Most brands have been faced with a dilemma for 2014, and it’s all down to component giant Shimano. Specifically, it’s because Shimano has launched the latest iteration of its second-tier Ultegra groupset with an 11-speed drivetrain, aping the top-end Dura-Ace specification.
That’s meant plenty of brands have decided to either increase prices on their Ultegra-level bikes, because that eleventh sprocket has meant no option to downgrade drivetrain parts in order to hit pricing targets, or to swap out the groupset wholesale. This has meant we’ve seen far more 105-specced bikes than usual, with Ultegra becoming the exception.
Highs: Plush ride, top class spec, bargain price
Lows: Might not be as exciting as you’d want
Fuji however has met the challenge head on – and has smashed the price wall with plenty of gusto. The new Altimara 2.3 boasts Ultegra 11, and Ultegra brakes. Its only concession to cost saving is a KMC 11-speed chain and an Oval chainset (with top quality Praxis chain rings no less). The biggest surprise, however, is the price tag – which is a whole heap cheaper than its peers. For a direct-to-market, online-only brand it’d be impressive, but for a bike available on the high street with all the benefits that entails its almost unheard of.
Elsewhere the Fuji features a full complement of its component partner Oval’s wares. Up front it’s a nicely shaped, semi-ovalised compact drop aluminium bar and a matching stem. Out back a carbon seatpost is topped with a well-padded, scoop-shaped Oval 500 saddle too. It’s running on a set of Oval 527 wheels. The rim shape is semi aero and 22mm wide with bladed aero spokes and decently sealed cartridge bearing hubs too. They weigh in at 1720 grams a pair and so hit the middleweight territory spot on. We’ve been impressed with the stiffness levels and like the modern wide rim shape, which is a great match for the Vittoria Zaffiro Pro Slick tyres, which although nominally 23c come up bigger – much closer to a 25c in actual fact.
The Altimara frame design at first glance looks as if it’s going to be a stiff powerhouse of a bike. The tapered-to-1.5in head-tube meets a truly massive down-tube: it’s nigh on 3.5in in diameter and reminds us a lot of old school aluminium from the likes of Cannondale.
The oversized theme continues into the huge square section chainstays. When you climb on board the Fuji and ride, this underpinning of strength makes for a bike that’s almost completely free of lateral flex: push hard and sprint on the Altimira and all you can feel is the flex coming from the tyres as they deform under you.
Thankfully though the design has more about it than just out and out rigidity. The slightly arched and highly tapered top-tube meets the seat-tube and flows into very slim seatstays – the upper half of the frame is more than happy to flex and dull vibration. Make no mistake, the Altimira is one clever little so-and-so. If you sit in and ride the Fuji for a few hours the overriding feel is one of plushness – it’s only bettered in these stakes by the specialist Trek Domane – but it matches both Giant and Cannondale for smoothness.
Ride position on our size large test bike was a little shorter in the top-tube than an equivalent race bike. That gives you a more upright riding position on the hoods where most of us spend most of our time. So the Fuji’s plush ride and position make it a fine choice for the sportive enthusiast. If you prefer to add the odd turn of sprinting and speeding, the mid-compact drop of the bars makes it comfortable enough to spend time in a more aero position down on the drops.
The frame’s stiffness translates into a bike that’s happy to tell you its limits, and making swift progress is pretty easy to achieve. The short but tall shape does have its limits: if you want real lightning-fast, pinpoint accuracy through an apex it won’t quite match the best race orientated bikes around. It’s still damn rapid through tight turns though, at least in the dry (the Vittoria slicks do leave a little to be desired in the grip stakes on damp greasy roads, though the excellent Ultegra brakes help control any tyre-induced mishaps).
On the climbs the short upright ride position makes for swift uphill seated progress. It’s geared for climbing, combining an 11-28 cassette with a pair of top quality Praxis works rings in 50t and 34t sizes. Some shorter-reach rides do feel a little ungainly when you venture out of the saddle, but thankfully the Fuji feels great when you stand up and stomp – we think that’s down to the frame’s lack of lateral flex and a rock-solid front end combining into a super stable whole.
Taken as a sportive bike the Altimara is one of the best around… factor in that amazing price tag and you’ve got a compelling potential purchase. If it was just a few per cent more exciting and engaging at speed it’d be a truly champion machine.
This article forms part of Cycling Plus magazine’s Bike of the Year 2014 Awards. Cycling Plus is available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.