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For those of you who've embraced electronic shifting and are after a titanium race bike without breaking the bank we give you...well actually, Van Nicholas give you the Aquilo.
With a full Ultegra Di2 group and FFWD's F6R-C carbon wheels added to the titanium frame the €3999 (roughly £3200 in real money) is a relative bargain, but yes, £3200 is still a lot of money.
So why go for a titanium frame anyway? Well, apart from the longevity, comfort is the main plus that's bandied about, and for good reason too. Even on a race bike like the Aquilo the natural absorbancy and flex of the material soaks up the majority of the vibrations from the road leaving you feeling a lot less fatigued on long ventures, especially in the upper body.
3Al/2.5V titanium alloy is the material of choice; the letters and numbers indicate 3 percent aluminium and 2.5 percent vanadium to strengthen the paent metal. Each tube is custom drawn to VN's spec creating the ride style and performance they're after, either through tube profile or butted wall thicknesses. Therefore, regardless of frame size the ride will be the inherently the same.
It's a simple looking frame which, in my eyes, is part of its charm. While carbon frames tend to get chunkier with paint and logos screaming for attention the understated hand polished titanium with narrow profile tubes looks elegant. Add small details like the etched headtube and rear brake bridge logos, chain hanger and welded bottle bosses, and the Aquilo looks more bespoke than mass produced. Finished off with CNC machined dropouts at the rear end this Van Nicholas is one beautiful looking bike.
The 73/73.5° angles highlight the racing nature and our 56cm frame has a 55cm top tube and a 17cm head. The Aquilo is a compact frame thanks to the slightly sloping top tube which allows the front and rear triangles to be smaller, therefore stiffer. A few years ago it seemed customary for every titanium frame to come with curved narrow seatstays to provide comfort. While Van Nicholas has kept the narrow tube profiles these seatstays are straight and look all the better for it.
Designed for Di2 only, the Aquilo's frame is predrilled at the head tube and mech areas for the internal wiring, which passes from the shifters along the down tube to the battery and splitter box. Speaking of the battery, there's no cable tie holding this one on. The Aquilo's driveside chainstay is drilled and tapped so that the battery mount can be fitted directly to the frame. Having the battery tucked in behind the chainset cleans the lines up and now makes the groupset look like part of the bike rather than an add-on.
Van Nick's in house VNT brand supply the forks, full carbon jobbies no less. The steerer is 1 1/8" from top to bottom and the legs have a pretty standard rake of 43mm. The matt black finish ties in nicely with the rest of the bike too.
It's true the Aquilo doesn't have quite the same amount of customisation on Van Nicholas's website as other bikes in the range but there is more to come. At the moment, it's pretty much just bar/stem sizes and crank lengths, but the level of kit is easily on a par with the frame so its no biggy.
VNT is again the moniker on the alloy bars and stem - oversized as you'd expect and finished in the same matt black as the forks. There is a choice of seatpost material though and our test bike has come with the 31.6mm titanium with zero setback and a titanium seat collar to match. It's the little things that count. Another VNT component is the saddle with a leather cover and titanium alloy rails.
As mentioned above the Aquilo will only work with electronic groupsets, and Ultegra Di2 is the only option. It's a full groupset of shifters, chainset, press fit bottom bracket, mechs and brakes finished off in dark grey to further complement the look of the bike.
A 50-34 compact is the only choice, with the option of selecting your required crank length paired with either a 12-23,12-25 or 11-28 cassette. Odd, you might say, not to offer a standard 53-39 on a bike with racing aspirations - but we'll see.
The handbuilt FFWD F6R-C aero wheelset is the limited edition version with black logos instead of the usual white and red and at 58mm deep will provide a true aero advantage when you take the tyre height into account as well. Front spoke count is 20 with 24 at the rear using Sapim's great CX-Ray spokes. The integrated alloy rim should bring a slightly more controllable braking surface than carbon's grabby tendency and also allows higher tyre pressures; carbon clincher rims are usually limited to 120psi.
Right then, the most important thing of all – how does it feel to ride? Quite simply the Aquilo is absolutely stunning. In this line of work you find yourself constantly adapting to different bikes but straight from the off the Van Nick fitted like a glove. Thanks in part to being able to spec bar width and stem length but also just down to sensible geometry. The steepish seat angle sits you nicely over the bottom bracket with the 170mm head tube positioning the bar height just right for comfort and aerodynamics.
Acceleration is brisk, not quite as quick as the similarly priced BMC Team Machine tested last year but then the Van Nicholas does carry an extra 1.4kg. That's not to say the Aquilo isn't quick, it's just that the magic happens once the wheels are rolling. A poke on the pedals sees the Van Nick surge forward and once up to 25-30mph on the flat it'll happily sit there all day with what feels like very little input.
How much FFWD's DARC (Double Arc) rim design has anything to do with this is difficult to measure but the F6R's do seem to roll better than my own more standard 58's. The only negative is that the F6R's can make the steering a little twitchy in a cross wind, but its a small trade-off for the aero performance.
Descending is an absolute joy and will soon see you heading off for your latest gravity-assisted fix. The steering is direct and quick and there's loads of feedback coming up through the forks. Push on and the quicker the Aquilo goes the more stable and planted it becomes, 50-55mph through the bends no problem. A 97cm wheelbase brings the rear wheel in tight to the seat tube and makes the whole bike feel very flickable as you dart about. The grippy Vreidstein Fortezza tyres reflect their top end price tag feeling supple like a tub and with massive amounts of grip, you can really bank the bike over without fear of it sliding out beneath you.
The VNT finishing kit also brings a lot to the overall feel. The alloy bar and stem are plenty stiff with just a touch of give when you're really cranking the bike from side to side under hard acceleration. The saddle is great straight out of the box, with similar levels of stiffness and comfort.
We couldn't do a review of a titanium bike without mentioning the so called 'absorbent' ride and it's safe to say the Aquilo has it. If you've never ridden a Ti frame then its a funny feeling at first, almost like your tyres are a little soft. The Aquilo is very stiff; sprint, climb, descend, try whatever you want and it won't be flustered, yet hit a rough section of tarmac and it'll just glide over without the slightest hint of vibration.
If you have got as far as riding an Aquilo you've already decided that you want to go electronic and I'll happily join you. The Ultegra Di2 is great to use and the look of those mechs is starting to grow on me. The shifting is quick and you do find yourself changing gear more often than with a mechanical group thanks to how easy it is. The narrow hoods are also comfier, and it's easier to change when in the drops as well.
The compact chainset wasn't really a problem for me. Paired with the 12-25 cassette, if you're happy spinning at 90-110rpm it's a good usable gear range. The Aquilo climbs well as it is thanks to the stiff responsive frame so paired with the low gear, steep gradients aren't a problem.
Put it all together and you've got a quick bike over virtually any terrain and personally I think the compact chainset works to bring the whole bike together for the majority of riders. Who's most likely to buy the Aquilo? Fast club riders, weekend warriors, the type of rider who is a bit useful and is going to use it for quick blasts and day rides either on his/her own or with a group, the odd sportiver maybe; and the compact opens this up to a lot of people.
If you're a big gear/low cadence rouleur there is nothing to stop you fitting a 53/39 but it is a shame it's not an option on Van Nicholas's website. The balance of comfort and aero means you can spend hours on the Aquilo pushing out a decent pace with very little fatigue. As an example, I spent 85 miles looping round the Mendips at an average of over 18mph and finished feeling - in the upper body at least - as if I'd only been out for a couple of hours.
At over three grand it's going to be an investment, but you won't be disappointed, especially when you divide that price by the years of riding you'll get out of it.
Out for an hour or five, the Aquilo will see you arrive home with a grin.
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Make and model: Van Nicholas Aquilo
Size tested: 56
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
3Al/2.5V titanium alloy (3% aluminium, 2.5% vandium)
carbon fibre integrated forks with carbon steerer
Ultegra Di2 shifters
Ultegra Di2 front mech
Ultegra Di2 rear mech
Ultegra compact chainset 50-34
Ultegra cassette 12-25 10spd
Van Nicholas titanium seatpost
VNT alloy bars
VNT alloy stem
VNT leather saddle
FFWD F6R-C carbon clinchers with 58mm alloy rim
Vreidstein Fortezza 23mm clinchers
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
It's a race bike; steep angles and a short wheelbase create a quick handling speed machine. One for the racers and fast club guys and girls.
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
It's a beautiful looking frame with loads of great finishing touches. The hand brushed finish completes it.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
The 3Al/2.5V titanium has good corrosion resistance and allows Van Nicholas to offer a limetime warranty on manufacturing defects.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
Everything you need to know is here:
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
It fitted like a glove!
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Very much so, that titanium damped feel means the Aquilo is a joy to be aboard.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
Yes, put the power down and it responds. The balance between comfort and stiffness is spot on.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Very well, as the speed increases the better it gets.
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Lively.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
The Aquilo handles great especially as the speed increases. Wind can effect the handling due to the deep section wheels though.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?
Having a large amount of exposed titanium seatpost keeps the road buzz to a minimum. With a titanium frame you can go for very stiff components without creating an overly stiff bike.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's stiffness? would you recommend any changes?
The forks were stiff side to side and fore and aft which really helped with the handling. There was also very little flex in the wheels either.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's efficiency? would you recommend any changes?
The wheels and tyres come into their own here.
Nothing wasted here.
The wheel weight can blunt the acceleration from a stand still.
A mixture of stiffness and aerodynamics = a great sprint.
As the speeds increase the more stable it becomes.
The steering can be a touch twitchy.
The most fun I've had going downhill; beautifully poised.
Again the wheel weight of 1800g can take the shine off.
The more you use it the better it becomes.
There are no reports of any major issues with Di2 yet.
Prices are dropping all the time.
Tell us some more about the drivetrain. Anything you particularly did or didn't like? Any components which didn't work well together?
We had a few issues with a loose connection on the front shifter but we were using Shimano's prototype levers. Production level shifters are great with an instant shift every time. I love the trim function on the front mech. Battery life was good as well - 500 miles and still showing >50%
Very good especially at 25mph+.
Race tyres like the Fortezza's will pick up cuts easily on poor roads, the hanbuilt wheels though should last a long time.
1800g which isn't too bad for deep sections.
Stiff, and the rider could suffer if it wasn't for the titanium frame.
Wheels are around £900 so cheaper than Zipps but more expensive than some.
Tell us some more about the wheels and tyres.Did they work well in the conditions you encountered? Would you change the wheels or tyres? If so, what for?
The tyres had a very supple feel to them and the wheels are great for maintaining speed.
Tell us some more about the controls. Any particularly good or bad components? How would the controls work for larger or smaller riders?
Everything worked fine and complemented the frameset. The VNT bars are quite a shallow drop and should be fine for small hands.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes.
Would you consider buying the bike? Absolutely
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes.
Anything further to say about the bike in conclusion?
The Aquilo is pretty much my perfect bike for the type of riding I do. The compact chainset is possibly the only sticking point for some though.
Age: 34 Height: 180cm Weight: 78kg
I usually ride: Genesis Flyer My best bike is: Ribble Gran Fondo
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, club rides, sportives, fixed/singlespeed,
As part of the Tech Hub here at F-At Digital, our senior product reviewer Stu uses the knowledge gained from putting well over a 1,000 products through their paces (including hundreds of bikes) to write in-depth reviews of a huge range of kit. After first throwing his leg over a race bike back in 2000, Stu's ridden more than 160,000 miles on road, time-trial, track, and gravel bikes, and while he's put his racing days behind him he still likes to smash the pedals rather than take things easy. Although, as he spends a fair bit of his time reviewing ebikes these days he's becoming an expert in letting the motor take the strain. He's also waiting for 23mm race tyres to make a comeback!