What's the difference between Campagnolo and Shimano components?

Dan, 2008

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This is a question that I get asked at least once a day here in the shop. People read magazine reviews, or talk with friends that own bicycles, and develop questions about the differences. The answer could fill a book if you catch me on the right day, but I'll try and keep it shorter than that for this article and not get bogged down in minutiae. To keep it a little shorter, I'll just cover what I think to be the most important component choice...that is the Shift/Brake levers. The brake lever is generally the most expensive part of the group, and affects both comfort and usability.

There are 4 important things to consider:

Functionality
Comfort
Serviceability
Price

1.) Functionality - Several years ago, the component companies pulled a cruel trick on us here in the Northwest. They invented shifters called STI (Shimano) or Ergo (Campagnolo). These new shifters were mounted right inside of the brake levers and were much more convenient to use. Unfortunately, along with this design came new derailleurs that were designed to work only with specific gear configurations for the front chain rings. But, here in the Northwest, we are either riding downhill or uphill and rarely on flat ground. (I discovered this when I first moved here from Southern Idaho and rode my bike to work for the first day). See, most places don't need quite the range of gears that we use here. We started selling the Shimano STI shifters when they came out with a model that would shift a 'triple' chain ring. Then we started changing out the chain ring sizes for people to meet their specific needs (as we always had done before). The Shimano manual said that the chain rings must be specific sizes, but who believes what they say anyway? Well, in this case they were right. If we varied even slightly from the stock setup, the bike just wouldn't shift smoothly (or at all). So, we investigated other options.

The Campagnolo shifters use a different method of shifting for the front derailleur, and allowed us many more options for chain ring sizes. This was the first reason we started to use the Campagnolo shifters for tandems and touring bikes (these folks are much more likely to want wider gear ranges).

Obviously, we sell both brands, and both Shimano and Campagnolo shifters work very well. The Shimano setup has evolved to be a little more flexible than it originally was. If a customer has a need to vary his or her gearing up front though, the Campagnolo is still more flexible and works better for that.

2.) Comfort - Here is a feature often overlooked by a customer shopping for a new bike, but is by far the most important consideration when choosing components. Since comfort is so important, I always have people try the feel of both shifters before deciding. Both brands work well mechanically, and do what they are supposed to do, but Campagnolo has taken the next step and redesigned their shifter to fit the human hand better. If your bike is fit to you properly, you're riding on the top of the brake hoods 70-80% of the time. Therefore, it makes sense to make that position the most comfortable position on your bike. If you look at the Campagnolo design carefully, you'll see a difference in the way it fits the hand. Campagnolo redesigned the shifter in about 1998 and our customers have loved them ever since. All it takes is a quick grab on both shifters to feel the difference. Most people prefer the smaller, thinner feel of the Campagnolo. They also like the way that the shifter mounts flat and becomes an extension of the handle bar.
There is another difference in the comfort factor. If you examine both shifters closely, you'll find that the pivot point for the braking mechanism is mounted closer to where the cable is pulled on the Campagnolo. This means that when you are braking from the top of the hoods, it requires less leverage. I consider this a comfort issue because in the Northwest, if you're not climbing, you're braking. The leverage advantage to the Campagnolo means less work for your hands, so it's more comfortable.

The last thing that I would say about comfort is to compare the front shifting of each make. The Shimano requires that the brake lever be pushed sideways a considerable amount before the shift is made. The Campagnolo can be pushed a few clicks, then returned to resting, and then a few more to make a shift. This becomes a comfort issue if you have smaller hands than the average male that the shifters were all designed for. For people with smaller hands or shorter fingers, the Campagnolo is usually the preferred choice.

3.) Serviceability - Here is the closest that I will tread to minutiae. Keep in mind that I've been a bicycle mechanic since I was the 8 year old kid who fixed any bike tires that were brought in to my father's gas station in Jerome Idaho ( a town of about 2,000 back then). Being able to repair something runs in my blood, so if there is ever a choice between buying something that is repairable vs. buying something that is disposable, guess where I go?

No matter how good something is, some part of it will wear out at some time. Campagnolo shifters are built with serviceability in mind. They are bolted together, the Shimano is more or less riveted together. The small parts list for the Campagnolo shifters is several pages long. I can usually order any small part for a Campagnolo shifter and fix any problem that it might have. This level of serviceability carries through to the entire line of everything Campagnolo makes, derailleurs, hubs, etc.

Shimano components are made with more of a 'replacement' philosophy. The small parts available list for all models of Shimano shifters is less than 1/2 page, and contains very basic parts only (name plate, name plate screw etc...). Almost every Shimano shifter that goes bad requires a new shifter to be installed, and that costs a lot more than just fixing an old one. The replacement philosophy carries through to everything that Shimano makes. While there is nothing wrong with either philosophy, the Campagnolo serviceability philosophy just fits in better with my own, and that's one reason that I prefer it.

4.) Price - There is a difference on the price between the two. Bicycles equipped with Shimano are available at price levels from $450 and up, whereas Campagnolo equipped bicycles start at $2,000 or so. If you're shopping for a new bike, and your price range doesn't allow you to spend $2,000 or more, Shimano is really the only choice, and it's a good choice. But, if you're budget allows you to spend $2,000 or more, I recommend that you try both and pick the brand that's comfortable for you.

-Dan
June, 2004

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