The vast majority of riders who are buying a new gravel / cyclocross bike (or building up a new frame from scratch) will be using components from two players - Shimano or SRAM. You may be comparing Shimano's GRX against SRAM's XPLR AXS group, for example, or if you don't want "gravel specific" components, perhaps it comes down to Ultegra Di2 vs. SRAM eTap for electronic shifting.
But there's a third option that may be worth your consideration - Campagnolo Ekar. While Campy's gravel group is much smaller than Shimano or SRAM in terms of pure sales volume, it offers some unique, cutting-edge features that may catch a rider's eye. Like GRX and XPLR, Ekar is designed specifically for riding drop handlebar bikes in the dirt, and you'll see it spec'd for cyclocross, gravel, bikepacking, and loaded touring bikes/frames.
When you go shopping, should Ekar be on your list? Let's go over some of the pros and cons.
Campagnolo's dominance, fall, and re-birth
In the 1970's and early 80's, Campagnolo was THE gear to have on your road bike. Everyone aspired to have a "Campy" equipped race bike. But by 2000 it was a rarity to see a bike with Campagnolo components in a bike shop.
So what happened? Two primary factors in my opinion:
The first was the rise in Asian manufacturing. As complete bike assembly moved to Japan, Taiwan, then China, Campagnolo had a hard time keeping up. Bike brands manufacturing their bikes in Asia need all the components - shifters, derailleurs, saddles, and tires - to be in Asia as well. This tactic keeps supply lines short, helps control shipping costs, and shortens time to market. Campagnolo just couldn't do it fast enough or cheap enough, and brands that used to spec Campagnolo on their bikes transitioned to Shimano, SunTour, and later, SRAM because those parts were economical and readily available in Asia.
Second was Campy's slow response to the development of index shifting. Shimano introduced index "click" shifting in the mid-1980's, which eliminated the need to fine-tune the position of the friction downtube shifter after each shift. Index shifting made cycling much more accessible to novices, but enthusiasts loved it too. Shimano killed it in this area. Campagnolo was two years late and when the components arrived, they were more expensive and didn't work as well.
To make things worse, during the mountain bike boom, Campagnolo's MTB components were a complete bust, allowing Shimano to continue to gobble up even more marketshare. It was SunTour, not Campagnolo who was second to Shimano for MTBs. As a result, new riders who discovered cycling through mountain biking had Shimano in mind, not Campy, when they added a road bike to their stable.
By the late 2000's, SRAM was in the mix too with their own line of high-end road components like the Red group, further pushing Campagnolo to the side in retail bicycle shops.
Despite this decline on the consumer side, Campagnolo, with their high-end focus always maintained a strong presence in the pro peloton. The components have been ridden to continual wins at the highest level of the sport, including the Tour de France, Spring Classics, and Monuments. As pro cycling transitioned away from down tube shifters to integrated brake/shifter "brifter" levers, Campagnolo's 10 speed ErgoPower levers even beat Shimano to the punch in being first to route the shifter cables under the handlebar tape, making bikes look sleeker and more aero.
This brings us to 2020 and the introduction of the Ekar gravel group.
Campagnolo Ekar features and capabilities
Ekar is a new group, designed from the ground up by Campagnolo to meet the specific requirements of gravel riders. Prior to Ekar, riders who preferred Campagnolo had few options for gravel riding, trying to wedge Campy's components that were designed for road racing onto off-road bikes just didn't work.
Campy tore up the rulebook for Ekar and delivered something completely new. Ekar was well-received by both consumers and the media, and while it still has only a tiny portion of the overall market, started to re-gain some spec on complete bikes from major brands, and also gained in aftermarket sales.
Ekar's signature feature is the 13 speed drivetrain with a single chainring (Shimano's flagship Dura-Ace and XTR are only 12). There's no option for a double chainring or front derailleur. To achieve a wide gearing range (a must for off-road, gravel riding) the Ekar group uses a tiny 9-tooth cog on the rear cassette. Because a 9-tooth cog is too small in diameter for traditional cassettes, Ekar comes with a new freehub body called N3W. Unlike competitors - SRAM's XPLR uses a new XDR freehub body - Campy's N3W is backwards compatible, supporting both the new 13 speed cassettes as well as older 10, 11, 12 models in a single design.
The rear derailleur is equipped with an on/off clutch, enable it for chain retention while riding and turn it off so you can easily remove the rear wheel to fix a flat. The crank is carbon and has several chainring size options that can be mixed and matched with the various wide-range cassette choices to get the gear ratios just right for your riding style. If you're a Q-factor stickler, it's worth noting that the Ekar crank is about 5mm narrower than SRAM or Shimano's offerings.
My favorite parts of Ekar, though, are the Ergopower shifter/brake levers. I've always found the Campagnolo hood shape to be very comfortable and visually attractive.
The hydraulic disc brakes are mineral oil system, like Shimano, not SRAM. Mineral oil is my preference compared with the DOT fluid used by SRAM. They've even adopted Shimano-style Centerlock brake rotors, which is superior to the 6-bolt hub and rotor standard, regardless of who invented it. It's great to see both Campagnolo and SRAM adopt this system, which is simply better.
The 13 speed chain can be connected with a pin or master link. If you're into chain waxing (and you should be for gravel and cyclocross) the master link makes it easy.
Ekar riders also get what Campagnolo claims is the "lightest gravel group", so it could be a good choice for weight-sensitive riders.
Finally, Ekar is price-competitive: it costs roughly about what you'd spend on Shimano's GRX Di2 group, so it's a viable choice on a value basis. Suddenly Campy has a group that competes on performance, value, and price, and bike brands have noticed - you can buy an off-the-shelf Specialized Diverge equipped with Ekar, for example, which would have been unthinkable just a few years prior.
Campagnolo Ekar Pros
- it's different and eye-catching. If you roll up on a Campy-equipped bike to a gravel or cyclocross race, you might be the only one!
- 13 speed
- Ekar uses a 1x13 single chainring design, no front derailleur to clean or adjust
- Very comfortable brake hood design
- Lightweight, durable carbon crankset
- Rear derailleur equipped with a clutch for chain retention
Campagnolo Ekar Cons
- Ekar doesn't have electronic shifting. While Campagnolo does have a Di2 and eTap competitor electronic shifting tier (they call it "EPS"), Ekar is a mechanical shifting group only for the time being.
- No power meter option - as with GRX and XPLR, you'll probably want to use power meter pedals instead of a crank-based meter if you want power monitoring.
- Only single chainring option. There's no optional front derailleur or double crankset available for the Ekar group. The super wide-range cassette does an admirable job of making up for this, but for riders who want super low gears and the widest possible range, the GRX double might still be the best option.
- Few options (none?) for 3rd-party 13 speed chains, and the Campagnolo Ekar chain is relatively expensive. If you like to use inexpensive chains and change them frequently (a viable strategy for bikes ridden in harsh conditions) that doesn't work with Ekar. Presumably we'll see compatible 13 speed models from KMC or Wippermann in the future.
Are you riding an Ekar-equipped gravel or cyclocross bike? Let me know about your experience using @RideCX on social media.