About a year ago, I was lucky enough to purchase myself some Campag Record EPS – the electronically actuated groupset from Campagnolo that, according to their own ranking system, sits synonymous with Shimano’s Dura Ace in terms of quality. Since then, I’ve put it through it’s paces to the tune of a good few thousand miles – the gearing has experienced tough alpine climbs, extremes of temperature, all the British weather could throw at it and indeed, my own stupidity, which was probably it’s greatest test of all (more on that later)
I often find that reviews of cycling kit are somewhat instantaneous, based purely on first impressions or from a relatively short length of time that doesn’t truly demonstrate what the product is really like. I however realise that with all sorts of expensive gizmos coming out for bicycles, whether it be increasingly costly GPS units, power meters in a multitude of different forms, disc brakes, hyrdraulic brakes and of course electronic gearing, people want to know before they part with their hard earned cash what exactly they’re letting themselves in for. Now, unfortunately I can only tell you about Campag EPS at the moment (I’m afraid my lowly student income doesn’t extend into power meter territory!), but hopefully here I can answer some questions to help people better understand what it’s actually like to have.
Campagnolo Record EPS
So some brief recap. What is EPS? Standing for ‘Electronic Power Shift’, its basically Italian component manufacturer Campagnolo’s electronic shifting system, equivalent of Shimano’s slightly less logically named ‘Di2’ (Digital Integrated Intelligence). The difference from the conventional groupset is that it is operated by powerful motors in the derailleurs, and that thin electronic cables replace the usual cables that pull the derailleur about. The idea is that the electronic motors, with their predefined movements and power, allow the gear changes to be exact, powerful, swift and infinitely predictable, eliminating the problems of cable systems with cable stretch and that awkward front derailleur change. Campagnolo claim they’ve been developing the system for 20 years, but the current system has probably been properly developed since 2011ish, although a version did appear at the Tour of Flanders in the late noughties.
What does it consist of?
There are basically two sets of pieces here – the Campagnolo Record groupset, which consists of your standard mechanical parts, your cassette, chain and crankset, and then the EPS components, which consist of the control levers, the battery/control pack which also has all the necessary cabling stemming off it (you do NOT need extra electronic cables) , the front and rear derailleurs and what Campagnolo call the interface, which clips onto the stem with a rubber band. This has an LED in to display system status and the like.
I won’t lie – I’m an appalling bike mechanic. Adjusting the brakes and the saddle height is about as far as I can go confidently, so there was no way I was going to be fitting a system which came in protective foam boxes armed with only a few allen keys. I thus took it all to a proper bike shop – Activ Cycles in Corbridge to be exact – who were quite happy to play around and set up the system for me. There were of course some questions I had had before hand – the bike I have, a Cervelo R3(2010 edition), does not have internal cabling, whilst Campagnolo state that EPS can only be fitted to bikes that have this feature. So, can EPS be fitted to bikes without internal cabling? YES, they can. My bike has essentially been retrofitted, in that it now has a couple of bits of clean looking black routing tape on it – very minimally I should add, on the inside of the down tube, and a couple of pieces around the bottom bracket. A tiny hole in the back of the chain stay was also slightly widened to get the rear derallieur cable through – nothing that will have any effect.
Mind, if you wanted to, the system seems very easy to put together – it is only the internal routing, for which Campagnolo have some online videos featuring magnets and all sorts to guide you through (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AUJEtERUhc and the like) that looks problematic. All the junctions are colour coded, and you simply plug them together and assemble and hey presto – it works. I’m told that it isn’t quite as easy as Shimano’s Di2 system, but this is something you only have to do once – and it’s probably going to be a qualified mechanic doing it, so really, it’s not that big a deal.
Of course, the big plus point is that once its fitted and set up, you never need to mess around with it again – it will perform identically continually, unless you crash and say, bend your mech hanger etc. Set up is also easy – you use the levers electronic buttons to enter set up mode (all described in Campag’s easy to follow technical manuals at http://eps.campagnolo.com/en/technical-support/tech-info)by holding a couple down, and then you basically adjust the chain so that it runs true on the 10th and 2nd sprockets of your 11 speed cassette. Having done this, the system then calculates the best position for all the over sprockets, and will thus ensure flawless shifting. Add in some magnetic automatic adjustment correction features that ensure the front cage never rubs, and the system is basically flawless from the get go.
I have only had to make adjustments once – having taken the bike in for a service, the mechanic told me that the rear derailleur cage had been every so slightly catching the spokes on the rear wheel, and as a result, they had adjusted the inside gear across slightly to prevent it. The problem is, you cannot adjust individual gears position, at least not to my knowledge. Thus, as I discovered when moving towards the other end of the sprocket meant grating noises started to emanate from the chain, all they had actually done was shift all the predefined positions along by a couple of millimeters, which meant all the gears got increasingly out of sync further down the cassette. Luckily, simply using the instructions to ‘zero’ the system solved the problem.
Obviously my bike hasn’t got internal cabling, but taking that as read, the system still cleans up the bike’s look quite well in my opinion. Interestingly, most people say that the ‘battery looks daft’, based on the fact that it is situated on the down tube underneath the water bottle cage. Personally I don’t see anything wrong with this, and think it makes the bike look a bit more interesting (admittedly this is probably due to a desire to show it off), but if it doesn’t take your fancy, Campagnolo now make an internal battery that can slot into the frame to clean the look up even more, or alternatively you could place the battery under the bottom bracket to hide it a bit more. The front derailleur perhaps looks a little bulky compared to Shimano’s new efforts as well, but it’s nothing to be concerned about.
Speaking of under the bottom bracket, my only concern is an exposed wire that hangs down underneath it. It’s never caught on anything, and I doubt it ever will, but still, it gets in my mind.
The Front end is also dramatically cleaner then mechanical groupsets, as of course there are now only two cables coming out of it – for the brakes. The electronic wires emerge from under the handlebar tape to the interface unit, which sits under the stem, and isn’t really that noticeable.
Ease of Use/Feedback
This is where Campagnolo comes into their own. Unlike Shimano, there upshifts and downshifts are in different locations – what Campagnolo call ‘one lever one action‘ – with a lever behind the brake lever, and a small, ergonomic thumb tab ‘Trigger’ on the inside of the lever housing body, much like on Campag’s mechanical variants. The beauty of EPS is that you can program which button operates which function, so you could have your front derailleur operated by either side and so on. Whichever way you choose to have it, the ergonomics are excellent. Campagnolo’s famously curvy levers sit well in the hand and allow a variety of comfortable positions, whilst the pronounced curve in the brake lever allows small hands easy access to the brakes on the drops. The remoulded trigger is also wonderful when on the drops. I have it set up to move down the cassette when I press it, and it feels like I’m firing off a round as it drops into a bigger gear to let me accelerate away.
Indeed, the buttons on the system really do show how great EPS is. All you need to do to actuate the gears is give a small press on the buttons, and with a distinct churr and clunk, the gear thunks into place with ease. The lever throw is very short, especially compared to mechanical groupsets, and the front derailleur is a revelation. No more do you have to fling the lever across to try and push your chain up from the small ring to the big ring, grinding your chain to oblivion as you despair at the ‘tssss-tsss-tsss’ emanating from the parts below. No, just tap the button and thwonk, the chain is pushed across onto the ring, and just as easily moved the other way. You often have to check it’s actually done it, such is the ease that the systems works at, and such is the surprise at the lack of the usual jarring clack that accompanies such a change.
Another great feature carried over from the top mechanical versions is the multi-shift function, which allows you to shift through all the gears by holding down the the buttons. Thus, you can drop all the gears in one fell swoop if you, say, suddenly encounter a steep hill, or dump the cassette to the 11 sprocket. Of course, you can also hold it for a shorter time to only drop a few gears, as the system sweeps across in individual gears whilst you’re holding the lever down. It’s a nice feature to have in your pocket.
You may note with some bemusement all the daft sound word such as clack, thwonk, churr and the like I’ve just used. This is simply because the feedback of the gears is mostly defined by sound. Having briefly tried some Ultegra Di2 as well, the biggest problem with EPS and electronic shifting in general is that it is so smooth you are often unsure if you have actually changed gear. The front derailleur makes a satisfying enough noise to be obvious and is of course pretty easy to perceive a difference in, but the rear derailleur can be pretty quiet, with only a short whirr usually followed by another brief noise as the compensating mechanism readjusts the system (the derailleur actually pushes the chain too far across as part of its design to ensure accurate changes, and then corrects itself). To try to solve his, Campag have ‘click feeling’ domes in the buttons, which do make a slight noise, not that you can hear hit at speed, but do feel solid and ensure you do actually know you’ve pressed the button. The problem is more the legacy of mechanical – whilst pressing the electronic button guarantees a shift, it never did on mechanical, and so trusting you groupset to do so simply feels odd. Still, the feedback is solid, although with the increase in ‘smart’ computers it’s difficult to see why manufactures don’t make them display the gearing choice.
‘But hang on’, you might say, ‘This is Italian electronics – it’s doomed to fail at some point. What happens when I want to spray my bike down?’ Well, I can report that I’ve blasted the bike with a reasonable strength hose to clean it, and to clean all sorts of muck and grime off (I have been riding it in the winter…) without any problems what so ever. Of course, I’m more careful with brushes and flannels when working grime and dirt out of the nooks and crannies of the deralliurs, given their inherent fragility, but that is just common sense. Remember that Campagnolo basically redesigned the battery after they found water permeated the system whey drove bikes installed with it on top of team cars through a hail storm. Indeed, to demonstrate the system’s waterproof-ness, they have a video of it working whilst completely submerged in water. Besides if the cyclo-cross season and the spring classics have been anything to go by, it is in fact Shimano’s Di2 which is having more reliability problems.
As for maintenance, there is none. Aside for the aforementioned time I had to re-align the chain after a bike shop adjusted in in error, everything still works exactly as it did when I first purchased the system. Well, that’s a slight lie – I had to change the chain, because I utterly destroyed it by sheer volume of riding, and as anyone will tell you, a loose, hanging chain won’t change very well regardless of what groupset you have on. But aside from that, it’s simply worked great every time.
Perhaps with all electronic systems, one concern is the battery life. Campagnolo claim it lasts 2000km, but it seems to be run considerably more then that. Even with 2-3000 miles of use, I’ve only charged the battery once, and that was only because I was going abroad and wanted to ensure the charge was still there, even though the level had only dropped by one level on the scale. There is a easy to interpret system of lights that displays the battery level, with a sequence of Green, flashing green, yellow, red, flashing red and flashing red and a buzzer to indicate the charge level. In essence, you’re going to have to go through an awful lot of warnings before the battery runs out, and it lasts for a long enough time anyway.
As for charging, the bike does effectively need to be ‘plugged into the wall’, as the battery is not removal from the bike as it is on Shimano’s Di2. You simply plug a cable into the battery unit and the other end into a socket and it will charge the system in about six hours. It doesn’t really matter that you can’t remove the battery, because frankly, you should never have a problem with running it down that far that you can’t use it. The battery life does of course depend on how often you change gear, with the front derailleur using more power then the rear, but having changed gear more then I ever used to thanks to the system (mostly because changing on mechanical always brought more problems then usual) it seems that their is very limited drain on the system.
One anachronism is the little magnet Campagnolo have included that slots into the battery pack to shut it down completely and enter ‘power saving’ mode. This means you have to take it out each time you use it, and really, it’s more trouble then its worth, as it’s the sort of think that easily gets lost. I don’t really see the point in it given the excellent battery life.
So what problems have I had? A couple, but they’ve all been of my own making. First off, I do some time trialling, and I use the Cervelo with some tri bars attached onto the the handlebars. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Of course, I attacked the bars, and tightened them, and then was bemused to see an error light flashing on the battery/control unit. I had moronically managed to clamp the wires of the interface unit against the bars, and this had crushed the wires to the point that it made the system inoperable. Interestingly, the error light did indeed tell me there was a problem with the interface, and all that was required was to replace this part, which meant some simple unplugging of the effected part from the battery unit and the control levers. Unfortunately, the part is sold at a premium, which was the only downside to this. Aside from that, everything worked fine afterwards, so the moral of the story is simply beware of where your wires are – unlike cables, crushing them has a much greater effect on their operation!
Another self made problem was crashing, onto the drive train side of the bike, which was something I’d been petrified of doing given the price in particular of the exposed rear derailleur. Having slipped on some mud at rather a low speed all things considered, I was of course more interested in what had happened to the bike then my rapidly swelling wrist and bleeding hip (I should point out all was fine there). Luckily, there was surprisingly little damage, if any at all, to the bike, bar a slight aesthetic graze on the brake lever that is now unnoticeable. The rear derailleur had escaped harm completely. Campagnolo also assure you that they have a ‘ride home’ setting that, if I had given the rear derailleur a good thwack, would have meant it decoupled to protect itself (and my wallet) – something I luckily haven’t had to try out. Whether this would work or not I don;t know, but its a good feature to know to have.
In essence, Campagnolo EPS is an excellent system, characterised predominately by its incredible performance, ease of use and outstanding battery life. The best thing about it is simply the removal of all the problems of mechanical groupsets – the uncertainty, the chain rub, and the lack of smoothness and the fact you had to fight the things sometimes. Instead, EPS works smoothly and flawlessly each time, and of course benefits hugely from the fact maintenance is not required after the initial set up.
So any questions? Have I missed anything?If so, please dont hesitate to drop a comment below and I’ll try and fill you in.