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A history of Bianchi's classic bikes

In-depth
16 Apr 2020
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From Il Campionissimo Fausto Coppi through to former ski-jumping Slovenian Primoz Roglic, the distinctive celeste of Italian marque Bianchi has been atop the cycling world for longer than any of us can remember.

We visited the Bianchi HQ in Northern Italy a few years ago and were treated to a personal tour of some of the brightest and most bonkers bikes manufactured under its roof.

Northern Italy is going through a uniquely tough period right now but we thought it's time to remember what makes it such a special place for us fans of cycling.

Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

What better place to start hunting down forgotten gems than the oldest marque in the game? Founded in Milan by Edoardo Bianchi, the Italian company lays claim to being the longest surviving name in the business, with a heritage dating back to 1885.

Over its 133-year history it has won pretty much every race going, with riders such as Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Marco Pantani, Mario Cipollini and Jan Ullrich, and is still notching up victories today with the LottoNL-Jumbo team.

Bianchi’s pedigree is as rich as its bikes are diverse, so when Cyclist visited the Bianchi factory on the outskirts of Treviglio in northern Italy, we needed someone who knows their tubing, and luckily we found him: creative director and de facto bike curator Fabio Belotti, an employee of 41 years who has worked on some of Bianchi’s most famous bikes.

Here he talks us through just a small selection of its vast back catalogue, but before he leads us to a secret lock-up in a disused part of the factory, he decides we need a brief history lesson about the one thing that has united the company’s bikes through the ages. Well, nearly.

‘Everyone thinks of Bianchi as the “Celeste” company, but once upon a time our bicycles only came in one colour: black. The first ones we found in Celeste are from 1912.

‘Our legend is that Edoardo Bianchi took inspiration for the Celeste colour from the eyes of Queen Margherita, who he was teaching to ride a bicycle. Over the years the colour has changed from a little more green to a little more blue.

In 1990 we created the official pantone CK, and in 2016 I created the slightly more fluorescent CK16. But even though the colour is always changing, for every Bianchi rider it has always been the same. All thanks to Edoardo.’

Marco Pantani Mega Pro, 1998

‘This is the jewel in the collection – Marco Pantani’s double-Grand Tour-winning bicycle from the 1998 season, when he won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France,’ says Belotti. ‘The model is the Mega Pro, made from Dedacciai 7000-series aluminium.

‘The frame weighed 850g, which was incredibly light back then, and would have been quite dangerous for many riders but not for Marco, who was only around 50kg when he was with us and riding for Mercatone Uno.

‘It had Campagnolo Shamal wheels, some of the very first deep-section wheels, all in aluminium. Just look at the spokes! Twelve at the front and 16 at the rear – crazy! And the gears. Nine speed, 12-21 cassette and a 53/39 chainset. Marco was incredible.

‘The Mercatone team colour was yellow. I remember one of their designers came up with a kit that was yellow with brown and green, but it was not so nice, so I combined a different tone of yellow and put it with Celeste.

‘At the beginning people said, “Oh wow, that is terrible!” but when Marco started winning on it everyone loved it. Marco once said these were his favourite colours. We make our carbon Specialissima in this colour now to celebrate this. I am hoping Selle Italia will do a remake of the “Il Pirata” saddle too one day.’

Disc Brake Chrono Prototype, 1996

‘I think this is possibly the first ever disc brake road bike, predating disc brakes on mountain bikes even. The callipers were made for us by Formula, with hydraulic pistons pulled by normal cables. Look at these rotors – 125mm, tiny! It’s funny, the front wheel has so many spokes but has been radially laced, which is a very bad idea for the twisting forces of disc brakes.

‘We made this bike for the Russian rider, Evgeni Berzin. It is Columbus Hyperion titanium, and the big tubes have been bent from sheet metal and seam-welded. The idea of the Pantani chrono bike started here.

‘We made a lot of prototypes for Berzin – he was a great innovator. But at the time, when Grand Tours were obsessed by mountains, this bike was too heavy for him, so I think he never raced it.

‘That’s a shame as I think it is beautiful. The shape is fantastic. You see that line around the wheel? The curve goes down under the bottom bracket like a spoiler. You could not do this now because of the UCI rules, but back then it was the most exciting time for designers. We could make our fantasy a reality.’

Mario Cipollini Time-Trial, 2005

‘This was for Mario’s last Grand Tour before he retired. So it was not his last race really – he went over to America and rode exhibitions and then came back to Europe, then he retired [only to un-retire for a few months in 2008 with Rock Racing].

‘This bike has only been ridden once, for the prologue. It was an evening stage, and Mario – you know he is crazy – had this fluorescent skinsuit made with these silver veins on it and all his race wins written down the legs, so to match I designed the paint for this bike: fantastic pink with luminous white veins that glowed in the dark.

‘Mario is a really big guy, so the frame is very long, but he was super-flexible too, so it is still a very low position. The tubing is aluminium, drawn and made for us by Deda. The fork is from Oval, and it has slits in the legs for aerodynamics. The bars are ITM [although a careful look reveals some cunningly placed black electrical tape], the groupset is of course Super Record and the wheels are Campagnolo also.

‘The rear wheel is a Campagnolo Ghibli, which was the first lenticular disc wheel when it came out in 1983. He also rode a Bora wheel that night, but not this one. This one is newer.’

Bianchi C4, 1986

‘The C4 company was started by an ex-R&D employee from Bianchi, and it made these bikes for us, which were among the first carbon fibre monocoque bikes in the world. It is incredible without the seat tube. The production run was very small, as you might think, but they were raced. This one belonged to Moreno Argetin, who rode for the Sommontana-Bianchi team.

‘The concept was aero, but at the time only Formula 1 teams went to the wind-tunnels, so really this is made by, let’s say, intuition and sensation.

‘We made the top silicone grommet over the seatpost as underneath it is not so nice – there is a big hole in the frame either side of the seatpost – but this is so the seatpost can tilt forwards or back, which is done by screwing the two horizontal bolts, so the effective seat tube angle can be changed.

‘The Ambrosio wheels and specially shaped Campagnolo water bottle show more aero thinking. The water bottle is very beautiful, but it is so hard to remove from the cage!

‘Once again this design was soon banned by the UCI, and C4 no longer makes frames anyway – it now specialises in spear guns for scuba diving, and flippers.’

Bianchi Steel Road Bike, circa 1951

‘I think this is in original condition, and is from around 1951. You can tell because it has the rod lever shifting system but also has a bolt mount for a rear derailleur, which became more popular in the early 1950s. The tubing is possibly Reynolds, and almost every part is made by Bianchi, even casting our own lugs.

‘I love the gear system [a Campagnolo single-lever Paris-Roubaix derailleur] – it was crazy. There are teeth on the ends of the hubs, which meshed with teeth on the inside of the dropout.

‘To change gear you turned the lever on the seatstay, which twisted a rod that undid the quick release and moved the derailleur to select a gear, but to make the chain change sprocket you had to pedal backwards at the same time!

‘The chain tension either pulled the wheel forward [bigger sprockets] or gravity rolled it backward [smaller sprocket] along the dropout track. Then you retightened the lever. Brilliant, but just crazy. Especially when you think there was no asphalt in those days. We can say this was one of the first gravel bikes, I think.’

Military Folder, circa 1940

‘These were produced between about 1930 and 1950, and we can say they were the first fold-up, full-suspension bikes. At the rear there is a coil shock on the top of the seatstays, and there is a steel plate that flexes like a spring where the chainstays meet the bottom bracket.

‘The front has pivots at the fork dropouts and little suspension shocks with oil damping on either of the fork legs. It still works fine even now!

‘These were Italian military issue, so there are rifle mounts on the top tube and a rack for the soldier’s equipment. Everything had to be very reliable, so the grips are wooden and the tyres, made by Pirelli, are solid.

‘However if you were a captain you got pneumatic tyres and more gears. The front and rear wheels are interchangeable. The whole bike folded up – there are hinges in the top tube – so it could be carried on the back.

‘It must have been hard because these things weighed about 35kg. It was a very successful product, though – we made around 50,000, which helped to keep Bianchi going during the Second World War.’

Johan Museeuw Paris-Roubaix, 1994

‘We used to be able to design all kinds of things [before the UCI tightened its rules on bike design in the late 1990s], so for Paris-Roubaix we made this one-off bike for Johan.

‘It has the Roubaix RockShox suspension fork on the front, and a full suspension at the rear as well. It looks very big, but it only produced a small amount of travel, maybe 30mm. We had to use an XTR mountain bike cantilever brake from Shimano on the back because there was nothing to bolt a road calliper to. The rear triangle is steel, the rest is Columbus Altec aluminium.

‘I remember the weather was awful, and I think Museeuw punctured in the final breakaway. Then when he tried to unclip his foot got stuck in his Diadora pedals and he became so angry he threw the bike down and changed to a different bike for the rest of the race [Museeuw finished 13th].

‘He very much liked the bike in testing, but in the race it was a different story. This bike was never a production bike, but really that is because of rule changes and the cost, which was about £15,000.’

Marco Pantani Time-Trial, 1998

‘Another bike from the “House of Pantani”. We have many! He was a rider that changed everything to the millimetre, and we would end up building so many frames for him – 40 in a season – and so we ended up with quite a lot. He used this one in the Giro and the Tour in his double season.

‘As you can see the geometry is incredible. The front wheel is 26-inch, the rear normal, to achieve the very aero position. The seat tube was cut precisely to his measurements, and the head tube is less than 90mm.

‘We developed the bars with ITM and they are welded directly onto the crown of the fork, meaning his hands were sometimes below the top of the tyre [and still well below the headset when on the bar extensions].

‘We shaped the tubes like aeroplane wings, but even at this time it was all theory and sensation. There were no CFD computer programs to help us.

‘The tyres are 19mm. Sometimes Marco rode 21mm, but that was it. Even on his road bike he always preferred 19mm tyres. It’s crazy when you think about it now.’

Magnus Backstedt Paris-Roubaix, 2004

‘This is the actual bike Magnus Backstedt won Paris-Roubaix on in 2004. It might look quite normal but it is actually made from special titanium by Bianchi, with the Dedacciai sticker because officially they were the sponsors. He loved this bike, and he loved titanium. We made him many titanium bikes for different teams.

‘The material was very good for being light, strong and tough. It needed to be, as Backstedt was a huge man, so he needed a 63cm frame.

‘To keep such large triangles stiff we used a bi-ovalised down tube, where there is a horizontal oval cross-section at the bottom bracket and a vertical oval at the head tube, and we filled the frame with special foam to reinforce it but stay light.

‘The foam starts as liquid and was pumped into the bottom of the seat tube, then the frame was put on a vibrating table to shake the bubbles out before the foam hardened. Some of Pantani’s bikes had this too – it really worked. You can see the dents in the top tube, but he rode it like that.