Before I floated the idea, I knew what the guy behind the counter at my local bike shop would say. But I went ahead anyway and said, “I’m building up a bike and thinking about using Campy.” I stepped back and waited for his reaction. He took a deep breath, gave himself some extra time to think of a diplomatic response. “I wouldn’t recommend that,” he said. When I asked why, he said that Campy still makes some of the best components in the industry, but the company’s service is light years behind the competition. He looked relieved when he saw me nodding in agreement as he talked. He shared a simple example. Once a customer needed a spring for a shifter and had to wait four months for it to be delivered. Yes, four months! This didn’t make sense to me. How could this be true in our modern age? Isn’t just-in-time delivery a standard now in most industries? I asked for an explanation, but he said he found it equally as bizarre. He shrugged and said, “Hey, it’s an Italian company They do things differently.”
Speed kills in the business world nowadays, and I think slow, stodgy service is one of Campy’s biggest problems. I don’t buy that crap from the Campy marketing guy quoted in Cycle Sport who said the company is a Ferrari brand that can’t compete on a mass scale with Toyota and Chevy. “We all have to protect our souls, our DNA,” he said. What a butch of bull. It really comes down to caring about customers like me. I suspect inefficiencies, ancient logistics are holding Campy back the most, decreasing its market share at such a rapid speed. It pains me to write this because I’ve long been a Campy fan. I have a Record gruppo on my Moots. I’ve been willing to pay the Campy price because I love the quality and beauty of the gear.
I’m also sucker for tradition and history. It’s hard to find another brand that has played such a big role in our beautiful sport. One of my favorite Campy stories is the one about the World Championships in 1973 when Freddy Maertens was leading out Eddy Merckx in a sprint against Fellice Gimondi. The Italian won and Maertens claimed that Merckx knew he wasn’t strong enough to beat Gimondi but tricked his Belgian teammate into leading him out anyway. Maertens claims Merckx wanted Gimondi to win because they were both riding Campy, while Maertens was equipped with Shimano. (Merckx claimed Maertens botched the lead-out by going to soon). Anyway, few other brands could inspire such passion and loyalty?
Although I’ve long considered myself a Campy man, I’m fed up with the Medieval service and the hassle and worry of finding parts. Since last summer, I’ve been trying to replace the bearings on my Campy Zonda training wheels. Most of the shops will do the obligatory computer search of their suppliers before telling me they can’t find them. One guy spent 30 minutes flipping through thick parts catalogues and surfing the Web before he gave up. Frustrated, I said, “Why is it getting harder and harder to find Campy parts in this damn country?” He told me that my anger was misdirected. The difficulty of finding Campy parts was a problem worldwide. ”Shimano’s sales in Italy alone are now bigger than Campy’s global sales,” he said. I haven’t been able to verify that factoid, but I’ve mentioned it to others in the industry who are far more knowledgeable than I am and they found it credible.
The Cycle Sport article makes a good point when it says that Campy is ”far from being a stuffy, lagging-behind, retro brand.” It notes that Campy continues to develop products on the cutting edge of technology and design. Campy might have beaten Shimano to the market with an electronic groupset if it hadn’t decided to focus more on developing its 11-speed cassettes. The Super Record 11 Group was voted best product of 2010 in Cyclingnews.com’s survey. So there appears to be a lot of life left in Campy.
Sometimes it’s good to be No. 3. Last year, James Surowiecki wrote an outstanding essay in The New Yorker about this topic. He looked at the top three makers, by market share, of computer games. I’m blissfully ignorant about this stuff and can’t recall all of the names of the companies. Anyway, Surowiecki’s point was that the No. 1 and 2 brands lost a ton of money slashing their prices in a bid to grab market share from each other. They also spent a bunch on marketing and advertising wars. Meanwhile, the No. 3 company mostly focused on refining its existing products and developing really good new ones. The No. 3 company ended up with a superior product line, higher profits and more loyal customers willing to spend more on their games. Could Campy achieve this, too? Is the company doing it already? Again, it would be fantastic if a cycling journalist who also knows how to write a solid business story would take a look at the issue.
In the meantime, I’m not going to buy Campy anymore. I’ve never been much of a gear head. I’d rather be riding my bike than obsessing about equipment. Cost isn’t a huge concern for me because I’m happy to spend money on important things, and cycling is one of the essentials in my life. I’ll brown bag it at work and skip Starbucks to save money for my cycling addiction. What I really care about is durability and availability. My job frequently takes me and my bike to emerging markets where Campy simply isn’t available. I really need to be able to get my bike fixed on the road. So I’m switching to SRAM.
When the latest Cycle Sport magazine was delivered to my mailbox the other day, I was delighted to see the headline: “Campagnolo: Sad decline of an iconic Italian brand.” I’ve long been hoping someone in the cycling press would write a long feature that would take a deep dive into Campy. What I want is a Wall Street Journal-caliber business story that would revisit the storied brand’s history while also taking a hard look at Campy’s present and future. Unfortunately, Cycle Sport fell short of the mark.
The magazine’s story was a decent start, an OK first draft. But it begged for more reporting. The piece begins by pointing out that the number of pro teams that ride Campy has been dwindling. Only four of the world’s top 18 teams are riding Campy (Lampre, Movistar, Lotto and Quick Step) this season. It wasn’t long ago when Campy and Shimano used to split the pro peloton. Last year, the company only equipped six teams. One of those was Liquigas – Italy’s best team - which recently switched to SRAM after winning the Giro and Vuelta with Campy in 2010. It’s true that sponsorship does not necessarily signal that a company has a great product. Often, it’s a better indicator that a company has a big marketing budget. Still, Campy’s shrinking presence in the pro peloton seems to be a sign that all is not well in Vicenza.
Cycle Sport quotes Campy’s marketing manager, Lorenzo Taxis, as saying that competing with SRAM and Shimano is difficult for a “niche company” like Campagnolo. He compares his company to Ferrari and says the competition is more like Toyota and General Motors. Then he says, “The most famous riders have ridden and won on Campagnolo. And no one can take that away from us.” Sounds like a loser quote from someone who’s stuck in the past. A company with such a history of innovation should be giving a much better answer.
Here’s the story I want to read. I want the journalist to go to Campy’s headquarters and get a good feel of the mood of the place. Do people seem upbeat? Is there palpable energy and enthusiasm? Or does it feel like a sinking ship, a company in decline? Are there empty desks? Describe the place with lots of detail. I would want the reporter to do long sit-down interviews in offices and over long lunches with the company’s leaders (I strongly suspect the Cycle Sport interviews were done over the phone, a quick-and-dirty quote-trolling exercise.) I would want the writer to press the executives about Campy’s marketing strategy. How is the company trying to shape the brand? How hard is the company pursuing new deals with teams? How much of a priority is it? The Cycle Sport story makes it seem like Campy thinks it’s a lost cause. Is it really? The story should raise the question: As Campy’s relationships with pro teams continue to dwindle, how does it affect the company? How much does a company benefit from getting constant feedback from the world’s top riders and wrenches? I’m sure Campy would say it still has ways to get solid input, so the reporter should seek opinions from respected industry insiders. What are dealers and distributors saying about Campy quality and service? If Campy is doing less to win over the pro teams, is it doing more to win over consumers like me? It would be great to have some basic financial figures. What are global sales looking like? The company might not say, but major distributors might talk about it. Where are most of their products being made now? Eastern Europe? Asia? What is the company’s longterm plan? Will it be satisfied just being a boutique brand? Can it survive this way? What kind of engineering talent is Campy attacting? Are people leaving? What do former employees say about the company? Finally, what are SRAM and Shimano doing right? Why have they been so effective in elbowing out Campy?
Although “Shop Class as Soulcraft” was written by a motorcycle mechanic, the inspiring book’s theme is highly relevant for cyclists like me who want to better understand their machines. The book’s author, Matthew B. Crawford, argues that we should be masters of our own stuff. He laments that more and more, we live in a throw-away culture that discourages people from understanding how things work. There’s a decline in tool use that has made us more passive and dependent. An engineering trend has been developing that seeks to “hide the works” from us. Many appliances are now held together by esoteric fasteners that can only be opened with tools not commonly available (This made me think of Campy!). In many new cars, especially German ones, there is a hood under the hood. “The engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the protohumans in the opening scene of the movie ’2001: A Space Odyssey,’” Crawford says. He notes that consumers in the old days were more demanding. The Sears catalogue contained blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances in case you wanted to fix it yourself.
One of the most interesting things about the book is Crawford’s unusual background. He spent part of his youth with his mother living in a commune, where he learned how to be an electrician. He majored in physics and eventually got a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago. He joined the white-collar world and worked in a think tank in Washington – a job he found extremely unsatisfying. He quit to open his own motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto, in Richmond, Virginia.
I plead guilty to being in the mechanically passive and dependent camp. I’m more of an arts and letters guy with little natural aptitude for fixing things, as my wife constantly reminds me. But I’m changing. (I learned how to true a wheel last weekend.) I no longer want to panic and feel helpless when my bike breaks down, and “Shop Class as Soulcraft (The Penguin Press, 245 pages) further stoked my desire to be a better wrench.
Another thing I like about the book is that it dispelled my stereotype of the mechanically gifted as being people who have an innate understanding of machinery and somehow know how to to easily fix it. Crawford describes in detail the many times he struggled to solve a problem and at times made it worse. It figures into another important theme in the book: Jobs that our new high-tech society have written off as low level, blue collar, grease monkey labor actually require a high level of intellectual ability and a grasp of a vast body of knowledge. There’s a great line in the book where Crawford describes the deep theoretical discussions that fixing a motorcycle frequently inspired between him and his fellow mechanics. He said there’s usually more thinking going on his his shop than in the Washington “think tank” he once worked in.
Some of the chapters in the middle of the book involve some hard slogging, even for a philosophy major like me. To be fair, I usually read the book in bed after a long day, and I could have brought more energy to it in a better setting. But it is an inspiring read for those who want to be better mechanics, and it’s a great pat on the back for those who already have plenty of Some of the chapters in the middle of the book involve some hard slogging, even for a philosophy major like me. To be fair, I usually read the book in bed after a long day, and I could have brought more energy to it in a better setting. But it is an inspiring read for those who want to be better mechanics, and it’s a great pat on the back for those who already have plenty of grease between their fingers.
This week’s quote from “A Sunday in Hell” isn’t a quote. It’s a bunch of sounds.
It’s the film’s opening scene. A mechanic with Italian great Francesco Moser’s team is preparing one of the rider’s Benotto bikes for the battle ahead. First, there’s the rapid “click, click, click, click, click” with a “purrr” mixed in – the sound of a chain going through a Campagnolo drive train. Next comes the “swish, swish, swish” of the mechanic using a paint brush to remove dirt and grime from the crank and derailleurs as he turns the crank. The deep, woody sound of a cello fades in. He “clicks” and “snaps” the brake levers a couple of times to make sure they’re adjusted and responsive. Then, there’s the “tap, tap, tap” as he uses the end of wooden hammer grip to knock a front brake into place. He snaps in a front wheel, and with a quick flick of the wrist, he installs the rear wheel. He starts turning the crank again and the drivetrain starts purrring again and “clicking” and “snapping” as he starts shifting the gears.
I don’t know why but it’s one of the most memorable parts of the film. Even non-cycling fans who borrow the DVD from me say – without any prompting – they really liked the intro (Perhaps that’s all they watched!). It’s wonderful the film doesn’t open with one of the super stars. The first person to appear is one of the many unsung heroes in the sport: a mechanic who works behind the scenes under much stress and pressure.
I love the authoritative way the mechanic handles the bike. I don’t have much talent with wrenches. I always approach repairs and maintenance with trepidation. My every move is tentative, with zero confidence and a fear I’m going to screw up something. But Moser’s mechanic handles the machine as if it’s at his mercy and must obey him. He cleans and assembles the bike just like a Special Forces commando would strip down and build up his rifle for the millionth time. The bike is treated like a weapon, a collection of parts – designed by a logical mind – that should go back together without any fuss when done by confident, steady hands. It gives me hope that someday I’ll be able to do it.