Welcome to the 12 speed generation, Italian style
Words and Images - James Raison
The prospect of reviewing Campagnolo’s Record 12 speed was damn exciting for me.
I’ve been a Campagnolo owner since the heady days of 2014 when I bagged a bargain near-new Bottecchia Emme 2 off Gumtree with Campagnolo Record 11. It was a revelation, especially coming from the iffy SRAM Red 10 speed that my other bike had. Since then I’ve owned Record 9, Athena 11, and once I’d put a thousand-ish kms on Record 12 the total distance I’ve ridden on the Italian marquee’s groupset is approaching 25,000 km. I’ve spent enough years in the Campy (yes, CAMPY, deal with it) ecosystem to understand what it is to ride and what it means to own.
So it’s time to find out how they’ve managed the transition to 12 speed. Just a note that this groupset came installed and dialled in (on a beautiful TIME Alpe d’Huez we reviewed) so we can’t give any advice on how it is to set up. Onwards!
Campagnolo uses a tiering system a little differently to their rivals which goes Super Record, Record, Chorus, Potenza, and Centaur as their mechanical road sets. Those sets do line up with Shimano’s Dura Ace R9100, Ultegra R8000, 105 R7000, and Tiagra 4700 (we’re due for R5000 very soon) or SRAM’s Red, Force, Rival, Apex in equal terms. Record is Campagnolo’s Dura Ace R9100/SRAM Red equivalent. Chorus is their UltegraR8000/SRAM Force competitor and Potenza targets 105 R7000/SRAM Rival. Super Record is just the even fancier version of Record. It’s important context here that Record 12 is not an Ultegra/Force competitor.
Shifters: 463 g
Rear derailleur: 216 g
Front derailleur: 81 g
Crankset: 708 g (50x34 rings, 170 mm)
Bottom bracket: 40 g
Cassette: 266 g (11-29)
Chain: 220 g
Brakes: 326 g pair
Total: 2,200 g
THE JUMP TO 12
There’s quite a lot of interesting design changes that have been brought to the 12 speed generation apart the obvious necessities with a change of sprocket quantity; thinner chain, thinner cogs, and optimised chainring profile etc. Dig deeper and you’ll find the more interesting changes, and some that will be very welcome to Campagnolo owners.
First, let’s talk about what 12 speed means to Campagnolo. The addition of a 12th cog is emerging as a philosophical separator of the brands. SRAM took the opportunity to completely shuffle chainring and cassette ratios for eTap AXS and introduce a new bottom bracket. By contrast, Campagnolo have slotted the extra cog roughly into the middle, brought the gaps closer together, and left the chainring ratios alone. Interestingly, they’ve chosen only two cassette options: 11-29 and 11-32. Riders hoping for a very closely spaced 11-25 are out of luck with this generation. You’re getting climbing gears whether you want them or not. I spent years wanting to go higher than 29 on my own bike, so it’s a change I’m glad to see.
There’s been a redesign of the cassette in general. The 6 largest cogs are grouped into single-piece triplets. That makes installation easier, and gives an incremental improvement to rigidity, and likely reduces production costs through reduced diversity of parts. Spacers in the cassette are now uniform. The 11 speed cassettes had 3 plastic spacers with 2 identical and one a unique shape and width. The unique spacer had the toughness of old chalk and would often disintegrate if you took the cassette apart. I still have spare spacers just in case this happens again to my 11 speed cassette. Spacer uniformity is welcome news indeed.
Another divergence from the competition is the single rear derailleur size. The Record 12 rear derailleur can accommodate a 32t cog, thus rendering the need for longer cage version unnecessary. I’m a fan of big cassettes and Ive had to upgrade to longer cage SRAM and Shimano derailleurs to get the gearing I wanted in the past. So to me at least the single derailleur option is a great choice.
Campagnolo have continued their superior ergonomics into the 12 speed generation. Shimano took some strides with their current gen ergonomics but Campagnolo still has them, and SRAM, thoroughly beaten for hand feel. The hoods are sculpted and sweep inwards slightly, giving a natural feeling in the hand. One thing I don’t love is the grooves on the Vari-Cushion rubber which tends to wear my hands a bit when not wearing gloves.
The finely curved brake levers feel comfortable from the hoods. They swoop back towards the bars to bring them close to the drops before kicking away again at the very bottom. The shaping gives nice leverage for braking regardless of where your hands are positioned. Shift levers are similarly well-shaped to give you grip and provide a large enough area to find easily with your hands.
My one small gripe is with the thumb shifter. It’s flat and parallel to the ground which doesn’t feel ergonomically ideal. Angling it down would make reaching from the drops easier, and slightly easier to press from above. Other than that, it’s an ergonomically exceptional shifter.
One does not simply review Campagnolo groupsets without assessing its beauty. Record 12 is a visually striking set. The crankset has an almost black marble-esque look to it that gleams in the light. The shifters are gorgeous, as always, but I do miss the visible carbon weave of the previous generation. The brake calipers are now chunkier and solid, something I prefer over the old skeleton brakes that looked nice when perfectly clean but trapped plenty of crud in their frontal opening.
I’m less enamoured with the derailleurs, which don’t match the aesthetic standard of fellow components. The front derailleur has introduces the tall swing arm that the gear cable connects to that we saw on the previous generation of Shimano. It’s an interesting design choice considering that previous Campagnolo generations didn’t have that style. The rear derailleur has a nice side profile but it sets surprisingly far outboard of the frame. Both Shimano and SRAM have tightened up their rear derailleurs and brought them closer to the frame but Campagnolo hasn’t. I measured the width of my R8000 rear derailleur from the inside of the hanger to the furthest point on the outside of the derailleur when it was on the smallest cog at 39mm. The Record 12 was 50mm. That full centimeter of added width is quite noticeable and greatly increases the risk of scratching and bumping it.
RIDE AND SHIFTING
The addition of the 12th gear has a subtle effect on the ride. It doesn’t radically change anything, but neither should it. What I noticed was always feeling more able find comfortable cadence. I have wide ranging cassettes on all of my road bikes (11-30, 11-32, 12-29) so the 11-29 on the Record 12 was right in my wheelhouse and the smaller gaps between gears is noticeable. What’s more important is how the additional sprocket has not compromised the glorious shifting.
On that, Campagnolo has transitioned all of their shifting strengths from 11 to 12 speeds with all the feelings and sounds remarkably familiar.
The “you have one job” lever approach continues to another generation. The brake levers are for braking, there’s an in-board sweeping lever behind the brake lever for down shifting the cassette on the right and up shifting chainrings on the left, and the infamous thumb shifters up-shifting the cassette on the right and down-shifting chainrings on the left. I say “infamous” because people who’ve never used Campagnolo treat the thumb shifters with a mixture of fear, wonder, and occasional hostility. No, it’s not ideal to use a thumb shifter when on the drops. Every other time thumb shifting is fine, as is the shift lever format in general.
Rear derailleur shifts are outstanding for Record 12, as they were with Record 11. Campagnolo is peerless in shifting speed up and down the cassette. None of the other manufacturers come close thanks to the Ultra Shift system. Give the thumb shifter a full shove and the rear derailleur will change up 3 gears, give the down-shift lever a full sweep and it’ll go 3 cogs in the other direction. It’s ridiculously fast and you can get through the whole cassette quicker than any other drivetrain. Individual gear changes are lightning quick too with little lever travel needed to hit the click point and the derailleur slamming into position instantly.
Front derailleur shifting is where Record 12 is less than exceptional. Record 12 just doesn’t feel quite as fast or smooth as what Shimano brings to their mechanical groupsets. Record 12 switched between rings in a very expected way. There’s an option to set Record 12 with a trim shift (increasing cable tension gets rid of it) to give you a small adjustment and avoid rubbing on the front derailleur cage, not that I noted any grinding from the front derailleur.
Stopping power has been vastly improved over the skeleton brake design of the 11 generation. Campagnolo also claim superior aerodynamic packaging for the front caliper and better integration for aero frames. As mentioned above, they’ve been redesigned for 28mm tyres although the TIME Alpe d’Huez gave me precious little clearance above the 26 mm rear tyre.
The front and rear are both dual pivot calipers and give very solid power. Add that to the superb ergonomics and I was rather pleased with the performance of the braking. I can’t make a true comparison to outstanding Shimano calipers because I only used the Campagnolo groupset with Reynolds carbon clinchers and pads. I’d have to test them on aluminium to know for sure. I can safely say that they’re a big step forward for Campagnolo.
Buying Campagnolo means buying into their ecosystem and there’s good and bad things about that. Having been in the ecosystem for a few years, I’ve got some thoughts.
Record 12 is an easy upgrade to make for those who already own 9-11 speed Campagnolo drivetrains. The designers have found a way, once again, to simply slot another cog onto the same freehub they’ve been using since the 9 speed era so you can use the wheels you currently have. Remember the jump from 10 to 11 speed Shimano/SRAM? It was a massive pain in the ass and the next move from those brands seems no easier. SRAM already introduced their XDR driver and DUB bottom bracket, and smart money would be on a proprietary 12 speed Shimano using or adapting XTR 9100’s micro spline freehub. There’s none of that with Campagnolo’s 12 speed groupsets, just a basic install.
Those wanting to switch from another groupset brand to high-end Campagnolo have had no better opportunity than Record 12. The Australian RRP of $2589 reduces the gap between Record and Shimano’s R9100/SRAM Red 22. There’s the inconvenience of switching wheel freehubs, or buying a completely new wheelset if there isn’t a freehub option on your wheels. Perishables are more expensive generally and 12 speed hasn’t trickled down to the lower levels for cheaper chains and cassettes yet. Time will tell how many people are wooed to Campagnolo but reduced the cost is a big step in the right direction.
Despite improvements and ease of upgrading there’s no doubting that Campagnolo is a less convenient set of components to live with because there’s less of it around than Shimano and SRAM. Bike shops are less likely to have spares and they tend to be more expensive - take Campagnolo cables or brake pads as an example. You’re locked out of some wheel options if the manufacturer doesn’t make compatible freehubs too. Borrowing a wheel in emergencies - neutral spares, or grabbing one before an event for example - can be painful if nobody you know runs Campy. Those who work on their own bikes will likely have to buy some more tools for certain tasks too. Owning Campagnolo means occasionally bumping into these difficulties.
Record 12 is everything I’ve come to expect from using Campagnolo groupsets; superb ergonomics, lightning fast shifting, and a downright lovely ride feeling. A lower price, and some design simplifications make this the most accessible way to upgrade for current Campagnolo owners, or for new owners to make the switch. The flip side is that all of the inconveniences of Campagnolo still exist and always will unless we see a large market share change.
The 12th sprocket is not a revolutionary advancement, rather, a step forward for gear availability, narrower ratio gaps, and finding comfortable cadence. It’s cycling industry incrementalism. You don’t need it, but having ridden it I definitely want it because it’s objectively better.
Disclosure statement: This groupset was sent for review. It’s not a paid review and we don’t get any money from the sales of Campagnolo.