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First Ride: Campagnolo Potenza group

GRAN CANARIA, Spain — Campagnolo has a long history and with that comes a certain mystique. Riders who are new to the sport know Shimano because it’s on everything. They have to learn about Campagnolo; it is somehow special, something aspirational.

Now it’s clear Campagnolo wants to compete with Shimano and SRAM in the OE (original equipment, meaning it comes stock on new bikes you’d buy at your bike shop) market. The Italian company has the history and the mystique; now it wants the access to the rest of the market. Up until now, the Italian company mostly concerned itself with the top-of-the-line race categories, though its Centaur group was a more affordable version that made Campy shifting and braking accessible to non-racers. There’s also Athena and Veloce at the hobbyist’s level. What was missing? The upper-mid-range, something to compete with the likes of Ultegra.

Campagnolo has positioned Potenza beneath its three older brothers — Super Record, Record, and Chorus — to compete with Ultegra in price and performance, and the new group borrows much of its design from those siblings. Unlike Ultegra, which is offered in both a mechanical and Di2 version, Potenza is only offered as a mechanical group.

You can get your hands on the complete drivetrain with the new 11-32 cassette and medium-cage rear derailleur for around $1,000, or the 12-27 version (with short-cage derailleur) for $946. Compare that to a full Ultegra 6800 mechanical kit for $758 (the MSRP was $974, but Shimano recently dropped prices on Dura-Ace and Ultegra groups).

So it’s a bit pricier than Ultegra, but how does it compare on the tarmac? It’s a trickier comparison than you might think.

Controls

The ErgoPower handlebar controls look and feel similar to others in the Campagnolo mechanical lineup, but there are some important differences. First, the shift mechanism is updated for improved durability. It also features a larger index bushing that supposedly reduces the effort required to downshift into easier gears.

The inboard shift lever is similar to EPS levers — it is positioned diagonally downward for easier access in the drops. It upshifts one gear at a time. Downshifting into easier gears is accomplished with a carbon-reinforced technopolymer paddle behind the brake lever that gets pushed inboard. It’s possible to shift up to three gears at once.

The hood design is specific to Potenza and features a more rounded top for a comfortable hand position on the hoods. It’s made from hypoallergenic silicone and features Campy’s Varicushion design, which is basically a vibration-damping molding.

Derailleurs

Once again, taking advantage of trickle-down tech from Super Record, the Potenza rear derailleur is essentially the same mechanism but is not carbon throughout. The outer and inner plates are forged aluminum, while the upper and lower bodies are reinforced technopolymer (yes, that means plastic) that helps keep weight down. The pulley wheels use bushings instead of bearings (Ultegra uses ceramic bearings), presumably to keep the price low.

The rear derailleur also employs Campagnolo’s Embrace technology, which essentially means the chain wraps around the cassette further than other derailleurs to grip, or “embrace,” the cassette teeth more fully. This supposedly improves drivetrain engagement and helps prevent premature wear.

It’s available in both a medium-cage (72.5mm) and short-cage (55mm) version; the medium cage accommodates Campy’s new 11-32 cassette.

The front derailleur’s inner and outer plates are made from forged aluminum, and the body is made from die-cast aluminum. The one-piece cage is shaped to improve downshifting and is positioned further back in relation to the chainrings to allow for the use of higher tooth-count cassettes. Campy says this front derailleur is 10 percent more “fluid” than SRAM or Shimano offerings; this essentially means it successfully engages at a higher rate than other derailleurs.

Cassette

Potenza cassettes will be available in 11-32, 11-29, 11-27, 11-25, and 12-27 ranges. The main carrier connects three sprockets; the other eight cogs are loose and are placed on the freehub in between aluminum spacers. The group does not have its own dedicated chain and instead includes a Chorus chain.

Crankset

The hollow, forged aluminum crankset uses Campy’s Power Torque axle. It’s easy to change between standard and compact chainring options, too — no need to buy an entirely new crankset if you want to switch.

And good news: The new Power Torque Plus system incorporates an internal extractor for easy removal of the crank. This addresses a significant shortcoming of previous iterations, which neglected any convenient means of removing the crankarm once the bolt was removed.

The Potenza crankset will be available in 53/39, 52/36, and 50/34 combinations and lengths of 170, 172.5, and 175.

Brakes

Potenza’s brakes are essentially the same standard rim brakes as Chorus and Record. Direct-mount brakes will be available by late April/early May. The brakes include a new brake pad with a proprietary compound that Campy says improves braking in all conditions.

The Ride

So is it a viable competitor to Ultegra? In order to answer that, it’s important to consider where Potenza realistically fits in the Campy lineup.

We tested Potenza over 40 miles in Gran Canaria, Spain, climbing about 7,000 feet and descending just as much down incredible, twisting blacktop. A few things became clear almost immediately.

First, while Potenza is modeled after Super Record, it doesn’t come close to matching the precision shifting and solid feel of the top group. Upshifts into harder gears in the rear are crisp and easy with a short press on the inboard-mounted levers, but downshifting into easier gears requires a fairly long throw on the paddle behind the brake lever, seemingly longer than that on Chorus — a significant drawback for the small-handed. We consistently found ourselves between gears when downshifting, or shifting two gears down when we intended to shift only one gear down.

Front derailleur shifting was much more consistent, and it’s fair to say Potenza shifts as well as Chorus up front. The long throw into the big ring is still a problem if you’ve got small hands, but the action is relatively light and we never missed a shift in either direction. Like other Campy ErgoPower controls, you can pull the shift paddle in toward the bar and shift at the same time, so that somewhat mitigates the small hand problem, though a shorter throw would still be nice. The familiar shape of the hoods remains, but a new, slightly-flattened top essentially adds another comfortable hand position.

The addition of a wide-range cassette is smart. This is the real beauty of this group and the clearest indication that Campagnolo is targeting the masses, not necessarily racers. We went up some leg-screaming climbs on the island, and that 11-32 cassette certainly came in handy, as it will for so many riders who only get out a few times a week. But Potenza’s not limited to that crowd, either, with other cassette gearing options and a short-cage derailleur for the occasional racer or a rider hunting for local Strava PRs and KOMs.

Campy touted the new brake pad compound, paired with an aluminum brake track, and braking was, indeed, strong and consistent. Chalk that up to the pads, but also the ErgoPower levers that offer plenty of leverage in both the drops and on the hoods. Campy’s levers are consistently the most comfortable and easy to operate. A new compound for use with aluminum rims? Yep, it’s likely another indication that Campagnolo understands exactly who will be using this group (hint: It’s not the pros).

The bottom line

Perhaps comparing Potenza to its higher-end siblings is unfair. Campy has positioned it to compete with Ultegra, so the most accurate comparison would be against the Japanese company’s second-tier group.

But Potenza is no Ultegra. It’s more like a 105-level group in terms of performance, yet the price doesn’t match up: Potenza’s $1,000 price tag is high compared to Shimano’s 105 group at $538. If we were to choose a Campagnolo group to compete with Ultegra, it would be Chorus.

We’re seeing Campagnolo grapple with its own complex identity that’s so closely tied to cycling history. Potenza is an important addition to Campagnolo’s line-up, one that looks to the future rather than to the company’s storied past, but we’re not sure it’s the addition Campagnolo thought it was offering. As a workhorse group, Potenza’s a solid option, but in order to be a viable Shimano competitor, it may need to be priced about $200 less.