Strong, light, and cheap: choose two. That was Keith Bontrager’s oft quoted approach to bike components. When it comes to bikes, a similar rule can be applied to ‘stiff, aero, light or comfortable’. It’s rare that you can have all four - in fact, three is quite a stretch: but Bianchi have aimed to provide exactly that heady mix in the shape of their Oltre XR4. Just don’t expect ‘cheap’ to fit into the blend, too.
The Bianchi Oltre XR4 is an aero road bike, with a frame weight of 980g. It’s as stiff as an old oak tree that put its roots down a century or so ago, yet somehow the frame maintains the comfortable characteristics you might expect from a magic-carpet: the combination seems like a contradiction until you try it.
The Oltre XR4 was first unveiled in July 2016 – it’s the fourth edition in a series – and follows the XR2 (there is no XR3 – the XR1 was the more cost efficient version of the XR2 so hold that thought on when the XR3 will arrive). In the redesign, Bianchi have focused on aerodynamics and comfort – the former proven in a wind tunnel and the latter apparent on our test rides.
To get the elephant out the way – Bianchi do offer female specific bikes with updated handlebars, stem and saddle options for women. The brand sponsors several female athletes, and in the UK they've put their weight behind the Bianchi Dama Road Cycling Team. The Oltre XR4 is not available with a women’s specific fit – but it does come in seven sizes, right down to a 47cm frame. The 50cm frame we tested came with a 90mm stem, and 40cm handlebars – I'd usually choose 38cm bars but the set up was more than adequate and the narrow shifters largely made up for the excess width. The built bike did sport a Fizik Arione saddle, which I swapped immediately (me and that saddle have history and it's not pretty).
The key areas that Bianchi have focused on in their Oltre resign are aerodynamics and comfort. In fact, these two qualities underpin the model family as a whole.
Aerodynamic features of the Bianchi Oltre XR4
The Oltre family has always been one devoted to providing aerodynamic race machines, and the XR4 is no different. When developing the newest edition, Bianchi carried out ‘computational fluid dynamics analysis’ (using numerical analysis and data structures to analyze fluid flows), wind tunnel testing, Formula One Flow Visualisation (covering the frame in fluorescent paint to show wind flow across the frame at high speed – so pretty visual!) and road testing with the pro team LottoNL-Jumbo riders. In all, Bianchi claim the new model saves 20 watts over the XR2 – that’s a pretty big chunk on your average amateur female’s FTP.
The number one resulting change saw the frame develop much chunkier tubing – especially at the downtube and fork. All in, this added 40g to the overall weight compared to the XR2 – but it’s well documented that aerodynamics trump weight in terms of overall speed in almost all situations.
The handlebar has seen a major makeover – and Bianchi are offering a one-piece Vision Metron 5D bar and integrated stem. From a birdseye view, the shape of the stem as it joins the bars somehow reminds me of the flare of a dragon’s nostrils at the height of anger. Jumping out the saddle with your hands on the drops is an entirely new experience with this set up – the front end moves like one unit, instead of giving the impression of ‘left/right’ movement controlled independently by each arm. And, of course, it saves watts.
The seat post clamp has a new design too – with a wedge that is placed between seat post and frame, then wound out using an Allen key. This does create a nice, stable feeling link – something that some aero seat posts lack. As you’d expect, all of the cables disappear neatly into the chassis, offering a fully integrated system.
It’s difficult to measure or comment on the effect these aerodynamic features have, other than to say that the chunky profile offers a stiff ride that accelerates keenly, and that the integrated handlebar delivers a brilliantly responsive reaction, especially out the saddle.
Comfort and the Bianchi Oltre XR4: Aerospace Technology
Aero bikes aren’t generally known for being comfortable. In fact, it’s a generally accepted rule that you’ll simply have to deal with every ride feeling like a circuit race around the perimeter of the moon if you choose to prioritise cheating the wind.
Bianchi have overridden that rule with what they call ‘Countervail Technology’. The Oltre XR4 is the fourth bike in the extensive Bianchi shed to benefit from the treatment, which was developed to suit the Infinito CV back in 2013.
Countervail was developed alongside the Materials Sciences Corp – an aerospace company that also works with, well – NASA. So this really is space age stuff. Following research, the two organisations collaborated to create a carbon that uses a unique pattern to drown out vibrations from the road – before embedding a layer of this special ‘countervail viscoelastic’ material across the frame via unique ‘carbon fibre architecture’. Countervail Technology, Bianchi claim, can increase comfort by up to 80 per cent. It’s also meant to improve control and reduce muscle fatigue - which in turn enables you to hold an aero position for longer.
It’s hard to put a number on comfort, or claim a percentage saving on fatigue – but the Oltre XR4 is hands down the most comfortable aero bike I’ve ridden. Not only that, but the frame doesn’t sacrifice stiffness or punch – road buzz has been quietened without putting a lid on liveliness. It’s impossible to say if this is entirely attributed to the ‘Countervail technology’. Contributing factors could be the expert Vittoria Corse 25mm tyres, pumped to 80psi, or the full carbon handlebar which trumps the aluminium I’m used to. Regardless what actually provides the comfort, I can confirm that the ride is comfortable – if a little aggressive in geometry.
Geometry of the Bianchi Oltre XR4
The Oltre XR4 is a complete race bike: and a race bike completely. The reach is a little longer than some in my stable (384mm) – but not so much so that I’m uncomfortable, especially with the pre-fitted 90mm stem.
The stack height however sits at a pretty aggressive 499 – that’s much lower than most of the bikes I’ve ridden. Initially, I had dropped the stem by a spacer or two, but this immediately provided an unstable ride, so I placed them all below the stem. It’s worth noting that the layout of the front end does mean that if you do want to drop the stem, you’ll need to chop the steerer to avoid riding around with what looks like a small space ship on top of the bars.
With the saddle pushed forwards, and the front end in its highest position, I had what was a comfortable but super aggressive stance. The ride felt excellent in the drops, speedy and flat-backed on long straight drags, and fast on descents. This didn’t leave a lot of room for changes if I ever wanted to adopt a more upright position on this bike: the option isn’t there, and it’s not meant to be. If you want to ride this bike, you’re going to have to get aero and be strong enough to hold that position.
Specification on the Bianchi Oltre XR4
It’s probably clear already that this is no budget bike. It’s a Bianchi (for starters). It’s aero, and light (for main). And it’s comfortable (for dessert).
There are eight spec options available: Campagnolo Super Record EPS, Super Record and Chorus; Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, Dura-Ace, a Dura-Ace mix and Ultegra Di2; and SRAM Red eTap. There’s also the option of having the build with a Rotor 3D+ InPower chainset installed, which is indeed the model I had - along with Super Record groupset and Fulcrum Racing Zero hoops.
I won't dwell heavily on spec: the Bianchi Oltre XR4 is only available dressed in high quality wares, and it's going to be fairly apparent that Shimano Dura Ace or Campagnolo Super Record groupsets will perform well.
The highlight of the build was probably the Vision Metron 5D handlebar. It took some getting used to - but once accustomed, I found the front end really did glide along, still delivering a burst of power when requested. Second to that was the Campagnolo Super Record shifting, which of course suits the bike down to the ground and offers the surest shifting (I think) there is with the comfort of skinny shifter.
The Campagnolo Record brake calipers were noticeably immediate, almost performing as well as discs when I was forced to emergency stop at the whim of an oncoming car – and the Vittoria Corse tyres in 25mm width impressed me no end. My build comes in at £8,350. As mentioned in introducing this bike, Bianchi can offer stiff, aero, light and comfortable – but not cheap, on top.
The ride of the Bianchi Oltre XR4
I almost wanted to hate it. I mean: girl rides bike worth twice the value of her car/five times the value of her existing bike, and finds it pretty good – it’s hardly original, is it? But frankly, as soon as I started to turn the pedals I knew I was going to enjoy the ride.
My immediate reaction was to note the comfort that the Oltre XR4 was able to offer. Ambling to the end of the road felt effortless. When it came to climbing the ramp out of town (I live in Caterham Valley, below the rather aptly named Caterham-on-the-Hill), the lightness of the frame and its components sang through. The stiffness of the chunky frame of course delivered pointed descents and an easy flow into the corners.
The Oltre XR4 is an aggressive bike in terms of fit – and I found the drop more than adequate in its most upright stance, with the saddle pushed far forward. For that reason, though it offers a comfortable ride, clearly it’s not going to suit all riders. If you want to get low and race, and you’re after a ‘forever bike’ that’s a serious investment, then put one on your wish list.