The market for high-end custom carbon composite framesets is a small one, for a number of reasons, cost being high on the list; the market for budget custom carbon frames is virtually non-existent. After all, there are stems and seatposts available in enough sizes to allow all but the most oddly proportioned of cyclists to be accommodated on an off-the-peg frame; plus there is the difficulty of making a custom frame competitive on weight and performance with the technically advanced products of companies such as Scott, Trek and Cervelo.
Unless, that is, you're talking about Billato. This small but venerable Italian firm, based in Padua in the heart of the Veneto, currently employs a staff of five, having shifted from large-scale production of lightweight frames just three years ago. Throughout its history, the company has made small numbers of frames for top professional riders and teams, including the Concorde frames for Sean Kelly's PDM squad, Greg LeMond's Z and Gan team machines and LeMond's own range of steel road bike frames.
Today the output is almost entirely to special order, although standard sizes are also available. Billato builds frames in steel, aluminium and titanium, but a good 90 per cent of its capacity is dedicated to the three carbon fibre frames in the line-up. The Supercorsa sits in the middle, but essentially differs from the top Competizione model in weight alone.
The Carbon Wrap System (CWS) production method is race-proven; using this technique Billato built the Fondriest on which Gilberto Simoni won the 2001 Giro d'Italia. CWS allows custom sizing, which can be determined by the dealer using the VeloSapiens computerised measuring system. Tube lengths, frame angles and details such as wheelbase and bottom bracket height are all entirely variable, and are calculated prior to cutting using a program called EasyFit04.
The tube profiles used for the Supercorsa are themselves designed in-house at Billato, with the moulds machined nearby. The pre-preg carbon fibre (resin-impregnated so it's easy to work with) comes from sources such as Excel Composites in France and ACG in the UK. Billato favours High Resistance (HR) carbon over the more modish High Modulus; it is stronger but less stiff, and makes a more resilient, forgiving frame.
A carbon-Kevlar composite fabric, CK, is also used to improve vibration absorption and toughness. The precise sequence, number and angle of layers is in fact the result of calculations carried out by Dottore Nicola Petrone of Padua University's engineering department.
Billato might be a small outfit, but it has vast experience in both large and small scale production techniques, access to leading edge composites technology and research, and a history of building frames for some of the most prestigious names in road racing. If anyone can build a competitively priced custom carbon frame, Billato can.
The Supercorsa is just about the only budget option for the carbon fibre frame enthusiast wanting a custom fit. There are plenty of reasons for wanting this, from having unusual bodily proportions to simply preferring a frame that is a precise fit rather than 'close enough'. It also permits the specification of details such as wheelbase and head tube height that materially affect the feel of the complete machine.
The frame is well finished, but retains the distinctive 'feel' of classic small-scale production with slight painting imperfections around the dropouts. Alignment is excellent, with the pedal tread symmetrical to within 1mm. Our one criticism concerns the shape of the chainstays, which splay out too early and can catch the heels.
The flaring of the top and down tube ends does add to the finished strength of the critical head tube area. A typical tube layup will employ an inside layer of twill, several unidirectional layers laid at either 45 degrees each way to resist torsion or lengthways to resist bending, and a CK composite layer to combat vibration. The final, outer layer is woven twill to protect against damage.
The bottom bracket shell is welded to a tube that in turn is bonded inside the seat tube to maximise strength and durability. Billato's own rear dropouts are CNC-machined 7020 alu with an integral gear hanger. Those who prefer a replaceable hanger can opt for a Deda Monobox rear end. Billato's recommended fork is Look's HSC 5 SL, although the example tested had the similar HSC 4 SL. The top of the seat tube receives a composite sleeve, itself previously moulded around a 31.6mm mandrel to ensure a precise fit for the seatpost. This sleeve is cut away at its lower end, the front half remaining to reinforce the bottle cage boss area.
The whole frame is built for durability first, in line with top-end racing practice, but with weight an impressive 930g for a 54cm model, it is clear Billato has no problem producing a very light frame.
The only criticism that can be levelled at the Billato is purely subjective; it exhibits a trace of understeer, thanks to the shallow head angle and long front centres (BB to front hub) dimension, which lessens the weight on the front tyre. On dry roads this can cause the unwary to run slightly wide. On greasy surfaces or, perhaps, the cobbles of Flanders, it reduces the possibility of overloading the front tyre, and may be considered an advantage.
This is definitely a swings and roundabouts issue, with the reviewer admitting to a personal preference for sharper 'turn-in'. Otherwise, the longish wheelbase and exceptional torsional stiffness ensure immaculate mid-curve stability and an effortlessly relaxed loping ride ideally suited to longer outings and cyclo-sportives.
A tasty mixture of ITM 4Ever ancillaries and Shimano's Dura-Ace groupset gives the Supercorsa a flying start. However, the ITM parts, while effective, look less than graceful. The seatpost in particular has a brutal looking clamp, which seems to have two separate modes of adjustment to saddle angle. Otherwise, these carbon-fibre parts give solid, trouble-free service with no hint of slippage or flex.
Well set up Dura-Ace is, naturally, state of the art. The brakes are astonishingly powerful in the dry, although the pad compound is less impressive in wet conditions. Shifting at the rear is slicker than slick, but the STI front shifter is, as ever, Shimano's weak point thanks to its finicky trim function.
Fulcrum's Racing 1 wheelset echoes the concept behind Mavic's Ksyrium SSC, allying aerodynamic bladed aluminium alloy spokes to a rim design that does away with the need to drill the rim-well to allow access for the spoke nipples. Fulcrum's solution is a fairly conventional nipple, which is guided to its hole by magnet before accepting the spoke. The system works, as does the spoke layout, which puts twice as many rear spokes on the drive side to equalise spoke tension between them and the non-drive side spokes.
The result is a very stiff, slightly 'wooden' wheel that, while strong and fast, has the ride characteristics of a traditional 48-spoke tandem wheel. Swapping to Dura-Ace 10-speed wheels rolling on the same fast, supple Michelin Pro Race 2 tyres added noticeable zip and comfort. Fulcrum also provides particularly nasty skewers that lack bite or the feedback that says when the skewer is tight.
While the name Billato may be unfamiliar to all but the aficionado, this is a thoroughbred Italian frameset of exceptional quality. Even without the custom sizing option it would merit comparison with any of the top-end carbon opposition. For anyone dissatisfied with off -the-peg sizing, it has real appeal, whether for racing, sportive or Sunday riding.