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First Ride: Trek Madone aims beyond aero to redefine the road bike

ZEIST, Netherlands — They say it’s lonely at the top, but for the past several years Trek has shared its throne in the cycling world with the likes of Giant and Specialized. All three companies innovate fast and furiously, so it came as no surprise that all of the ‘big three’ took the opportunity to roll out big product launches just before the start of the Tour de France. Each tried to dethrone the others, with interesting results.

Trek’s entry into the arena is the all-new Madone, which was redesigned from the bottom up. Trek president John Burke touted the release as the most important day in Trek’s history, and the hype machine trotted out the old cliché with big implications: the ‘game-changer.’ Trek’s aim was to do more than revolutionize the aero bike; instead, it hoped to revolutionize the road bike altogether with a combination of stiffness, aerodynamics, and comfort. We’ve heard this before; many have tried and failed.

VeloNews’ Caley Fretz and Dan Cavallari were on hand in the Netherlands to put the Madone through its paces, to see if the game was really changed. Here’s what they found out.

Caley Fretz’s impressions:
In our earlier overview of the new Madone, I described its center-pull brake setup as “like an old Dia-Compe, but hopefully less terrible.” The brakes were the nagging question for me going into a first ride: A bike can go like hell, but if it can’t stop, nobody should be riding it.

Good news. Though the return of center-pull brakes was at first startling, much like all the neon and hideous patterns that have risen from dead out of the 90s in the last year, the Madone’s new brakes are not terrible. They’re not even bad. In terms of power and modulation, they’re perfectly fine, as stiff and responsive as any top-tier brake.

I never thought about them while riding, albeit on quite flat terrain. We made a few panic stops, as usual in a large group on unfamiliar roads, and the power and control were excellent. The design is better than the mini v-brakes found on bikes like the Giant Propel and Ridley Noah. I can’t yet compare them to the v-brakes on the new Venge, as I haven’t ridden that bike.

The brakes have a great range of adjustability, with screws to adjust spacing and tension. There’s a little switch that can be flipped to open them around a wide tire, too. But adjusting cable tension itself is one of those projects that would be far easier with a third hand.

Such is the cost of aerodynamics. Do you want to go a bit faster? Then you pay at the bike shop, or with your own time in your own garage.

As for ride quality, the IsoSpeed decoupler works on the Domane, on the Silque, and on the Boone. Despite a considerable design change, it works on the Madone, too. It allows the seat tube to flex (a hidden seat tube, in the Madone’s case, and a normal one for the rest of the models) in ways that would be impossible without the small pivot at the joint of the top tube, seat tube, and seat stays.

The inclusion of the decoupler was brilliant. We’ve become accustomed to aero road bikes that ride poorly, too vertically stiff to provide any comfort over the long haul. The Madone is quite comfortable in the saddle, with noticeable flex from the rear end. It’s a welcome change.

The front of the Madone, with its massive fork and head tube, is not as comfortable. It translates vibration straight to the hands. Cornering stiffness is phenomenal, but at the cost we’ve come to expect.

Handling is quite good. The steering geometry is the same as the Emonda, with a trail figure around 56 depending on tire size. That’s good and sharp, and you feel the bike waver a bit with lots of weight is over the front end — climbing out of the saddle, for example. It’s race-bike geometry, solid and dependable and, most importantly, predictable.

Flip the Madone back and forth, out of the saddle, and it responds well. Bottom bracket and torsional stiffness are excellent.

The new Madone, much more so than its predecessor, does not apologize for its eccentricities. Trek does not apologize for the wacky brakes, or its proprietary steerer/stem/handlebar setup. The old Madone was compromise; the new one is purpose.

You want to go fast? The Madone a great option. It’s more comfortable than any aero road bike I’ve ever ridden (and that’s pretty much all of them), and if the wind tunnel numbers pan out, probably the fastest too. It’s going to be an almighty pain to keep it running properly, but so is the old race car in Pop’s garage. He loves that thing anyway, right?

Dan Cavallari’s impressions: I didn’t get a good sense of how the Madone climbs since the Netherlands are legendarily flat, but the first few surges in pace in the peloton (led by none other than Jens Voigt) revealed a very stiff bottom bracket that rocketed forward. Yes, rocketed. The bottom bracket junction is utterly massive, and it’s built with Trek’s OCLV 700 carbon.

You’re probably assuming this means I ended the ride with a backache and shaking molars, but Trek has addressed the almost-ubiquitous harshness of aero bikes with their IsoSpeed decoupler. I agree with Caley; simply stated, it works. The ride was comfortable, and not just for an aero bike. We hit some cobbled streets and the decoupler delivered.

The mechanic in me wonders what the long-term maintenance will be like on this redesigned system that includes an internal tube for flex and an external tube for stiffness, but in terms of ride quality, I was immediately convinced. The mechanic in me was fully quaking in his boots thinking about running all the internal cable routing, but from a riding standpoint, all that effort to hide the cables entirely makes sense. You may want to farm out maintenance to the local bike shop, and be ready to tip your mechanic well.

As with all things in life, with the good comes the bad, but the bad in this case was very little. On chattery cobbles, the internal cables tapped against the inside of the tubing, and while it was annoying, it was not a constant noise, so it was barely a problem.

Burke touted the exceptional handling of the Madone, and when compared to other aero bikes he’s right, it does handle well. But if Trek hopes to redefine road bikes in general, the handling was not its finest quality. When I stood up for a sprint, small movements garnered bigger movements; in other words, if my hands moved, the wheel moved a lot. The result was a little bit of twitchiness, but not nearly as noticeable as other aero road bikes I’ve tested.

Trek is on to something here, a real contender for the throne. Expect to pay top dollar for that seat on the throne, though. Serious racers will appreciate the attention to detail and the smooth ride that will keep them fresh in the saddle longer thanks to the IsoSpeed decoupler. Detractors will bemoan the almost-twitchy front end. This is a racer’s racing bike for sure; Sunday group-riders need not apply.

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