Campagnolo, Olive Oil, And The Awful Truth

In honor of Tullio Campagnolo’s 109th birthday  this week (August 26, 1901–February 3, 1983), here’s a story…. 

God, I love working on Campy Ergo shifters.

You know the ones I’m talking about: those fancy ten speed brake/shifter combos that pop up on really high-end (a polite euphemism for “expensive”) bikes. Complicated carbon fiber and aluminum confections, holy objects of veneration in the Church of Campagnolo, worshipped by the faithful, desired by the masses. Cradling its black rubber hood and smooth carbon brake blade in your hands while clicking through the gears provides a sensuous tactile feedback, a beautifully machined music-box of sprockets and cogs that rivals the latest Ferrari sports car or Swiss chronograph in terms of quality and complication. Lean, stylish, and above-all Italian, Campagnolo ten speed Ergo shifters (especially the coveted Record ones) are nothing less than the playthings of the Gods.

Which is great, but what happens when it breaks?

The Shimano approach to high-end shifters dictates that when one of their offerings goes belly up there are no second chances. Fix it? Forget it. No, shamed by its failure, Shimano company policy requires that a broken shifter must, after a decent interval, commit hari-kari. Honorable, yes; but very expensive, especially you are looking to replace a set of obsolete 8 or 9-speed shifters on what has become a 10-speed planet.

Devotees of Campagnolo, on the other hand, proudly point to the fact that their shifters go all the way up to 10 speeds and are rebuildable, thus making them immortal, like the Gods of Cycling who created them.

While the Cycling Gods have benevolently granted a fallen Ergo shifter a chance at forgiveness and redemption, even those completely in the thrall of the Campagnolo mystique can’t help chuckling quietly to themselves and thinking “Sure, they are rebuildable, but heaven help you if you actually need to rebuild it.”  The thought of tearing into something as mechanically sophisticated (and expensive) as a Chorus or Record shifter is enough to give most owners (and some bike shops) the vapors. Because just as Prometheus was punished by Zeus for stealing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to us mortals for our use, it is a verity among cycling’s cognoscenti that attempting to rebuild a broken Campy Ergo shifter is the punishment meted out by the Cycling Gods for our having presumed to grasp at cycling perfection.

And, it turns out, the cognoscenti in this case would be wrong.

My friend Karl appeared on my doorstep the other day seeking help to revive the newly-defunct Campy Record shifters that are attached to his Motobecane. Having spent several hard years toiling without complaint buried in Karl’s meaty grip, the right shifter decided to pack up and take a holiday. Karl had of course taken the time-honored steps to appease the angry Shifting Gods – most notably smearing himself with dung and making a sacrifice of an old Regina freewheel on a pyre of blazing TriFlow chain lube – but to no avail. Looking utterly bereft at his loss, Karl wheeled his wounded machine to the back of my workshop.

 Putting his bike up on the workstand, I poked and prodded and muttered darkly about “G-Springs” and “Ratchet Pawls” while Karl stood in the corner and watched, downcast and depressed. This bit of Kabuki Theater was mostly for Karl’s benefit. The sympathetic mechanic recognizes that, especially where very expensive Campagnolo components are involved, restoring la bella macchina to its former glory is sometimes more of an act of religious reconciliation than simple bike repair. In Karl’s case we were dealing with something much more than a broken shifter; it was a Ten Speed Record Ergo shifter. An idol had fallen, taking with it Karl’s faith in the essential divinity of all things Campagnolo. It wouldn’t be enough for me to simply fix the damn thing.  No, what Karl needed was the bike repair equivalent of the Pope presiding over High Latin Mass at Saint Peter’s in Rome, not some greasy dude in a dirty shop twiddling wrenches.  Karl needed to once again believe.

 All of which meant that this was clearly not a good time for Karl to learn the Awful Truth about Ergo shifters. 

Having completed the requisite obscure rituals, I sent Karl away and got down to the actual task of rebuilding his shifter. Step one: close the shop door, making sure that no Shimano owners are about. Step two: peel back the rubber hood. Step three: undo one screw and two cables. The shifter is now off the bike and sitting in your hand. Step four: flip the shifter over and remove the little trap door at the back to reveal the Awful Truth.

The Awful Truth about Campagnolo shifters is this: there are no cascades of finely-machined gears or high tech carbon fiber gubbins residing in the back of a stupifyingly expensive Record or Chorus shifter. That carefully-crafted image of cutting-edge sophistication is pure bunk: what you see beneath that sleek, sexy carbon fiber body is what you’d expect to find if you opened a wind-up alarm clock with a hammer; springs and ratchets seemingly thrown together at random. For the uninitiated, it’s like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the curtain is pulled back to reveal that the Mighty Oz is nothing but a middle aged hack with a paunch, thinning hair, and a bum knee. One look through the little trap door in the back and gone forever are all of the mental images of jewel-like precision or white-suited technicians using robots to assemble Record Shifters to aerospace standards in a sterile environment. No, the Awful Truth about Ergo shifters is that the aura and mystique that feeds the cult-like devotion of the Campy faithful is founded on something that is far more Rube Goldberg than Rolex.

But while Ergo shifters may not be complete marvels of technology, the good news in all of this is that they work extremely well and turn out to be relatively simple devices that can be fixed by idiots like me with nothing more than some twigs, spit, and a rusty nail. No exotic tools or special training is needed; just a good look at the parts diagram and a nice Italian espresso should see you through. And, indeed, after a few minutes of fiddling I had Karl’s shifter back in operating order. Job complete, I quietly opened the door to the shop, checking to make sure that no one who was not already privy to the Awful Truth had seen me working on Karl’s bike.

There is one final step in fixing a Campy Ergo shifter: giving it back to its owner. Here, the clever mechanic can use the power of the Campagnolo Mystique to impose random demands, limited only by your own capriciousness, all in the name of proper “maintenance.”  I decided that Karl definitely needed to take better care of his bike.

“So, what was wrong with my shif…”

“You’re not listening to Italian opera, are you?”


“I said, you’re not listening to any Italian opera at home, are you?”

“Opera? Dude, I play the tuba in the Navy band. I listen to Sousa marches and stuff like that.”

“Well DAMN, no wonder your shifter crapped out. You did read the manual, didn’t you?”


“You need to play two hours of Italian opera every night or the shifters get homesick. The carbon fiber models require something light, like Verdi. Preferably an early Parlophone or Edison recording with Caruso. I also noticed that the shifter pawls were a little dry. You are soaking your riding gloves in olive oil before every ride, right?”

“Soak my gloves in olive oil…?”

“Boy you really didn’t read the manual, did you? Soaking your riding gloves in extra virgin olive oil lubes the shifters as you ride. It cuts internal wear on the ratchet pawls in half. It has to be extra virgin oil, though. Otherwise it just gunks things up and you are right back at square one.”

“Uhhhh….okay. Do you have to do this with Shimano shifters?”

“No, but that’s why you just throw them away when they break. Campy shifters never die — they are rebuildable. Isn’t that great?”

Yes, isn’t that great.

As I said, I like working on Campy Ergo shifters. I like knowing the Awful Truth. And I really, really like knowing the fact that, thanks to me, Karl now spends quiet evenings at home oiling his cycling gloves while serenading his bike with the Barber of Seville...


6 Responses to “Campagnolo, Olive Oil, And The Awful Truth”

  1. July 28, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Now THAT’S a damn good post.
    Nice job.

  2. 4 Anonymous
    October 15, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    try fixing 10 speed veloce escape lever, change it to record and breathe easy

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