The new normal.
Though it's only been an official model in Bianchi's line-up since summer, the Oltre XR.4 Road Bike Frameset haunted the peloton throughout 2016 as a series of all-purpose prototypes beneath the black and yellow jerseys of LottoNL-Jumbo. We won't spill Bianchi's beans, but spot-checking images of the Dutch team throughout the year (typical behavior in the Competitive office) reveals a sprinkling of framesets that don't quite line up with the Italian brand's catalogue of officially available models.
There are two takeaways from this observation. First, Bianchi clearly supplemented the engineering side of its XR.4 R&D with what, for we cyclists, is infinitely more attractive: feedback from the organic experiences of some of the world's most accomplished, knowledgeable, and discerning experts on how a bike should feel. Second, we often have a lot of trouble concentrating on work when we'd rather be on the bike. The two conclusions are actually related, too, because the effortless responsiveness that LottoNL-Jumbo's feedback helped Bianchi tease out of the Oltre XR.4 makes us want to get out on the bike even more.
No amount of rider feedback can turn a dumpy noodler into a rocket ship, but since Bianchi was starting with the already impressive Oltre XR.2, interstellar travel wasn't that far away. Compared to the XR.2, the XR.4's changes include deeper, more pronounced tube cross sections, an integrated seatpost clamp design, a lower seatstay junction, and the inclusion of Bianchi's Countervail technology.
Engineering aside for now, our most important question (and the one pertaining to the LottoNL-Jumbo feedback) is: How does it feel to ride it? The answer is very, very fast. As we mentioned above, the Oltre XR.4 is responsive enough to inspire rocket ship metaphors, a trait it owes to its oversized tubes, intimidating bottom bracket, and the high-modulus carbon fiber that the Countervail elastomer is designed to support. It obviously loves the flats, but even on punchy hills or long, grueling mountain passes, the Oltre XR.4 never leaves us feeling off our pedal stroke. No matter the terrain, the drive spine seems to always feel high-strung, eager to accelerate and with no noticeable mushiness or dead spots.
The Oltre XR.4 does carry a few extra grams than your typical climbing frame (Bianchi's own Specialissima weighs ~200g less), but it inspires more confidence at high speeds and while contesting lines in corners and sprints. Its robust body means the XR.4 also approaches those sprints with the menacing inevitably of stylized violence in ironically exploitive postmodern cinema. That is to say it winds up in an instant—no gradual escalation needed—and when it goes it goes in spectacular fashion. It's a true all-around bike, and this collection of traits explains why LottoNL-Jumbo uses the Oltre XR.4 in almost every race, relegating the Specialissima for use in the high-mountains and the Infinito for the stones.
We'll touch on the material changes between generations (namely the inclusion of Countervail) below, but for now we'll focus on the fact that the Oltre XR.4's different tube shapes produce a claimed increase of 20 free watts by simply reducing drag. The tools Bianchi used to achieve this range from the usual (Computational Fluid Dynamics software and wind tunnel testing) to the decidedly unusual (fluorescent paint applied in the wind tunnel that mapped the flow of air across the frameset's body).
Bianchi says the paint trick—borrowed from the aero-obsessed motorsport industry—represents the first time that this technique has been used in developing a bicycle frame. We say that it's borderline criminal to spoil a Bianchi paint job with glow-in-the-dark slop. Those drag savings do go some way toward assuaging our umbrage, though, and even to the naked eye the frame does present a noticeably reduced leading edge to the wind, with the head tube in particular bearing a remarkable resemblance to Bianchi's contre-la-montre bike, the Aquila CV.
The material changes are, of course, not apparent to the naked eye; however, they may be more important than the adjusted tube shapes. As mentioned above, the XR.4 is the first of the Oltre line to incorporate Bianchi's Countervail vibration damping technology. Countervail is a proprietary viscoelastic carbon layer in the frame that devours vibration and road noise without compromising stiffness. Up in the third paragraph, we employed a noodler-to-rocket ship metaphor. While that's obviously a bit of poetic license, there is some truth to it, as Countervail was actually developed by a US-based firm called the Material Sciences Corporation, which developed the technology for use by NASA itself. If Countervail is good enough to help keep actual rocket ships from tearing apart at speeds of around 20,000mph, then we're happy to have it on our figurative ones.
Returning to terra firma, Bianchi's been using Countervail in its featherweight climbing frames for some time now in order to balance the harshness of the punishing moduli that tend to define those frames, but the brand argues that it's almost more appropriate in this, the heavier aerodynamic line. We aren't sure if it’s the revised shaping or the addition of Countervail that's responsible for the XR.4's weight increase of around 40g. Regardless, Bianchi assures us that the added weight is worth it—especially when the frame's claimed weight is still below 1,000g.
According to Bianchi, Countervail actually improves aerodynamics not by reshaping the frame but by reshaping the rider. Ok, it doesn't technically reshape the rider, but it does limit the punishment of road vibrations, taking some of the sting out of contorting into an aerodynamic position and letting you stay aggressively tucked for longer. That equates to less time acting as a human-shaped parachute clinging to the back of a technologically advanced frame shape and more time shedding drag—the benefits of which are obvious. At terminal velocities, road chatter can also contribute to instability and tempt us into a self-defeating series of micro-corrections that produce speed wobbles and force us to slow down or risk losing control. By reducing chatter, Countervail reduces that risk and allows for more speed when the gap is tenuous, at best.
Finally, a note on brakes: we find that the Oltre XR4 pairs best with two front-specific direct-mount brakes. Yes, even in the back.
- An all-around road racing frameset
- Versatile geometry suitable for all racing conditions
- Carbon lay-up with elastomer to damp road noise
- Aerodynamics informed by motorsport technology
- Oversized tubes for responsive power
- Direct-mount brakes provide confident stopping power