There's nothing quite like a Bianchi in the Italian marque's iconic celeste colourway to raise the blood pressure and quicken the pulse - not least the Oltre XR4. Fortunately, based on this initial spin on the rolling roads in northern Italy, Bianchi's new aero machine delivers a ride which backs up its lightning-quick, muscular physique.
The Oltre XR4 is best described as an evolution, rather than a complete overhaul of the existing Oltre XR2, but there's plenty going on both externally and, crucially as far as the XR4 is concerned, internally. The Oltre is the fourth machine to join Bianchi's Countervail family, utilising the vibration-dampening technology to improve the comfort of what is otherwise a race bike in every sense.
Because that's how it rides: pin-sharp handling fit for the pro peloton; stiff, oversized tubes unwavering in the face of power; and, ultimately, very, very quick.
If you missed our initial launch report on the Oltre XR4, you can find that here. Let's quickly recap, though. In short, the XR4 casts a deeper shadow that the XR2; its tubes (mainly the fork, downtube, seattube and seatstays) have been elongated to boost its aero credentials and it's bulkier throughout, giving the frame more aggressive edge. The shape of the fork, along with that of the headtube, takes inspiration from Bianchi's time trial bike, the Aquila CV, while the seatpost clamp is now an aero, wedge-style design, and Bianchi have worked with Vision to develop the new Metron 5D integrated handlebar specifically for the Oltre.
The Oltre XR4 is undoubtedly an aero bike but Bianchi see it more as an all-rounder with a carefully crafted blend of low weight, stiffness, aerodynamics, race-worthy handling and comfort. Bianchi’s road product manager, Angelo Lecchi, says they set out not to necessarily create the stiffest or fastest bike, but one which brings together the complete package. It's why riders on the Bianchi-sponsored LottoNL-Jumbo team will, by and large, ride the Oltre XR4 for most races, rather than the super-light Specialissima climbing bike or Infinito CV endurance bike, which are altogether more specialist.
So, how does it ride? What's immediately obvious is the Oltre XR4 laps up power - it's a very stiff frame, always ready for more punishment. Step on the pedals, powering in the saddle to close a gap on the flat or rising to sprint or accelerate on a climb and the XR4 feels incredibly taut beneath you.
It's an extremely fast bike and aerodynamics play a significant role in that. Bianchi say the Oltre XR4 is not only stiffer than the XR2, but offers 20 'free' watts, too, though Bianchi haven't released full details of that test, nor are we able to substantiate that claim. Still, Bianchi took no chances in Italy, decking out journalists in slippery aero kit (helmet and shoe covers included) and equipping every bike in deep-section wheels. What can be said, however, is the combination of the Oltre's stiff chassis and its aero design makes for an extremely rapid machine which is not only quick to get up to speed, but holds it once there.
The frame has gained 40g in weight, rising to 980g, compared to the Oltre XR2 but that's reasonably impressive given the tubes are bulkier across the board. Our test ride took in a 3.5km climb and the Oltre was a very willing companion as the road rose, and didn't feel laboured as some aero bikes can. While Bianchi's dedicated climbing bike, the Specialissima, comes in at 780g, anything below one kilogram is on the mark for an aero bike and it's still a frame capable of accommodating a lightweight build, given a significant budget.
On that point, Bianchi will offer the Oltre XR4 in eight builds, with options from Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM, and our test bike was as high-end as it comes, with Campagnolo Super Record EPS and Campagnolo Bora Ultra wheels for a thoroughly Italian feel. The frame felt a match for the equipment hung on it, not least those Bora wheels, purring when ran up to speed and whirring when braking into a corner.
What about Countervail? Fatigue and control are Bianchi's watchwords for the vibration-cancelling technology, so what's that got to do with aerodynamics? In some ways, nothing, and Countervail's raison d'etre remains the same as when initially introduced on the Infinito CV endurance bike - to reduce fatigue over rough roads and help the rider stay fresher, for longer.
Now for the aerodynamics part - Bianchi say Countervail's comfort-enhancing properties will help the rider maintain a more aggressive position - on the drops - for longer. There's some logic to that - the rider accounts for 80 per cent of the aerodynamic drag, so there are a far more significant gains to be made there than on the frame itself - but, needless to say, there's more to bike fit than the compliance of the frame.
As a result, we'll need significantly longer in the saddle to make a call on Countervail - and its application in the Oltre - but first impressions in Italy suggest the XR4 offers an impressive level of comfort for a race bike, not least an aero bike with this level of stiffness. The roads in this part of Italy are typically smoother than those in the UK, but the Oltre XR4 handled the broken tarmac and potholes we did come across very well - it's not a completely isolating experience, but there's definitely a sense that the frame is cushioning the ride, particularly through the rear end, with more buzz felt through the Vision handlebar.
Speaking of which, the Metron 5D integrated 'bar and stem has a flattened top, designed to cut through the wind, and the leading edge is more pronounced than on Canyon's Aerocockpit handlebar, but over a 90-minute ride we had no problem switching hand positions across the 'bar, from the hoods, to the tops, to the drops. More time in the saddle will reveal more.
On to the handling and, along with the stiffness of the frame and the XR4's raw speed, this is where the Oltre's racing DNA is most obviously felt. The XR4 is incredibly quick under hand and reacts to the slightest movement of the handlebar. It's pin-sharp and just about as quick as we've experienced, reinforcing the Oltre's position as an unadulterated race bike but also taking a little getting used to on a twisting descent. We'll need to get the XR4 back to the UK to fully get to grips with its handling under pressure.
On that note, we're looking forward to the Oltre XR4 landing at RCUK HQ for a full review. Based on our time on it so far, it's an intoxicating bike to ride.