After a few weeks of riding on Campagnolo gearing with my new bike, I feel confident using it without thinking about what I have to do. I use the Campagnolo Potenza groupset, and on my other bikes I use it’s Shimano counterpart, the Ultegra groupset. At this point, I feel comfortable comparing them. For both, I use a double chainring setup in front and an 11 cog cassette at the rear wheel. The setup itself is similar, with the cogs on the Campagnolo bike being slightly taller. The Campagnolo cassette is 11 tooth on the smallest cog to 32 teeth on the largest cog. The Shimano bike I use most often has an 11-28 rear cassette, and both bikes use a 52 tooth big chainring and a 36 tooth small chainring.
The three major groupset suppliers to the road bike market are Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM. I have tried the SRAM mechanical shifting system, but it was not an extended trial. All I can say about SRAM is that I was not impressed. Without an extended trial, I can’t say any more about SRAM. The other point I need to make is that I have only used mechanical gearing systems. Electronic shifting is common on high end systems from all three companies, but while they are acknowledged to be excellent systems that are in most respects superior to mechanical gearing, at this time, electronic shifting is more expensive, and the cost of a top end electronic shifting system alone is enough to get an inexpensive bicycle with mechanical shifting components. Electronic shifting may eventually come down in price, but as I write this, mechanical shifting is affordable, and for the most part allows the same gearing options.
Shimano has been dominating the market since they developed their Shimano Total Integration (STI) system. Integrating the braking and shifting on the same levers changed the market. [Special note: There are people who have decided to call a shifter a “brifter” because the brake is in the same place. Such people, who need to make up a name to remember that the shifting and braking are on the same lever, should never, under any circumstances, be allowed to work on your bicycle. It’s too great a risk.] The Shimano system includes an inner and outer lever. Moving the inside lever shifts the chain to a smaller cog or chainring. Moving the inside and outside levers together moves the chain to a bigger cog or chainring. My experience with the last two iterations of the Ultegra groupset has been positive. It provides a light, accurate shift. Shimano levers are canted slightly outward and the levers have a short, positive throw. In all the time I’ve used Shimano levers, I can’t remember having had mechanical issues.
Campagnolo has had a reputation for innovation for generations. Campagnolo gave cyclists the Quick Release wheel skewer, and the cable operated Parallelogram Rear Derailleur. When Shimano patented STI, it was an industry game changer, and Campagnolo responded with a system of its own. The Campagnolo system uses a single lever for each action. The brake lever is fixed. The lever inside the brake lever shifts the chain to a bigger cog or chainring. A thumb lever on the inside of the brake hood shifts the chain to a smaller cog or chainring. My experience with the Potenza group has shown me that the system is solid, accurate and every bit as quick as Shimano.
Shimano can be so smooth and quiet at times that you almost can’t be sure that you’ve made a shift. Campagnolo drops into gear with a comforting “click”. Both of these could be called an advantage. The biggest difference that I’ve noticed is the ergonomics of the hoods. The Campagnolo hoods are slimmer and curved slightly inward. To my hands, they feel better than the Shimano hoods. Since this is such an individual thing, it seems to me that there isn’t a great deal of difference between them other than feel. This feels like I’m avoiding a choice, but I like them both. The more I use Campagnolo, the better I like it. Yet Shimano has proven that its technically brilliant. I can’t find fault with either one, so sadly, it comes to preference. Much as I’d like to recommend one over the other, it comes to aesthetics and feel.