An Englishman leaves France for Spain, to ride with Italians

Words by Augustus Farmer
Photography by Pablo Morena Corbera

Land ho. After what seems like a never-ending sea view, there is a rock. A rock with the only cloud for an entire horizon stuck over the top of it.

Land on rock. Get in van. Drive across rock. One of the rules of island life presents itself as the motorway slices through borderline shanty town left and gated idyll right: if the weather at the north coast is bad, head south. 

Arrive at south of rock, in retirement village of prune-like German and chorizo Brit. Unpack pedals for waiting mechanics. Hotel life resumes. Press start button on this 2017 Campagnolo press camp. Now less than 24 hours before we become among the first to ride the new and long-awaited disc brake. Surely.

Let there by discs
Above adequately-sized northern Europeans make up breakfast by packing fried meats with hard cheeses, while a bunch of skinny, pale cyclists sup muesli and fruit salad by way of contrast. The wait is nearly over.

It will be disc brakes. Finally, it will be disc brakes. It's almost with a sigh of relief from the audience that the unveiling is complete. Nobody wanted the mighty Campagnolo to go on any longer without all the weapons required to take the fight to the new frontier. 

If you're going to be this late to the party, you've either got to wear the most impressive outfit or be the best dancer. Initial impressions of Campagnolo’s frock are generally good. 

The high-end, H11 Ergo is considered, in Vicenza at least, the best-looking hydraulic shifter available. It’s true that it’s probably the closest to ‘pretty’ of the disc-compatible offerings in the game, but there is just something hard to love about the growth of the shifter hood over the years, when you look back at the way we were. We learn anyway that this Ergo has just an 8mm stack separating the hydraulic from its dry cousin; the reservoir developedwith Magura and not Tefal, despite appearances. 

While ‘aero hold knob’ admittedly has little potential as strapline to any Vicenza-approved marketing campaign (and presumably never made it to development meetings), gripping these elongated hoods confirms their advantage to riding position, and provides reassurance to the purists that all has not been lost in the transition to modernity. 

Tactile and very comfortable, you also can't escape the fact that Campagnolo’s pronounced lever hoods aren't quite as awkward-looking as their competitors. I often think Campag somewhat plays down its Italian-ness, perhaps feeling a need to out-science the opposition in a world gone tech, but there is an acceptance here that, just as ‘twas ever thus, Italian-ness means beauty, and Campagnolo really should be the first word in cycling's Italian-ness. 

Dimensions, measurements and intentions unveiled, the plan becomes clearer, sort of. The grandly-titled Disc Brake Project offers a selection of components to work with Campagnolo groupsets, from Super Record to Potenza 11. 

Vicenza has deployed two solutions to encompass its broad spread of existing componentry. The high-end, non-series H11 collection offers carbon shifters in EPS and mechanical flavours, while more affordable, aluminium shifters are intended for use with Potenza 11. 

A further example of Campagnolo’s holistic approach toa disc brake solution can be found in a new chainset, with chainrings optimised for a 142mm rear spacing and concomitant change to chainline. Small changes perhaps, but crucial. 

Campagnolo claims to have taken the entire groupset to another level of performance, rather than add a new organ that will be 'compatible'. The presentation then shifts from performance to safety; one of the reasons mooted for an apparent lack of rush to market. As steel rotors are passed around, the smoothly rounded edges seem almost friendly. The safest disc brake on the market? Apparently so, according to our hosts. But talk is cheap. We must ride. 

The ride
A few clicks north of our operating base, the route twists and narrows. The traffic-calming induced by the absence of shops and beaches aids our two-up riding formation. After sweeping through some sweet, tight turns, we ride into the valley that time forgot. The job in hand is now all but forgotten, as colleagues recall endeavours past. Numbers thin out as the element of natural selection common to all group rides kicks in.  At the back of the class, we have enough time to take in this incredible place; a location on the other side of a continent. 

Initial product feedback is positive: no jingle-jangle; no rub-a-dub-dub. Climbing though this remote, prehistoric landscape, with the occasional Berlingo van bumbling past, one hand extended from window, the other occupied with smouldering fag, the only real test is an emergency pee stop, taken behind seemingly the only tree in the village. 

Stop atop the first big climb. Regroup, turn right and begin part two. Up, past the slightly odd ‘outsider art’ garden, its 10ft coffee and terracotta teapot collection a mixture of fading reds in the relentless sunlight, and the group thins out once more. Quiet miles are nibbled away at my own pace, dancing on the pedals, feeling like Contador, but getting nowhere, slowly (and looking like an idiot, who thinks he looks like Contador). 

Fresh pine aroma hangs in thick, airless pockets of warmth, just out of the wind. We cut through cliff overhangs, dodging the crumble of freshly fallen rocks, and gekos bathing their feet in the heat reflected from the hot tarmac. We start to drop into open vistas, carving through tunnels and out around open-edged corners; the smallest barriers a token disclaimer to a world of bad judgement and regret, if you get it wrong. 

Brake test
Pull on these brakes softly and there is strength in hand. Pull harder and there is a strong, linear response: more of a ‘hold’ than a ‘grab’. My experience of discs is undeniably better braking, but somehow a less tactile engagement. There’s something reassuring in the sound (like an incoming Scud missile) of a caliper brake’s solid, coloured pads making contact with carbon clincher rim; a sound to let you know that work is being done, even if they aren’t working much at all. But here, with Campagnolo’s new disc brake, things are eerily silent, even if, conversely, the stopping power is very good. It’s a light-pull feel, and a no-nonsense anchoring. 

Three climbs in, and the craic is good. Talk turns to the bikes that will wear these pretty hub bracelets. Campagnolo’s upper tier just got a new cherry on top, after all. They’ll find homes in nice places sure enough, but will it be enough for Campag? It would be nice to think so. Either way, a disc brake from Vicenza couldn’t not happen. 

We wind down a natural corkscrew, back on ourselves (and forth), lower and lower. There are no cars up there, only the birds and the wind. Down here, it's bikes and cars; cars and bikes. The climb has barely commenced when a pushy trio cuts past at speed, heading straight into a loud crack and a long, drawn out scrape along the tarmac that leads into the next blind corner. A car horn is locked on, and petrol flows down the black top to our white, unclipped slippers. We investigate and discover all are safe, but it is not safe to stay here. Climb aborted, we head back down, waving to over-eager cyclists to slow down and not join that unfortunate party; not this time anyway. An unscripted road safety reminder, played out live on a disc brake launch? Food for thought, perhaps. 

Descend once more, this time with lever throw adjusted for more stroke before the brake engages. More power fed into each corner. Silent braking is a quality I’ve yet to experience, even after all these years, but ‘quiet enough’ is a good sign. The traditionally light Campag brake action feels slightly at odds with the power delivered, but what does this matter? Stoppers that stop and don’t squeal is about all you could wish for, pointing down such a vertiginous descent. 

Onto the drops for the last time. Grip and reach now just right. I like these things. I'm getting used to them. Point downwards and press go, confidence now abounding in this most unconfident of descenders. Catch a lens looking down from a cliff above, too late to give it a theatrical lean; gawky poses in flouro socks frozen in time. 

Roll back into town. Discussion flows on the subject (literally) at hand. Approval is widely granted. Some pushed limits more than others; all stopped in time. Details linger in memories. Arguments about whether or why one should have disc brakes on a road bike are long gone, or should be by now. As with mountain biking 15 years ago, the question will fade as the engineering moves on, and we all look forward and accept. These stoppers are here to stay, whether the peloton wants them or not. The future is now, and seems to have a diameter of 160mm. 

It’s been a dry and smooth introduction to a product best appreciated at the other end of the weather spectrum perhaps, but steep angles, switchbacks and close-to-the-edge wake up calls with island drivers have provided a good enough measure of a project born and brought up slowly to make sure, rather to than make waves. 

The last supper is a flotilla of screen-lit faces; conversation soundtracked by the chink of beer bottles. Thoughts are recorded afresh before jetting back to desks that wait beneath greyer skies. Numbers diminish and conversations boil down as, one by one, flights depart this rock in the Atlantic. Hours drift by slowly, and all a man can see is sea once more, until there are mountains. When the mountains loom in the small plastic window, home is just around the corner.