Last year, the brains at storied Italian bike-maker Bianchi took the seemingly inexplicable decision to not produce an Oltre XR.3.
The three previous iterations of Bianchi's top end road bike—the Oltre's XR, XR.1, and XR.2—were hits, passionate marriages of race stiffness, X-rated looks, and some modicum of comfort. So why not XR.3?
It seems Bianchi decided that the next version of the Oltre was going to be so much better that it did away with 3 entirely and skipped straight to the XR.4.
A cyclist's conversion
The first time I sat on the XR.4 I was skeptical. The bike uses Bianchi's recently developed Countervail technology, which claims to reduce vibrations by 80 per cent. That is a very big number, especially when riding the lumpy asphalt in and around New York City. To achieve this miracle, Bianchi says they spoke to NASA and some Formula 1 engineers. OK then.
The reality was better than I had expected. A pot-hole still feels like a pot-hole, yes, and if you ride full into a curb there'll still be a parting of ways with the handle-bars, but the lower-frequency vibrations are gone. Even over the more distressed sections of the road, the feedback from the XR.4 is spongy, more like the memory of a sensation rather than the thing itself.
It's a ride quality that belies the XR.4's racing credentials, and I was duped by it as I pedaled, still half asleep, into a sprint. Big mistake. The bike lurched out from under me, transformed into a brutal, air-punching missile; the handlebars suddenly taut and unforgiving, relaying the road in unadulterated shudders. Then I eased off and the buttermilk softness returned instantly.
High velocity, high cost, design
This is exactly what Countervail is supposed to do: allow you to ride tempo in comfort and snap into outright attack with a single pedal stroke. And the XR.4 snaps like a snared alligator. The carbon frame is as stiff as I've ridden, and the up-sized bottom bracket catches and transmits every watt you put into it.
It's a combination that doesn't come cheap. Oltre, which literally translates as "over," could just as easily be read as "over AU$13,000."
The model I rode had Campagnolo Super Record 11-speed mechanical groupset (cogs, chain, brakes, gear-shifters, etc.), with a compact 50/34 crank set, and Fulcrum Racing Zero C17 carbon clincher wheels. Though the Fulcrums lack the race pedigree – and certainly beauty – of the Campagnolo Bora Ultras that the show models of this bike have, they are $1369 cheaper, lightweight, and don't undermine the stiffness of the frame. This set comes in at roughly $14,600.
For the Super Record EPS (electronic) version, the price climbs to $17,743 – or a full $1369 more than the Shimano Dura Ace Di2 version, which, while sullying the Italian purity of the bike, is probably the best groupset out there. Bianchi also offers versions of the XR.4 with Dura Ace mechanical and SRAM eTap groupsets. There is no low-budget version, with the eTap at $14,739 footing the range.
For the XR.4, Bianchi has switched to direct mount brakes, the rear of which snuggles pleasingly behind the seatstays. The tightly sculpted seat post is an augury to the preposterously aero cut of the bike's cockpit (front end); the snubbed, flat sweep of the Vision Metron handlebars look like a squashed shark head.
The flatroad specialist
Despite its lightness – 6.9kg built up – I wouldn't buy the XR.4 for its climbing chops. For a start, the width of the handlebars makes for uncomfortable gripping: on longer climbs, I felt like I was clutching a boomerang and ended up reverting to the bar hoods. But I also found the bike somehow lacking the whip it possesses on flats; the power transfer was there but the responsiveness felt dulled.
Descending is a different matter. This is a flat road specialist, make no mistake, but its handling downhill is monstrously sharp. A light touch, or drag of the elbow and the XR.4 bends instantly into the turn. More than that, it seems to hold a line in the way a well-edged ski might: you can lob it into corners with relative impunity and again and again it will find its way out. It's hard to isolate how much of this is the Countervail doing its magic and how much it is just a well-balanced, lightweight frame doing what it supposed to do, but either way, it's a dream to go downward on.
It is also a Bianchi and, as such, stunning. The Italian company has removed the angled edges carried on the earlier XR iterations, giving the tubes, forks, and seatstays a squeezed-toothpaste softness. The change in cut of the frame goes beyond cosmetic and will, Bianchi says, save a rider travelling in excess of 31MPH some 20 watts of power – a largely pointless gain unless you're among the world's top pros, although it does look nice. The standard colour choice is the company's iconic Celeste green, but I actually think the second option of gloss black looks better in a less-than-friendly kind of way. Whichever, a lot of people will look at you if you ride this bike.
But there are cheaper ways to get attention. The XR.4 costs north of $13,000 for a reason. Don't be fooled by its melliferous ride quality: underneath is a stiff, mean race machine. Spend the money if you plan to use it accordingly.