Ever since my all too brief taste of Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 groupset back in January of this year aboard the Volagi Liscio at the Tour down Under (link to the test on BNA), I’ve been itching to have a longer term test; to experience the ‘new order’ for a while, to see what all the fuss is about. The chance came in the form of the Azzurri Forza Pro Di2, and I took the opportunity to really explore what it was like to live with Shimano’s 2nd generation electronic groupset.
“There is a large box here in the mail room for you to collect.”
This is always a great moment, and the big box contained the Azzurri Forza Pro Ultegra Di2 from Cycling Express. The Forza is an attractively spec’d and priced bike which gives big brand name bikes, such as Giant, Trek and Specialized, with the same groupset a run for their money.
One thing that struck me while reviewing the spec’s on the Cycling Express website before I got to ride the bike, is that there doesn’t appear to have been any corners cut in order to get a competitive price. Whilst the parts are not all top shelf, they are all well known brands, and the price is very keen indeed.
I received the bike like any online Cycling Express customer would; a large box with a very well packed bike that required some assembly. All I needed was a 3, 4 & 5mm Allen key, a pair of side cutters and a torque wrench (which is an absolute must to ensure that the frame/carbon steerer or components are not damaged during final assembly/adjustment). About 20 minutes later I was ready to ride. A quick spin around the block, a few more adjustments, and I set off for my first ride on the bike.
Another pleasant surprise with the Forza Pro Di2 is that it is a Di2 specific frame where the electric cables all run internally and have very neat frame entry/exit points that really make the configuration 1st class. The rear brake cable is external, however, running along the underside of the top tube and this spoils the overall look a little, in my opinion.
The bike, without pedals, came in at 8.1kg, which for a ‘Large’ frame is squarely in the middle of the pack. Given that the Ultegra Di2 is not a lightweight groupset, it’s quite respectable. There is certainly scope for those that wish to drop a few more grams and try to get closer to a mid 7kg machine.
Buying a bike online – is it a good or risky option ?
One key aspect to buying a bike online is to ensure that you are comparing the correct frame measurements, as some brands list or measure key aspects differently or fail to show some data. In the case of the Forza Pro Di2, Azzurri size the frame based on the seat tube length, and so the bike that arrived for me was a 53cm which worried me until I checked the geometry chart. Many other brands use the top tube length as the key measurement (which would make this bike a 57cm), so beware before finally placing the order.
The FSA bars, stem and seatpost are all matching kit (the seatpost is carbon wrapped alloy), the Reynolds Solitude wheelset is a known brand with proven quality , the tyres that were fitted to the bike were Vittoria Zaffiro Pros (instead of the listed Rubino Pros) and the saddle is a Prologo, though I’m not sure which model. The groupset is full Ultegra, even down to the chain and cassette.
Based on known measurements from previous bikes and the detailed geometry data from the Cycling Express website, I found that the bike fit quite well and I was able to find a very good position on it quickly.
The ability to order a bike online with several options is unusual and is a very welcome addition. The options include a compact crank (instead of the standard 53/39), different cassette ratios, the choice of 3 other wheelsets and even a handlebar option. This is the only site that I have seen that provides those options at all, let alone with reasonable prices. You can, of course, save money if you do the buy/sell option yourself, but this requires input and effort on your behalf and I’d rather be riding.
Before I talk more about the bike, let me say a few words on Cycling Express. While they are still a young online Aussie bike shop, they are essentially backed by the Azzuri brand. Since their launch they have offered price matching for overseas online shops like Wiggle and Chain Reaction Cycles and have gotten a bit of attention for it. With the Azzuri Forza bike they often run pre-orders with cheaper pricing if you book early enough for a future shipment.
The graphics on the bike are bold, but quite restrained in that there are not 40 different Azzurri logos plastered on every tube of the bike. The placement of the ‘Di2’ script in contrasting red adds some more visual depth to the bike and the gloss finish is even and lustrous. The only graphics that spoils it is the “a passion for performance” script near the base of the down tube. Less is more, and they almost pull this off with the Forza Pro Di2.
The whole package not only looks good, but stands out as a well coordinated package (wheels, bars, seat and bar tape). This was confirmed by several envious comments and glances of fellow riders, including a “You lucky bastard” as I finished a weekend ride in the hills. Cue the cheesy grin!
The frame tube profiles are all varied and on the bigger side, giving you some hint as to how this bike will perform. From the top tube that tapers from the broad head tube to seat tube, the down tube that connects to the BB via a large inverted keyhole profile, to the tall and chunky chainstays and the not inconsiderable seat stays, this bike boldly states that it is going to be stiff and will reward input from the rider.
The visible carbon fibre isn’t an obvious weave (Cycling Express list it as a “brand new matte carbon finish”) that you see on many bikes, but it has a wavy, almost washed sand type of appearance that adds depth to the finish.
So, how does it ride ?
Two things immediately struck me on that first ride. The first was that the Prologo saddle was as hard as a rock, despite the words ‘gel’ emblazoned on it (it must mean something different in Italian). The second is that the frame is quite stiff – you know exactly what the road surface beneath you is and how many ants you have managed to flatten. The first issue was quickly dealt with after the ride – my Brooks Team Pro saddle was quickly affixed in readiness for the next ride, and the second would just take some getting used to.
Though I am limited to a short review period of a few weeks, I still got a feeling of the Forza Pro’s characteristics and found that the bike is very direct, communicative and whilst a quick steering bike, is far from nervous or twitchy, even on fast descents with coarse surfaces. The hefty tube profiles (which are partly responsible for the overall bike weight) provide that sense of solidity that inspires the confidence to push that bit harder on descents or keep it in a higher gear and really push on that climb to sprint past your mates. There is no obvious sway or movement in the bottom bracket or rear end and the wheels seem to be flex-free given their lighter weight and low spoke count.
While I’m talking about the wheels, I have to say the Reynolds Solitudes roll very well. Their colour scheme with bold and minimalist decals suit the bike well, and at 1,540 grams and 30mm deep, they are quite a light wheelset for the budget of the bike. Despite their low spoke count, I could detect no appreciable pad rub when hauling my near clydesdale fame out of the saddle, even up 18% inclines. I am impressed by the Reynolds!
But what about the Di2 ?
Cycling Express used this bike as one of their hero models (despite it not being at the top of their model range) when Ultegra Di2 was first released. It certainly worked for them and their advanced shipment orders are still being snapped up. The Forza Pro Di2 is priced significantly lower than many other bigger names with similar specs and Ultegra Di2.
There is no short-cutting on the Forza Pro with lower grade components, such as ‘home brand’ brakes, lower spec chain or cassette. It is the full groupset and, as we have all come to expect of Shimano, it operates perfectly. Almost.
OK, it operates as intended, straight out of the box, and it works brilliantly, especially the front ring changes. In a word, it is fantastic. I’m hooked. The only thing that I find I can’t do is effectively change gears when wearing even medium weight winter gloves, though I am getting used to it. For thick winter gloves, the changes will be a bit of a guessing game, as the differentiation between the up/down buttons is small and their movement range is even less. This is the only gripe that I have about it, and it isn’t a biggie. It is something that you will probably get used to over time, but there is very limited differentiation between the buttons on the levers.
After 4 weeks, over 800km and many, many gear changes, the battery indicator light was still green, showing that a common area of criticism, i.e. running out of battery, is unfounded. It is a quick and simple check to perform, and the reality is that the Di2 battery will require less attention than many high powered headlights in use.
I found the bike very striking, especially given the price, with the Reynolds Solitude wheelset a standout performer in the components. The only item that I didn’t like in the package was the Prologo saddle, but this is probably one of the most personal items on a bike and no one saddle will suit everyone. The FSA bars, with the combination bend profile and flattened upper area, are really to my taste and I found them very comfortable whether climbing, cruising or bombing downhill.
The bike was equally at home flying along the suburban roads or going for a weekend blast through the Adelaide Hills along the rolling roads, climbing or descending, rough or smooth.
Because of the inherent stiffness of the frame, those that prefer the longer sportive type ride events or less feedback may prefer some 25C tyres and bar tape with more give to provide a better buffer between the road and the rider.
Those that know me also know that I’m a keen believer in disc brakes on road bikes, so if this bike had them I’d have a new bike in the shed. A quick search of the net revealed that other brands are selling similarly spec’d bikes often at a premium of at least $1,000 over the Azzurri. It may not have the kudos of some other brands, but it certainly performs well above its price, and represents excellent value for money.
For $2699 this bike can be yours, and though this is already excellent value, at the time of publishing there is a pre-order for the August 2012 shipment that will save you $200. You can see the specs and pricing on the Azzuri Forza Ultegra Di2 Pro on Cycling Express.
But wait, there’s more …
There is another new Azzurri model that has just been released that I’ll be lucky enough to test soon. It’s the new Azzurri Mezzo 90, complete with the new 2013 SRAM Red gruppo, Ksyrium Elite wheels, sub-800g frame and total weight of 6.6kg ; all for less than $4k!
I’ll ride it and let you know how it compares to the Forza Pro Di2, and a great shootout it promises to be: the mid-priced Shimano Di2 all-rounder against a lightweight steed with the newest and lightest mechanical groupset yet released. Is it worth the extra $1,300 ? Standby…