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Marco Pantani left a complicated legacy. He was one of the most gifted climbers in history, his passion manifest in the saddle, but his descent from a stellar racing career was as precipitous as his ascending was during it. His failings made him loom larger in the tifosi’s heart than perhaps his palmarès alone would demand. But it is Il Pirata’s better angels that Bianchi are channeling with a special-edition Specialissima, modeled on the MegaPro XL he rode for Mercatone Uno in 1998, when he became the last rider to do the Giro-Tour double. Here at PELOTON magazine, we’ve frequently said every Bianchi should be celeste green. But we need to amend that: Bianchis should be celeste green, unless they are the celeste and yellow of the Specialissima Pantani 20th Anniversary edition.
The Specialissima is the ideal choice to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pantani’s grand-tour double. It is a climber’s bike, the best Bianchi has ever made and one of the best bikes ever made. At just 780 grams (55cm size), it’s an ultralight foundation for a climbing build, but that’s not the only reason it’s the right bike to wear the Mercatone Uno colors. The Specialissima—meaning “extra special”—has traditional lines that echo the great Bianchi steel and alloy bikes of the past. Let’s not forget, the Specialissima name first achieved greatness under Fausto Coppi in the 1950s.
Despite the history, this Specialissima is a very modern bike. Sure, it’s monocoque carbon, high modulus in all the right places and made using the latest molding techniques to get the most performance out of the minimum of material, but Bianchi has also graced the frame with its Countervail material first used in its endurance bikes. If it works to smooth out cobblestones, why not use it to damp the typically shrill ride of an ultralight climber?
When we first rode the Specialissima we said it was our favorite Bianchi, because it put Bianchi’s current, cutting-edge technology in a package that connected it to the brand’s incredible history. This bike takes that same theme and adds the emotion and passion of Marco Pantani, a man for whom winning was a religious experience. Just take a look at the images from his stage victory on Montecampione during the 1998 Giro—that is a man in rapture.
The build we tested was pure Italian performance, with Campagnolo Super Record 11 EPS electronic shifting, Fulcrum Racing Zero carbon clinchers and FSA cockpit (including a custom-painted stem), topped off with a Selle San Marco Aspide Superleggera seat, one of our favorite ultralight saddles. With the Specialissima as its ultralight foundation, it puts a low number on the scale for a 59cm with clinchers: 14.1 pounds (6.4 kilograms). Of course, that means it also puts a big number on the price tag: $14,000. The frame alone can be had for $5,000 in its normal paint scheme, or $5,500 in the Pantani colors.
The Specialissima reminds us why we love ultralight bikes so much. When they are as stiff as the Specialissima they provide an explosive and kinetic feel at the pedals, like plugging into a 240-volt socket. This thing is a rocket ship in the hills, begging you to dig deeper; but staring at Pantani’s Mercatone Uno paint scheme, complete with the period-correct, but rather obvious “Professional Cycling Team” decals on the top tube and chainstays, the extra motivation to push past your limits is not in short supply.
What the Specialissima does not remind us of is why we don’t like ultralight bikes. The piercing, discordant feedback from the road is absent—the Specialissima is as planted and confident as a beefy classics bike when descending. The bike’s geometry, low and aggressive but with a slightly longer wheelbase, is pure open-road Italian magic and helps create the bike’s assurance in the saddle. Undoubtedly, the Countervail damping layer plays a big role here as well and shows just how much Bianchi’s technology can positively influence its bike’s performance.
When it comes to big-wattage, full-gas sprints, the Specialissima is not as quick as Bianchi’s Oltre XR4. In pure newton meters the Oltre XR4 is the champ; but that was not Bianchi’s intention with the Specialissima, which makes it ideal for channeling Marco Pantani’s spirit. His power meter likely never read four digits; he was about “watts-per-kilo” and the Specialissima is about “stiffness-to-weight”—it’s a match made in heaven.
You’re an Italian god with a shorn pate. You climb like an angel, as if you’re not just trying to win a bike race but also escaping from demons. One grand tour a year is not enough for you…you crave the Giro-Tour double. Your name is Marco Pantani—or at least you pretend it is when you ride this bike.
PRICE: $14,000 (as tested); $5,500 (frameset only)
WEIGHT: 14.1 lbs/6.4kg, size 59cm (w/o pedals)
BUILD: Campagnolo Super Record 11 EPS; Fulcrum Racing Zero carbon clinchers; FSA bar, stem and seat post; Selle San Marco Aspide Superleggera saddle; Vittoria Rubino Pro Speed tires.