Bianchi – the best of celeste for 2014
If you subscribe to RIDE Cycling Review before 23 May 2014, you will go into the draw to win a $5,799 Bianchi Infinito CV. This is one of the bikes that will be used by the Belkin team in 2014 but riders from this Dutch squad have several choices, including the Bianchi Oltre XR2 that Jack Bobridge and his cohort have been using for the early months of the season. Bobridge’s bike is one of 21 featured in the ‘Bikes of the Pro Peloton‘ pages of RIDE #63.
RIDE #61 featured stories on bike launches for the 2014 season. We visited Bianchi in Italy, BMC in France, Specialized in the USA, Scott in Switzerland and Focus in France. As we have a Bianchi Infinito CV as a subscription prize bike for the coming months, it’s a good time to revisit the story titled ‘Best of celeste: the 2014 range‘. Here is a the story of the launch as told by Warren Meade.
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Overview of the 2014 Bianchi range
– By Warren Meade
One of the world’s oldest bicycle manufacturers flew a host of journalists to Italy to show off the range for 2014. Going along for the ride was a nostalgic Warren Meade who found himself reminiscing about the influence that Bianchi and its bikes have had on him in the past 40 years.
Flying into Milan in June was an unexpected pleasure. It was zero degrees and a heavy frost when I left my home in Victoria 32 hours earlier. I walked out of the airport into bright sunshine, 30 degrees, and a chauffeur holding a card saying ‘BIANCHI’ in large letters. I was in Italy to attend a press event – a renowned brand was launching its 2014 range – and the immaculate black Mercedes was about to speed me to the Bianchi factory.
It’s been said often, but let’s delve into the basics of the brand one more time. Eduardo Bianchi started making bicycles in Milan in 1885: yep, 128 years ago!
I couldn’t help but wonder about the previous 127 press events as we sped down the freeway. My driver was doing his best retired-Italian-racing-driver impersonation, zipping in an out of non-existent gaps. Did journalists travel from across the globe by coach and steamer to the 1910 launch? Probably not, but Bianchi holds first place in the list of oldest established bicycle brands, and it hasn’t survived so long by being meek about its products.
As far as I was concerned, anything delivered over the next few days would be preaching to the converted. My personal association with Bianchi began 40 years ago when I first saw a ‘celeste’-coloured racing bike on the cover of International Cycle Sport. It was August 1973 and the photo shows a determined Felice Gimondi, wearing the tricolore jersey of the Italian champion, climbing the Passo di Giau in the Giro d’Italia. Four months later, the celeste bikes again made the cover, Gimondi again, this time wearing the jersey of the 1973 world champion.
What a strange colour for a bike, I thought at the time. My own bikes changed colour at the drop of a hat: it was orange at that time… like the Merckx and Ocaña team bikes. Only when I saw a Bianchi in the flesh did the allure of celeste make sense to me. It was different in the best possible way. This first sighting was at Borsari’s Emporium, in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, and would have been in 1974, when I was 16. I’d try to match the colour for my next paint job on my ‘semi-racer’, but it came out more like a light sky blue than the famous quirky shade of green/blue.
The Bianchi factory is the size of a small town, which is virtually what it was not so long ago when over a thousand people worked there. It boasts its own sports ground and a full-size church. The workforce is now only about 70, with most actual production taking place overseas. Design, product development, some product finishing and assembly, and marketing are based at the Italian headquarters.
The predominant colour in the buildings is celeste. And that colour still finds it way onto many of the bikes and most of the marketing material, although much of the range is available in other colours as well. Black, red and white are equally well represented but, to me, a Bianchi without at least a splash of celeste is not a proposition. I am still heavily influenced by those impressions as a 16-year-old.
On the day of my arrival, I joined a convoy of Bianchi vans and company cars on a journey to a convention centre near the shores of Lake Iseo, where the press event was to be held. Each van was loaded to the hilt with exotic bicycles, ready to be viewed, analysed and test-ridden by 40 cycling journalists from all parts of the globe.
Day one was devoted to the expected announcements relating to new models, both road and MTB. My attentions were naturally drawn to the road range with the Oltre XR2 in black and a splash of celeste with Campagnolo Super Record EPS: my favourite in both looks and desirability. The same frame is available in various colour combinations, seven sizes, and with Super Record EPS, Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, Ultegra Di2, or mechanical shifting options from Campagnolo and Shimano as well as SRAM’s Red 22. There is no economy version. This frame is designed for the serious rider. The new Oltre XR2 is said to be an improved design: Bianchi claims the frame is “20 per cent stiffer” and, at 895g, it’s 30g lighter than the previous version.
The Oltre XR2 is a fantastic-looking bike, with the fork crown cleverly integrated into the down tube, forming an aero section at this junction. Brilliant!
It has an aero section seat tube, and matching seatpost. This has the look of an integrated post but is, in fact, a traditional internal sliding unit, making it simple to adjust. The posts are available in four lengths and either 25mm or 30mm setbacks, ostensibly to suit different frame sizes, but also interchangeable, depending on what suits the individual. This is an example of the thought that has gone into these bikes: the designers are listening to feedback from mechanics who actually work on the products.
Internal seatposts have tremendous advantages for shop owners – myself included – who set up countless people on bikes; cap-type seatposts are the bane of our existence.
The most talked about bike at the show was the brand new Oltre XR2 equipped with SRAM hydraulic disc brakes. This is the first road bike with discs that I have seen and it warranted close inspection. The majority of the journalists were disappointed to learn that it was the only bike that would not be available to be ridden – but if a bike could be worn out by being photographed, this one would have been threadbare. It deserves an article in itself, but as disc brakes are not legal for road racing (yet), I’ll just say that the Oltre frame has been beefed up in the areas where the disc brake calipers are mounted, and is equipped with SRAM Red 22. As a conversation starter, it had no equal.
Next in the line-up, but by no means secondary, was the Infinito CV. This is a brand new model, and ‘CV’ stands for Countervail. To explain, I’ll simply quote the marketing, “Countervail is the patented Viscoelastic material embedded within the carbon lay-up…”
This special material is said to reduce vibration in a unique way, and Bianchi set up a sophisticated test rig to demonstrate this technology. (A clip can be viewed online at the Bianchi site and it’s worth a click.)
The Infinito has a taller head tube, longer chainstays and longer wheelbase than the Oltre XR2, and is aimed mainly at the granfondo market, for serious riders who may undertake rides of up to 300km or so, and be on the bike for up to 12 hours in a day. They are also earmarked for professional use, for cobbled Classics such as Paris-Roubaix. The frames are made with clearance for 28mm tyres, a feature that will be appreciated more and more over the next few years, as larger tyres gain the acceptance they deserve with serious cyclists.
The Infinito is available with the same high-end groupsets as the Oltre XR2, with the addition of Chorus and Athena mechanical groups. Emphasising the defined market, all Infinito’s come standard with compact cranks and are available in eight sizes, from 47cm to a whopping 63cm.
Next came the SemprePro, with a 1,050g carbon-fibre frame and groupset options of SRAM Red, Shimano Ultegra Di2, 105, or Campagnolo Veloce. This is cheaper than the Oltre and the Infinito. It is still good enough to be considered a ‘dream bike’, and it is only that the Oltre and Infinito are so sophisticated that this is not the top bike.
Other models included the new Intenso: a mid-level carbon bike, with a frame weight of 1,230g. With ensembles limited to Shimano Ultegra and 105, or Campagnolo Veloce, it is aimed at the keen social rider or weekend racer who can get onto a premium brand carbon bike with quality components, without spending the earth.
The Impulso model is carried over from 2013. It’s an alloy framed bike with hydroformed tubing; the shaping is so sophisticated that it is hard to pick from its carbon cousins. It comes in nine sizes, from a 44cm through to a huge 63cm. Note: if you are after a really small bike without resorting to 650C wheels, the 44 is well worth a look – in celeste it looks fantastic. The Via Nirone 7 is another new model, aimed at the entry level market. With a triple-butted alloy frame and carbon fork, the various component packages available on the Via Nirone represent excellent value and offer the panache of upmarket Bianchi bikes at a fraction of the price.
The Infinito, Intenso, Impulso and Via Nirone models are all available in ‘Dama Bianca’ versions – ie. models that are specifically designed for females.
While I am all for WSD (women’s-specific design), riders need to be careful: some women are better off on a ‘men’s’ frame, just as some men are better off with WSD geometry. It all depends on body type; more particularly, the length of your torso relative to the length of your legs and, to a lesser extent, the length of your arms. This is a story for another time but, suffice to say, the Dama models look sensational and for many women will provide the ideal geometry and fit. They also have a slightly softer aesthetic. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean they are pink, or pink and white, or mauve and white! You guessed it, they are predominantly celeste and white, but with slight alterations to such details as bar tape, seats, tyre colours and handlebar width, could be equally suitable for men or women.
Day two of the formalities dawned fine and warm for the test rides. We were heading for 30-plus degrees again and I couldn’t wait to get my bum on a bike seat, in shorts instead of being rugged up. The 40 journos and 10 Bianchi staff and guests milled around the staging area to select a bike each. Amongst the special guests, much to my delight, was none other than Felice Gimondi, the same 1973 world champion who is still very much a Bianchi stalwart.
It was first come, first dressed for the demo bikes.
I had my hand on the seat of a black Oltre XR2 with Super Record EPS in my size, but took my hand off it for a few seconds to reach behind me for my camera. When I turned around, the bike was gone! I made a beeline for the next 55cm framed machine, and it was another Oltre, this time with mere mechanical Super Record 11-speed. Oh well. I guess the $14,000 bike would just have to do, and my Campagnolo electronic shifting test would have to wait for another time. The saving grace was that I picked probably the lightest ‘race ready’ bike there, with a Fulcrum Racing Zero clincher wheelset.
We all half-listened to a ride briefing, where I heard the words “controlled bunch ride at about 30 kilometres per hour” spoken. And we were to “stay behind the ride leader”. It was a long time since I’d ridden or driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and was thus very conscious of this. I lurked at the back prior to take-off. Immediately it was fast! The “controlled bunch ride” quickly turned into a very quick run through the narrow local lanes.
I am not familiar with typical Italian road surfaces, and I still don’t know whether this was typical, but I swear there was some sort of obstacle at least every 100 metres or so. Manhole covers, speed humps, roundabouts, grilles, potholes, cars squeezing past in both directions, and other riders taking photos of themselves and others as they rode along… it all made for an action-packed ride.
It dawned on me quickly that this test ride was actually the latest (unannounced) round of the ‘International Cycling Journalists Cup’. I had not raced in any previous rounds but I got the feeling that old scores were being settled, and new ones created – all done in the spirit of good fun, of course. But forming riding impressions of the beautiful Oltre XR2 was done while dodging the traffic furniture and traffic. I suppose this was as good a way as any to test a purpose-built race bike in the heat of battle. After a few kilometres of this I put my race face on and every time the tiniest gap appeared in front of me, I jumped into it until I eventually found myself near the front – sitting at about fourth wheel, the safest place to be in a group like this.
Pretty soon we were in one long line, rather than a double pace line. We then followed the lead rider, who was no longer the ride leader – if you get my drift – and attacks went off the front, wrong turns were made… and a great time was had by all. Bike test? I almost forgot, I was there to test the bike! Well, it performed flawlessly.
Any bike you can screw your pedals into, adjust the seat height, jump on and ride in a strange country, on the wrong side of the road, in diverse company, and not have to think about the bike at all, must be okay.
After 35 years of riding the ‘best bikes available that year’, I tend to think that the main criteria for assessing a good bike are really pretty simple. Can you ride it no hands? Can you ride it down a hill at 70 to 80km/h without getting the speed wobbles? Do the front forks shudder or flex under serious braking? These are some of the obvious criteria on my checklist. They all relate to frame geometry and frame integrity. Beyond this, ride quality has to be assessed and this is often a factor of wheelbase, tyre size and inflation pressures. And, of course, the bike must be available in a size that can be set up to suit your body’s particular dimensions and peculiarities.
As it turned out, the 55cm Bianchi Oltre XR2 I rode was the perfect size for me, came equipped with my normal 172.5mm crank length, and my seat height and setback were dialled in to my exact measurements by the factory mechanics. By pure fluke, even the stem length was within a few millimetres of being ideal.
Our first ride/race finished miraculously without mishap and we adjourned for great coffee and pastries. We then assembled for a second ride, for which the general idea was to swap bikes and ride something different. Everyone must have been satisfied with the bike they had, as most left for round two on the same bike as before. After about 20km we climbed a narrow steepish climb, called the Vigolo. This was a single ribbon of bitumen between an almost continuous line of houses, climbing steadily for seven kilometres. Discretion was the better part of valour and, about half the way up, I bowed out, and let the dozen or so riders still in contention get on with it, playing the ‘I’m too old for this’, and ‘I’ve got jet lag’ cards simultaneously.
The climb was worth it for the magnificent view of Lake Iseo, by then far below us. For the price of only 25 minutes of moderate effort, this rates as one of the most spectacular climbs I’ve ever done on a bike. Plenty of gear changing was going on, some of it under load, and I was able to check frame flex by putting a lot of pressure on the pedals while out of the saddle. The brake shoes did not rub on the rims, and the front derailleur cage did not scrape on the chainrings, no matter how hard I tried to ‘flex’ everything. And as I was now on my own, I could now test and tick off the ‘no hands, no worries’ section in my key criteria.
After admiring the view, visiting the inevitable chapel at the top of the climb and taking a photo of the fattest dog I have ever seen, the descent loomed. The brakes on all the test bikes were set up in the ‘Euro’ way: the rear brake activated by the right lever. I was very conscious of this – and my 40 years of acquired responses, and the narrow descent – so was suddenly on a steep learning curve and a steep descent. While coping with the brakes the ‘wrong’ way around, and riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, I waited for a reasonably straight stretch, no cars in sight, and let it go. I’m not sure what speed I got up to, let’s call it 75km/h, but I can tick off the ‘no speed wobbles at speed’ box with confidence.
As the next of many hairpins approached, I was already pretty hard on the brakes, balancing the two levers against all my learned behaviours, when a car appeared at the apex of the corner, coming up the hill. Luckily, I dived for the correct side of the road (after momentarily heading left!), looked into the motorist’s eyes, squeezed the wrong lever just a bit too hard, performed a little front endo, frightened the bejesus out of myself (and the motorist), then darted past. I can now attest to the effectiveness of the Campagnolo brakes, and the rigidity of the front forks and head area of the Oltre. There was no judder, no fuss, and I escaped a potentially serious situation unscathed.
(Note: If riding a strange bike, in a strange country, down a big hill, swap the brakes over to the side you are familiar with before you go, or just don’t go!)
We regrouped at the bottom of the climb, and rode the 20km back to base. I was settling in by now, and bunny hopped a couple of speed humps, did a couple of out of the saddle efforts in the big chainwheel, and generally tried to push the Oltre XR2 closer to its limits. It came through with flying colours, and I started wondering whether it would fit in my suitcase.
While this was a Bianchi test, not a Campagnolo test, I have to say that the Super Record shifters, brakes and drivetrain are superb. While it is about two years since I have used Campagnolo shifters on a daily basis, I soon got used to them again and found the trigger operated downshifts fantastic when my hands were on the hoods which, for me, is most of the time.
Forty years ago, when I first developed my interest in Bianchi, there was only one place in Australia that you could actually buy one. And because it was only a five-hour train journey from my home, at least I was lucky enough to be able to visit Borsari’s Emporium, and dream. Bianchi now has dealers throughout the country and is planning to increase market penetration even more in the coming year. With 128 years of history behind it, the brand holds a unique position in the bicycle world and, if the 2014 model range is anything to go by, serious riders will continue to aspire to ownership.
– Warren Meade