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Campagnolo has re-entered the off-road cycling market with Ekar, a 1x gravel-specific groupset that delivers a wide gear range and unique shifter style. It's an excellent mechanical drivetrain option, if not quite perfect, with precise adjustment needed, and a few quirks.
Campagnolo is known as a pioneer within the cycling industry, usually being the first of the three major brands (Campag, Shimano and SRAM) to increase the number of sprockets on the cassette. While Rotor was the first to produce a 13-speed groupset with its Uno, that remains somewhat niche; Ekar is essentially the first 13-speed offering from the three major players, and it's not just a case of adding a sprocket to a drivetrain, but a whole new groupset.
Having given the groupset an initial 'first look', I have endeavoured to test it in typically British weather, helped by our wet autumn, and in an attempt to at least begin to look at durability, amassing just shy of 1,000km in just over a few weeks.
Our complete groupset came fitted to a 3T Exploro, direct from Campagnolo, with a 38-tooth chainring and 9-42T cassette. Currently Campagnolo offers the choice of 38, 40, 42 and 44-tooth chainrings, with three cassette options: 9-36, 9-42 and 10-44.
I think the option fitted will be by far the most popular, as it offers enough bigger gears for faster road riding but still a low enough gear for most. All the options are swayed towards bigger gearing, though, and I think the road 1x market is the main reason: despite being labelled gravel-specific, Ekar could become the first truly viable 1x road groupset.
With a 38-tooth chainring being the smallest available, the only way to achieve a lower gear here would be to switch to the 10-44 cassette. As it stands, does the setup I'm testing create a low enough gear? For me and the riding I do and have done while testing it's been fine, but I know it won't suit everyone – for bikepacking in particular, or certain areas around the country where long, steep climbs are the norm, it might be lacking.
Still, in my opinion it is the best currently available of the mainstream off-the-shelf groupset options – within the gravel sector, a lowest gear of 1:1 is often seen as sufficient, but I believe Ekar offers the best compromise, keeping a low enough gear for climbing while not having to spin too frantically on road sections.
If Campagnolo doesn't offer a smaller chainring option in the future, chances are third party companies will. For Campag to do so it would need to come up with a design with a smaller bolt circle diameter (BCD) – Ekar has a bespoke BCD of 123mm, and looking at the 38-tooth fitted, clearance for a smaller chainring looks tight if not impossible; perhaps Campag doesn't want to spoil the aesthetics, but to make fitting a smaller chainring possible would require a different chainset.
The 9-42 is both two-piece in construction and, you could say, in design: the six smallest sprockets jump up in single-tooth steps, while the differences between the larger seven get increasingly bigger: 9-10-11-12-13-14-16-18-21-25-30-36-42.
This is very different to both Shimano and SRAM arrangements, but I found it key to the groupset suiting the range of riding terrains that gravel bikes allow.
On pure road rides, the gaps between gears are small, with the 9-tooth sprocket there for motoring along when needed. With this particular setup, the 38x9 top gear gives approximately the same ratio as a 46-tooth chainring with 11-tooth sprocket, for reference.
This style of gearing, with the arc across the cassette, is possible because of what Campagnolo calls the 2D Parallelogram. This helps keep the top jockey wheel close to each sprocket, allowing the derailleur to follow a curved path rather than the purely straight path on a standard derailleur, where the only adjustment then would be the b-tension.
The short gaps in the gearing make it a joy both on the road and on faster off-road sections, enabling you to maintain a more constant cadence.
As you start to climb, the change between gears is still reasonably small, with the exception of perhaps the final two sprockets, each having a 6-tooth step, but by the time you are using these the gradient is likely to be pretty steep and cadence less of a concern.
Throughout the hundreds of kilometres of testing, only once did I feel I was 'between' gears and this was on a constant 7% climb that goes on for 4km, where I was pushing hard and jumping between two gears for a fair way. This was between the 14 and 16-tooth sprockets, so not the largest two, but one of the bigger jumps in terms of percentage difference between gears throughout the range. Given the total distance tested, though, to only notice a gap once is quite impressive, I think.
At all other times, either on the road or off, the range and the gears on offer have been great, and one of the real highlights of the groupset.
No doubt some will say the small 9-tooth sprocket is going to increase friction and feel rough when pedalling, but in my experience it feels no different, and certainly not rough or with any noticeable increase in friction.
This isn't a drivetrain designed for time trials, or pro road racing, where tiny percentage differences matter, and for gravel and off-road riding the benefits of being able to have a smaller chainring are far more important. There is the potential downside of the 9-tooth wearing out faster than other sprockets in the cassette, but I can only see it being an issue if you spend a high percentage of your time in that gear – and if you do, maybe you have monster legs and need a bigger chainring.
The feel of the shifting is very different to both Shimano and SRAM mechanical options, feeling more positive than both. Previously I would never have said Shimano GRX was vague, but after riding with Ekar and periodically riding a GRX-equipped bike in between, that is exactly how I would describe it; there is a less audible click and less feel when shifting between gears.
When set up correctly Ekar shifting is smooth, direct and rapid. Most gear changes are very clean and crisp, although I did occasionally get a rougher one. Initially I put this down to not being used to the throw of the lever, which is different to GRX, but as time progressed I think it is more because of the very precise adjustment needed in the cable tension, and also the pressure used on the lever.
Any occasional poor shifts always seemed to be in the higher gears, 9-14, and as I shifted through to the easier ones things seemed to get smoother, which I wasn't expecting – given the single-tooth gaps between the smaller sprockets you would expect this to be the smoothest area for shifting.
Downshifts are very fast throughout the full range of the cassette, and while previously I would never have considered it a necessity, after returning to other groupsets I really miss the faster action of Ekar. I suspect this is because of a stronger spring within the rear mech or shifter itself, yet the upshifts are also easy and don't require much effort.
While the shifts are mechanically smooth most of the time, they are somewhat louder than Shimano and SRAM, although this is part of the system design and in no way a negative. On the upshifts there is a noticeable audible click from the lever as you pass through each gear change and on downshifts there's both the click of the lever and noise of the gear itself moving. This is something that riders who use a Campagnolo road drivetrain will already be quite familiar with, although I would say it seems louder with Ekar than other Campag groups.
Alongside the range and style of the cassette, the other big plus of the groupset is what Campagnolo has called the 'Lever 3 Design' – a new shape and slightly changed position of the shifter for downshifts. The new position makes it much easier to shift when in the drops than I've found with the road groupset offerings; it is a feature I find very ergonomic and I hope Campagnolo might consider using it for its road groupsets, as for me there is no downside.
The Lever 3 design is also easy to access when on the hoods – I could shift with my thumb without moving my hand off the hoods at all. For the upshifts, this is controlled by the shift lever positioned directly behind the brake lever, with up to three gear changes possible in one throw, although this does then require a large arc. I found single shifts easy, double shifts okay, and rarely attempted to change three gears in a single motion.
As the levers are completely separate for up and down shifts, I didn't experience any accidental shifts at all in use, which is a plus for a groupset designed for rougher riding. The levers are very far apart, making it impossible to accidentally use the wrong one – no accidental downshifts from the hoods when climbing, which is something I have experienced many times with SRAM and its DoubleTap system.
The levers still have a typical Campagnolo look and feel, with a nice rounded design that is really easy to grip and really comfortable to hold, even on longer rides. One very minor point: as the right hand lever does the shifting, it has a few notches under the hoods; these do not impair comfort in any way, but I would like to see them replicated on the opposite lever – they would serve no function, but both levers would then feel identical.
With the rear derailleur is a clutch mechanism which is designed to prevent the cage moving forwards. These have been popular in the mountain bike world on single chainring drivetrains, aimed at preventing the chain from falling off as there is no front mech or chain catcher to help.
In use, the Ekar clutch seems very strong, with almost no chain-slap to be heard even when tackling rough descents. It seems far stronger than the system on either Shimano GRX or SRAM 1x setups. Is there a downside? Shifting is smooth, even to the largest sprockets, so throughout use I would say the impact is all positive.
The Ekar brakes offer modulation that gives brilliant control, with power there if or when it is needed. From the drops the braking is brilliant, helped by the lever's nice curved shape being easy to reach and pull. There isn't a massive amount of reach adjustment, only around 5mm, but I think it will still suit all riders.
Braking performance from the hoods is also good, although here Shimano GRX has a slight edge. Ekar lacks the broad, flat shape of the GRX levers, and also the slightly grippy textured feel that make GRX levers such a pleasure to use in all weathers. It is by no means poor, but one small area where a minor negative could be given.
As with virtually all disc brakes, they do make a little noise occasionally, almost exclusively in the wet, but they still seem quieter than other brands; it also disappears quickly when the rotors are dry.
Ekar is available with 140mm or 160mm rotors; the test bike had 160mm and they proved enough for all circumstances. The power is there if you need to access it, but easy to modulate and not skid when just looking to slow down gradually.
One bugbear I found was that you cannot shift intuitively when braking; it is possible to shift and brake, but you have to bring the shift lever back away from the brake lever first. When you're in the drops this is fairly easy, though I'd prefer not to have to, but from the hoods I found it a little more tricky just because of the position of the hand.
Campagnolo claims this is done for aesthetic reasons, to ensure there is no gap between the brake and shift levers, so you can't see any light between them. While it might look good, personally I would prefer to be able to shift easily while also braking. Okay, this isn't something that happens that often, but if you know you are approaching a climb immediately following a descent, or approaching a road junction, it can be useful.
The q-factor is the measurement from the very outside of one crank to the outside of the other, taken at the pedal holes.
In general, road bikes will have a narrower q-factor than mountain bikes, which have to be wider to accommodate wider tyres. Within the gravel sector, the q-factor has traditionally been the same as road chainsets, with the exception of GRX, which is 5mm wider.
Does it matter? To some, certainly, and it can be too narrow or too wide. Campagnolo has kept the q-factor low at just 145.5mm, which is identical to its road chainsets. Shimano road chainsets are usually 146mm, while GRX is 151mm.
Although more time and miles would always be good, at no point in the test period have any issues arisen that would lead me to believe durability will be a major concern. The cassette still looks in very good condition with no wear evident, and the chain is still not stretched. Some will no doubt be quick to judge the chain as being narrower and thus potentially weaker, but in use and through thousands of shifts it has been absolutely fine. The brake pads are also holding up really well, although I am fortunate to ride in an area that isn't too harsh on pad material in general. They're certainly comparable with other makes.
With some really wet and muddy testing conditions through the end of September and into October, Ekar has so far lived up to what the British weather can throw at it.
The one slight caveat is that setup is crucial, and small adjustments can have a big effect. Our test bike came direct from Campagnolo so it was set up perfectly, as you'd expect, but in use I noticed that even very small turns of the barrel adjuster had an effect on shifting; setup and other aspects like mech hanger alignment will be absolutely crucial to ensure clean shifting.
The bottom bracket area has developed a persistent click during use, and while I cannot be one hundred per cent certain, I would put this down to the press-fit bottom bracket. The chainset moves around freely, with no play and no roughness in the bearings, so I don't believe the bottom bracket itself has worn early.
Campagnolo claims that Ekar is the lightest gravel groupset currently available, though it is not something that I have considered while testing. Had the weight come at the expense of durability, that would not be a popular move, but in my experience so far there are no major weaknesses within the system. It has stood up to a fair distance in a short amount of time, over a variety of terrain and in all sorts of conditions.
Given the cassette and chainring options available, there is no doubt in my mind that Ekar has been designed with at least one eye on the road 1x market – as evidenced by 3T making it an option on its Strada 1x specific road bike, although interestingly even this is sold with the 40-tooth chainring and 9-36 cassette.
Although only relatively small in overall market terms, Ekar could, I think, potentially deliver a groupset that might finally make 1x road more viable, with range and gearing options to suit. Campagnolo has labelled Ekar a gravel groupset, but the sway towards bigger gearing shows that the road market is clearly an area the company has considered.
At £1,447 rrp for the full groupset, Ekar is more expensive than all mechanical Shimano and SRAM gravel groupset options. I think the biggest factor in how successful Ekar will be is how prices of full bikes with Ekar compare to those with other drivetrain options. If prices are at least similar, the performance and, most importantly, the range that Ekar offers will make it a more appealing option.
The price is closer to electronic groupsets from Shimano and SRAM, although even here the style and range of gearing Ekar offers is something neither Shimano nor SRAM can currently match.
Ekar is Campagnolo's first step back to creating off-road groupsets since the early 1990s, and it has delivered an incredible package. It offers excellent performance and will really suit the wide range of riding styles that gravel falls into. There are no major downsides, just a slight reservation with regard to the lack of easier gearing options, which might mean it won't suit all.
Superb gear range and mostly excellent shifting that is very fast and accurate
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed gravel groupset
Size tested: 38T chainring, 9-42T cassette
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
Campagnolo says, 'Born on Mt Ekar, the 13-speed Campagnolo Ekar is not a conventional groupset. Ekar is the world's lightest gravel groupset: reliable, durable & fast.
'With a wide range, close ratio and no compromise, Ekar is designed from the ground up to give you the very best performance, riding experience and reliability for gravel, all-road and endurance riding on the toughest terrain where you want to face and challenge yourself. From the outset our engineers and design team tested and pursued the route of a 1x system being the best for gravel, and engaged with the challenge of creating the best possible implementation – and the light, efficient, precise 13-speed Ekar is what delivers.
'There is a full range of gearing with smooth, small steps for cadence progression, and a choice of gear ranges to suit the different specialisms within the gravel discipline – each with a wide range, and each with elegantly spaced progressions for smooth changes and no nasty cadence jumps. 1x offers maximum efficiency, no wasted gearing overlaps, an overall light weight system (under 2.4kg) and superior chain retention security. Its gears are designed to be gravel-specific with deliberate and natural-feeling progressive cadence control: 1-tooth steps for small sprockets and bigger steps for larger sprockets – for speeds to match every route.
'Ekar features the best of proven Campagnolo disc brake performance and modulation, and controller technology and feel, all optimised for the very best gravel riding performance. With materials choice to blend the optimum balance of strength, durability and light weight demanded by forward-looking gravel riders, the Ekar groupset offers precise control and reliable performance – Ekar is the world's lightest gravel groupset: reliable, durable & fast.'
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
EKAR REAR DERAILLEUR:
New 1x13-specific design
2D parallelogram trajectory for 13 sprockets
Smooth chain running & high security
Locking clutch for easy wheel removal
Carbon fiber-reinforced polyamide & anodised alloys – for light weight, strength & durability
EKAR 13 SPEED SPROCKETS
Lightweight, efficient design
Strong, durable construction
Closer high gear spacing
Wider low gear spacing
9-tooth smallest sprocket on two options
New lighter N3W driver standard for wide compatibility
N3W freehub design
EKAR CRANKSET 1X13 SPEED
Lightweight, efficient, secure 1x system
2-piece cranks: steel axle & UD carbon arms
4 ring options: 38T, 40T, 42T, 44T
Easy-change alloy rings – no crank disassembly
4 length options – 165, 170, 172.5, 175mm
Pro-Tech™ Bottom Bracket
EKAR PRO-TECH™ BOTTOM BRACKET
Designed & built specially for gravel
ProTech™ patented sealing system & fiberglass-polyamide tube
Compatible with all current standards
EKAR C13 CHAIN
C13 gravel chain – new for Ekar 1x13
Efficient & secure wide-narrow teeth
Narrow yet incredibly strong
Ultrasound lubrication system
Classic & C-Link™ options
EKAR ERGOPOWER CONTROLS
Comfortable support – Vari-Cushion™
New Lever 3 design for tops-riding
Multiple action – Ultra-Shift™ up-shifts
Advanced ergonomics & reach adjustment
EKAR BRAKE CALIPER
Proven high braking performance
Progressive modulation and feel
High performance, long life organic pads
Everything appears well made with the quality that people who love Campagnolo have always raved about. Although claimed to be light, this has been achieved without using exotic, lightweight materials such as titanium and masses of carbon fibre. With a full steel cassette, it suggests durability has been a design priority.
Extremely good, if not absolutely faultless. The occasional clunky shift and what seems to be requirement for precise adjustment are slight drawbacks but overall still very impressive.
No early signs of wear in over 1,000km, which is promising. I had no need to change anything and all features that might wear sooner, such as the chain and brake pads, still look very good with no noticeable wear showing. The chain is showing no stretch.
Claimed to be the lightest gravel groupset available, which may be important for some. The low weight does not seem to have impacted performance in any way.
The Ergopower levers are comfortable, although they did need a slight change in hand position to what I am normally used to, given where the Lever 3 shifter is on the shifter, but it was quick to get used to and overall I liked the shape. I really liked the rounded, narrower shape of the Ergopower lever and it felt better on rougher downhills especially.
More expensive than other mechanical groupset options such as SRAM Force 1 and Shimano GPX. It does, however, offer something that others don't with the exact style of the cassette as well as the larger range on offer.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
I found it excellent; throughout use it delivered a range that suited me and the test riding I did. I do have some reservations about its suitability for some riding styles, especially for those who frequently go bikepacking or tackle steeper off-road climbs, but for general riding it offers performance that should meet almost all riders' needs.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
The cassette gearing: close ratio gaps near the larger gears, and well-spaced gears as they increase in size.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Inability to shift as intuitively as I would have liked when braking. It is possible, but in order to do so you have to move the lever back slightly before being able to shift.
How does the price compare to that of similar products in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
Shimano has three versions of the GRX groupset available: 10-speed RX400, 11-speed mechanical RX600 and the lighter RX800, and RX810 Di2. The RX600 version was tested at £884.93. https://road.cc/content/review/shimano-grx-600-groupset-268195 We tested SRAM Force 1 back in 2016, when it was priced at £1,040. https://road.cc/content/review/194258-sram-force-1
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes, it was excellent.
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
Ekar is a groupset that offers a range and style of shifting that genuinely does not currently exist, even using third party parts linked to the main groupset. It really suited the riding that I tested it across, and braking was also very good with fantastic modulation and feel.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is: Cannondale SystemSix
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, cyclo cross, sportives, mtb, Lots of gravel style riding
Matt is an endurance nut who loves big rides and big events. He's a former full-time racer and 24hr event specialist, but now is also happy riding off-road on gravel bikes or XC mountain bikes and exploring the mountains and hills of Mid Wales.