What frame would you put Campagnolo on? And which would have SRAM or Shimano? Some of us are Campagnolo fans, others Shimano or SRAM. There are countless smaller operators that make parts too, a few even offer close-to-complete group sets, but only the big three (Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM) offer the whole set. Each groupset incarnation brings something new in the motivation for better components and to drive the market. Some of us like that, while others hark to the past. The modern groupset is a marvel of engineering and with each of those new manifestations it gets better in terms of function, but sometimes the aesthetic takes an unexpected turn. Those turns can be amazing and they can be sadly mis-directed. But how often do we look at a groupset and think about the sum of it’s parts? As long as it’s what you want and works, there really isn’t much to think about – probably just the price! Usually the only time we think about groupset components is when it’s time for replacement. A few strange souls spend a little too much time looking at those parts – pondering over them in awe (usually in glass cabinets). I’m one of those strange souls and it’s time I talked about my obsession.
We really can’t start the groupset without the bicycle chain. The chain is the first invention of what we are calling the groupset. The term ‘groupset’ can be labelled as modern and that is how I’m perceiving it here. The bicycle chain came into existence in the late 1800’s when, J. K. Starley, J. H. Lawson, and Shergold introduced the chain drive to the bicycle and effectively sealed the fate of the modern bike – the bike shape we know today. This was the seed planted that would bring the modern groupset into existence for us all. It took decade after decade to standardise the bicycle chain and the modern chain we have today came about in the 1980’s with the introduction of the Sedis bushingless design. This allowed for bicycle chains to be made cheaply, but still provide good performance. Chains are still changing today and the latest change was the 11 speed chain for Campagnolo with it’s narrow width of 5.5mm, while a Shimano 10 speed chain is 6.2mm. Time will tell if the chain will stay or it is replaced with something more efficient (the chain is actually very efficient). To think of all the chain’s moving parts propelling you forward, it’s total moving parts number in the hundreds, and all for a relatively cheap price is quite wondrous to me. I love the bicycle chain, when it purrs away over the cogs and is clean and shiny.
Without the chain there is no chainset/crankset (I’m going to refer to it as the chainset as I’m English). The chainset is such a pivotal part of the bicycle, the point where you physically propel the bike, where the feet connect to the bike. Like all the parts were talking about, they have been through considerable change, but we will focus on the relatively modern double chainset. The modern chainset is a thing of ease, it can be taken off the bicycle and replaced with very little fuss. That in itself is enough to have us marvel. Things really started to get going in terms of design in the 1930’s when Stronglight introduced the square taper design of fitting chain sets to the bottom bracket (this is when it got easy install and uninstall). By the 1950’s we had double chainsets being produced by the likes of Campagnolo. For me, a chainset is a bike defining part. It’s fairly central position from a side-on view makes or breaks a bikes aesthetic. Where a Dura Ace chainset might suit a beefy carbon frame, it can look decidedly odd on some steel tubed bikes. Of course, this is only my subjective view.
Gears changed the course of cycling and the acceptance of gears wasn’t a clear path, Henri Desgrange (founding father of the Tour de France) said “I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five”. I’m personally very happy that youngsters can use them! Eventually the Tour de France failed to resist derailleur use and was introduced/permitted in 1937. The story didn’t really get going for the modern derailleur until 1964 when Suntour introduced the slant-parallelogram rear derailleur. The designs before 1964 did lead to this point and without the work of Campagnolo and Simplex and many more, it’s doubtful that Suntour would of ‘sorted’ their invention. Once the patent ‘expired’ for Suntour, the doors were effectively open to all, and the slant-parallelogram rear derailleur exploded into life creating many incremental improvements along the way. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering that allows it to work so simply without too much fuss, and changing gear relies on the the human for the movement – It’s where machine and human interact. To change gear when the derailleur is perfectly tuned is nothing short of fulfilling, clicking up or down a gear and the lively noise that follows. By the 1990’s there were numerous choices of models to choose from (mostly from Suntour), by the end of the 90’s they were mostly obsolete due to Shimano’s clear ideas and dominance. Now there are only three main players, Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano (to me these are the modern groupsets). Today we have a derailleur that will change through 11 gears and even do it electronically [although the gear change itself is still mechanical] and it’s probably the most significant part of the groupset, the pivot on which the other components rest on.
Similar story to the rear derailleur, that it works by holding the chain in a sort of cage. The front derailleur only moves across whereas the rear derailleur moves across and up or down, but all they are doing is moving the chain from one cog to another. Both operate by cable apart from the most modern electronic derailleurs. The front derailleur is mostly a forgotten object, small, not very sexy and boring compared to the rear derailleur. How often do you consider what a wonderful job it’s doing? You tend to only notice it when it doesn’t. I think the front derailleur has caused many riders to lose races! I can count some pretty disastrous front derailleur fails in the Tour de France, never mind numerous other important races. But that forgotten unloved front derailleur operates in harsh conditions without fail [nearly all of the time] dropping and picking up the chain from chainring to chainring, often with big differences in sizes. So next time you ride your bike, have a look at that front derailleur and show it a little respect! Or if it simply won’t work smash the bloody thing with a hammer (only joking).
Rear cogs are as old as the chain and chainset. The cassette isn’t so old. The cassette affirmatively belongs to the modern groupset. Some of the technology for cassettes belongs to the wheel or more specifically to the hub, but the wheel deserves a story all of it’s own. The cassette is all about spacing, the way it works relies on perfect spacing between each cog. Over the years more cogs [therefor gears] have been added. Today we have nine, ten and eleven as standards for modern groupsets. Shimano can take the credit when they introduced the cassette hubs in 1978, it safe to say that Shimano never looked back much after that point. Campagnolo also developed their own cassette spacing system and that is why a Shimano gear systems will not work with Campanolo systems – they are not interchangeable with each other, whereas SRAM adopted the same cassette spacing as Shimano, so the chain and cassette are interchangeable with each other.
When Shimano introduced index shifting in 1985 with the Dura-Ace EX with SIS (Shimano Index System) it was a game changer. Suntour until that point was a market leader, Shimano turned the tables, and even though Suntour brought us the modern derailleur they never caught up with Shimano’s breakthrough SIS system. It’s not that Suntour didn’t make good stuff, just that Shimano became the easier simpler option. By 1990 Shimano had invented the brake-shift levers and what we see today, on our modern bikes, is this invention. A year earlier Shimano invented Rapidfire SIS system for mountain bikes, again this is what we see today. Around the same time Campagnolo was working with Sachs to develop their own system, but Shimano came to the market first and arguably with the better system. These new brake-shift levers not only brought the rider more control, but changed the way we ride and interact with the bike. Of all modern inventions for the bicycle, I find this, one of the most significant. Shimano really took the lead in groupsets after this point. The rest followed (today Shimano has a 50% share of the components market). There have been subtle changes to the brake-shifter lever and the introduction of SRAM road groupset in 2005 but the design is still ‘as it was’. All brake-shifter systems have subtle differences, but the way they work is similar enough. You have a brake lever and a second lever – the paddle – that shifts the gear. On the Shimano system the upshift and brake lever are combined with a paddle for downshifts. While Campagnolo has an upshift paddle and downshift button and SRAM has only paddle that shifts up and down behind the brake lever. The next big change that is currently happening, is the introduction of electronic shifting. This isn’t a new idea and Mavic were the first to try this in the 1990’s, without much success, but now the technology is better suited to making this a viable option. It works via shift-buttons, placed where the paddle sits (behind the brake lever) and send a signal to the derailleurs to change gear. It’s hard to say if the electronic system will eventually replace the mechanical system entirely or if it will trickle down to low-end groupsets (and be affordable). Either way it will be a very long time. Maybe long enough to develop something even better? What I really like most of all is the aesthetics brake-shifters have brought to the bike. It took two pieces and created one (gear shifters and brake levers). That one-piece, in my mind, is less cluttered and allows for cleaner looking bikes.
The brake calliper for the modern groupset is the dual-pivot side-pull version. This was an old[er] design which Shimano re-used in the 1990’s (Altenburger originated the idea in the 1960’s). But the calliper brake origin goes all the way back to 1887 when Browett and Harrison patented it for use on the penny farthing. If we go even further into the past, we can see that a brake of any description was one of the earliest components and safety features. The current future trend is looking towards disc brakes on road bikes. Purely from an aesthetic point of view, I find it hard to have an opinion either way. Putting the brake at the centre of the wheel takes the clutter away from the frame and it’s nice curvy lines. The disc-brake itself is ugly compared the the rim brake calliper. The technical side is not yet sorted so the argument is still purely academic for me. Perhaps the early pioneers of the road disc-brake will lead the way? For me the rim calliper brake is a lovely thing and ‘part of the bike’ – one part of the sum of it’s parts. There have been some funky callipers over the years like the Campanolo Delta (late 1980’s). I never much liked the Campagnolo Delta brakes, but they have a big following to this day, because of the way they look. For me the dual-pivot side-pull calliper is the one, whether it’s a Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo is just a choice on shape and brand, the overall look is what counts for me.
So there we have all the main components you need to have a bike. They are all inextricably linked to each other. The bike is truly a holistic entity. I think that this is it’s appeal and why people are drawn to it. The amazing simple complexity of the modern bicycle. All those moving parts when broken down are just objets de curiosité that won’t carry you very far. Together they make the groupset – A sum of its parts.