This feature appeared in the January issue of Procycling magazine. To subscribe, click here.
Bianchi constantly update their range-topping Oltre frame. Marcel Wüst tests the latest iteration, the XR2, and finds it just as hard to resist. The Bianchi Oltre will be used by the LottoNL-Jumbo team in 2015.
Another year, another Bianchi Oltre. This is the fourth version I’ve tested, having previously ridden the Oltre, the Oltre XR and the Oltre XR Superleggera. It seems that Bianchi can’t resist launching a new model as soon as they find a way to make an improvement and you have to respect that attitude. The difficulty for me is that, as with other manufacturers that produce new models with amazing regularity, every time I receive the latest one I wonder if I’m going to notice the differences. Trimming 50g from the weight of the frame is entirely worthwhile but it’s near impossible to feel.
However, I’ve always really loved the Bianchi Oltre, especially their design and handling, so it’s no hardship reviewing a new one. Of course, that also means that I would be more disappointed than usual if I found that they had ruined it! Thankfully, it quickly became clear that they hadn’t.
Just the way the XR2 looks is instantly appealing. I love the celeste paintjob and all the little details that leave you in no doubt where it was made: an Italian flag, an ‘Italian Design’ logo and – my favourite – a ‘Handmade in Italy’ sticker on the seat-tube near the bottom bracket.
It’s a bike begging to be ridden and when I started to turn over the pedals, the fun feeling was immediate. There was a time in the cycling industry (probably called “back in the old days”) when it would have been impossible for a famous Italian bike manufacturer not to use Campagnolo equipment on their frames. Times have changed but my top-of-the-range Oltre XR2 came with the latest Campagnolo Super Record groupset, which I hadn’t ridden for a while. It took about five shifts before I was experiencing a nostalgic ‘Campy feeling’.
Because I started my ride on top of the hill where Kai and I had finished the photo shoot, I had a good two-kilometre downhill ride in front of me. As I got out of the saddle, the tubular deep-section Fulcrum wheels rewarded me with that distinctive whooshing sound and I felt like I was in race mode straight away. The ride down confirmed what I’d suspected when I was taking corners at a more leisurely pace for Kai’s photos: the XR2 has a frame every bit as agile the previous models.
Because of this agility I was tempted to negotiate every corner as fast as possible, which I did most of the time. The best way to describe the handling is: incredibly stiff, like you’re on rails. The Veloflex tyres, still featuring the old school fish-bone pattern on the sides, made me feel comfortable right away.
The tubular tyres have another advantage when it comes to cornering fast – feedback. Every time I approached the ‘danger zone’ on a corner, the tyres pretty much told me when it was time to ease up. With its shorter headtube (compared to so-called gran fondo or sportive frames) and the immense stiffness of the bottom bracket, the Oltre is clearly made for racing.
The BB 386 bottom bracket is not only very solid and doesn’t seem to lose any pedal power, it also has a flowing shape that fits perfectly into the rest of the frame design. The derailleur cables are guided through a rail underneath and the rear one stays on the outside of the frame for the rest of its journey to the rear dropouts and the beautiful carbon derailleur. This makes the derailleur cable a lot easier to change than one you never see again until it exits the chainstay.
Aerodynamic features, Campagnolo Super Record components
The frame design includes a number of aerodynamic features that promise you that the faster you go the more advantage you’re going to get: the sculpted headtube improves airflow without giving up any stiffness, the fork and downtube are both shaped for aero and their shapes integrate together, and the seat-tube and seatpost have an airfoil-derived shape. While it isn’t an all-out aero-road bike like a Felt AR, Bianchi have used wind tunnels as part of the Oltre’s development since the first version.
It wasn’t just the aerodynamics that gave me the impression I was speeding along – the whole bike delivers that great feeling you get when the pain starts to develop in your legs but you know you don’t have to go beyond the point where it really hurts… In short, it’s a fast bike!
Usually, aero-shaped frames are a bit lacking on the comfort side, particularly when the seatstays are shaped to reduce drag more than vibration. On the XR2 they seem to be engineered in the same way as on the previous Oltre: really flat all the way down from the brake mount until just before the dropouts. I remember seeing stays like these on the early Cervélo R3, a bike that was known for its comfort, and the Oltre XR2 is similarly smooth.
The rear brake is mounted on the wishbone seat stays instead of a bridge. The red Campagnolo brake pads did make a bit of noise at first but it soon vanished and then the dosage and the performance were unreal. The ergonomic brake levers are very responsive so you don’t need much pressure to reduce your speed and when approaching corners fast I always knew that I could rely on the Super Record Skeleton calipers.
Easing up a bit down in the valley, I was surprised by the intensity of the headwind I had to face there. Not yet in the mood for inflicting any pain on myself, I stayed on the big chainring most of the time but with a compact crankset that’s easy enough. The chain seemed to run smoother than ever on the super-light (and expensive) titanium 11-25 cassette. The derailleur was perfectly adjusted. In fact, no matter how much that I tried to find something to moan about, I simply couldn’t.
The FSA cockpit is all carbon and the OS-99 stem is not only super-light but super-stiff as well. The K-Force handlebar, as well as matching the stem, has a slightly flattened top and a gentle curve that makes it comfortable in every grip position.
Accelerating out of the saddle
To avoid the wind I moved into the drops without speeding up much. I wanted to save my legs for a timed climb of the hill of the day. As I approached the three-kilometre climb, I was curious if I would be able to manage an average of around 20kph. For sure, the gradient is consistent and not particularly steep – a big-ring climb for most of us, especially with compact chainrings!
Leaving the main road, I started the stopwatch, and took off without even getting out of the seat. I shifted up so that I reached the cadence I needed to maintain for the entire climb. I estimated I’d be going at this pace for at least nine minutes, and anything below 10 would still be alright.
Sometimes, though, things just don’t go to plan, and as soon as you start to push really hard the bike you felt comfortable on moments before suddenly becomes an instrument of torture, especially if you’re not in your usual physical condition. Well, it was the end of the season and I really had to push myself through this.
Only twice did I come out of the saddle, after a couple of the sharper turns, but for the rest of the climb I sat down, tried to get as much air in my lungs as possible and pushed through. Nearing the top I saw that I was going to finish just outside my target of 10 minutes. Mentally exploding, I grudgingly threw the bike on the small ring just a few meters before the final tree (no finish lines here). I have to be honest, the bike is better than my legs were but that’s true of many bikes and most legs, so no big deal. On the few occasions when I had the power to stand up on the pedals out of corners the bike accelerated right away and everything felt exactly how I like it: stiff frame, smooth shifts, fast wheels.
In fact, I was especially impressed with the Fulcrums, which are light and reliable. When reaching speeds beyond 40kph I really felt the aero advantage they gave me and I made the most of that on the rest of the ride because after the downhill I had the wind at my back and some energy left. I believe this proves that I could have cracked 10 minutes but neither the Oltre nor I really cared.
One area where I usually find something to complain about is the seatpost – but not here. The Oltre’s is aerodynamic with an integrated clamp and the mechanism seems to be gentle on the carbon rails of the Arione saddle. Most importantly, it’s easy to adjust, even with a basic multi-tool.
In fact, my only complaint about the Oltre XR2 was something that I didn’t discover until the next, longer ride. In the car park where we started the ride, I tried to mount a second bidon cage. I only had a multi-tool with me but the green anodised screws on the bike are Torx. So the cut-off bidon with the spare tubular went into my jersey pocket and off I went for some more fun.
Thanks to Bianchi for yet another brilliant Oltre. You know what? I’m already looking forward to testing the XR3!