Bianchi Titanium: S9 Matta

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The latest addition to my stable is a 2008 Bianchi S9 Matta. This is a butted titanium frame, a direct descendant of the legendary Ti-Megatube of the 1990s. Bianchi titanium bikes have won Paris-Roubaix, Milano-San Remo, and stages of the Grand Tours ridden by riders such as Riis, Berzin, Musseuw, Backstedt, and Cipollini.

I’m pleased with the ride.

Like the original Ti-Megatube, the S9 is has tapered stays and profiled down tube, but the design has evolved considerably since the 1990s. The Ti-Megatube featured the first deep section down tube in the pro peloton. Columbus engineers were basically hand-pounding titanium sheets around a mandrel and then welding it into a tube to produce the titanium “Megatube.” Today’s S9 has a down tube that has been worked from a round cross-section to a more subtle aero-profile, somewhat teardrop at the head tube and rounder at the BB.

Unlike recent versions of the S9 that had carbon wishbone seat stays, the current model has returned to an all-ti frame. The seat stays have an external butt above the brake bridge, joining the chain stays at a machined dropout that is new for 2008’s S9. The dropouts are cleverly designed to simplify the mitering of the stays and minimize welding requirements. The right dropout now utilizes a replaceable derailleur hanger.

The top and down tubes are both 35mm, as opposed to the original Ti-Megatube’s 32mm. Just like all of the recent Reparto Corse frames, the top tube slopes 3cm for any given size, such that my nominal 49cm actually measures 46cm to the top of seat tube collar. The seat tube is injected with structural foam right above the BB, an innovation introduced in the Ti-Megatube’s immediate replacement, the XL Titanium. Bianchi claims that the foam helps disperse the stress in this area of the bike, allowing thinner tube walls without affecting service life. A thin, aluminium shim is bonded into the top of the seat tube and then honed to accept a 31.6mm seat post.

The head tube accepts an integrated headset, the cartridge bearings seating directly onto shoulders machined into the head tube interior. The head tube is now noticeably slimmer than when Bianchi used an internal headset; an internal headset uses cups that sit almost entirely within the head tube. I believe that carbon and aluminium frames are more suited to integrated headsets than steel, and titanium sits right in the middle. The primary advantage of integrated headsets is that prompts a larger diameter head tube to which very large top and down tubes are more easily joined. There is no real need to go to extremely large diameter titanium tubing because of titanium’s relatively high material strength and stiffness (compared to aluminium). The S9 has some pretty big tubes, though, so the large diameter head tube has some merit. The primary disadvantage of integrated headsets is that the head tube must have a little extra bulk from the bearing shoulders on the interior; the bulk translates into more weight but is minimized for low density materials like carbon. Titanium, being less dense than steel but more than carbon or aluminium, has not much to gain or lose with an integrated headset. However, the S9 does aesthetically benefit from the clean lines of the integrated headset, and Bianchi probably has some desire to maintain uniformity among their carbon, alloy, and titanium products. Lastly, as a mechanic making the initial assembly, one doesn’t require a headset press for an integrated headset since the bearings simply drop into place.

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The S9’s finish is an industrial chic contrast of polished and bead-blasted bare metal. Generally this is accomplished by polishing the whole surface, selectively masking off a design, blasting, and then removing the mask. However, the S9’s polished surface is closer to a bronze colour than I have ever seen on titanium. The welds are somewhat indifferent, lacking the measured ripples of a Davidson or the daintiness of a Moots. Nevertheless, the frame arrived with good alignment, angles exactly to the catalog spec. My old Ti-Megatube was similar, unlike my hated Colnago Bi-Titanio. The S9 frame was properly tapped and honed, ready to build without a fuss.

The fork that Bianchi specs with the S9 with the same 1-1/8” carbon fork as the T-Cube full-carbon frameset, quite different from the threaded unicrown, steel for of the original Ti-Megatube. The fork mould has been used since 2005, but currently these forks sport the dramatic 12K carbon weave under a gloss clearcoat. Today’s fork weighs 380gr with an uncut steerer, same as three years ago. While not as light as an Easton EC90 SLX, the Bianchi fork is still competitively light and stiffer than many full-carbon forks, including Reynolds Ouzo Pro. Like the Reynolds but unlike the Easton, the Bianchi fork has aluminium dropouts.

The S9 Matta in a 49cm frame weighs in at 1410gr, just a touch less than the 1997 bike, though the fork is much lighter. My riding impression is that the bike rides more smoothly than the older bike. The small details seem to add up into a bike that feels really solid over rough roads, yet doesn’t beat you up. The thing about titanium, as compared to carbon, is that you still feel the road under you, feel the road surface as you search for traction on a hard turn in a rippled asphalt corner or charge up a cobbled climb. On a carbon bike, the road buzz is damped a bit more, but you feel a little more disconnected from the road.

It’s this ride quality plus titanium’s toughness that makes the S9 a great choice for bad roads and hard riding. In fact, today’s S9 very closely resembles Magnus Backstedt’s 2004 Paris-Roubaix winning bike. Over the cold and wet cobblestone roads, the S9 was the first choice for the classics specialist.

In the photos, sharp-eyed readers may have spotted one of my treasured relics adorning the S9: a 1994 Rock Shox Paris-Roubaix SL suspension fork. My S9 is destined to be my all-around bike, especially in the winter. That suspension fork gives a little more control on the bumpy and wet. I haven’t used that Paris-Roubaix SL since I broke my last all-around frame, so I just wanted to test the fork out on the new bike before I send the fork off to be overhauled for this winter. It all checks out.

At about $3600 for the frame and fork, the S9 is an anomaly: a premium Italian bike that isn’t carbon. A titanium bike that is neither American nor Asian. A Bianchi that isn’t painted celeste. Yet the S9 is a nimble yet controlled device for riding in all conditions, all day. A tool for the classics rider, complete with a famous service history.



5 Comments

Does Bianchi still have problems producing straight frames? Did you have to table this frame or shim it?

I do remember that some of the really light gauge, TIG’ed steel Bianchi frames didn’t always come out straight.  But by “not straight”, I mean if you put it on an alignment table you could tell.  Very few shops have an alignment table, so most mechanics probably couldn’t tell even with good quality hand tools.

This happens a lot with TIG-welding thin-walled, large diameter tubes.  You have shrinkage perpendicular to the weld pool and then you can only coldset the frame so much post-weld.  If the tubes are thicker walled, you can push it farther without buckling the frame.

My girlfriend’s Kappa bike was an incredible 12mm off at the front end.  A mechanic with hand tools would have assumed that the rear triangle was off, but having an alignment table means you measure everything relative to the right BB face.  On the table, I could see that the front triangle was off, not the rear.  With nothing to lose other than $100 on a used eBay frame, I snaked a 6 foot cheater bar thru the main triangle of that BMX frame and literally hung my entire bodyweight on it. 

I kept on bouncing on that cheater bar until the front triangle bent into alignment.  A road frame would have buckled way before bending 12mm, but those beefy BMX tubes took it.  If you hold a straightedge to the top or down tube of that bike, you can see the bow, the tubes curving to put the head tube in proper alignment with the rear of the bike.

Consider that my Colnago BiTitanio was 1 degree slacker at the head and 2.5 degrees off at the seat tube.  I don’t know how that happens…nowadays, I would have sent the bike back.  Carbon bikes you would expect to be spot on since there’s no welding involved, but I’ve seen forks and frames that have been off where the alloy parts are bonded in.  Not so much these days, though. 

I’ve even seen an Italian Masi (not the Haro/Taiwanese production) with the right dropout widened out so that the rear wheel will sit straight in the vertical drop outs. 

There’s more to a good bike than pretty welds and nice paint.

And something a customer never wants to see or rather should see. Back in the day, with my first Colnago, Elliott Bay straightened it for me and I wish I hadn’t seen that. It was a very medieval process. Also, the quirks of each frame. For example my first custom Ti bike had an oddly placed, very low bottle cage mount. I had to double over on the frame to reach it and ya know, that’s just how it was.

Trek has always had quality problems with their thin paint. I got a new 5900 once and watched paint fall off it. As the season wore on, I just had to let it go that the paint would flake and chip.

I own two Bianchi bikes.  A lugged steel cross bike (pre-Axis) and a lugged steel road bike.  The cross bike is an awesome commuter.  I race both and something about a lugged steel bike just makes sense to me.

I’ve owned MANY Bianchi bikes over the years including the RC Cross Project like yours….and I still have my 1996 EL/OS….one of the last lugged and chromed bikes out of the Reparto Corse.

Bianchi has always made a decent steel bike.  And Bianchi was one of the last big manufacturers to set aside lugged construction, after about 100yrs tradition.  Carbon fibre, integrated shifters, and lycra are going to continue to dominate mainstream cycling, but it’s no secret that there is a demand for lugged steel. 

Next year, there’ll be some surprises.

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