that kit and every mechanical road bike I’ve had since then has been Campagnolo (though I should admit, I haven’t had a mechanical road bike in quite a while), and I even raced a number of cyclocross seasons on Campagnolo.
I’ve had quite a few Sram bikes. Not nearly as many as Chad, I don’t think anyone has had as many bikes as Chad, but for a normal person, a lot of Sram bikes. Mostly all cyclocross and gravel, and have spanned their range from Rival to Red.
Robert: Relatively well versed in the mechanics of all three brands and their service tendencies, but if we’re talking straight ride experience..
In the early years of me in the industry I was exclusively riding the Shimano 7700 group as this was what was gifted to me - you can almost always find a bike with Shimano components these days & the Shimano brand is a solid durable choice with relatively reasonable pricing on replacement parts if you were to crash out. The Shimano line up totally hits all categories of cyclist & think that’s why a lot of folks find this brand attractive. I like to think the 9 & 10 speed was the golden era - these groupsets would last for ages & I’d beat the shit out of them and goof around most days commuting into work.
Back in 2014 my uncle invited me to apprentice under him at the start of Twenty16 Women's Pro team camp down in So-Cal - their budget was slim, but Uncle made an important point that I should never work for free. The team threw me a 10speed Sram Red groupset for a week's worth of work & at the time this was gold to me. I rode that groupset for a few years and felt the difference in weight compared to the Shimano components.This was pre eTap & I really enjoyed the double tap feature.
Present day I’m choosing to ride Campagnolo. My preferred component brand out of the “big three”. I think there's something special about riding niche brand that not many consumers understand. There’s a small group of mechanics out there that tinker with this product and I feel extremely thankful that Chad & AC find value in quality over quantity - IMO while riding my SuperRecord groupset there's something about the look and ergonomics of the control levers makes me feel “fast” haha - I find myself being able to dump the gears on the cassette faster than the others. The one caveat to the Campagnolo lineup is the cost. “You gotta pay to play” as they say.. These past 3 years on Campagnolo have been amazing for me.
Chad: Yep. I have ridden quite a number of bikes and have ridden every company's top of the line group, mechanical or electronic over the past 20 years or so. My first Dura-Ace bike was the 7400 7 speed group that I put on my used Look KG86. I ran 52X42 up front and 14-21 junior freewheel out back. Great group. I had the derailleur come apart on me one ride, but most likely my fault as I was always rebuilding these bikes. Aesthetically, this group rivaled Campagnolo in terms of flat out beauty. I’ve ridden every Dura-Ace group since.
When I was 18, instead of buying a car, I bought a new custom race bike. It was a Landshark and I put a brand new Campagnolo Chorus group on it. I believe this was 8 speed. It had downtube shifters as this was about a year before Shimano launched STI. I freaking loved Campagnolo and wanted a C-Record group so bad, but just couldn’t afford it. I loved this bike. The Chorus parts were great, highly polished and just beautiful. I built it myself and it worked very well at the time.
SRAM released their full group not that long ago, maybe ten years now? It was called Force and I hated it, but then slowly started liking it. I mounted this group on a Pegoretti 8:30am. For a top of the range group, it looked a bit cheap, and it did have durability issues. I was on one ride where two different people had their levers literally fall apart. No one was shocked. But, we’ll cut them a little slack as the double tap shifting pattern was and remains one of my favorites. And, the durability has gotten much better after this first effort.
Looks or legacy aside, do you find any that any particular brand has a leg over the others in terms of pure functionality?
Derek: I think they’re all pretty good. Campagnolo is the only one currently with a 12 speed mechanical group, but I don’t think that alone makes it better per se. It’s a bit sad that Sram seems to have abandoned any development on updating mechanical groups.
Robert: Functionality - Pros & cons - Give and take - this is just life.. Sram, Campy, & Shimano will have so much money thrown into development of new tech to just try to stay relevant with the evolving industry, but I still think Campagnolo takes the win for me. Although the Campagnolo brand is somewhat a niche brand you won't see in as many shops across the states, I think it’s elegant in functionality, easy to service, & all together rad brand to work with. In the past they even sold small shifter parts to service their control levers which I’ve always thought was fun to dig through old files on archived forums or watching the no audio Campagnolo tutorial videos on the internet. The industry has come a long way with technology, but to keep it real, everyone has their preference of flavor and reasons for choosing X, Y, & Z brand.. & we respect that at AC.
Chad: I think all three work extremely well. I do think that Campagnolo is the most durable and easiest to adjust. I’m used to the way Campagnolo levers work so it’s natural but I still think that SRAM double tap is the best shifting pattern as I stated above. But, SRAM has decided that battery power is the only way forward and is not making a new mechanical group which I think is a Pity, so I’m not going to talk too much about them. I do think that Campagnolo makes the best mechanical group though. It’s light, has a lot of gears, holds adjustments well, is easy to work on, looks amazing (except maybe for that rear derailleur) and has the best brand story, by far. So, yeah, Campagnolo takes my vote.
For you personally, what are your top two or three pros, and top cons to Campagnolo?
- I really like the tactile feeling of the levers, and have always felt an allure to the mouse-ear thumb shifter.
- The latest 12 speed stuff feels impressively precise.
- It’s fucking Campagnolo.
- The ergonomics of the hoods don’t always feel great for me. It’s especially hard to find the sweet spot placing them on modern compact bend bars.
- I think the new rear derailleur is pretty ugly.
- I feel Campagnolo tends to suffer the worst from the internal cable routing of modern bikes. External routing and it’s amazingly smooth, but on a bike like a Pinarello Dogma, mechanical Campagnolo would not be my choice.
- B A L L E R alert - Italian precision components out of Vicenza. I LOVE the updated shift cables.
- I think mechanics telling riders that “shift cables stretch” is inaccurate - it's more like “shift housing is wearing in”
- Whatever Campagnolo coats their chains in while at the factory is a magical lubricant that has no little to no scent & I have never seen a lubricante similar to what they coat their chains with in the factories. The chains tend to far outlast any other brand on the market hands down! -Unique ergonomics for small hands like mine :)
- Cost - No Campagnolo Super Record power meters? - sending to Stages doesn’t fit the aesthetic in my book
- Gravel group? What gravel group.. haha
- I think Campagnlo prides themselves on the tarmac & pavement consumers, but who knows what's in store for the future
- Durability. It’s common to see bikes come in that are 20 years old, if not older still working fine with Campagnolo. We’ve had some bikes come in that had over 20k miles on them w/ the original chain and cassette. Not recommended by any means, but nice to see that it can happen. I had just one road/race bike that I spent all my time on from 1997-2003 with the same group and besides normal maintenance I never had to do anything to the group.
- Aesthetics. This is personal of course, but, I have always thought that Campagnolo parts looked the best. I still think that’s the case, but, I feel the bar has been lowered here dramatically. Right now, I love the Campagnolo Super Record mechanical levers, cranks (so sick!) and front derailleur. The brakes are not bad but not great and the rear derailleur is just plain ugly. Again, my .02. It’s just that Shimano and SRAM look that much worse, so due to Campagnolo’s super hot cranks, levers and front derailleur, it still reigns supreme. Not that long ago, this was much easier, the C-Record group is still my favorite looking group of all time. So much polish! I’ll save this for another time, but, we will write about the things we’d do if we ran each perspective company, sound good Derek? I’ve got some ideas. :-) `Out of the three groups here, I think that Campagnolo is the easiest to set up, work on and keep tuned.
- Expensive. Even though I think it’s easy to work on, it seems like not many people know how to do it. We’ve had people decide against Campagnolo because they say they don’t have anyone in their area that is good with it. I find that odd as, again it’s pretty easy.
- Their reluctance to have a high end polished alloy group. For a company that has such storied history, I feel that it’s totally fine to lean on it. I would give anything to see a super crazy high end groupset. Made out of alloy, polished until it can’t be polished anymore, pantographed logos, titanium bolts, ceramic bearings etc. This is what the world needs.
- Sorry, one more. I’d love to see more gearing choices. The new 12 speed cassette only comes in 11X29 and 11X32. Those are both great cassettes to have for sure, but we need more! I know I should most likely be running a 32 as I’m not the greatest climber in the world and I live in an area with lots of climbing, but I’ve accepted that I like to grind. And, I hate big jumps between gears. I would love to see a 12X27 at the least, I don’t need the 11 and with a 27 could still run the 53X39 cranks. I just ride faster with this set up. And, for a company that used to have so many options to choose from I find it hard to believe that there are so few now. Same with crank length, we could use at least one more option, preferably two.
And for Shimano?
- IMO, it is easily the smoothest feeling shifting of them all.
- A lot of options for gearing, and thoughtful to have clutched RX/GRX derailleurs available now for all-road and gravel bikes.
- I think the design and aesthetics of the group as a whole are the best of the three.
- I really don’t like that the whole brake lever moves when shifting. It’s not such a big deal on a road bike, but for a gravel or cyclocross bike, it’s pretty easy to accidentally shift when grabbing a handful of brakes on a rough, technical descent. It’s not Campagnolo.
- Honestly I don’t think I have any other complaints...Actually, scratch that. I think they mechanical shift/disc brake levers are horrible. It's actually the main reason I chose Di2 for my latest Shimano bike.
- Setup is quite easy. I add a few extra steps on top of their recommended procedures just to ensure the best ride possible for our clients
- I’d say a lot of riders have been on a Shimano equipped bike at some point in their life as their components hit a wide price range and huge line up of groupsets to hit every cyclist on the market.
- The familiarity of the name Shimano is a great talking point with folks that are just getting into the cycling game.
- Cables have that polymer coating. While Shimano states there is no functionality issue with the polymer coating fraying - I’ve found that to be false & case by case..There is a delay with that shit bunching up near any ferrule or frame entrance causing extra friction. End of the day I recommend an annual cable swap or check in after about 5000km to help prevent issues from this.
- No 12speed road groups yet..?
- I’ve seen the most sheared off shift cable heads tucked away in their control lever (again very important to swap cables once a year depending on rider usage)
- Shimano 7400 was rad. And beautiful. And, was made like over 25 years ago. I know this is not a real ‘Pro” but i’m keeping it here. Shimano makes really really nice stuff.
- Tons of gearing and crank options, Like Campagnolo used to do. So huge props to Shimano for sticking to this. I like that, they are betting on themselves. It’s expensive and a lot of Sku’s to make so many options, but they are looking out for everyone.
- Smooth. Quiet. Just a straight up refined groupset.
- Shift levers that also act as brake levers. Have never liked this. Ever.
- Not the most durable group. I’ve seen chains snap, individual cogs on the cassette shear off, cables break and i’ve even seen crank arms shear in half, multiple times. Personally, I’ve had a cog on the cassette shear off while rounding a hairpin on a climb not that long ago. I also believe that a lot of the problems I mentioned here can be attributed to lack of good maintenance.
- They’ve had some pretty ugly groups over the past couple of decades. Do something special like 7400 again and I can guarantee that you will see a lot more Shimano bolted onto our frames.
Okay, and how about Sram?
- I actually really like double tap. It’s got a super positive feel and even though you can’t dump gears down the cassette with one throw, it still shifts super fast. Especailly since they came out with the Zero-Loss technology, I’ve grown to like the lever feel quite a bit.
- It’s light! I’m not much of a weight weenie, but it’s certainly a benefit.
- They pioneered some really useful things like wide-range cassettes and dedicated 1x groups for road/cross/gravel bikes. They seem to have the best pulse on where trends are going and act quickly on responding.
- The front shifting has always been pure shit. I feel like they’ve always come out with weird hacks and band-aid technology to account for it, but it’s always been Srams achilles heel, even with eTap. Kind of surprising as both Shimano and Campagnolo have had great front shifting since the beginning.
- I’ve found it to be the least durable long term. Components wear, parts break, etc. faster than the other brands.
- Well, they seem to have given up on advancing high end mechanical groups.
- Light weight & futuristic.
- Sram is a huge umbrella that covers a wide range of other brands that they’ve consumed.
- I can only imagine their R&D teams are pushing for the best of the best.
- No mechanical option in the 12s groups
- Dot 5.1 fluid - while I’ve figured out a process that works for me & the Sram brake bleeds.. I think there are a lot of mechanics that struggle with bleeding this system.
- More chain drop on the front derailleurs than the other two brands.
- Pros Double Tap shifting was ingenious. It was positive and super fast. Not as fast as Campagnolo (I’ve timed them all) but close. So great for shifting while sprinting. I mean really really good. So good, that I think Campagnolo should buy the rights to this shifting system for their new mechanical groups. I mean, SRAM doesn’t need it anymore. I don’t mind Campagnolo’s thumb lever, but the Double Tap is king.
- Light weight.
- Sorry, can’t think of anything else.
- Brakes on the mechanical group sucked. Sorry guys, I don’t like slamming companies, but these were always bad. Soft, didn’t adjust super well, ugly etc.
- Ugly. The groups were just ugly. The graphics were bad, the brakes were bad, the crank/bb interface looked like shit. Just was not finished well. To be fair, their main customers were Specialized, Trek and other big brands like that—brands that don’t have the style that a lot of the hand built guys exude. Before you get all pissy with me and say that your S-Works is the shit, that’s cool and not what I mean. I’m talking classy, well thought out aesthetics. Something like what Dario Pegoretti would put out, or something Velocolour would design. SRAM just never seemed to go well with bikes like that. But, on a modern race bike, it’s not so bad.
- Flimsy. SRAM fell apart more than Shimano, which is not easy.
- Now, to be fair, SRAM Red was getting better and better in all aspects, looks, durability, functionability. They just quit on us. If they still made a mechanical group, it could be the best of the bunch right now, but we’ll never know...
Do you ever wish you could combine attributes from differing groups or do you feel one in particular is superior to your tastes?
Derek: I would love it if Shimano had a more positive shift feel, similar to Campagnolo. Shimano’s light action is nice and smooth, but not quite as fun and gratifying. I wish Sram had the front shift quality of either of the two other groups. The only thing I’d change about Campagnolo is if the hoods could be a bit longer.
Chad: Yep. I would love it if Campagnolo could take SRAMs Double Tap shifting and refine it, make the levers look amazing, put better hoods on it, shape it nice and add that to their lineup. I would get Campagnolo to be more like they were and more like Shimano is now and add all those crank sizes, chainring and cassette options. I’d even rock an 11-22 straight block if they’d make it. I would have also loved to have seen Campagnolo buy Speedplay and have pedals again.
Does one take the crown as your favorite? Why?
Derek: To be honest, I really like them all. From a pure functionality standpoint, I think I’d have to say Shimano, but really it depends on the theme/aesthetics of the bike at hand.
Robert: Campagnolo on all bikes moving forward - Track, Road, & Gravel bike TBD. Mostly due to the rarity and flex factor of this brand. They’re making durable components that I enjoy riding. I’ve gotten accustomed to using my thumbs, but again, we all have different preferences. To each their own
Chad: I was a little rough on Shimano and SRAM, but honestly, if I only had one bike and it had either of those, I’d be totally fine. But, since I get to choose, I’d take Campagnolo Super Record or even Record over anything Shimano or SRAM makes right now. Just give me some more gearing and make that rear derailleur look great again!
Well? What's the choice for you? Does one system really resonate with you or are you happy with them all? In part two, we'll be comparing the same three brands but instead, focusing on their electronic kits, so check back in for that. Thanks for reading!