Monday, March 4, 2019

Battaglin Portofino - Where Steel Imitates Carbon Fiber

Battaglin bicycles began in 1981, shortly after Giovanni Battaglin won the Giro d'Italia/Vuelta a EspaƱa grand tour "double." The bike brand achieved its greatest fame when Irishman Stephen Roche won the "Triple Crown" of cycling on a Battaglin in 1987 - winning the Giro, Tour de France, and the World Championships in the same season. Some years later, the brand took a "break" for a couple of decades but was revived a few years ago as "Officina Battaglin" with a new line of modern steel-framed bikes.

The "flagship" of this new Battaglin is the Portofino - a bike which at least one of the bicycle industry cheerleader websites called "The first oversized lugged steel road bike." Obviously this would not be the first time one of these sites showed a lack of historical knowledge about their subject matter.
First "oversized" lugged steel bike? Well - "oversized" is a relative term, isn't it? First lugged steel bike built to bloated carbon fiber proportions might be a little more accurate, but doesn't quite have the same ring.

The Portofino is made with Columbus Spirit tubing, and has similar proportions to many of the oversized aluminum and carbon fiber bikes available today - including a massive tapered head-tube designed to be mated to a bloated carbon fork. But yes, it does feature lugged construction, which on a bike like the Portofino seems almost anachronistic -- and this coming from a person who loves lugged bikes. Needless to say, the lugs had to be specially designed and made to accommodate the unique design.
I notice that the bottom part of the lower head lug had to have this "scallop" built into it to clear the massive fork. Meh
Also not a fan of the seat lug which has this socket for the seat stays cast into it. The stays basically get "plugged in" and brazed in place. Such designs are kind of a time saver for the builder, but to my eye tend to look kind of clunky. But worse - unless they cast different seat lugs for each available frame size (each with a slightly different angle for the seat stays - which will vary slightly with frame size) then the fit of the stays - or the way they "line up" with the angle of the socket - can be compromised. Was that done in this case? No idea. It looks "right" in this frame size - but I haven't seen others.
It's purely a racing machine - for good pavement only. That's a 25 mm tire in there. 
Don't like the matte brown and coppertone? It's apparently also available in a chrome finish with "chromovelato" colors applied over it - like storied Italian bikes of the '80s.
Okay, so what about that "first oversized lugged steel frame" claim? Well, like I said, the term "oversized" is relative. Technically (and historically) speaking, most steel bikes built today are already oversized.

Say what?

From the early 1900s up through the 1980s, almost all quality steel bikes came with pretty standardized tubing dimensions. Specifically, this meant a top tube of 1-in. diameter (25.4 mm), and seat and down tubes of 1 1/8-in (28.6 mm) diameter. French dimensions were slightly different and strictly metric -- at 26 mm and 28 mm. Those "standards" were settled upon early on as being an ideal compromise for strength and weight for steel tubing. As higher strength steel alloys and butting became available, the weight could be brought down a bit by reducing the tubing wall thickness while keeping the outer dimensions the same.

When aluminum bikes started making the racing scene in the early 1970s, first with ALAN of Italy, and later Vitus of France, they utilized those traditional steel tubing diameters (understand, those were not the very first aluminum racing bikes - there were some lovely aluminum racers in the pre-war era - notably the Caminargent, which had octagonal-sectioned aluminum tubes bolted into ornate aluminum lugs). Those ALAN and Vitus frames were very light, but larger riders tended to dismiss them as "whippy" or too flexible. Their 1" to 1 1/8" dimensions were great for steel, but to use that for aluminum is to ignore the fact that Al is only about 1/3 as stiff or strong as steel. The stiffness issue was addressed by an MIT engineering student, Gary Klein, who experimented with bikes built from much larger diameter aluminum tubing (I believe, in the range of about 1¼ - 1¾ in. - though I could be off). Increasing the diameter of a tube greatly increases the stiffness, while the weight still remained below that of a steel frame. Before long, Cannondale followed that design model and popularized it. "Oversized" dimensions started to become commonplace.

Even though the traditional dimensions worked just fine for steel bikes (at least, for road bikes) the quest for greater stiffness made its way to steel bikes as well. The rise of mountain bikes also meant that builders were looking for ways to increase strength and stiffness. If larger diameters worked for aluminum, they would work for steel, too. One of the first steel road bikes to utilize oversized dimensions that I can recall is the Masi Volumetrica - developed in Italy by Alberto Masi in 1981 (go back to the late 1800s, before tubing dimensions became more standardized, and I'm sure there are much earlier examples). Other builders started to offer larger dimensioned tubing by the end of the decade - typically 1 1/8-in top tube, 1 ¼-in. downtube. By the late '90s, most steel bikes were built to the newer OS dimensions - but still looked "skinny" by comparison to all the welded aluminum and later carbon fiber bikes popping up everywhere.

Are there any benefits to be had from going to the diameters used in aluminum and carbon fiber for a steel frame? I really think not. People often talk about the "magic" ride quality of steel -- and this even includes people who are otherwise devoted to non-ferrous bicycles. But the ride quality which people praise isn't solely due to the properties of the material by itself. It's about the properties of the material (whether steel, titanium, aluminum, carbon fiber, or even wood) and being applied in the best way into a frame design - using the right diameters and wall thicknesses, the right geometry, taking into account frame size, and rider weight, etc.- to make the most of that material's potential. Many people talk about aluminum as giving a stiff harsh ride while others nod knowingly in agreement, but then how does that square with those early ALAN and Vitus frames being described as "comfortable" but maybe "too flexible" for a big rider? And I've known many people who've ridden steel bikes that were too stiff for their own good. There are some people for whom today's OS steel frames are overkill. It seems to me that the massive diameters being used in a bike like the Portofino would just take the stiffness to a new level. I haven't ridden it, but I imagine a bike like that would chatter over pavement imperfections, skipping over broken pavement like a stone over a pond. The 25mm tires wouldn't help.

I guess if someone wants a steel bike that won't look out of place in a sea of fat-tubed aluminum and carbon fiber, the Portofino is a fine way to go. The polished steel lugs definitely make it more distinctive than all the welded or "popped out of a mold" alternatives. But . . .
. . . for those who want their traditional lugged steel bike to look a little more . . . well . . . traditional, Battaglin also makes a model called Marosticana - made with Columbus SL tubing and more "normal" tubing profiles.


  1. "A bike which at least one of the bicycle industry cheerleader websites called "The first oversized lugged steel road bike."
    Richard Sachs' heart skipped a beat.

  2. The Marosticana is actually a nice-looking frame. The Portofino, not so much. And I wonder whether how much stiffer the Portofino actually is.

    I once had a steel frame with an oversized down tube. It was filet-brazed, and because the joint was smooth, the down tube didn't look out of proportion. I'm not sure that it actually made the bike stiffer, partly because the bike had tight very tight geometry.

  3. I'm not sure what I think of the Portofino bike. It's got a level top tube an a steel frame, but then they throw on some carbo-plastic forks? And max tire clearance of 25 mm sans fenders? Have they not seen any of BQ's work in oh the last decade?

    The Marosticana on the other hand looks like a real beauty of a bike. Steel frame and slender curved steel forks. If it has clearance for at least 32 mm tires then I'd say that they have a winner.