When it comes to blending speed and beauty, the Italians are virtually without peer. Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Ducati… are there any more coveted high-performance brands out there? And they have the same reputation in bicycles, too, from Colnago to Pinarello, De Rosa to Pegoretti. Not only do Italian bikes generally ride fast and true, but they almost always look as sharp and polished as, well, Mario Cipollini at a nightclub.
We decided to test a pair of super bikes from a couple of the more approachable Italian brands, Bianchi and Wilier Triestina. Both companies have been around forever: Founded in 1886, Bianchi is the oldest bike company in the world still manufacturing, while Wilier, which started two decades later, is hardly a newcomer. And both have been ridden by some of the greatest names in cycling, including Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, Felice Gimondi, and more recently Marco Pantani, Alessandro Ballan, and Damiano Cunego. This season, Bianchi was sponsor to Vacansoleil-DCM and Wilier was ridden by Lampre-ISD.
We chose the companies’ flagship road-racing models, which, on the surface, bear surprising similarities. Both are billed as all-arounders and yet have significant nods to aerodynamics. The Oltre XR has more swoopy lines and a bit tighter geometry, while the Cento1 SR (pronounced Cento Uno SR) is harder-edged and more modern looking. But both are similarly priced ($5,000 for the Oltre XR frameset; $4,000 for the Cento1 SR) and both are as gorgeously finished as you’d expect, down to the tiniest details such as color-matched water bottle bolts. Looks aside, once we hit the roads, we found the differences between the two to be bigger than expected.
BIANCHI OLTRE XR
This bike is the evolution of the 2011 Oltre and is hands-down Bianchi’s top-end racer. (At least until 2014, when it will be succeeded by the Oltre XR2, which gets a revised front end/head tube area and a BB386 bottom bracket—already present on the Cento1, incidentally). It’s an all high-modulus carbon construction with an oversize head tube, a thickset BB30 bottom bracket that links into boxy chain stays, and pencil-thin seat stays ostensibly for compliance. It’s a graceful looking frame that most testers appreciated, except for those that don’t love Bianchi’s quintessential Celeste color scheme (referred to by a few, with derision, as “toothpaste green”). Other than the curvaceous top tube that drops seamlessly into the rear triangle, the most noticeable feature of the Otre is the thin, bladed fork with wings at the top that are said to direct the air around the bulky down tube for less wind resistance.
Our tester came hung with some of the sexiest parts money can buy, including 50mm deep carbon-aluminum Red Wind XLR Dark Label wheels by Fulcrum, Bianchi-branded bars and post made by FSA, a carbon-railed Fizik Antares saddle, and, most critically, Campagnolo’s electronic Super Record groupo. The latter is what drives the bike from expensive to staggering—$13,500 as built—and while it’s difficult for us to say that it’s worth the money, we have to admit that these components are downright incredible.
Performance is comparable to Dura Ace Di2, with accurate, lightning speed shifts and the ability to run up and down the gear range with a single push of the button. Braking power and finesse isn’t quite as good as Shimano, but in some ways we prefer the Campy design because the levers are trimmer and more comfy in the hand and, more importantly, the thumb actuation for downshifting is just graceful and smart. Not only that, but Super Record, with its sleek cut and carbon finish, is just prettier than Di2. On the other hand, we prefer that the Shimano battery can be charged off bike and the Japanese manufacturer’s new plug-and-play capabilities. The performance is close between the two, meaning that only Campy devotees, true aesthetes, and those with endless funds will opt for Super Record EPS. But for a top-end Bianchi, it’s the right choice.
This bike is not just a pretty face, either. The position gives it away as a full-fledged race bike—short head tube, 120mm stem, and big drop—and on the road it’s as explosive as Jon Stewart on a tirade. We leapt to the head of every group on short rises and left friends and colleagues gasping behind us on sprints. The frame is ultra rigid, meaning flex is non-existent—but so is comfort. It’s a hard, fast ride, not unlike a Ducati Superbike. Similarly, the steering is sharp and precise verging on jittery. The bike holds a line just fine, but it takes a steady hand and a good bike-handler to get the most from it. Finally, it weighs just 15.1 pounds (55cm) with the deep-dish wheels, so with some lightweight race hoops it would be a veritable mountain goat.
One complaint: We’re never big fans of dedicated seat posts because you’re out of commission if something goes wrong. And this one was especially tricky since it comes in a 25mm setback only, making fit tricky for some. Having said that, there’s really very little to dislike about the Oltre XR if it fits you. Simply, it’s a Pro Tour level racer that’s beautifully accomplished.
WILIER CENTO1 SR
Wilier’s original Cento1 was so popular and proficient that the company kept in line, unchanged from 2008 through 2012. In a market that wants something new and exciting every year, that’s an eternity, and it speaks to just how good this bike has always been. And while the Cento1 SR had to preserve the things that were so well liked about the original, especially the sublime ride quality, it’s no superficial remake.
The geometry is largely unchanged. But following on the example of Scott and Trek, Wilier has built the frame with truncated airfoil shaped tubes, notably in the fork, seat post, and down tube, which harnesses the aero gains of the front edge of an airfoil but saves weight by squaring off the back edge. Also new is the BB386 bottom bracket, which is mammoth and super efficient and makes the bike surge forward under pedal load. We can’t say for sure that it’s more effective than a BB30, but it’s certainly stiff and powerful, and we like that it’s compatible with nearly every crank on the market.
Behind the bottom bracket are oversize and wildly asymmetric chain stays that connect to slim, but not waifish square seat stays. Above it all is an integrated seat mast, which may be our biggest quibble with the Cento1. We assume the integration contributes to the terrific ride quality (more on that in a minute), and there’s even a bit of adjustability because of the sleeve design. Nonetheless, between the hassle of traveling with an extended post and difficulty of re-sale due to fit, we’re not completely sold.
We opted for the company’s price-point build, mostly because we were curious to see if a budget Wilier lived up to the Italian company’s glowing reputation. With SRAM Force components and Fulcrum Racing Quattro wheels, our Cento1 SR weighed 16.1 pounds and sells for $5,600, which is hardly cheap but still less than half of the Bianchi.
Having said that, most testers agreed that the Force groupo, while fine, simply didn’t do the frame justice. Worse still were the wheels, which might be great for training but felt far too sluggish for this bike. Wilier hopes that consumers unwilling to drop five figures might be willing to make these compromises in order to get into one of their bikes, and we have to admit that in that sense, it might be a worthy trade-off. It’s not as if the drivetrain and wheels don’t work—they’re fine. It’s just that a $4,000 frame like this rides best a few pounds lighter with snappy wheels.
Still, the Cento1 SR floored everyone who rode it. The bike is drag-racing fast on the flats and rollers and may just be one of the most solid descenders we’ve ever tried. It screams through off-camber corners and harsh turns without so much as the slightest quiver and feels as certain as a roller coaster on its tracks. More importantly, it’s a far more supple a ride than the Bianchi and does, indeed, preserve the ethereal Wilier ride quality. And while it’s still racy, a bit more height in the head tube staves off neck and shoulder pain, even on long days. It’s a gentleman’s ride, but one that’s plenty capable of ripping the legs of the other blokes in the group.
To be honest, this wasn’t a fair head-to-head match-up since the Bianchi came race-ready while the Wilier was akin to a racecar equipped with a Honda engine (albeit a nice one) and Goodyear Run Flat tires. And though that handicap made the Wilier sluggish, as expected, we still came away preferring it.
That’s not to say the Bianchi is bad by any means: It’s blindingly fast and stunning enough to stop passersby in their tracks. It’s the ultimate race machine. Except that it costs more than any racer, excluding pros, will ever spend. Even at its base level, equipped with Ultegra Di2 and Fulcrum Racing 3 wheels, the bike sells for a baffling $8,600. In short, if you want a race machine, including the requisite spicy handling and bracing road feel, it’s as good as any top-shelf bike out there and better than most aesthetically—especially with the Campy parts. You just have to be willing to pay for it.
To even the playing field, we swapped the Bianchi’s Red Wind wheels onto the Wilier for a month of riding, and the Cento1 SR came to life, both because of the added aerodynamic speed and the three-quarters-of-a-pound diet. The suppleness of this frame cries out for a stiffer wheel than the Quattros we recieved. Hoops aside, point is that with the Bianchi’s top-shelf components, the Cento1 SR would be every bit as racy a bike, but more balanced and easier on the body in the process.
At the risk of straining the metaphor, whereas the Otre XR is like a Ducati Superbike, the Cento1 SR is a Streetfighter, which is to say still plenty fast but also easygoing enough for everyday riding. Of course like the Ducatis, both bikes are outrageous.