Campagnolo Athena Review

Campagnolo Athena Review

 

The first thing I set about working on was figuring out which Campagnolo groupset made sense for this project. This is also where I was able to prove the price critique wrong. Campagnolo operates like Apple. It’s not that Apple, or Campagnolo, is more expensive than other options, it’s that they only sell high-end products.

 

If you want an inexpensive bike, you can get a Shimano Sora equipped bike for practically nothing. Shimano can handle the volume of being OEM for a bike that’s going to be a volume leader for a large company and they can make the price extremely attractive both on the OEM side and the consumer side.

 

The Campagnolo Athena rear derailleur
The Campagnolo Athena rear derailleur

 

On the other hand, you have companies like Campagnolo, and Apple, that just don’t sell low-end products. If you purchase a high-end computer running windows, you’ll pay a similar price as an Apple product, but because that’s not the kind of thing that you see in the weeklies all the time, people don’t much think about it.

 

Same thing happens with Campagnolo. Sure, Super Record isn’t cheap, but it’s not meant to be cheap. It’s positioned as being a higher performing product than Dura-Ace, and it’s priced as such. Campagnolo does make a product that competes with Ultegra and Force, though. It’s called Athena, and guess what? It’s absolutely price competitive. It’s not the absolute cheapest, but it’s price competitive.

 

The Athena groupset comes in a black or silver finish
The Athena groupset comes in a black or silver finish

 

Now I also have to mention that there is considerable… discussion on forums and bar stools the world over as to whether Athena actually competes with Ultegra and Force. I’m not going to presume that I can settle that argument, but I do want to address it.

 

Campagnolo knows their market and they expect that Athena will compete in the market with Ultegra and Force. I’m not sure there is a way to objectively say that one of the major groupsets is truly better than the others. You’ve pretty much got to take the manufacturer at their word and then decide what you personally like best.

 

SRAM is lighter, but they’ve got double tap. Shimano is cheaper, but they don’t inspire me, and I find the moving shift lever a liability. For me, Campagnolo was the most comfortable, had the best shift quality and was the most inspiring to ride.

 

Now that I’d chosen the groupset, next up was actually installing it. I’m not a capable enough bike mechanic to install a groupset on my own. It’s actually not a super tough thing to do and I think had I needed to, I could have muddled through on my own. Luckily, I’ve got people on my race team who are more capable than me and I was happy to lean on a good friend and team captain, to help out with the install.

 

I felt like it was actually a better test case than me anyway. He’s an experienced mechanic who rides SRAM and has lots of experience with Shimano but had never once worked on Campagnolo. He’s got a full tool chest that covers everything you’d need to put a new Shimano/SRAM groupset on a bike, but if there was going to be a bunch of specialized tools needed for the Campagnolo groupset, he wouldn’t have them. I’d say this probably covers a wide range of people reading this.

 

So how about that second assumption? Is Campagnolo actually difficult to work on? That question is a bit more complicated than the question of price. If you are just starting out, then building a toolset for Campagnolo is really no different than building one for SRAM/Shimano.

 

On the other hand, if you are, like my friend, already equipped for working on SRAM/Shimano then it is true that you’ll need a few different tools and parts to work on and ride, Campagnolo. You’ll need a cassette lockring tool, a Campagnolo specific chain tool, a 12mm allen wrench for installing the crank, a specific bearing puller for removing the crank, campagnolo specific cables if you are replacing them in the future and you’ll need a Campagnolo compatible wheelset for the cassette to fit on.

 

While no unobtanium was used in it's construction, Campagnolo still has a certain something that makes people want it
While no unobtanium was used in its construction, Campagnolo still has a certain something that makes people want it

 

If you buy the full groupset, it’ll come with the cables you need. Some wheelsets can be switched to a Campagnolo compatible rear hub, if the company makes one, but otherwise you’ll need a set that will work for you.

 

Park tools sells a pair of chain tools that you can get for less than the Campagnolo unit, although I’ve heard the Campagnolo unit works better. Or you can use a standard chain breaker then KMC missing link or Connex link. You can also use a Connex chain which is what I did for this project and I’ll be discussing it more in a separate review.

 

The cassette lockring tool cost $8 and although a 12mm allen wrench isn’t the easiest thing in the word to find, most sets and stores only have up to 10mm, I found one for $20. In the end, I actually just took the bike to a local shop and they were happy to spend the 3 seconds to tighten the crank for me.

 

The only thing that isn’t cheap or easily solvable is the bearing puller you need for a power torque crank such as the Athena. When Athena was first released, this was a problem, as the correct tool didn’t really exist, but these days it’s around if you want to own it or you could stop by a local shop to get the crank extracted if needed. It’s only needed for removing the crank, so you’ll likely not need it often. Also, Ultra Torque units such as Chorus don’t require the bearing puller.

 

All in all, we were able to install with new wheels, to be discussed in another review, one trip to a local shop to tighten the crank, a Connex chain and one extra tool that cost me $8.

 

The tall Athena shifters give you plenty to hold on to
The tall Athena shifters give you plenty to hold on to

 

Great, got it installed! What’s it like to ride? First, let’s set some expectations. All the major groupsets are going to perform well and one is not going to be magic compared to the others. Still, this project is using Athena 11 speed in black with a 12-29 rear cassette and a compact front crank set.

 

It’s about 450 grams lighter than the Tiagra 3×9 (50/39/30 and 12-26) that came off the bike, but it’s got almost exactly the same gearing, shifts faster, has less overlap, a better q factor, looks fantastic and I can’t tell you how often people ask me about it.

 

Ever had someone ask to ride your bike, so they can just feel what the Shimano groupset is like? I’ve never even seen that with Dura-Ace, but I have it happen regularly with the Campagnolo groupset. I really like that the standard rear derailleur, no wi-fly or anything special required, can run a 12-29 rear cassette.

 

The Campagnolo Athena groupset
The Campagnolo Athena groupset

 

I’ve had two hill climb races this year, 12 miles at 6% average for one and 6 miles at 8% average with a section that was 14% for the other, plus I do hill repeats while pulling my boy on a 6% hill near our house. It’s true that it’s possible to outspin the 50/12 on the descents but guess what, I don’t race down descents. I also prefer to keep my cadence near 100 when possible. Having that kind of range available without any special derailleur is one my favourite things about the groupset.

 

As far as the brakes, I found them to be, at least in the dry, as good as my wife’s entry level disc brakes and much better than the Shimano setup, though I realise it’s not a direct comparison. I find that I much prefer the thumb button for shifting down when I’m in the drops and I love the very positive sound when you drop to a smaller ring. It pops in with force, and you know you’ve shifted.

 

I am also really impressed with the way Campagnolo handles the different bottom bracket options. If I were to switch frames, it would only require a new set of cups, for a very affordable price versus a whole new crankset. That’s smart engineering.

 

Bottom line, if you are looking for a new groupset, don’t listen to those that will tell you Campagnolo is more expensive and harder to work on. It’s neither of those things. For me, it performs better than the alternatives, it’s more comfortable in the drops, gives me more options towards future compatibility, more options for the cassette and it’s exciting in a way that the alternatives just don’t match.

 

It has made me a faster racer. I can stop losing time trying to figure why my groupset is making noise. There is less overlap, and it has been able to handle every situation I’ve ever tried to throw at it.

 

Campagnolo

 

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