Named after Mount Ekar, Campagnolo’s new gravel groupset was developed, tried and tested on this same mountain, a delightful playground that is conveniently situated just north of Vicenza, the home and birthplace of the brand.
Since Campagnolo launched in 1933, the company has focused on high-end components that are well-suited to top-level road racing, despite a noticeable dearth of paved surfaces at that time. With this history in mind, it is little wonder that Campy has called upon the heritage, knowledge and technical accolades it has accumulated throughout the years and projected them into a groupset that is specifically designed for challenging unpaved road surfaces. The Ekar groupset has carved itself a position that neatly fits into a variety of subdisciplines, from amateur gravel racing to fast-paced bikepacking, as well as fun adventure rides across a mix of tricky terrain.
Campagnolo says that Ekar is the lightest 1-by mechanical groupset on the market. The weight largely depends on the final setup once cog sizes and crank lengths have been selected. Still, the company has certainly raised the bar, especially when you consider the competitive price point. The 1-by set up reduces the weight and increases the rider control. At $2,400, Ekar is now one of the most affordable groupsets in Campagnolo’s lineup.
The cranks are available in four standard lengths, from 165 mm to 175 mm. There are four chainrings (38-tooth, 40-tooth, 42-tooth and 44-tooth) and three cassettes to choose from, 9–36 tooth, 9–42 tooth or 10–44 tooth, all of which have been designed with specific rider incentives, distances and terrains in mind. I had the opportunity to put the mid-range 9–42 through its paces in southern Ontario. It’s not quite the northern Italian gravel I would have preferred. I did, however, get a mix of weather and some hilly routes, which gave rise to a perfect variety of road surfaces and conditions for the Ekar components.
The 9-tooth cog, which Campagnolo says is as efficient as any 10- or 11-tooth cog and normally associated with 2-by groupsets, ensured there was never a dull moment. The Ekar group held its own on the faster hard-packed gravel surfaces and the smooth asphalt that connected the non-paved sections. It certainly didn’t shy away from any opportunity to pick up the pace.
The wide range of gears guaranteed that the trickier, more technical gravel was just as much fun. The varied spacing between the teeth – more specifically the one-tooth steps between the smaller cogs that gradually progress to larger spacing as I worked my way through the cassette – offered smooth transitions between gears, without any nasty skips or jumps. It was a pleasant surprise given the range available. To a similar end, optimum chain retention was sustained throughout the testing period, avoiding any chain drops, no matter how rough the ride.
Campagnolo hasn’t just made the Ekar light and stiff, it’s added durability, too. This feature may not come as much of a surprise given Campagnolo’s reputation for long-lasting, high-quality components. Designers have blended unidirectional carbon-fibre on the cranks with a high-grade steel alloy axle to make the crankset light and strong. Discrete end caps protect against rocks and other potential obstacles found across a variety of surfaces. The caps can easily be removed should you prefer the au naturel look.
The Ekar’s controls are an extension of the beautiful engineering and years of refinement that have gone into the development of Campagnolo’s mechanical components.
I should say that historically speaking, I wouldn’t be classed as Campagnolo’s No. 1 fan. I always found the Ergopower setup a little unnecessary. So it is with all credit and some surprise that Ekar has completely changed my opinion.
At first glance, I considered the thumb lever to be a bit plasticy and I worried that it would prove to be rather uncomfortable as a result. I was very pleasantly surprised. Almost immediately, the Ergopower setup became second nature. With the thumb shifter’s new, slightly larger C-shape, it was easy to access from both the hoods and the drops. This shifter moves the chain through the gears one smaller cog at a time. Reach adjustments are also available for those still having trouble accessing the levers.
Designed with gravel riding in mind, the blade lever is laser cut to offer extra grip and is sweat-, dirt- and water-resistant, too. Campagnolo’s Ultra-shift mechanism allows this shifter to move the chain across as many as three gears in one move, giving you greater control when you chance upon technical terrain or a surprisingly tricky climb.
Knowing that the hoods are the most popular spot for your hands when riding on non-paved surfaces, Campagnolo added its Vari-cushion to the grips to reduce the wear and tear on your hands and upper body as you ride long distances and rough surfaces.
My test Ekar groupset rolled with Campagnolo’s new Shamal wheelset, a light-weight pair of carbon hoops designed specifically with gravel in mind. Thanks to the N3W, which is now Campagnolo’s standard freehub, the Shamal wheels can run the Ekar’s 13-cog cassette. N3W also plays well with Campy’s 12-, 11- and 10-cog cassettes. You can find the freehub on wheels by 3T, DT Swiss, Newman and Roval.
The big question: How does it compare?
Campagnolo’s Ekar groupset is the Italian brand’s response to Shimano’s GRX. So is it as good? Well not from what I’ve experienced. To be fair, I’ve only tested the electronic Di2 version of GRX, so I’m not exactly comparing apples to apples here given that Ekar is mechanical. So let’s step away from taste, juiciness and associated health benefits. That I’m even considering a comparison between a mechanical and an electronic groupset strongly indicates that Ekar is way ahead of the game. That a mechanical groupset can offer a challenge to an electronic competitor in terms of smooth, efficient changes is impressive.