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Rumors and leaks about Campagnolo’s 13-speed Ekar groupset have been flying recently, but thanks to two US patent applications published on July 30, we now have a few more details of what Campy has been working on.
One patent filing in particular — Cogset with Increasing Jump, US 2020/023105 — is the most telling, not only confirming the use of 13 sprockets out back, but also the exact tooth counts on the three cassettes Campagnolo is planning to release. The smallest features just nine teeth, and the biggest 44.
Rolling in the Dirt
There are still plenty of unknowns about what will be coming out of Vicenza – and Campagnolo declined to add any further information, beyond what’s described in the patent application. Critically, we still don’t know if Ekar uses one chainring or two up front, however one thing is clear: it’s purpose-built for gravel. In fact, North American gravel racing is even called-out in the filing’s Background section:
When a bicycle is used in competition, or when it is used by very demanding users, the cogset mounted on the rear wheel is frequently selected on a case by case basis based on the terrain to be covered. Therefore, if there is level terrain on asphalt road, a cogset with relatively small sprockets will be mounted, so as to have long gear ratios and allow the cyclist to develop high speeds; these cogsets are normally designated as “road”. Vice-versa, if there is terrain with very irregular road surface and/or steep slopes, a cogset with relatively large sprockets will be mounted, so as to have short gear ratios and allow the cyclist to better develop a high torque at low speed; these cogsets are normally designated as “off road”.
Of course, it is possible that the terrain to be tackled is mixed, with sections that would require a “road” cogset and sections that would require an “off road” cogset; this is the case for example of so-called “gravel” competitions, well known particularly in North America, which take place on paved roads, unpaved roads and pathways. In this case, cogsets called “gravel” are used, which try to provide a compromise between “road” and “off road” ones.
However, the search for this compromise is anything but easy, given the fundamentally opposite nature of the requirements of the cyclist in different conditions. Known “gravel” cogsets aim to simply combine in the same cogset both very small sprockets (for road use), and very large sprockets (for off-road use).
Therefore, there is a problem of improving the features of a “gravel” cogset so that it manages to better satisfy the multiple requirements of the most demanding cyclists.
A sandwich 13 sprockets thick
The simplified layout of single-chainring drivetrains is appealing for gravel and mixed-terrain riding for a variety of reasons, but it’s also always been an exercise in compromise with users forced to choose between smaller ratio changes between individual gears or sacrifices in total range. SRAM’s 12-speed Eagle cassette is one of the more popular options given its generous 400% total range, but its 15.8% average ratio change between adjacent gears isn’t always conducive to riding on more gently rolling terrain.
Alternatively, Shimano’s 11-speed 11-46T cassette — the widest available compatible with existing 11-speed drop-bar shift levers — offers similarly disruptive 15.4% average jumps, but a more modest 318% range.
Similar to what Rotor has pursued with its Uno 1×13 groupset, Campagnolo’s solution for gearing that’s wide but close adds a 13th sprocket, with three cassette options: 9-42T, 9-36T, and 10-44T.
Ekar still incorporates some decent-sized jumps — including a whopping 23.1% gap on the 10-44T cassette — and even the most capable 9-42T cassette’s 367% total range doesn’t quite match Eagle. However, Campagnolo seems to be hoping that riders will be willing to sacrifice some total range for smaller average jumps, which has certainly been important historically to more traditional road riders.
A second Campagnolo patent application — Bicycle Sprocket and Sprocket Assembly Comprising Such a Sprocket, US 2020/0240506 — suggests there may be even bigger sprockets in the works, too, going all the way up to 52 teeth. If paired to a 9T small sprocket, the total range would be a massive 478%, albeit with big gaps in between. Paired to a 10-tooth small sprocket, the total 420% range would match SRAM’s recently updated Eagle cassette, but with smaller jumps.
Either way, it looks like Campagnolo will have a lot of cards to play with Ekar.
Playing the Patent Game
Perhaps some of you may get uppity and start fuming that intellectual property claims on gear ratios is evidence that the patent system is broken, that innovation is being stifled, etc. Please remember this filing is an application for a patent, not an issued patent – and only issued patents provide the coveted exclusive rights that inventors seek. The next stage is for the application to be examined by the US Patent & Trademark Office, where what’s claimed must overcome the hurdles of being both new and non-obvious. Those two simple terms have long, complicated meanings in patent law, with country-by-country variations as well.
Campagnolo’s claims are directed to particular combinations of sprocket sizes in relation to each other, described as grouping subsets. There’s no attempt to stake broad ownership of using 13 gears out back. Patent claims often get amended and narrowed in scope in an attempt to reach allowance, and many applications are abandoned when unable cross the threshold of new and non-obvious. Exactly what specific parts of this application will be deemed patentable is a question that likely won’t be answered for several years. Either way, my guess is that Campagnolo will have a hard time claiming these particular tooth progressions as sufficiently novel to earn that status.
No matter, as the patent filings have at least given us a sneak peak. Meanwhile, with the press of a thumb, Campagnolo fans may soon be slamming across 13 gears, all the way down to the 9 (!) – something company founder Tullio Campagnolo could hardly have imagined.