Friday, August 5, 2016

An Old Overlooked Gem From Campagnolo

As a self-described packrat, I have a tendency to keep a lot of things I don't really need on the pretense that they may come in handy someday, or out of the fear that as soon as I get rid of something I'll discover a need for it. Now and then, I'll go through boxes looking for something, and I'll find something else that I forgot I even had. Something like that happened the other day when I uncovered a late-80s Campagnolo Athena derailleur.

After decades of dominating the high-end bicycle component market, Campagnolo in the mid to late '80s was gasping to keep up with the rapid changes that were happening at the time. It must have been a major challenge, considering that for the previous several decades, the company made new product introductions only infrequently, and component models would run for years with only the most minor of changes. Take for example the Nuovo Record derailleur, which was made virtually unchanged from 1967 through the mid '80s, and had a basic design that dated back to 1950.

When Shimano released their indexing Dura-Ace 7400 SIS, it seemed nobody was quite prepared for the fallout. SunTour was struggling to get their own indexing system together. Many European component makers started slipping into obscurity. Campagnolo managed to hang on mainly due to the loyalty of older and more tradition-oriented road cyclists, but despite that loyalty the company was still faced with making some major changes to their product line to bring them into the new modern shifting era.

Campagnolo's first attempt at an indexing system, Synchro, was admirable in that they tried to make indexing work with their existing derailleurs. Unfortunately it didn't actually work that well. As already mentioned, their traditional parallelogram derailleur design essentially dated back to 1950 with only minor changes, and adding a shift lever with built-in "clicks" wasn't enough to make them index reliably. Between 1985 and 1990, the company introduced a number of new component groups, and several completely new derailleur designs - each one different from the next. There was the Croce d'Aune with its unique tie-rod activation, the Chorus with its dropped and slanted 2-position parallelogram, and by the end of the decade there were a couple of mountain bike groups with derailleurs that appeared to be modeled after Shimano Deore, but with Campagnolo aesthetics. In the middle of all that there was the Athena which was introduced in late 1988 and positioned below Chorus. Of the new road derailleur designs, the Athena was probably the derailleur that looked the most traditional -- the most "Campy-like." There was no dropped parallelogram to ape SunTour or Shimano designs. At first glance, some less-savvy observers might have mistaken it for a Campagnolo C-Record, with its smooth polished surfaces, and aero-looking upper derailleur cage. Closer examination would show it to be very different.

No "dropped parallelogram" here. Most modern era derailleurs follow the SunTour and Shimano designs, with the parallelogram dropped below the upper pivot, orienting it more horizontally, and slanted at an angle so it moves downward as it moves inward - tracking the profile of the rear cogs more closely across the range. It isn't obvious from this image, but even though that parallelogram hangs down directly in line with the upper pivot, in traditional Campagnolo style, it is actually canted at an angle so its movement still tracks the cogs more like other modern designs.
The Athena is a smooth and quick-shifting derailleur, and more "modern" in function than it appears. If it didn't index-shift as well as Shimano (and in 1988, nothing indexed as well as Shimano), it probably had more to do with the lack of system integration than with the trend-defying derailleur design itself. After Shimano introduced their SIS, it seemed that companies that first set about trying to imitate it mistakenly believed the key to indexing was mostly in the clicking levers, and the rest of the drivetrain could get by with some minor tweaks. In reality, it was more involved than that. The freewheel cogs had to be precisely spaced to match the indents in the levers, the tooth profiles on each cog had to be optimized to make the shift happen exactly as intended, the chain links needed to be profiled to properly mesh with those cog teeth at the proper moment, and the cables and even the cable housing had to be designed specially to eliminate (or at least minimize) cable stretch or housing compression. It took some time for SunTour to work all that out, and even longer for Campagnolo to do it.

The Athena has another difference that separates it from most other modern designs: no spring in the upper pivot. While a sprung upper pivot can help with indexing, it may not be entirely necessary. But the upper bolt did have an unusual feature to help the derailleur handle different gear ranges:
Instead of a screw to adjust the derailleur angle (typically called the "B-screw" or "B-tension") the Athena used this toothed stop ring that fit around the upper pivot. It had 5 possible positions that were supposed to allow better angle for different sprocket sizes. Notice the guide which shows "Biggest Sprockets" ranging from 20 to 30 teeth. Unfortunately, in my experience, the toothed ring is the Achilles Heel of the Athena. I had one shear off, which let the derailleur swing forward, crashing into the cogs and ending my ride. The piece is replaceable, but not exactly easy to find. And I've seen other used examples of the derailleur out there that were damaged in the same way.
I've used the Athena derailleur with Campagnolo's last version of indexing downtube shift levers, that were made for 7 or 8 speed systems, and it worked well. Just for grins, I tried installing it on a bike with a modern 10-speed cassette and Campy's Ergo shifters. It actually worked alright, though it had some trouble getting to the innermost and outermost cogs -- not a surprise, considering it was never designed to shift across 10 cogs. Nevertheless, I've seen it mentioned on some online forums that people have gotten it to work, so it might just be a matter of spending a little more time fiddling with the adjustments. However, one thing I noticed that might have been contributing to the issue was that it took a little more pressure on the shift levers to move the derailleur -- as if the springs in the derailleur were stronger or stiffer than current models. Newer Campy designs have tried to lighten the shifting "feel" or action to better emulate the light touch of Shimano shifters, and lighter springs are probably part of it. So there's that.

Where the Athena really shines, though, is with friction shifting -- particularly with a set of smooth-acting retrofriction levers, like the Simplex, or Campagnolo's C-Record. With the retrofriction levers, the derailleur has nice feel, and offers quick, smooth shifting.

The Athena design was also released as a lower-end derailleur called the Xenon, with a much more pedestrian painted finish.
I used the Athena for several years on a bike I no longer have -- a late '80s Vitus aluminum -- but it's been sitting unused in a box for a while now. I have no plans to get rid of it though -- who knows when the right bike might come along for it?


  1. I too had good success with these RDs, back in the day.

    I also got (eventually) very nice indexing with a Croce d'Aune RD on a Regina freewheel, using a Sachs chain and Synchro 2 levers.

    Like you, I think the problem that Campagnolo had was in trying to be all things to all people - to make their system work with a variety of freewheels and chains as well as legacy and new derailleurs. I know I am biased but I don't think that because this was ultimately doomed to failure, they were ever given due credit for the attempt. Imagine if it had worked!

    1. Yep - it was noble to try to make it work with their older derailleurs and such. Unfortunately, there were just too many variables to account for. SIS was such an integrated system which is why it worked so well - but unfortunately, it meant the end of mix and match drivetrains!

  2. Well, "mix and match" drivetrains, meaning shifter and RD, sure.

    But even today, you can run a Sunrace cassette, Shimano XT rd and shifter, Wipperman chain, Sram fd, Surly crank, and Microshift front shifter.

    I'd say that's pretty mix and match. I'd likely use a Shimano or Sram cass, but you catch my drift.....

    I have a few of those in my bone pile! Cool old stuff.

    Thanks for the write up, I never really played with them in particular much, want to check out that B adjust mechanism now! =:)

    1. I suppose you're right - in that everyone (except Campy) seems to adopt the Shimano standards now.

  3. Well, yes and now, no.

    Sram has departed, with their XD freehub design, and $400 cassettes.

    Shimano saw fit to change shift ratios on 10 speed, both road and MTB split, but the hot tip is that 9 speed MTB RD's work flawlessly on 10 speed road apps, so if you want to go with a 34 or 36 in the back for whatever reason, and need a longer cage than what Shimano offers in the road line, well, there you go.

    Things were going well, now, starting to slip back into the proprietary abyss I'm afraid.

  4. Guess i'm just a late- or non-adopter when it comes to drivetrains. i'm still using freewheels (6 & 7 Speeds) and friction or ratchet shifters (downtube and barends,) and perfectly happy with them in that i can truly mix-and-match components. i have probably amassed enough spare and extra bits and pieces that most of my gear will outlive me.

  5. Ah, I once had a Sachs New Success derailleur that a neighbor gave me. I put it on a cheap Dahon folder, lent it to a friend with a sailboat who promptly lost the bike overboard in Lake Michigan. I've always regretted with the loss of that beautiful derailleur.

    1. If I'm remembering correctly, the Sachs New Success may have been designed jointly with Campagnolo. And yes, it was a nice looking derailleur. What a terrible way to lose a bike.

    2. The bike I didn't care about, that pretty New Success derailleur.. Interesting that it may have had Campagnolo design influence. Thanks Brooks!

  6. That pivot piece was orighi8nally found in Victory rear derailleurs. In my opinion they are the best shifting of the non-slant Campagnolo rear derailleurs. Especially when paired with Suntour power shifters and Shimano freewheels and cassettes.

    1. I knew the Victory had a little "stop" piece on the pivot bolt like the one on the Athena. I wonder if the pieces are directly interchangeable?

  7. Back in 1988 I had the Athena groupset with Campy now rare retroshift levers, a 7 speed Maillard cluster and the then new rohlhoff chain.

    When i in 2014 build a 1988 Koga-Miyata Full pro i opted for Athena levers, brakes (rememberd them as the best sidepull brake ever - and i wasnt disapointed in 2014), front deraillure and rear deraillure again.

    Using Simplex retrofiction shift levers the Athena rear shifts really fast and precise by 2016 standard when used with a modern Centaur 10 speed 12-/30 castte and chain. The front deraillure is equally impressve shifting a last geneneration aluminum 53/39 Record crankset and campy 10 speed chainrings.

    the difference between Ergo/ STI style brifters and non indexed shifters on the downtube is IMHO way overrated. Largest difference between the 1980's and 2016 would be in casettes, chains, chainrings, cables and cablehousings - and ergonomics of the brake levers. Old fashioned brake levers requires a lot of power and doesnt offer the same level of comfort on the hoods as modern brifters.

  8. Pro tip for an old thread. Since you typically don't change freewheel ratios once you set one of these Athenas up, set the toothed adapter to the correct position and file a small metal bit, such as a nut, to fit in the space above the adapter. A bit of hot glue will hold it in place while you mount the derailleur to the bike, and will also keep the forgotten small pieces from falling on the floor if you remove it for cleaning. You can easily remove said hot glue if you want to change the setting.