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Campagnolo’s gravel origins

25 February 2021
Campagnolo’s gravel origins

Understanding #BornBeforeRoads: “Campagnolo’s gravel heritage" is actually “Campagnolo’s heritage” – that’s where we came from.


Campagnolo became so well known as a successful road performance brand – winning Grand Tours, classics and so much more – that sometimes it’s easy to overlook Campagnolo’s historic roots, a performance brand that was ‘born before roads’.


The young Tullio Campagnolo was racing bikes in the 1920s. The machines back then had two-triangle frames and drop handlebars, and the riders’ thrill, desire and will to perform at their best produced the same heady blend of adrenaline and pride as today – but a lot of details that we might take for granted today were very different.

Because of the shapes of the bikes we picture this era as the early day of road racing. It’s true, but it was also the early days of roads themselves. Much of the racing those days was on unpaved surfaces, unmade tracks and gravel roads.



What the riders in the earlier part of the 20th century had under their tires was a lot like the mixed terrain surfaces we enjoy the challenge of today as gravel. And like us today, riders and racers would naturally look to technology for performance advantages.

It was in this circumstance that Tullio had the ‘eureka’ moment that led to the birth of the Quick Release system and ultimately the whole Campagnolo catalogue of innovation. At that time, a gear change to tackle a steep hill meant removing the rear wheel and flipping it to switch from a small to a larger drive cog on the wheel.



The story goes that the inspiration came in a cold weather race in November 1927, when Tullio could not remove the wing nuts holding his rear wheel to effect a repair of his gears, and he lost the race at the Croce d'Aune pass, not many kilometres from Cima Ekar, the spiritual home of the Ekar groupset.

After ideas, experimentation, design and prototypes, the Quick Release system was patented in February 1930, and went into full production in 1933. That year, Tullio founded the Campagnolo company in the back room of his father's hardware store in Vicenza.

And as the surfaces of roads developed, and the style of ‘road racing’ led the mainstream of high level racers to the smoother sections to go faster, so the technology underneath them developed at pace. Campagnolo made the first of its series of derailleurs, an innovative mechanism for changing gears without removing the rear wheel.

The first Campagnolo derailleur had two levers – one to partially loosen the wheel allowing a small amount of lateral movement, and the activation of the second lever moving the chain from one cog to the other. It may sound rudimentary compared to the advanced designs of today’s Ekar and Super Record systems, but it was a giant leap forward for riders and bike tech in the mid 20th century.



Further developments and refinements came thick and fast, with Campagnolo derailleur systems being used by racers at the highest level who fed back and demanded more and more – it’s a relationship that’s familiar today across road and off-road, and that was at the heart of Tullio’s approach.

His son, and today’s head of the company, Valentino Campagnolo told Cyclist magazine about Tullio:

“My father was born with the bicycles… that was his passion. He was a racer first, and because of this he always designed his equipment with the racer in mind. He made beautiful products. Reliable. Efficient. Used by many, many champions.”


Just as racing was in Tullio’s blood, those champions have been winning while riding Campagnolo components throughout Valentino – Mr Campagnolo’s – lifetime.

In the 1940s, the legendary rivalry between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali was coming to a head, and the Campagnolo gruppos were right in the middle. Bartali’s victory in the Tour de France, Campagnolo’s first – came in 1948, riding Corsa, then Coppi, after switching to Campagnolo took his first win in 1952 on Gran Sport: Tullio’s twin-cable, parallelogram rear derailleur.



As the refinements continued, the racing success followed across the decades, with five different riders taking the Gran Sport to Tour victory in the 1950s, and the roll call of racing icons including Jacques Anquetil winning on Record in the 1960s; Eddy Merckx on the Nuovo Record in the 1970s, then Bernard Hinault on the first Super Record spanning the 70s and 80s.

It was after Tullio Campagnolo’s passing in 1983 that Valentino took over running the company. As the push for advanced technology continued, so did the racing domination.

Laurent Fignon switched to Campagnolo in 1984, wearing yellow and riding Super Record to Paris. He was the one of five Campy riders to win La Grande Boucle in the 1980s – including his great rival Greg LeMond who switched to Campagnolo before taking the 1986 edition on C-Record. The American claimed the first of Campagnolo’s astonishing nine TdF victories of the 1990s – with Big Mig Indurain securing his amazing five consecutive victories all on Record, and the legendary Marco Pantani rounding out the decade with the 1998 title on Record Titanium.



Bringing us up to date, after another Italian icon, Vincenzo Nibali won in 2014 on Super Record, it was yet another Italian favourite, Fabio Aru, who paved the way for the next generation, in the form of Tadej Pogačar, the young Slovenian winning the 2020 Tour de France on Super Record EPS.

All these groupsets have been proven at the highest level over the years, in the Grand Tours, the Classics and across the many other racing disciplines and formats.



The growth of gravel racing, the irresistible pull of the endurances challenges and the demands of today’s riders to diversify and embrace every kind of riding feels like we have come full circle from the early off-road innovations of the 1930s and 40s.

Today’s Campagnolo Ekar gravel groupset is informed by these technologies and is designed with a specific purpose: to help you extend your limits of exploration and performance.

These components, created specifically for all-road, truly express our unique values of meticulous technological research and love for style, lightness and total reliability.

We’re once again embracing the elegant simplicity of the single chainring, which has been elevated to the next level with 13 speeds of Ekar.



Campagnolo, #BornBeforeRoads


©Yuzuru Sunada

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