The debate has raged for decades about which brand is superior in the bicycle component group manufacturing business. Shimano and Campagnolo make component groups that provide the same basic functionality to a bicycle – transmission, steering, and braking systems. However, each company has several different priced offerings available. In short order, the whole component selection process gets complicated leaving the consumer wondering ‘Why Campagnolo’, or, ‘what exactly am I paying for when I buy Dura Ace instead of Ultegra’? It must be remembered, however, that they are simply bike parts and if consumers stick to these two companies, they will rarely be disappointed.
A Little Bit of History
Shimano and Campagnolo have been around in one capacity or another for quite a long time. Tullio Campagnolo, a retired professional cyclist, founded Campagnolo in 1933. The company’s first product idea was a version of a quick release skewer and they later pioneered advancements in multi-speed shifting technologies in the late 40’s and 50’s. Meanwhile, Shozabura Shimano put Shimano Iron Works on the map in 1921 when he developed a single speed freewheel. Shimano followed Campagnolo into the multi-speed component market in the 50’s and later developed the first market accepted indexed shifting systems. Shimano also introduced the dual control brake lever (shift and brake with the same control lever) to the public, which their marketing department called STI (Shimano Total Integration).
The number of patents issued can be a good indicator of a company’s commitment to research and development (R&D) and innovation. The STI technology has been protected by one of 477 bicycle related patents the U.S. has granted Shimano since 1976. Shimano is also a diversified company that has other business ventures (fishing reels and snow boots/bindings) in which they have been issued an additional 557 U.S. patents. Product diversification allows the lessons learned in one part of the company to be transferred to another – often times this is a good thing.
On the other hand, Campagnolo has only 45 bicycle related patents in the U.S since 1976. Shimano’s recent innovative technology, diversified business interests, significant investment in R&D and the close geographic proximity to the manufacturing Mecca of Southeast Asia has allowed Shimano to become the largest bicycle component manufacturer in the world.
The long-standing history of both companies should re-assure the consumer, however. These companies will stand behind their product if there is a problem during the warranty period (3 years for all Campy products and Dura Ace and 2 years for the rest of the Shimano line) and they won’t skip town like some manufacturers did during the mid 90’s CNC craze.
Major Design Differences
The table below identifies the major differences between the Campagnolo and Shimano product lines:
These features provide difficult to quantify benefits to the consumer - they are a marketing departments dream since more features demand higher prices and larger profit margins.
The splined bottom bracket/crank joint design Shimano offers is theoretically more durable than the Campagnolo joint design. The spline interface decreases the localized stress concentrations that are inherent to the square taper crank design. However, the tapered spline design must be executed well in order to be superior and Shimano has already changed its mountain bike design (increased the spline length from 5mm to 9mm). Shimano also incorporates an oversized spindle in their design, which allows them to decrease weight while still preserving strength relative to a “conventional” square tapered spindle.
The square taper design has been the standard for a long time despite its shortcomings (frequent crank removal leads to deformation of crank and subsequent looseness on spindle or eventual crank failure at highly stressed corners). Based on the number of parts in the marketplace and the number of publicly reported failures, the Shimano spline seems to provide a “durable enough” joint.
Evaluating the “feel” of the shift/brake lever controls is highly subjective. Campagnolo levers seem to be preferred by people with large hands, while smaller handed people tend to comment that the Shimano levers are easier to operate. Shimano levers are also notorious for rattling during their lifetime. Consumers need to touch, feel and try out both styles of levers before making a buying decision.
Ease of lever maintenance/repair is an often-mentioned positive feature of the Campagnolo product. It is true that the Campagnolo lever is completely re-buildable, but in this author’s experience the feature provides very little benefit. After 170,000+ kilometers and numerous crashes on Shimano levers, the only part that has needed to be replaced/serviced was the lever return spring. This return spring is an inexpensive part and completely user replaceable on Shimano levers.
The last thing to consider in the Shimano versus Campagnolo selection process is compatibility with aftermarket wheels and whether or not the purchaser intends to race domestically in the United States. Why doesn’t a Shimano wheel work with a Campagnolo group? The most obvious difference is the freehub spline shape (a square peg doesn’t fit in a round hole). The second difference is in the cog spacing and shift indexing. The two companies have slightly different spacing making the systems inherently incompatible.
Shimano is popular in the United States and U.S. aftermarket wheel companies tend to design their product to be Shimano compatible first, and if time permits, provide a work-around solution to gain Campagnolo compatibility. Often times, work-around solutions are less than ideal and usually more expensive. Several companies offer cogsets that make Shimano-splined hubs 100% Campagnolo compatible. This solution comes at a steep price somewhere on the order of $150.
Shimano popularity also finds its way onto the racing scene. Neutral support vehicles rarely stock Campagnolo wheels. If you are riding Campy 10 speed and get serviced with Shimano 9s, you might be in some difficulty for the rest of the day due to mismatched shifting or you may have to wait an extra 30 seconds for a special wheel change. If a consumer still hasn’t chosen a side in this debate already and is in the process of building a bike up from scratch there are a few things to consider when deciding on the components.
Perceived value tends to govern a person’s buying decision and can be defined as the ratio of perceived benefits per unit price. Consumers have their own perception of what is a benefit, and this makes the job of developing and selling a product line difficult. In order to increase the odds of making a sale, manufacturers like to take a shotgun approach. The reasoning is that if enough different price levels of the product are offered, eventually the consumer will identify and purchase the product that they perceive as the best value.
The concept of perceived value is also what allows a company like Campagnolo to charge $1400 for a Record component group. The basic functionality is the same as the much lower priced Daytona group, but there are “features and benefits” of the Record parts that the marketing department communicates to consumers in their glossy ads and bulleted product information kits. These additional “features” require a premium price, however.
Traditionally, the features that determine the different price points within a product line are:
- Materials (which lead to lower mass)
- Carbon fiber, Titanium, Grades of Aluminum
- Surface Finish
- Bright polish and anodized, grit blasted and clear coat
- Manufacturing Processes
- Forged, stamped, machined
Dura Ace vs. Record
These products are the “top of the line” offering for each company, and therefore carry an immediate premium price for this distinction. The primary mechanical difference between these two groups is in material selection. Campy uses carbon fiber in the levers, bottom bracket shell, and rear derailleur. On the other hand, Shimano uses plastic in the levers and aluminum in the BB and rear mech. A look at the table below shows that the overall mass difference between the groups (the only clear cycling performance evaluation criteria for component groups) is within 60 grams.
The largest question that must be answered when deciding between these two groups is whether or not 60 grams, the Campagnolo name, and some bits of cosmetic carbon fiber are worth $400. To a lot of people, the answer to this question is yes.
Shimano offers a total of five different price points within their component group product line. Below are the mass tabulations for each of the top three offerings.
The primary difference between these three levels is in material selection and surface finish. The Dura Ace product appears to use higher strength aluminum in its crank, and higher strength steel in its bottom bracket spindle. This assumption is based on the consistent outside dimensions of the Dura Ace, Ultegra, and 105 designs but thinner walled constructions for the higher end product. It also assumes that Shimano engineers decided not to sacrifice strength on their high-end parts in exchange for lighter weight. The table below summarizes the other differences between the various groups.
Most of these design features above are done for mass reduction and improved durability claims. The difference between 105 and Dura Ace in mass is slightly less than 500 grams. In this author’s experience, the durability differences between Dura Ace and Ultegra are not significant even when little maintenance is performed (105 parts have lasted the author ~60,000 kilometers, DA parts have lasted ~80,000 km and Ultegra parts – minus a failed crank spline – have lasted 35,000 km). The previous groups the author has owned have either been put on a winter bike or have been replaced out of sheer vanity/group consistency. The parts that tend to wear out independent of the group selected are the chain, rings, sprockets, shift lever return springs, and cables/housing.
Essentially, Dura Ace demands a higher price due to lower mass (thanks to bits of titanium, higher strength steel and aluminum), aluminum anodizing, and the exclusivity of owning the best that Shimano has to offer. If the stigma associated with owning “low end” components is too much to overcome for the consumer, the Ultegra line becomes an attractive offering from Shimano.
Consistent with Shimano, Campagnolo offers multiple price points for the consumer. For the “mass freaks”, the table below lists claimed manufacturer mass for the top three component groups.
Again, the primary differences between the three offerings from Campagnolo are in total mass and the materials used to achieve this mass savings. The Record group uses bits of carbon fiber and titanium to save the consumer 355 grams over the Daytona group. The price per gram saved over Daytona for the Record group is over two times that of the Dura Ace premium up charge. After reviewing Campagnolo literature it was difficult to find any significant design difference between the Chorus and Daytona groups. Therefore, it is difficult to justify the $300 price difference between Daytona and Chorus for a measly 74-gram mass reduction.
The Campy versus Shimano topic is a debate that will continue on for the life of both companies, and it essentially boils down to personal preference based on perceived value. Each company offers multiple price points to satisfy any would-be consumer. Higher end groups demand premium prices due to material selection (which leads to lower mass), surface finish, manufacturing methods, and the exclusivity associated with owning “the best”.
The top of the line offering from either company still provides the same basic functions of transmission, steering, and braking for bicycles. Dura Ace and Record groups have nearly identical mass, but Campagnolo is betting that the perceived benefits of its brand name, cosmetic carbon fiber and serviceable levers are worth the extra $400 over Dura Ace. Durability of all of the components seems to be adequate independent of brand/position in the product line (the crank designs could be improved in either of the product lines). If the purchase of perceived “low end” components is out of the question, the Shimano Ultegra group appears to be the most attractive offering with its $650 price tag. In either case, the consumer can rest assured that both of these companies will stand behind their product during the warranty period.
In the end, one must remember that these are just bike parts, and that the immortal words of Tyler Durden apply in full: “you are not the contents of your wallet” - nor are you defined by the component group you choose.