Cycling Gear Campy Ekar: A Philosophical Overview

Oct 1, 2020
I've been working from home for months now... Do any 1x roadies have thoughts on Campy's new Ekar group? Here are my thoughts.

Lacking in innovation, follow the leader mentality, producing stuff that people didn’t ask for: these are Shimano, Sram, and Campy. If there ever was a dud of an industry, veritable heal draggers with no intent to benefit mankind, this is it. But somehow, someway, the most Neolithic of these three, Campy, managed to wrench their head out of their butt and produce something we have been clamoring for, a 9-36T cassette with jumps appropriate for road/gravel riding.
Campy’s coup-de-grace, the introduction of a new 1x groupset, is stunning. It is the first 1x road/gravel-oriented group. Specifically, it includes the first, and currently only, cassette that is appropriate for 1x road/gravel use.
Speaking of wide range cassettes, in the distant past we had 9-speed 11-34. Then 10-speed 11-36 came out. In 2012 we got a whopper when Sram introduced a 1x 11-speed group with a 10-42 cassette. For most of use this change manifested as an 11-42. In 2014, a full 2 years later, Shimano managed to plop out an anemic 11-40. Their engineers must have been burning the midnight oil on that one. Eventually we got an 11-46. And then we sort of slid down that slippery slope. Sram introduced a 10-50, then Shimano a 10-51, then Sram a 10-52. Like a dog chasing its tail, component manufacturers seeing who could follow the other the most. All the while, Campy, the kid who never got picked for dodge ball, waited on the sidelines, and apparently took notes.
Who could have predicted the evolution of wide range cassettes? Well… kindergarteners, the infirm, most apes, but few monkeys and absolutely no lemurs... In the world of cassettes, bigger is better: 50 tooth large cog, then 51, then 52. One or two tooth differences on a cog that large make no difference. Yet Sram and Shimano feel no shame. They do not care about creating the most useful, perfect, and ideal set of gears. They just want to sell more poop. As a bike fanatic, I find this offensive. And Campy, you are not free of sin, you’ve followed a similar path with your ever-increasing speeds.
Ginormous cassettes hurt. They hurt you and they hurt me. Apart from the obvious issue of increased weight and cost, giant cassettes increase gear ranges beyond a point of practical necessity. For 1x road use, they also plague us with inappropriately large jumps between gears. We do not need a 500% range. I understand that some folks really do need and use a 50t cog. Fair enough, but at the same time, are you also saying you need a 10 or 11 tooth small cog? Slow enough for a 50 and fast enough for a 10, bologna! …Or maybe you are a really strong rider, but you are made of osmium and you roll downhill alarmingly fast. To the osmium riders, I do apologize.
If you are like me and running a 1x on the road, you are probably running 11 speed. This means a 10-42 or 11-42 cassette. These cassettes give a range of 420% and 380% respectively. For comparison, a typical 2x road setup, 50/34 in front and an 11-28 cassette out back, has a range of 380%. If you swapped to an 11-30 cassette, you’d get about 400%. Most folks have experience with these combos. Based on my couple decades of riding and racing, 400% gives you the gears for both fast downhills and excruciatingly steep climbs. Some folks might quibble that they need an 11-34 or even an 11-36 for the climbs. I don’t doubt them. But do these same folks also need or use an 11t or 10t small cog? Doubtful! It is not how big the largest cog is, it’s the range that matters.
While the current crop of 10-42 or 11-42 cassettes provide the range we need, they get the jumps wrongs for road/gravel riding. These are mountain bike cassettes. When mountain biking there are benefits to having the jumps between gears a bit larger, not too large, but not too small. When employing a 1x drivetrain for road use, chainring size tends toward the small end of the spectrum. The chainring is only as big as it needs to be in order to accommodate a minimum high speed. This keeps us from running out of gears when the road turns steep. When the bulk of road riding is done on flat to rolling terrain, the chain spends most of its time on the bottom portion of the cassette. Most of the jumps here are modest in size, 15% or smaller. Unfortunately, the largest jump is placed in the worst spot, the jump from 13t to 11t or from 12t to 10t, from 2nd to smallest cog to smallest cog is 18% and 20% respectively. This large jump at the small end of the cassette is bad for road riding. When in the smallest two cogs you are invariably on a downhill, screaming along with a fast group, or sprinting. You are tucked up, cheating the wind, and trying to get every ounce of speed. The large jump here is terrible, like a stiff slap in the face. You are spinning out in your 12t, you shift to your next gear, the 10t cog, and now your cadence slows to a disjointed crawl. A smooth transition was needed, and you got a rough departure.
Jumps this large, in the range of 20%, aren’t so bad for road riding if they are toward the large end of the cassette. Consider what is going on when you are in the largest cogs. You are huffing it up a steep climb. Wind resistance doesn’t matter. You can stand or you can sit. You can spin it, or you can slow that cadence and grind it out. Watch the pros and try it yourself. Cadence varies widely at slower speeds. I am not here to explain why, but slow or fast cadences both seem to work on steep climbs. Heck, if things get bad you can even zig zag, or if no one is looking, stop, lie down, and play dead as I’ve done a few times.
This cassette malfeasance is part ineptitude and part deliberate. These large range cassettes are geared toward mountain bike use where riders are often moving up and down through the entire cassette. Manufacturers are trying to make jumps as consistent as possible across the entire range. They don’t have the 1x road/gravel rider in mind. On flat to hilly road rides, which for me is most rides, the rider is generally only using the bottom half of the cassette. The hypothetical perfect cassette would have a 400% range and cogs spaced at 1 tooth increments for the first few cogs. For example: 10, 11, 12, 13t then larger jumps thereafter all the way to 40 or so. Industry wide ineptitude means that no manufacturer makes a cassette like this. That was true in past, but then Campy Ekar came along.
For their Ekar groupset, Campy is producing three different cassette options. One of which, the 9-36, is the holy grail cassette for road riding. Because it is Campy, it is painfully expensive. However, what is exciting is that Shimano and Sram can be expected to do their normal copycat routine. So, we should have some cheaper 9-36 cassettes available soon. Campy’s cassette cog increments go 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and then larger jumps thereafter, for a total of 13 speeds and a range of 400%. This range of this cassette nearly matches the 50/34 11-30 setup mentioned earlier. Additionally, a smaller 9-36 cassette in lieu of a hypothetical 10-40 is lighter, and also necessitates the use of a smaller and lighter chainring and shorter and lighter chain. All positives. If there is a downside, it is that this cassette is 13 speeds, so we can expect reduced shifting reliability.
Some observers may fear the additional friction/drag of a 9t cog. This fear is overblown for two reasons. There are no thorough studies that measure the power loss caused by a 9t cog. Furthermore, the 9t cog isn’t used that much in typical riding. I predict the 9t cog conundrum will go the way of the squeaky un-lubed chain, cross-chaining, and high-pressure road tires. All three of these were widely held conventional notions, and all three were disproved. Un-lubed or angled chains produce miniscule additional friction, and high-pressure tires counterintuitively increase rolling resistance. The 9t cog will be found to increase drag by a very negligible amount. Additionally, riders are infrequently in their smallest cog. I’d guess that during a two-hour jam session I’m in my small cog for maybe 5 minutes, maybe less. Most riders would be willing to accommodate mild power loss for such a minuscule amount of time. For these reasons, Campy’s Ekar cassette, in 9-36 guise, is truly something us 1x roadies have been clamoring for.
We’ll have to wait and see how quickly Shimano and Sram kick their copycat system into gear. In recent years they’ve been getting better at it, so hopefully it will be soon. Perhaps quicker accommodation can be found in the labyrinth known as AliExpress. It is here that you can find innovation in true untamed form. There are forbidden cassettes with forbidden ranges that we all dream of. An 11 speed 10-36 cassette with road-oriented jumps between cogs has been available for some time and it is a hot commodity. Mountain bike dinner plates with nine tooth small cogs abound in plenty. In all sincerity, I’d expect one of these Chinese fonts of creativity to be the first to produce an 11 or 12-speed cassette in 9-36 form. The future is bright for us 1x roadies. Thank you Campy for cracking that door open, now let’s all pile in.
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