When it comes to classic brands of the pro peloton it doesn’t take much reminiscing to recognise Bianchi as player with plenty of stock in the game. There is something about Italian makers that fires up the romance of cycling, at least for me anyway, but I don’t think I’m alone. Am I? Traditional marques of the Tifosi like Bianchi, Colnago and Pinarello are prized for the instant road cred they bring and heritage of racing that they represent. Black and white pictures of riders slaving over gravel-roaded cols juxtaposed against a fluro clad, turbocharged Pantani.
Times have changed in cycling, and instead of steel frames and traditional level top tubes we now find Bianchi offering their premium models in a full carbon construction, with compact geometry no less. The Sempre is more contemporary again with its lightly curved top and down tubes. Put a different set of decals on this frame and only the fanatics could pick this as a Bianchi, this is a modern bike from a traditional maker. Thankfully the Sempre is not overbuilt, and retains a good amount of the traditional charm that so many mega-tubed bikes bypass.
I talk about tradition because to me this is a large part of what a brand such as Bianchi offers the rider. When compared with industry juggernauts Bianchi offers a limited range of bikes and ‘technologies’. It’s not likely that you will find coverage now, or in the future, of Bianchi patenting an industry-changing technology, or of Bianchi setting a trend in design that other makers will follow en masse (‘aero road’ for example). This is not a bad thing, as bikes are for riding, not analysing. If a bike works then it works, and tradition and experience are valuable factors in taking a bike from a concept to the road.
Bianchi split their race bikes into two categories. The top category is the ‘Hors Category’, which features the Oltre model, the top of the range race bike that will be ridden by Vacansoleil in season 2012. The second tier in the range is the ‘B4P’ (Built For Performance), which is where the Sempre resides. The Sempre SRAM Red bike is the top of the B4P range, and it is possible to get the same Sempre frame with Veloce, Ultegra, 105, or as a frame only. The Sempre features the same geometry as the Oltre, so it’s fair to say that this bike is most certainly ‘built for performance’.
The Sempre we tested with the SRAM Red kit is not cheap at $6,549 but Bianchi have a done a smart job in offering a bike with a top-level groupset without stepping on the toes of their Oltre super bike, which by design is the real pinnacle bike in the range. The Sempre is for the rider who is self-funded. It’s the privateer racer of the range. Bianchi are clearly confident of the Sempre’s pedigree as shown by the SRAM Red group spec. Michael Matthews’ Under 23 World Champs win came aboard a Sempre, evidence that the second best Bianchi is a professional quality frame in its own right.
I mentioned earlier that Bianchi have made a modern bike without looking too space age, and looking over the Sempre frame it’s an elegant unit. Not stupidly curvy, but not square either. The bottom bracket area is voluminous in order to house the BB30 standard FSA crank, but the seat tube retains its round shape and diameter until it meets the BB shell rather than flaring out as if it had melted in the sun. It seems that the 30mm spindle will become industry standard for all makers but Shimano in the coming years. Interestingly Bianchi still use a standard 1 1/8 inch steerer for the fork/head tube on the Sempre, which is in contrast to their adoption of the oversized BB30. The Sempre also eschews modernities such as internally routed cables, carbon drop-outs and headset bearing cups and a direct mount front derailleur. It’s an unpretentious frame with tested geometry, a bit of extra grunt in the BB area, and simple features elsewhere for ease of ownership and maintenance.
Riding the Sempre is a different experience to many of the beefcake, whiz-bang bikes we often get handed, and it serves as a quick flashback history lesson. The Sempre felt like my favourite ‘old’ bike from the mid 2000s, a bike which I have only very recently retired from front-line duties, and which is always enjoyable to ride. The enjoyment doesn’t come from the biggest this, or the latest that, it comes from a bike that has all its organs in the right place, and was designed to be ridden anywhere you might want to ride it. The Sempre isn’t a specialist at anything in particular. It’s not the stiffest, the lightest or the most supple. But the mix of these commonly-discussed attributes is what’s most important and here the Bianchi heritage shows.
The component mix on the Sempre is definitely aimed at meeting a price point whilst trying to give the bike some shop floor pizzazz. The only non ‘brand’ component is the Bianchi alloy bar. It features a compact bend which was immediately comfortable, but most buyers in the price point would be expecting a carbon bar, or at least something with some brand cache. The bar isn’t as forgiving as some other alloy or carbon units and definitely contributed to reduced hand and wrist comfort over longer periods on coarse roads. Replacing the Hutchison Equinox tires with a smoother riding model could enhance the ride quality too.
In contrast the SRAM Red group and FSA cranks tapped out incredibly reliable and fast shifts as one would expect from such a well-credentialed ensemble. The Sempre frame and Red group are definitely the drawcard here, and the rest fills the gaps. The Vision wheels are a bit of an unknown, as Vision is FSA’s triathlon focused brand and we don’t see a lot of their equipment on conventional road bikes. It’s not surprising to the see the Vision wheels on the Sempre, given the FSA cranks, seatpost, stem and headset specced. Although a left-field choice, the T42 wheels were not a detractor in any way. The alloy and carbon rim offers good braking and some aero benefit, and the Vision hubs are beautifully smooth rolling. For mixed riding the T42s are a good match for the Sempre, but weight weenies will see these as a prime target for weight loss at a bit over 1,700g for the pair. Some may also say that the anodised red hub outers are a bit of a clash with the Bianchi celeste.
The overall package of the complete Sempre is extremely functional and works to complement the versatility of the Sempre frame platform. There is no one situation where the Sempre excels. From the get go it is easy to ride, not demanding and not sleepy either. Bianchi use the acronym UTSS (ultra thin seat stay), and it’s no surprise that they are reasonably slender. Carbon frames are only as good as their lay-up schedule and fibre selection, so size is not necessarily an indicator of stiffness or flex, regardless of what the marketing may say. Bianchi use nano particles in their resin to increase strength on the Sempre. The Oltre uses carbon nano tubes and Bianchi’s Wrinkleless Moulding Process for weight savings compared with the Sempre. The stays of the Sempre, via whatever means, do deliver some modulus of comfort on jarring surfaces, but don’t equate the thin stays to the Sempre being a lounge. The Sempre also uses relatively slender chain stays compared to most bikes, but there is no issue with power delivery. Overall I found the Sempre surprisingly comfortable for a bike that is marketed by its maker as a race machine.
The front of the Sempre is a similar performance to the rear, albeit not as direct feeling. Carving big high-speed corners the Sempre is confident and willing, but it doesn’t muscle the tire onto the road surface like some stiffer bikes do. The front end feels lively and the small amount of deflection it offers stops your hands bouncing around too much in the drops on chattery descents. There is definitely a spring to the front-half of the Sempre that gives it a lithe feel as opposed to being an unstoppable freight train.