Bikes of the Bunch: Bianchi Specialissima X-4
In this edition of Bikes of the Bunch, VeloClub member Richard Greaney tells us the story behind his Bianchi Specialissima X-4, which spent almost 10 years in his shed before he decided to tackle its resurrection.
When it comes to rescuing a classic road bike, there are three schools of thought. The first is to treat is as an artefact. The second is to turn back time by reconditioning and restoring the bike to its former glory. And the third is to renovate and update it to suit the modern era.
While there are good arguments for each approach, the divide that separates them is sometimes immense. There are times when devotees will go to war to defend their ideology, especially when it concerns a much loved and revered brand, like Bianchi. Indeed, one misstep can be viewed as a desecration.
For those that need some context, it’s fair to say that Bianchi is to road cycling what Ferrari is to motorsport. Both hail from Italy and have long and rich histories. Both have strong associations with stars from multiple eras. And both have a signature colour that spells out the name of each brand as effectively as the letters of the alphabet.
Richard Greaney was well aware of this reverence when he started planning the restoration of the very scratched and rusty Bianchi frameset that had been sitting in his shed for the better part of a decade. “I didn’t go looking for it, the frame kind of found me,” he said. “I was working in a shop and a customer presented it for service. He told me that he had raced it extensively in Europe for many years after it was given to him by his team.
“The components were worn out, the wheels were pretty shot, and he came to the conclusion that he just wanted to buy a new bike because it wasn’t worth fixing. He did tell me that it was a lovely frame and he didn’t really want to part with it, but I think he was in the market for a new bike.”
The owner accepted a small sum as a trade-in, and while many trade-ins end up getting scrapped, Richard knew enough about Bianchi and classic steel road bikes to set this one aside. “When I first saw the bike, with the way that it was made… there weren’t many bikes from that era with internal cabling, and with the level of the finish and the engraving throughout the frame, I knew that it was something special,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about steel Bianchis, but I knew it was something that was well-made.”
Richard stripped the bike down and disposed of all the worn parts before putting the frameset away in his shed. “I kind of forgot about it for somewhere between eight and 10 years,” he said. “One day I was cleaning up my shed and had a look at it and thought I should do something with it. It wasn’t getting any better sitting there, so I started doing a little bit of research and found that it was one of the most sought after, and rarest, steel Bianchis produced in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
The weight of Argentin’s legacy
For the devout, Bianchi’s Specialissima X-4 needs no introduction. It made its debut in 1986, in part to celebrate Moreno Argentin’s career, and production continued until the end of 1992. During that time, the X-4 evolved a little, but features such as the etched head tube, investment cast bottom bracket shell, rounded stay ends and a distinctive brake bridge remained constant. Of course, the frame was finished with celeste paint with some chrome-plating, but there was a second version, the Argentin finish, with a black head tube, forks, and stays, that was more exclusive.
The frameset that Richard had was sporting the latter, which spurred him on, but it also added extra weight to his deliberations. “I realised I had something pretty special and I should do something with it, but it took me another year to do anything about it,” he said. “With a bike like this, you have to do it justice. I also needed to work out what I wanted to do with it and where I wanted to go.
“Should I paint it back to its original colours, or could I do something different with it? I had lots of people telling me conflicting things, and then I realised … it was actually my son who asked me what I was thinking about, and I explained to him that I wanted to paint it a different colour but it would upset a lot of people, and he said, ‘You should just paint it your favourite colour, Dad,’ and at that point I realised that I could.
“I’m fully aware that a lot of people will be very upset that I’ve painted over what was a very limited edition paint job, but it was not in pristine condition. If it had been a beautiful show room model that had never been ridden, it would have been sacrilege to do what I’ve done. But the bike has been rescued, and the bike that is very collectible is still there, it’s just a different colour.”
As for pinning down the exact age of the bike, Richard can only guess. “It came with a Columbus EL unicrown fork, and if that is the original fork, then that would date it probably ’91 or ’92. However, if the fork was a replacement or an upgrade, then the frame might be a little older, but I can’t really tell. I wish I knew how to get in touch with the owner, because I’d love to hear more about the story behind this bike.”
Resurrecting an X-4
As Richard wrestled with the finish of the bike, he also came to terms with his ambitions for the build. “I didn’t want to build up your classic bike with shiny components from the ’80s and an eight-speed groupset. That might have been the correct thing to do, but at that point, it wouldn’t have been as desirable to throw my leg over it and ride back and forth to work. I wanted to experience what the bike had to offer, but I also wanted it to feel like a modern bike.”
Resurrecting the X-4 was more than just a matter of refinishing the frame. As a mechanic with over 25 years of experience, Richard was well aware of the perils associated with an ageing steel frameset. “It was in pretty rough shape,” he said. “There was surface rust on all of the chrome, a few scrapes, and I’m sure it had been dropped a few times. I had a friend check the frame with an endoscope to make sure that it was fine internally, and we found an incredibly small hairline fracture around the bottom bracket at the seat tube. It was very easily repaired, so it is as good, if not better, than the day that it first left the shop floor.”
As for the fork, he was happy to have it re-finished to match the frame, but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to save some weight. “I decided to put a carbon fork on the bike, and I did that for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted it to feel very nimble and light in the front, and second, I didn’t want a quill stem. I have all the hardware to fit the original fork, and at some point, I expect I’ll give it a try.”
The Columbus Minimal fork needed some work before Richard was satisfied with it, because he found that the one-inch steerer was flexing too much when test-riding the bike. “I’ve had an aluminium insert bonded in, which is roughly 15cm in length. It’s often used to repair forks where there’s been compression damage from the stem, but in this case, I’ve used it to stiffen the steerer.”
This is the kind of repair/modification that Perth framebuilder Aldo Contarino is often called upon to make. Aldo also took care of all the painting to finish off the X-4. It was a labour-intensive undertaking that involved several layers of paint and stencils for most of the logos to achieve the final dynamic finish.
When it came to picking the components, Richard carefully weighed every consideration including weight, aesthetics, and his own preferences. It was the latter that decided his choice of groupset. “Once I decided that I wanted to go modern, I had to have that debate [Shimano versus Campagnolo] with myself,” he said. “I could have quite easily put on Campag Super Record 12-speed, but I decided that I wanted to stick with what I have on my other bike. I also like the way that Shimano hoods feel, so that’s why I went down that avenue.”
That decision shaped the aesthetics for the rest of the build. “I didn’t want any carbon visible on the bike, which is why I’m using things like aluminium headset spacer washers. I wanted quite a clean non-carbon look. There is still plenty of carbon in there, like the seatpost, handlebars, and the spokes, it’s just not that obvious.”
As for the wheels, the biggest consideration was boosting the performance of the bike. “I could have built up some custom wheels with some absolutely beautiful triple-butted silver spokes and silver rims, but I would have ended up with a very different bike. I wanted to meet a weight target, and with a relatively sturdy frame to start with, one of the few places where I could lose some weight was with the wheels.
“One of the main issues I had was actually finding a modern wheel that wouldn’t slip in the chromed horizontal dropouts. The way I got around that was to machine the end-caps for the Mavic hub so that a Dura-Ace track flange nut could be pressed on to provide an internal bite surface, plus, I found a pretty sturdy locknut for the skewer.”
The finished bike features a variety of other small touches ranging from a titanium headset crown race for a small weight saving to the diligent removal of branding from various components, including the wheels. For some, this kind of attention to detail may seem overindulgent, but it is one of the joys of a custom-built bike.
“When I wake up in the morning, I look at it and go, ‘I’m pretty lucky, nobody else can have this,'” he said. “You can’t go and buy one. In my opinion, it’s a very beautiful bike, and it makes me smile every time I look at it. I’ve owned many bikes in my life, but I’ve never actually had this feeling of owning something that’s truly special.”
Frame: Bianchi Specialissima Argentin X-4
Fork: Columbus carbon, 1in steerer with custom compression plug
Headset: Chris King
Groupset: Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 with Nokon cables and KMC DLC chain
Handlebar: Giant Contact, carbon
Stem: Deda Zero 100
Wheels: Mavic R-Sys SLR, Continental 25mm GP4000s II tyres
Seatpost: Campagnolo Record, carbon
Saddle: Fizik Antares R3
Bar tape: Supacaz
Bidon cages: Giant Airway Lite
Weight: 7.99kg without pedals
Resurrected at last
One of the strongest arguments for rescuing any bike is to prolong its life so that it can be put to use again. The Specialissima X-4 was not built for display, or to satisfy the needs of collectors: it was meant to be ridden and raced. This is how Richard sees it, at least, and now that he has resurrected the bike, he plans on putting it to use on a regular basis.
“I’m never going to sell it, there’s no reason,” he said. “This bike is going to get used a lot, and 10 years from now, it’s probably going to get another paint job, and at that point, I can ponder restoring its original colours so that I can hang it on a wall as a showpiece. But in the meantime, it’s something that I want to get up in the morning and look at and go, ‘Wow, I really like that,’ and throw my leg over it and have some fun.”
In this regard, the final build has hit the mark by providing a pleasing blend of history and utility. “A bike that comes in under 8kg for a large [58cm] steel frame is pretty impressive, and when I jump on the bike, it feels very modern and light,” he said. “It is very fast, it’s got aggressive steering, and it feels like a racing bike should. Despite its age, they knew how to make the angles back then.
“When I first threw my leg over it and went for a ride, it felt like my bike. It felt like it was made for me. It’s got a feeling which is just down to earth, so I feel like I’m directly connected with the bike. I don’t feel like I’m sitting on something which is bouncing around corners; I feel like I’m part of it. It’s hard to explain, but I’m incredibly happy with it.
“You have to remember that a bike frame is basically … a jig. It’s there to hold you and the wheels to the ground. Yes, you can make it incredibly light, you can make it incredibly stiff. You can also make it comfortable. You can lose a little bit from each column but gain a lot more from others and end up with something that feels amazing. We shouldn’t always be chasing the lightest bike, or the stiffest bike, or even the fastest bike, unless you actually want to win a race.
“My goal isn’t to win races, it is to go for comfortable rides and feel like I’m riding something quite special.”