Italian Bike-Parts Maker
Leaves Its Mark on Cyclists
Some Campagnolo Fans Are
Geared Up to Wear Logo -- Permanently
By Brian Coleman, Staff
Reporter for the Wall Street Journal
Vicenza, Italy -- In the pantheon
of classic sports logos, where the Nike swoosh rules
and the Lacoste alligator roars on everything from company vehicles with expensive van insurance plans to tennis togs, perhaps the most unlikely
of all idols comes from this small industrial town on
the road to Venice: the winged wheel of Campagnolo.
Campy, as the privately held
company Campagnolo SRL is known to its fans, makes
bicycle parts such as gear shifters, brakes and wheel
hubs--what company president and owner Valentino
Campagnolo calls "the engine of the
bicycle." Bot to many bicycling enthusiasts,
Campy is about image rather than just bicycling. Made
from highly polished aluminum, titanium and even
carbon fiber, Campy parts are venerated by cyclists.
The factory gleams from the glare of shining metal.
"They are the Rolls-Royce of bicycle parts," says Michael
Gamstetter, managing editor of Bicycle Retailer and
News, a U.S. publication. "I’ve seen people
with the company logo tattooed on their body. They
talk about Campagnolo like jewelry."
Mr. Gamstetter himself is such a
Campy fan that from time to time he has contemplated
having the tattoo himself.
Racing to Keep Up With Shimano
Campagnolo also has history on its
side. Company founder and one-time racer Tullio
Campagnolo, the current owner’s father, invented
the original derailleur to shift gears. In subsequent
years, superstars like Miguel Indurain, Greg LeMond,
Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx all conquered the
Tour de France with Campagnolo. So did this
year’s winner, Bjarne Riis.
But for all its history, success
and image, Campagnolo comes in a distant second in
the gear wars. The breakaway winner is Shimano
Inc.--the Japanese company that first got into the
bike business by adapting the technology used in its
line of fishing reels to gears and brakes. While
Campagnolo’s annual turnover is about $95
million, Shimano’s annual turnover is about $2
billion. A few other companies compete for the table
"The proof that what we do
isn’t so easy is that we are just two
companies," says Mr. Campagnolo. "We more
than anyone else appreciate the work our competitor
is doing because we know how hard it is."
On mountain bikes--one of the
biggest sporting trends of the last
decade--Campagnolo broke down completely. The company
arrived late at the starting line with a product that
even Campy’s fans admit was poorly designed and
ugly. Then it gave up making mountain bike parts in
the early 1990s after their efforts drained the
company’s bank accounts. Today, Campagnolo and
its 450 employees specialize only in parts for the
classic road racing bicycles.
"We realized we weren’t
capable of handling growth in two areas at
once," says Mr. Campagnolo. "So we decided
to take a single approach, to focus on one
Another problem is that Campagnolo
parts are like a Rolls-Royce car in other ways--they
cost a bundle. The top of the line Record component
group retails for $1,890--nearly three times the
price of many bicycles. A single Campagnolo wheel
costs $3,000 and takes two workmen half a day to
The company does make
less-expensive components, but Campagnolo products
aren’t likely to be found on bikes that cost
anything under $900. Company officials admit that for
bikes costs less than $1,000, Campagnolo’s
market share is maybe 30%.
Given its focus on high-end
products, much of Campagnolo’s business is what
the industry calls after-market sales--components
sold to enthusiasts. Campy is simply too pricey for
bicycle makers looking to sell to the mass market.
"They have a good product, but they’re too
expensive," says Beppo Hilfiker, president of
bike maker Cannondale Europe BV. Shunning Campy gear
altogether, Cannondale--like nearly all makers of
mountain bikes--puts Shimano equipment on most of
their two wheelers.
Nor have Campagnolo parts always
been the models of fine design and craftsmanship.
While they were busy trying to break into the
mountain bike market in the 1980s, Campagnolo
engineers neglected their corer product, and quality
slipped. Shimano came out with new and more
innovative designs--such as a combination brake lever
and gear shifter--that left Campagnolo struggling to
"By 1990, Campagnolo was on
the brink of extinction," says Mr. Gamstetter.
cry for Campagnolo. The
company bounced back from its misadventures in
mountain biking even while Shimano was focusing it
energy on the sector. That let Campagnolo eat up
market share in the high-end market for
top-of-the-line road racing components--a market that
Cannondale is now rushing into with its new line of
Campy’s sales soared from just
47 billion lire ($30.8 million) in 1992 to 140
billion lire in 1995. This year’s sales are
expected to remain flat along with the market.
"We’ve enjoyed good growth and now our
company is facing a world bicycle market suffering
from economic conditions," says Mr. Campagnolo,
who declines to discuss the company’s profits.
Nor does Campagnolo’s decision
to abandon mountain biking appear to be causing too
much damage to the company’s long-term
prospects. Most casual cyclists attracted to the
mountain bike trend have already purchased one,
leaving only the fanatics to buy new ones each year.
As a result, global mountain bike sales are falling
by 15% to 20% a year, according to industry
Road racing bicycles, meanwhile,
are a stable market and in some parts of Europe,
sales are even growing by about 2% per year.
Europeans, in particular, are crazy for road racing.
Cannondale says the total number of road racing
bicycles sold in the U.S. every year is about
150,000, while the European market is about 400,000.
And Campagnolo is well-located. Its home region of
Veneto has more than 250,000 registered road racers.
Campagnolo can also count on its
devoted followers around the world who see in the
company something more than a mere supplier.
"Cycling is about much more than the accuracy of
a shift-indexing system or the weight of a shift
lever--it’s about aesthetics, and the
intangibles which arise from the mix of man and
machine that is the sport," says Eric Norris, a
37-year-old club cyclist from Redlands, California.
Mr. Norris is an unapologetic
Campagnolo fanatic. While he doesn’t have the
tattoo, he devotes much of his own time maintaining a
page on the World Wide Web devoted to the
company’s products--without any money or aid
from Campagnolo. It makes for lively reading.
The "Campy Only!" page
run by Mr. Norris features sections with titles like
"Just Say ShimaNO," "Shimano Causes
Brain Damage" and "Broke But Happy."
And he claims to receive electronic mail every day
from places as distant as Venezuela, Russia and
United Arab Emirates.
Campagnolo’s history is
another big plus for the company. Tullio Campagnolo
invented the derailleur to change gears easily after
his wheel stuck on a hard gear while racing up a hill
in a snowstorm in the 1920s. ("Something must
change in the rear," was his thought at the
time.) The company then grew to dominate the industry
for decades--until the arrival of the Japanese.
"They have all these
‘firsts’ from the 1930s and 1940s,"
says Mr. Gamstetter, the journalist. "And they
were the best all through the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and
* - [Commentary by Campy Only]