An Italian icon dating back nearly 90 years is as modern as it gets
IT IS said that 2012 saw the arrival of the MAMIL, aka Middle Aged Man in Lycra, a breed at home atop expensive and featherweight contraptions more art than machine, hell bent on emulating heroes like Olympic and Tour de France champion Sir Bradley Wiggins while simultaneously shedding a few pounds. My name is Sam Spurdens, and I am a Mamil.
In the UK alone, more than 200,000 took up serious sport cycling after the Olympic summer, and judging by visits to America and other countries with strong cycling bases, the expansion is widespread.
You can see the appeal for those with an eye to something more rewarding than grunting away on a sweat-stained bench in a gym, or astride a ground-fixed ‘cyclo-sim’ going nowhere slow.
For one, it smells better. Second, if you want to race, there is competition for every age and level of experience. Also, it’s great fun, and some of the bikes are a tech junkie’s idea of heaven.
ITALIAN FOR ‘VERY RARE’
If you do not know sport cycling’s marketplace contours as well as, say, performance cars or quality watches, the parallels and nuances are quite similar. There’s mass market brands which are neither expensive nor rare, premium marques which are expensive but actually not that rare, and those which are both expensive and rare. Bottecchia falls into this last category.
The Bottecchia brand is not that well known outside its homeland Italy, and in my home country the UK it sells just 200 bikes a year.
It’s dwarfed by celebrity brands like Italy’s Pinarrello (used by Wiggins, Miguel Indurain, and other Tour winners) and US firm Trek (Lance Armstrong and… err… George W. Bush) but in truth, this is what draws many to it.
It’s named after one of Italy’s most famous cyclists, the great Ottavio Bottecchia, a hero from when staking national pride on a cyclist wasn’t a risky thing to do – and subject of an intriguing whodunnit that remains unsolved to this very day.
This history, the pedigree, and the fact one is almost certain never to see another whilst on a ride are a heady mix that only serves to make the brand equity more alluring. I like this hardcore feel.
But be you cyclist or not, if engineering appeals you will think them beautiful, combining design, function, and quality, in a way that any technophile can admire. I know because I took the Bottecchia SP9 home and saw its effect on visitors: those in the know were mightily impressed, while the uninformed always wanted to know more. I mean men, by the way; wives, it seems, uniformly roll their eyes – no doubt fearing an embarrassing onset of Mamilitis in the family.
TRIO TO TRY
The objective for race bike designers is to convert every joule of muscle to motion as efficiently as possible, without the bike being so rigid every tiny bump feels like a house brick, or so light it cracks or wastes energy bending the frame.
Flex, balance, lever angles, rotation arcs, elasticity, weave direction, and compliance, become critical elements, and when they combine, as a rider you feel elevated to another level, as if the bike is aiding you. Bottecchia was kind enough to send us three bikes from the range, and as the office’s designated triathlete I was very interested to see if the function matched the form as intended.
The SP9 is the penultimate in the range, fitted with a new Campagnola electronic gear shifting set, and was one of those truly elevating combinations.
It is carbon-fibre framed, the main component weighing barely 1kg, with exquisite parts hanging from every lug and bolthole in pursuit of maximising the output of my increasingly herculean thighs. (My goal is the Paris Triathlon!)
If you have been away from cycling for some time, the arrival of carbon might have left you assuming it’s just about weight and rigidity. Not so. As light as carbon is – and it is! – for normal people the real benefits over the lightest metal frames come in comfort and long-life.
Where some ultra-light metal frames are uncomfortable to ride, due to lack of flex – they jar over bumps, and feel ‘dead’ making sensing the road harder – carbon frames can be fine-tuned with much more complexity than metal.
They can be made to resist flex in some directions, such as around the crank where it would waste energy and focus strength where needed much more accurately, yet remain compliant in others, such as for over bumps. Find a similarly comfortable metal frame, and it will be heavier.
For durability, it again strikes a good balance: for a matching weight, a rival metal frame will have a shorter recommended life due to microscopic cracking over time from repeated stresses of road bumps and thermal cycles. A more durable metal frame will be heavier.
They are not bulletproof, however: as tough as carbon is, heavy impact can ruin it.
SMOOTH AS SILK
I came to the SP9 open minded, with experiences of both type of frame; after using it extensively, I can say it was probably the smoothest riding bike I have ever ridden.
Weighing just a few kilos, the beauty of a bike like this for anyone who flies is that it takes up so little payload or space – pop off the wheels, bag it up, and it’s pretty compact. If you are flying somewhere and on a layover for a few days, you can take your training regime with you.
Bikes of this kind are typically a chef’s menu of exotic componentry from various suppliers, and such is the case with the new electronic gear system from Campagnola – ‘flappy-paddle’ shifting for bikes. It allows for incredibly fast and smooth gear changes and is brand new to the market, but comes at a price.
With this set up the SP9 comes in at around £5000/$8000. And of course, this isn’t the top of the range machine either; the far rarer Emme 2 is a cool £10,000/$16,000. (Hey… you’ll save the money on gym fees.)
In the same way people collect watches, I can understand how many see bikes in the same light. Consider this: the even rarer Emme 2 ‘695’ is handbuilt in Italy by a team of 10 bike artisans, who layer up the carbon sheet by sheet, moulding and working it into the very lightest frame available on the market, a piffling 695gm, the lightest allowed under UCI rules.
Each one takes weeks to build and the factory only produces 60 per year. Then the best and lightest components are added to produce a bike that is the envy of any cyclist in the world, all the rarer for almost all going to professionals. Me, though… I’d be more likely to want to display it as a work of art.