cid_2460643.jpg (113037 bytes)Ah, History! A favorite subject of ours, here at Campy Only!

Why? Because the mystique of Campagnolo -- part of the attraction of the world's finest cycling components, derives from the history and tradition that started on a cold day in the Italian Dolomites, some 70 years ago.

The view at left is of Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy--home city of Campagnolo and one of Italy's most beautiful cities.  To see more of Vicenza's historic buildings: 

Click here for our Campagnolo Timeline--Year-by-year history of the company and its products

Classic Catalogs Online

Campagnolo's "Record News" Archives

The history of Campagnolo begins in 1901, when Tullio Campagnolo was born into a modest, working-class family in Vicenza, Italy. Tullio's father owned a hardware store, and it was there that he began the tinkering that would lead to many of the most momentous developments in cycling history.

It was also during these early years that Tullio found cycling -- a sport at which he found some success as an amateur, competing in a number of major events, including Milan-San Remo, Giro di Lombardia, and the preliminary heats of the Olympic games.

Tullio Campagnolo on the Croce De Aune Pass,
1927 It was during one of Tullio's races as an amateur that he confronted a problem which often faced cyclists of those days -- removing a wheel. On November 11th, 1927, with snow covering the roads of the Italian Dolomite mountains (that's him in the photo, on that very day!), Tullio was riding over the Croce D'Aune Pass in the Gran Premio della Vittoria race and needed to remove his rear wheel to change gears (more on that below). Because the large wingnuts that held his wheel on had frozen and his hands were too cold to budge them, he was unable to remove his wheel to change gears, and lost his chance at victory that day.

As he struggled to free his wheel, he muttered five words to himself that changed the history of cycling:

"Bisogno cambiá qualcossa de drio!"

Click for a larger version
Photo above: The Tullio Campagnolo memorial at the Croce D'Aune pass. Photo by Allan Nelson

Those words ("Something must change in the rear!") and that simple event -- a wheel that couldn't be removed -- started Tullio thinking. He went back to his workshop, and emerged with the invention of the quick-release lever (in 1930) and, soon after, an early bicycle derailleur (1933).  

The quick release was only the first in a long line of innovations that sprang from Campagnolo's workshop. In fact, it was from his humble factory in Vicenza that the very idea of a derailleur came to be. Can't image what it was like to ride before Ergo shifting? Get a load of this:

Changing gears before derailleursIn the good old days, when stages in the Tour de France were 300 miles long, and riders ascended mountain passes over barely paved roads, there were no derailleurs! In those days, bikes had either one gear (one cog on the rear wheel) or two. Those two-speed bikes had one cog on each side of the rear hub. To change gears, the rider would dismount, remove the rear wheel, flip it around, tighten the whole thing up again, remount, and continue riding. (The riders in the photo are doing just this in a Tour de France photo from the 1930s. They've ascended the Col d'Izoard pass, and are getting ready to descend the other side in the higher gear.) One measure of a cyclist's skill in those days was the speed with which he (or, rarely, she) could do all that.

For tons of historic photos like this, check out one of the most amazing sites we have yet found, at You'll find a complete history of every stage of the Tour de France, along with photos from each year's race, all the way back to the turn of the century!

Campagnolo saw the potential for a different shifting system. In 1930,. he introduced the first quick-release hub, answering the challenge he had made to himself three years earlier. In 1940 he invented the dual-rod "Cambio Corsa" shifter (as pictured at right). The Cambio Corsa was followed by the "Roubaix" shifter, which combined the quick release and chain mover into a single lever. The shifting was archaic by today's standards, but it was widely used in the pro peloton for at least a decade, until the introduction of Campagolo's "Gran Sport" derailleur in 1951.  Here's how it worked:

The Cambio Corsa shifter consisted of two levers and rods, attached to the right-side seatstay. One of the levers actuated the quick release on the rear wheel, the other moved a fork-like device that moved the chain from side to side. There were no jockey pulleys or other takeup mechanism on the chain. The rear dropouts were horizontal and somewhat longer than they are today, since "slack" in the chain was taken up by allowing the wheel to move backward and forward.

Photo of "Roubaix" shifter
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Gino Bartali, 1948
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To shift, the rider would first loosen the rear wheel's quick release (remember, this is done while riding!). Then, the other lever would be turned to move the chain from one cog to the other -- as it moved, the rear wheel would move forward (when shifting to the larger cog) or backward (shifting to the smaller cog). When the shift was complete, the quick release was tightened again.

The great champion, Gino Bartali, was a master of the rod shifter. He is shown here in a photo from the 1948 Tour de France, reaching down to shift while he ascends a high mountain pass.

drop-out_jigs.jpg (158709 bytes)  drop-out_jigs_with_drop-out_installed.jpg (135352 bytes)
These jigs were made to facilitate the building of frames for the Cambio Corsa by keeping the toothed dropouts aligned. Thanks to reader Steven Maasland for these photos. 

The Roubaix shifter is today much rarer than the Cambio Corsa because the Gran Sport design was introduced shortly after, making its production window pretty narrow.

Here's a 1949 Frejus, a classic of the era, equipped with the Cambio Corsa shift mechanism. Interested in purchasing a bike like this? Check out the Vintage Velos web site--they offer bicycles from the classic era.

Old-style Campagnolo shifter
These photos show Tullio himself with an old rod-shifter bike. Below is an excerpt from a Campagnolo catalog of the era, showing the workings of the Cambio Corsa shifter.

Tullio Campagnolo
Old Campy catalog Campagnolo's rudimentary derailleur revolutionized cycling. But it was only one in a long line of technical innovations.

Following World War II, many of the world's best cyclists -- including Fausto Coppi (Il Campionissimo) and Gino Bartali -- began using Campagnolo's equipment.

(That's Coppi, riding far ahead of the pack aboard a Campy-equipped bike in the 1949 Tour de France.) Gran Sport derailleur Coppi rode Campagnolo's first rod-shifter derailleur in the 1945 Paris-Roubaix race, and later used Tullio's components to ride to victory in the 1950 Paris-Roubaix.

Tullio's next derailleur design looked very similar to those would be used worldwide for the next few decades after. It started the long line of innovations which leads directly to Ergo shifting and the Record gruppo!  Photo right, the first Gran Sport derailleur, a dual-cable model that never saw production.  The single-cable Gran Sport was introduced in 1950; it was the first of many similar derailleurs--its design lasted for more than 30 years, through the last C-Record lines in the 1980s.

Tullio Campagnolo in his shopCampagnolo's emergence as the definitive component manufacturer was due in large part to the man himself, and to his concept of linking the producer and the end user. Foreshadowing the R&D of today's companies, Tullio began following the races personally, listening to the suggestions of the riders and modifying the products to meet their needs.

Important Dates In Campagnolo History

Read our Campy Only Timeline--Your source for the history of the world's greatest components

An Historical Anecdote We Thought We'd Pass Along . . .

One of our faithful readers, who we will refer to as came across this interesting anecdote in a biography of Eddy Merckx:

Walter Godefroot relates this story, which may be of interest to our community:

Freddy Maertens and Walter Godefroot were in a car familiarizing themselves with the course for the 1973 world championship in Montjuich, when a car containing Tullio Campagnolo came alongside.

Campagnolo asked who was going to win the championship. Godefroot pointed to Maertens and said "This one".

Campagnolo said:

"Oh God, no. Not him. He rides with Shimano parts"

Gimondi, using Campagnolo parts, won that day.

From the book: "Eddy Merckx, The Greatest Cyclist of the 20th Century", by Rik Vanwalleghem, English edition published by VeloPress, 1996, p. 51 (Find more about this book at the VeloNews web site!)

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