This is bike launch season. In the next issue of RIDE you’ll find a glut of new equipment from many of cycling’s leading brands. But the print date (and some of the launches) is not for some time. Jack Lynch is currently in Italy and, over the weekend, he rode the new Specialissima bike from renowned manufacturer Bianchi. He offers his evaluation on the relaunch of this famous cycling name…
Launched at Franciacorta, Italy 2015
– By Jack Lynch
It’s one of anglo-cycling’s most contemptuous notions: Italian companies are more than just bikes from a factory; Italian bikes are carefully designed and fabricated with years of passion and history oozing through the frame’s tubing. When driving into the picturesque setting at Franciacorta, Northern Italy, I had to chuckle when I saw the Bianchi marquee set up with, ‘Passione Celeste’ inscribed on it.
But, after only a few minutes, it became clear that the employees of Bianchi are utterly engrossed in their bikes. It is more than a job for the workers and their willingness to share their knowledge of the company made it clear that the oft mocked stigma was no joke in the northern hemisphere. There is a desire to make Bianchi the best bike company in the world – a lofty goal which takes a lusty mindset.
With global recognition waning, the Specialissima is Bianchi’s latest effort to produce, “the best bike in the market”, according the company’s CEO, American Bob Ippolito. The bike classifies as a lightweight climber at a claimed 780g for a 55cm frame but also strives for more control and comfort than its peers – an admirable quality if achieved. After having a close look at it and a good ride, Bianchi’s objective to provide the world’s best bike may be realised.
Anyone who’s been around road cycling for a while will immediately recognise ‘Specialissima’ as denotation of Bianchi’s premier bike in the armoury. Fausto Coppi famously rode a bike with this name to victory in both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in 1949 and 1952, as well as a host of other races. The title was shelved for no reason in particular in the late 1980s but its reinvigoration aims to evoke nostalgia and remind people of the brand’s rich 130-year history.
So too does the ambitious #CK16 paint scheme. It is a fluorescent overhaul of the traditional celeste and is a colour which will stand out in any bunch. Ippolito said that Bianchi’s designers, “spent two weeks mixing colours,” because “many of [Bianchi’s] competitors have conveniently started to use our colour so we had to move the bar up.”
Those who don’t consider the colour ‘raising the bar’ can choose the black model or even customise the colours, although it will come at a slightly increased cost.
The frames are built at a facility in Taiwan but painted in Italy. This reduces the cost associated with controlling quality and also enables a ‘Made in Italy’ sticker to adorn the down tube – call that positive thinking. The paint itself is excellent and the logos are actually slightly raised because they are painted by hand with the use of a stencil. (I was scoffed at when asking if they were merely decals under a layer of clear coat.) Whether the origin of the paint is important to you or not, it is interesting to note that Bianchi does not trust its offshore builders with aesthetic quality control.
After pursuing aerodynamics and stiffness over the past five years, it seems cycle manufacturing is back to engaging in something of a weight space race. Trek, Merida, Cervélo, Focus, and at least half a dozen other brands have a sub-800 gram frame in its quiver, but Bianchi’s first foray into the featherweight division was peppered with a deeper goal. Ippolito explained that when conceptualising the new bike, the principle aim was to, “tame the nervousness that normally exists in super lightweight frames.”
Bianchi has not employed a mechanical system (like Trek’s Domane) or used dampening elastomers (à la Specialized Roubaix) but has created a completely new style of carbon-fibre. Countervail technology (CV) was revealed in the Infinito CV two years ago and then incorporated into time trial bike, the Aquila CV, but has undergone a renovation for the Specialissima. Cagey about the details, the company claims it dampens vibrations by 80 percent (although I was unable to get information on how it was tested and what this 80% relative to). It’s an impressive number and is attributed to the material which Bianchi’s CEO said was, “officially developed for NASA… to control the extreme vibrations and loads in outer space.” The endorsement of space age technology in bikes is a little passé but if it works, all power to Bianchi.
CV is not included evenly throughout the frame – it is only in the areas Bianchi has identified as most at risk to adverse vibrations. Step-downs in carbon is a fairly standard practise to save weight but Bianchi claim that its wonder-material is no heavier than ‘standard’ carbon so perhaps it is a dollar saving exercise. No matter, the frame has been design with comfort and stiffness which Ippolito says has been balanced to, “reduce weight and still give an incredible amount of control.
Riding the Specialissima is a tremendous experience. The marketing hyperbole about stiffness married with comfort in a slender and nimble package was pleasantly truthful. The rear end of the bike is firm but there was no vibration through the seatstays and seat tube which is often a negative symptom of enhanced power transfer. When attacking up the steepest parts of a climb, I was surprised at the bike’s stiffness as its comfort had me expecting some sloppiness.
The head tube’s quarter inch lower bearing is back in vogue with manufacturers as it gives some scope for a nice flick through the bike when out of the saddle without turning the bike into a wet noodle and reduces surfaces area, comparatively improving aerodynamics. (For a while it seemed like steerer tubes were going to be gargantuan, especially when Giant made its Advanced models with 1-1/4” to 1-1/2”. Crazy stiff but lacking comfort with thinner steerers.)
As promised, the bike was totally planted when descending and begged for speedy cornering. Bianchi has kept standard post-mount brakes which meant that I knew what to expect when pulling the bike up – this was a nice change in the suddenly non-standard world of braking systems. There were no unwanted fades or lock-ups, just a natural feel. The company is obviously unclear what the next stopping trend will be so is playing smart by playing safe.
There is a slight edge on the head tube and down tube which is so Bianchi can claim slight aero benefits on some competitors but things like this never provide noticeable benefits when riding. It is still a nice detail and proves that Bianchi was searching to create a well-rounded bike in all aspects.
Bianchi has returned to what it is good at with the Specialissima. The Oltre did not exemplify the historical significance of the world’s oldest bicycle company. It’s fluid shapes and ‘neither here nor there’ ride quality was not a brilliant success. The Specialissma beseeches a glance at Bianchi’s extensive history books and the frame’s traditional shape and modern colour scheme complement one another perfectly – briefly looking backward before cantering forward. 2015 celebrates the 130th anniversary of Bianchi’s inception but this bike pushes boundaries, refusing to rest on the laurels of past triumphs. Yes there is pride regarding its extensive past, but the future could be where the greatest accomplishments lie for Bianchi and the Specialissima seems like the logical place for the company’s worldwide resurgence. There is no longer complacency at Bianchi’s headquarters, it’s all about progression with a blend of passion and innovation.
– By Jack Lynch
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Find out more about the new season bikes in the next issue of RIDE, due out in September 2015. If you subscribe now, you’ll go in the draw for a Lapierre Aircode 500 Bike valued at $4,999.