Classic Tour tech: the last mechanical groupset to win the Tour de France

The last hurrah Tour glory for mechanical before almost certain extinction.

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With all the electronic wires and wireless signals now dominating shifting within the Tour de France peloton, it’s easy to forget battery-powered push-button shifting is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s only just over a decade ago that electronic groupsets made their first proper dent in the cycling industry (mid-90s Mavic does not count), but despite their relatively young age, Di2, Etap, and EPS have accounted for almost all the grand tour success of the past decade.

We decided to take a look back at the last mechanical groupset to claim yellow in Paris as part of our retro Tour tech series in the build-up to this year’s Tour de France.

While mechanical groupsets have effectively retired from the World Tour peloton, Vincenzo Nibali is the last rider to win a Tour de France with a mechanical groupset. He’s also still active in the peloton for another few months.

Back in 2014, Nibali was in storming form and dominated the Tour de France from the start in Yorkshire, through the “Roubiax stage” and right into the mountains. He did so with a Campagnolo Super Record RS groupset, a limited edition version of the 11-speed Super Record groupset for pro riders still fond of mechanical shifting.

The mechanical transmission is nowhere near obsolete. Just as we still haven’t reached the full potential of the electronic transmission, nor have we seen the pinnacle of mechanical transmission performance. 

Campagnolo, circa 2014

Some suggest the groupset was barely more than a facelift to help Campag shift some existing stock before the new groupset was due in 2015, for others it’s already a collector’s item. Officially, Campagnolo described the development of the new groupset as a bid to “increase both performance and reliability even in extreme conditions, although most changes won’t be easily recognizable to the naked or untrained eye.”

Campag’s research and development department as well as the Campy Tech Lab were tasked with developing new solutions and technologies, but also with improving current products. The most significant changes to the groupset revolved around the chainrings and front derailleur design. The chainring tooth profile was optimised for improved shifting, while the front derailleur was stiffened, again to improve shifting.

The average cyclist might not realize the intricacies of a chainring; how each and every tooth has its own shape, how the internal surface is designed for specific performance and how the two perform in unison for faster and more efficient chain engagement… it is actually a very complex piece upon which the overall performance of the transmission is based.

Camapgnolo Super Record RS press release

Campagnolo-sponsored professionals of the time had the job of testing the refinements in several prototype groupsets featuring standard Super Record decals to further hide the small updates. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Once Campag had settled on the final production-ready designs, it treated the limited edition groupset to a stunning chrome and Italian heritage-themed graphic treatment to distinguish it from “plain old” Super record. While Campagnolo officially claims the performance updates to the RS version of Super Record were undoubtedly the most alluring parts of the groupset, I beg to differ and suggest perhaps it was those RS decals.

The decals didn’t just look sweet, they also had meaning. The “Tricolore” was representative of the Italian heritage of both Campagnolo and the Italian cycling culture from which it was born. The chrome logos were a hark back to Campag’s mechanical origins, while the chequered flag was a nod to the brand’s race-winning pedigree. Little did Campagnolo know then that as fitting as the artwork was to Campagnolo, it was also a fitting send-off for mechanical groupsets on the podium in Paris.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.