Thursday, April 25, 2019

Another Road Bike Testing Adventure: Bianchi Titanium

Road bikes and I have a painful and somewhat traumatic history. I go through spans of time during which I want to be able to pick up speed a bit easier and find myself on a hunt for a lightweight road bike. Generally, after riding the road bike for a short amount of time, I realize that while I am faster on a lighter bike, I am also uncomfortable and end up riding something heavier/slower to not be in pain. At some point, I pretty much decided that I wasn't going to put myself through the agony of a thin-tired road bike anymore. While my body is pretty adaptable to this type of bike, injuries to my hands have made riding such a bike a chore and just generally unpleasant.

But, we all know how things can go. After a few frustrating rounds with various types of bikes and trying to find a happy point with speed, I had decided that I needed to give a dedicated, lightweight road bike a chance again. After a few rounds with bikes that I thought could be happy compromises between comfort and speed, I started to realize that if I genuinely desire a fast road bike, I needed to seek out that sort of bike and stop playing in the middle ground.

In short, I was on a hunt for something that typically doesn't appeal to me, though I still hoped to find the road bike in a steel version. There simply aren't a ton of these available and although there are custom options, goodness knows I have not had great luck with custom made frames, so I was doing everything I could think of to avoid this route. However, not having any luck finding what I wanted, I had given in to the notion that a custom frame was likely in my future yet again.

As stated though, I had no desire to go custom and after hours and hours of researching, I had decided on a stock titanium road frame. It wasn't steel, but it also was not a custom frame, which seemed to put my mind at ease. The one hiccup was that I'd have to wait about six weeks as the frames were still in production. I plunked down my deposit and decided to bide my time while waiting for the frame to arrive.

This frame was being funded with the sale of multiple other bikes, and the thought of spending so much money on something I couldn't test was not ideal nor was it settling well in my mind. After many back-and-forth conversations with the manufacturer, I was pretty convinced that the geometry would work for me. Still, the thought of spending so much on one bike - and not even the whole bike - was really eating at me. Surely, there must be something that would work that I wouldn't have to spend so much money on, I thought.

A few weeks into waiting for the frame, Sam sent a link to a frame that was for sale at a local bike re-seller with the question attached, "Do you think this would work for you?" After taking a peek at the geometry, I really wasn't sure. It had the potential to work, but knowing my history, I was hesitant to even consider it. However, the price alone was reason enough to give it a try. Plus, the company has a 30-day return policy so it seemed a no-brainer, particularly given that the new ti frame I'd planned to buy was going to run 7-8 times the cost.
To be honest, I was a little confused by the frame. I had no idea that Bianchi had ever made a titanium road bike, but here it was, sitting in front of me, clearly marked as such. The fork had been replaced with a new one - nothing special or out of the ordinary - but definitely not the original. So, a full-out internet search was done in an attempt to get any bit of information I could find. Sadly, there really wasn't much to be found.
This 2004 Bianchi EV Titanium frame was a bit of a mystery. There were a few random questions/posts I could find online, but nothing was giving me much information in regard to what to expect of this bike. Having a Bianchi dealer nearby, we went in to see if they could provide any information on the bike, but that was fruitless as well, as they could only share what I'd already been able to determine for myself. I was incredibly curious about this frame though and I just couldn't find answers.
So, I decided to just ride the thing and see how it went. On my first outing, I got a flat early on and didn't have the means to address it, so after a bit of grumbling, I ended up walking the bike home. It wasn't the best start (though I can only blame myself for not being prepared), but many first rides don't begin well for me.  After getting set up to deal with a flat if it should occur, I began riding the Bianchi for test purposes.
The stack of spacers on the fork is a little intense, but with the short headtube, it's necessary for me. It would likely have helped if I cut a bit off the top end, but I'm always hesitant to lose too much on the steerer too soon.
It was a little strange, I must admit. After not riding a true road bike for several years, my body was not used to the positioning and I couldn't determine whether the bike fit me or if I'd just forgotten what it's like to be more leaned over (read: sore neck muscles). The ride itself was smooth, as I'd expect from titanium, but it was going to take a bit of time and miles to see if this bike worked.

What I had determined is that I have become noticeably slower over the last few years, even though my mileage has actually increased. It was a little disappointing to make this realization, but the full build of the bike came in at just about 17 pounds (7.7kg), including my leather saddle and platform pedals, so I knew I certainly could not fault the weight of the bike for my slowness [insert frowny face].

After a few rides on the Bianchi, I was becoming frustrated. Sam followed behind me on one ride to see what was happening and to check my positioning to see if I looked "off." There had also been an annoying grinding sort of sound that I couldn't seem to get rid of over the rides, but I had shrugged it off thinking it had something to do with my bizarre road set up.

We had built this frame up with the same gearing I'd had on a previous bike, giving it a compact crank and 11-40 cassette in the rear. In order to do this, we have to use a special part and I had assumed that the grinding noises had something to do with that.

As it turned out, the chain was actually running through the derailleur incorrectly. In Sam's haste to reassemble after cleaning the chain after my first ride, he had inadvertently reassembled things wrong. Who knew the derailleur would even work like this? After making the change, the grinding noise went away, but the drag that had been created didn't seem to speed me up [insert another frowny face].

I did keep riding though. I was annoyed that I was slow, but I was also determined to figure out if the slowness was entirely me or if it was partially the bike. We did a couple of swaps on the stem to see if that would resolve some of the neck soreness and I would leave for rides determined to push as hard as I could.

The results were a mixed bag. I had days when I was faster and I had days when I was just as slow as I am on any other bike. Sam came along on a couple of rides with me, trying to help me understand if I just wasn't pushing as hard as I thought I was, if I've become slower, or if the bike had some part in it. To be honest, we both have our theories, but my suspicion is that there is a combination of factors at play.

One of the big realizations we made was that I have been comparing rides that are nearly identical to those I'd ridden several years ago and was seeing that I was at least 0.5-2 mph slower overall, which was angering me. What I hadn't calculated is that those rides didn't have a climb at the end of the ride (because we've moved since then). As Sam watched me virtually on one ride he noted that I had been averaging a faster speed, but as soon as I hit that steep climb back home, my average dropped dramatically. Not being a good climber, it started making sense to me and that the only way I'd be able to match prior speeds on the same route would be to go even faster on the ride before I hit the climb at the end. Whether or not that's possible for me remains a question mark.

I pretty well put the Bianchi aside from mid-January until mid-March. The roads were not ideal for this type of bike and I was spending more time on the Surly, so when the season started to have some nicer, sunnier days, it seemed appropriate to get back out and try riding the Bianchi again. I wondered if I'd want to ride it or if it would feel strange after spending so many hours on the Surly.
It surprised me a bit when I took the bike out and found myself happy to push my body. It was nice to have the lightweight option and my legs felt strong, capable even. I still wasn't hitting those average speeds of several years ago, but for some reason having a bit of a break from the bike seemed to let my brain settle and be okay with the fact that I may just be a slower version of myself today than I was 6-8 years ago.  I'll always fight that thought a bit (it's just who I am), but it seemed as though I wasn't as hung up on that piece of things as spring started rolling in. The bottom line is that I can be faster on this bike than any of the other bikes in my fold, I just may not be able to compete with my former self or speeds.

I've realized that the Bianchi is comfortable for what it is, which is not to say that it's "comfortable" in a traditional definition of the word, but rather that I have made peace with the reality that a road bike is a road bike and not a comfort/cruiser/city/all-road/mountain bike. It's just going to feel different than other types of bicycles. I know that I have to be in the right frame of mind (and body) to fully utilize this kind of bike and that's really okay as it was the point of this one.
There may always be a small part of me that will wonder if the newer titanium frame would've suited me better, but deep down, my gut sense is that it would not have been better-enough to justify the difference in cost. The Bianchi has been and continues to be a spirited, excellent ride and if it weren't for my hand/wrist issues, I doubt I'd question anything about this build/bike for its purpose. Even Sam returned from a test ride recently on it and said it's the nicest bike he's ever ridden.

I feel fortunate to have happened across this frame (or rather to have had Sam come across it), and although the first few rides weren't necessarily entirely pleasant, the bike has grown on me as I've reacquainted myself with riding a road bike and I've slowly come to appreciate it for what it is. It is certainly excellent as a road bike.

It is said that titanium is a lifetime-bike material, and given that this frame is 15 years old as of this writing, I hope that those sentiments are in fact actuality. I hope to have this one stick around for many years to come. I may not always want to ride and push myself, but when I do, I think this is and will be a fantastic choice. I'm looking forward to some longer, faster rides on this Bianchi as the weather continues to improve and am glad to have this one among my bikes.

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