By Paul Hudson
When it comes to things fast and Italian, Ferrari immediately springs to mind. But the name of Bianchi has the same cachet among cyclists. In fact it has even more pedigree than the famed sports car company, having been founded in 1885 (whereas Ferrari only made its first car in 1947) and is the world’s oldest bicycle-making company still in existence.
As with the car world, heritage only counts for so much. It’s what you’re making today that counts.
Aerodynamic bikes are all the rage, a wind-cheating shape being necessary to overcome the wind resistance that accounts for a huge proportion of the cyclist’s effort. The latest Bianchi is the Oltre XR4 frame. And, as well as being functional (Bianchi’s engineers spent a lot of time in a wind tunnel flinging fluorescent paint at a naked carbon-fibre frame to gauge the airflow) it is stunning to behold.
The bike we tried was finished in a matt version Bianchi’s traditional celeste (sky blue) paintwork, offset by gloss black graphics and lettering. If you ever needed an illustration of Italian style, this is surely it. The number of fellow cyclists stopping me to have a close look became tiring.
Even the seat stem and special Metron 5D handlebars are shaped for aerodynamic efficiency, while the seat tube hugs the rear wheel as part of a tight rear triangle that improves the transfer of power to the back wheel.
It also featured top-spec Campagnolo Super Record gears and brakes, along with the Italian firm’s lovely Bora 50 Ultra aerodynamic carbon-fibre wheels. Japanese Shimano transmission also available, but that would be like putting a Lexus engine in a Ferrari.
Top-end racing bikes such as this can be awfully compromised, particularly when it comes to comfort. Bianchi’s answer is Countervail technology, in which the weave of the carbon-fibre acts as a vibration cancelling system.
A bold claim, but all I can say is that it works. On some truly awful broken urban roads there’s none of the crashing you get with other top-end bikes. It’s obvious that you’ll feel every single pothole on an ultra-stiff bike with 110psi in the tyres, but there’s a degree of comfort that makes it possible to ride all day.
And that’s important, whether you’re a racer or a leisure rider, as less fatigue means you can sustain an intense effort for longer.
Several colleagues made disparaging remarks about the narrow, racing blade saddle and refused to believe that nothing of that shape could in any way be regarded as comfortable, but it really is.
It’s a dream to ride, too, so fast and almost effortless in the way you can maintain speed. The light weight obviously helps here (when climbing, too) although it’s as much to do with the aforementioned wind-cheating ability and top-notch bearings in the wheels.
I can’t blame the bike for this, but it can be a bit of a handful in sidewinds when they strike the broad profile of the frame’s downtube and the deep carbon-fibre rims. And I wasn’t a fan of the aero ’bars, as I like to place my hands on the horizontal portion when going uphill.
I also felt faintly ridiculous riding such an express while dressed like the Michelin man to combat the January cold, surely negating a large chunk of that new-found aerodynamic efficiency.
Did I mention the price of this cutting-edge technology? The top-spec XR4 we tried weighs in £10,600 although a large chunk of that is due to the wheels – the standard build with Super Record features excellent Fulcrum wheels and costs £8,350. Oltre XR4 prices start at a more palatable £5,200 with a Campagnolo Chorus groupset and lesser wheels, although you don’t get the aero handlebars with that build.
You really could win the Tour de France on an Oltre XR4 (although you’ll need to be rather fitter than I am). But is any bicycle worth this amount of money? If you’re one of the many super-keen amateur cyclists – or even a professional – and value style as well as speed, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
Price: complete bike £5,200-£10,600 (frameset only at £3,399.99)