So what's the news on this 2013 Bianchi Oltre XR? Bianchi, you know - it's the world's oldest existing bike brand. Oltre? It's Italian for ‘over' but suggests ‘extra, something over and above'.
And XR? The same initials as Ford cars beloved of 1980s boy racers (XR2i, XR3i), though we doubt that's an allusion Bianchi intended - unless it's trying to appeal to the now-grown-up boy racer demographic. Actually, if you worked in marketing, ‘XR' probably could stand for ‘Extreme Racing', as indeed Bianchi intends.
The Oltre XR is an update of Bianchi's top-spec racing frameset, the Oltre, introduced in 2011. This full carbon monocoque model - one of seven Oltre XRs in the line-up - is built with the 2013 Campagnolo Athena EPS electronic shifting groupset, Fulcrum Racing 3 wheels with FSA's SL-K stem and Wing Pro bars.
At the technical presentation, the ex-racers in Bianchi's R&D department made a great play of the frame being ‘super-light' and ‘super-rigid,' a bike ‘for the most expert riders'. I confess that on the initial bedding-in test rides, I deliberately avoided the worst surfaces, wary of a pounding, but by the end of the test period was merrily ploughing through whatever the winter weather and council budget cuts had done to the roads. Far be it from me to suggest that this is not a rigid frame and fork, but it is far less punishing than you might expect from a bike endorsed by a UCI WorldTour team.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the design brief was to create a ‘super-rigid and super-lightweight' machine with no compromise in handling. After only a few pedal revolutions, it's obvious this is a top-flight racing bike as you skip over ripples in the tarmac and feel the contours of every stone chip. Those used to less single-minded machinery might call it unrefined, but racing types will love the direct feel of the Bianchi. For others, it's a very small price to pay for a bike that rewards every ounce of effort with a tangible feeling of forward motion.
Concessions to comfort haven't been totally neglected in the quest for high performance. The exquisitely slender seat stays, the lay-back all-carbon aero seatpost and the celeste-and-white carbon rail saddle each plays a part in damping road shocks without compromising useful stiffness.
Clearly, though, a bike is more than a frame and fork. It's the complete package - from tyres and wheels to the key contact points in bars, stem, seatpost and saddle - that determines overall comfort.
It's the lack of weight and consequent ease of acceleration that strike you most, especially if you have been accustomed to riding a heavier bike. Out of the saddle, keeping a bigger gear going on rolling hills or sprinting up a short incline, the Bianchi feels simultaneously rock solid through bars and fork, unyielding at the crank and bottom bracket yet feather-light and lively at the rear.
Bianchi prides itself in understanding how to assemble tubes into a frame with appropriate steering and seat angles and the right amount of fork trail. You wouldn't imagine this accomplishment to be beyond any manufacturer, yet there are some bikes on which you feel at ease more quickly than on others.
The Oltre XR is definitely one of those bikes. The balance and dimensions suited me from the off. Now, this could be down to me being completely average in every dimension, or it could be a coincidence, but it's a ‘trick' that Bianchi has a supernatural knack of pulling off, making responsive, fast-turning yet stable, neutral bikes that seem to suit everyone.
With Shimano 105 pedals, the bike tipped the scales at 7.44kg, though Bianchi claims the frame, fork and seatpost alone are 1.44kg, so you could build a lighter bike than this spec. In fact, we know someone who has built an Oltre XR with Campag Super Record and Fulcrum XLR that weighs just 6.2kg.
This bike adorns showrooms carrying a £6,250 price tag that, for everyone I know, is a shed-load of credit card debt. When you spend that kind of money, you need to feel that you're getting something special.
The frame alone costs £3,200 and for that you are buying a fine piece of sculpted, moulded carbon and titanium that ticks many design boxes - the tapered head tube, the aero down tube, massive yet smooth BB30, chainstays that could withstand a lump hammer (don't!) those beautifully slim seatstays running into a slender top tube and all-carbon seatpost, and of course that stunning aero fork. It's just a shame someone didn't have a word about the routing of the cables flapping around that sculpted head tube.
It's probably no coincidence that less than two years ago the Italian company invested in high-tech facilities in the R&D department. Previously most of the testing was done on feel rather than by computer simulation.
The Oltre XR is arguably the most advanced Bianchi yet, and very likely the shape of things to come from the oldest firm in cycling.