Bianchi Oltre XR4
Joined in Bianchi’s range last year by the superlight Specialissima, the "lagship Oltre is free to go fully aero with the new XR4 generation. Procycling’s Jamie Wilkins tests it
S o significant a step forward is this bike over its predecessor that Bianchi skipped straight from XR2 to XR4. While fans of 80s fast Fords may feel cheated; the rest of us can rejoice. The Oltre XR2 was a good bike but a conflicted one. Alone at the top of Bianchi’s range it was burdened by lightness, by its duty to perform in the mountains as well as on the flat. Consequently, it was neither especially light nor aero and was put into the shade by more focused rivals.
The arrival last year of the lightweight, rangetopping and magnificent Specialissima caused a great deal of excitement but at least as importantly it represented the emancipation of the Oltre. Thanks to its new superlight sibling, the Oltre is freed from trying to be all things to all riders and may now finally be a full-gas aero bike.
The mission for the development team may have been a singular one – speed – but they approached it from two sides, drawing on expertise acquired during previous projects. Aerodynamics was one path, informed by the Aquila time trial bike; comfort was the other, with a new end goal for Bianchi’s Countervail technology, a viscoelastic fibre that is claimed to reduced vibration by up to 80 per cent. Rather than simply trying to increase comfort for its own sake, Bianchi say that the use of Countervail in a bike such as the Oltre XR4 allows the rider to hold a more aerodynamic position for longer, and as we all know the rider causes 80-90 per cent of the total drag. It’s sound logic and it addresses the most common weakness of aero-road bikes – that airfoil shapes tend to be as compliant as a rogue dictator.
Bianchi claim that the XR4 saves its rider 20 watts of effort at 50kph, all else being equal. That’s a big chunk, when you consider that even top professionals have a one-hour maximum of around 420W. Most saliently, it means that Bianchi-mounted riders will be back on level terms in the peloton’s aero arms race.
Those precious watts were mined in a virtual environment using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) then cut and polished in the Magny-Cours wind tunnel in France. The all-new frameset features a more slender, tapered headtube with an air-piercing ‘nose’ and a reduced 1.4” lower bearing. The new fork has legs bowed like a cowboy’s, reducing pressure caused by forward rotating spokes fighting incoming air at speed. The downtube and seatstays have more pronounced airfoil profiles, the seatpost is sleeker and its clamp is now an entirely hidden expander in the toptube. One quarter of the 20W total saving is credited to the new Vision 5D one-piece handlebar and stem which is fitted to all but the two lowest models. Similar designs have appeared on most new aero-road bikes in the last two years because, as the vanguard in the bike’s battle with the wind, it’s easy pickings. It’s not without compromise, though: while it comes in four stem lengths, each has a single bar width. Just get your dealer to sort it if none suits you.
One area where this bike certainly does not make aerodynamic gains is its wheelset. The Campagnolo Bora Ultra 50 tubs are light (claimed 1,215g) and have exotic carbon fibre hubs with ceramic bearings
Fitting Boras to a £10k aero bike is as surprising as a reality television personality reaching the White House, yet here we are
but when their skinny, V-profile rims were last considered cutting-edge, America was yet to have its first black president. They’re twitchy in gusts of wind and known to be much slower in all conditions, especially crosswinds, than the blunt profiles long since adopted by every other serious wheel brand. The idea of fitting Boras to a £10k aero bike in 2017 is as surprising as a reality television personality reaching the White House, and yet here we are. Of these two surprises, it remains possible to opt out of one of them without waiting four years. The Boras are an optional upgrade from standard fit Fulcrum Racing Zeroes on our Super Record test bike, punching the price through the five-figure barrier.
The wheels are just one of many options. The Oltre XR4 is available with eight groupsets – mechanical and electronic versions of Campagnolo and Shimano drivetrains, plus SRAM Red eTap. Each build has at least one optional upgrade wheel and the top models can be spec’d with a Rotor INpower crankset. The 5D bar can be added to the Chorus and Ultegra entrylevel (ahem) models, and to the £3,400 frameset, for an extra £550. Despite this, Bianchi tell us that over 80 per cent of orders are for framesets. They are also currently working on a disc-brake model.
While not officially an option, if you’re willing to wait longer for your bike to be delivered you can also choose your crank length and gearing. It always strikes me as odd when an aero bike comes with ratios for winching yourself up the most precipitous excesses of a Giro Dolomite stage; the 11-27 cassette is annoyingly gappy compared to an 11-25, though I’d concede that the only issue with a compact crankset outside of a race is that it looks weedy on an otherwise aggressive bike, like swapping Schwarzenegger’s huge rotating barrel minigun in
Terminator 2 for James Bond’s Walter PPK. The Super Record groupset gives few other causes to grumble. It looks beautiful, weighs little and shifts crisply. Yes, the thumb levers are slightly awkward to reach, especially when out of the saddle, and their lack of differentiated weighting between the stiff first shift and the further available three means that it’s all too easy to blast through several sprockets when you only wanted one, but the Italophiles at whom this 100 per cent Bel Paese build is targeted won’t care and, besides, there’s much else to like. The brake levers and the horns of the hoods have wonderfully organic shapes that fit into your hands more naturally than Shimano and SRAM equivalents. The braking power and feel from these dual-mount Skeleton calipers is also superior and not only to that of rival brands but to discs, too. Some disc set-ups offer more power than this but I think they sacrifice modulation in its
pursuit. This ability to shed speed is made necessary by the XR4’s voracious appetite for accumulating it. The frame is very stiff under power so your energy investments are transmitted commission-free and then seized upon by the light wheels. In short, it’s rewarding and fun to ride fast.
It’s smooth, too. While Bianchi’s claims for its Countervail tech are hard to verify this is a more comfortable ride than most aero bikes. Granted, the supple Vittoria Corsa G+ 25mm tubs deserve a share of the credit but they can’t do all of the work. The same tyres fitted to a harsh bike such as the (otherwise ace) Cannondale CAAD12 only serve to limit the beating, like a fighter wearing boxing gloves rather than knuckledusters. The 25mm tubs feel too big for the skinny Boras and they are noticeably unsupported as you honk the bike. It feels like wheel flex. The bar has an ergonomic forward sweep and long drops that make up for the fixed angle. It’s a shame that it doesn’t have a Garmin mount as lashing one to the stem spoils the view. Plusher bar tape would also be nice, though, like the light but knife-like Fizik Arione R3 saddle, that’s down to personal preference.
Any judgements on the aerodynamic efficiency of the Oltre XR4 are undermined by the recalcitrant wheels and, more so, by the heavy winter kit required during a testing period in which the temperature averaged below freezing and dipped to -8ºC. However, based on experience and power output, this feels like a fast frameset. I’d be very happy to race it myself.
Now just 6.5kg in this spec, and unflappable under power, the Oltre climbs so adeptly that it slightly undermines the position of the Specialissima which isn’t tangibly stiffer and only saves around 200g. But actually it’s simple. The glorious Specialissima is for those looking for a bike to cherish, climbing fanatics and the most nefarious of uphill TTs. The Oltre XR4, now as light, stiff, comfortable and (I think) fast as any rival, is for every other occasion when you’re wearing a number or want to go as fast as you can.
Sincere apologies for the stacked stem. Imagine it slammed and this bike looks fantastic
Campagnolo’s dualmount calipers with carbon speci ic pads deliver outstanding, disc-beating braking