With all that heritage comes expectation – and a bike release from Bianchi always comes with a hefty dose of that – so their Specialissima climber’s bike, launched back in June, automatically had a big set of proverbial boots to fill before a crank had even been turned.
On our first ride in the hills of northern Italy, I was suitably impressed with how the Specialissima handled itself, and the way it combined its light weight (claimed frame weight is just 780g) with reassuring stability, especially downhill – not two qualities you often see together in bikes – but after a couple of months of testing, how has that initial verdict been further shaped?
Well, at the risk of ruining a chance to build anticipation through this review, I’m no less impressed now than I was after that first ride. The Specialissima does as well as any bike can to justify its significant price tag and if I were the sort of person to whom money wasn’t an object I would immediately add one of these to my garage.
The key to understanding the concept of the Specialissima is in understanding what it is, and what it isn’t. If you’re looking at the bike and wondering why it isn’t aero, firstly you’re not quite right and secondly, the Oltre (both the high-end Oltre XR2 used by the LottoNL-Jumbo team and, reviewed here, the more affordable XR1) is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, Bianchi’s aero-influenced bike. The Oltre is still good enough and relevant enough that the Italian’s haven’t done away with it, instead choosing to complement it with a super-light climbing bike: enter the Specialissima.
Built around a 780g frame, the Specialissima’s goal is clear: to be as light a bike as possible while retaining the ride quality and handling that we’ve come to expect from a Bianchi. Sure, there are lighter bikes on the market, but if you’re looking at a bike like the Specialissima, that comes in under 6kg, and asking why it’s not lighter then fair play, you’re obviously an exceptionally ambitious and I salute you.
What I loved about riding the Specialissima is that it’s not just a sub-6kg bike, but one that rides very well indeed, and descends as well as, if not better than, almost anything I’ve ridden. It rides uphill superbly, but ultimately how a bike fares when the gradient steepens has far more to do with the rider than the bike, and the fact that Robert Gesink rode his to seventh in the Tour is as good an indicator that this bike climbs as well as anything around as any anecdotal evidence I can give. For what it’s worth, though, the Specialissima is wonderfully positive uphill. When you ride a very light bike you notice how it reacts slightly differently underneath you, how it moves with each pedal stroke and the way it seems to react when you get out of the saddle. It feels responsive, positive and that in turn fills you with confidence knowing that every ounce of effort you give (in my case, not a particularly impressive amount) is being used by the bike to help you up that hill. Or mountain.
The other headline feature of the Specialissima is the Countervail technology Bianchi have used in the frame. Developed by a company called Materials Sciences Corporation (MSC) for NASA, the gist of Countervail is that it’s a vibration cancelling technology. It’s a layer that sits inside the carbon weave and, according to MSC ‘provides superior vibration canceling [sic], while maintaining structural stiffness and strength needed for high performance applications.’ You might remember that Countervail was first used on Bianchi’s Classics bikes, the Infinito CV, before being applied to their time trial machine, the Aquila CV. Now the Specialissima gets the treatment.
By adding Countervail to the frame, Bianchi were aiming to create a super-light bike that handles with confidence and you could trust when taking corners at high speed. That’s not to say it isn’t lively – it sure is – and a slight lean or weight shift starts the bike turning making it perfect for tight circuits or winding descents but they key point is that much of the nervousness that abounds in super-light bikes, especially at speed over less than perfect roads, just isn’t there with the Specialissima. It’s easy to dismiss Countervail as yet more marketing speak, just another fancy term made up to shift units, but the truth is that whatever Bianchi have done with this bike works. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no a revelation in the sense that you won’t jump on the Specialissima over rough roads and mistake it for riding 42mm tyres over the smoothest surface imaginable – it doesn’t work miracles – but it does take the edge off, making the bike comfortable enough for long rides and giving it a sureness at speed that’s rare among bikes in its weight class.
Spec-wise, there’s everything here you’d expect from a nigh-on ten grand bike. The Campagnolo Super Record EPS drivetrain is complimented by a set of the Italian brand’s Bora Ultra 35 tubular wheels, encased in Vittoria Corsa CX tubs. Bars, stem and seatpost are all from FSA’s top-end K-Force range in their stealth colourway chosen to compliment the frame, no doubt, while Selle San Marco’s Aspide Superleggera saddle sits proudly on top. There’s nothing on the build that isn’t up there with the very best that money can buy, and that’s just as well given that the price tag is one where anything less would feel like a total con. Bianchi are only offering the Specialissima in four builds: the £9,900 Super Record EPS version we have here, Campagnolo Super Record mechanical (£7,900), Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 (£8,900) and Shimano Dura-Ace mechanical (£7,000). Or you can pick up the frameset for a cool £3,450. Needless to say it’s one of those bikes where if you have to ask what the RRP is, you can’t afford it.
Other than the price tag, the element most likely to deter certain riders from the Specialissima is the geometry: this is a pro bike, and it certainly fits like one. A short 130mm head tube means you’re low whether you like it or not, and the short 406mm chainstays (on our 53cm test bike) coupled with the 535mm top tube and 500mm seat tube mean that it’s made for racing and if you’re not, you might find the fit a touch too aggressive.
The Specialissima is a superb bike. Bianchi have clearly put and awful lot of time and effort into its development, achieving the low frame weight without sacrificing anything in the way it handles, and it shows in the fantastic ride quality. The way the Specialissima climbs, the way it descends and the way it handles rough roads are all at least as good as anything else out there. It’s just a shame that the price is so high most of us will have to be content dreaming about riding one rather than having the pleasure of actually doing so.
– Fantastic ride quality that’ll take the edge off rough roads
– Extremely good both downhill and up
– Spec is top notch
– The reason the frame and spec is so good is because the price tag is huge