If this were a heavyweight match-up, it’d be Ali versus Ali. The Specialized Venge ViAS and Trek Madone are the absolute king and king of aero road.
Both claim to be the most aero, the stiffest, and the fastest. So we put them head to head to see who really comes out in front, and why. First up was a visit to the lab to test for stiffness. Next came the wind tunnel, where we evaluated each bike fully built. Finally, we hit the open road, where miles of testing separated innovation from gimmick and art from science.
Tap gloves. Let’s find out who’s the champ.
Trek Madone Race Shop Limited
Trek made good on its promise to deliver an aerodynamic beast that solves the comfort puzzle. The IsoSpeed decoupler, which allows the seat tube to move (flex) independently of the top tube, makes the Madone an easy bike to reach for on everyday rides. It even addressed road chatter when we took it on dirt in ways we’ve never experienced on an aero bike. It’s still a bit chattery in the front end, which makes sense, given the head tube stiffness numbers we got from the lab and the flat carbon handlebar. That stiffness matches nicely with the 90mm-wide, sprinter-friendly bottom bracket shell.
In a direct wind (zero-degrees yaw), the Madone produced 836 grams of drag—a low number for an aero bike, but not incredibly so. By comparison, the fastest bike in our August 2015 aero bike issue, the Cervélo S5, bested its competition with approximately 865 grams of drag at zero-degrees yaw. The Venge ViAS from Specialized measured 787 grams of drag at zero degrees.
But at slight yaw angles, like five to 10 degrees, the Madone’s drag numbers improved significantly. Trek’s truncated Kamm-tail tube shapes and touches like lower water bottle mounts make a difference in the sorts of side winds riders encounter out on the road.
The Madone shrouds its front brake behind flaps in the head tube (Trek calls them Vector Wings) that open when the handlebar turns to provide clearance. But we found that the brake can catch on the Vector Wing doors when turning the handlebars past certain angles—approximately 45 to 60 degrees from center—preventing the brakes from actuating fully and making contact with the rim. This problem isn’t a concern while you’re riding at speed, but watch out when you’re track standing at stoplights or pulling a slow, sharp U-turn.
Like the Vector Wings, the Madone’s Di2 port is a neat example of using the frame to hide componentry. Charging the battery involves popping off the port door and pulling out the junction box. Given the weeks you can generally get out of a charge and the 30 seconds it takes to pop off the port door with your fingernail, this is a good solution.
The most aero bikes in the world—triathlon bikes—are the most difficult to build up. In that regard, the Madone would be right at home in Kona. The tight integration means even something like changing a cable involves routing through the handlebars, down through the head tube, and through the frame. If you’ve run internal routing on another bike in 10 minutes, plan on 30 to 40 minutes here.
Adjusting the brakes properly can be time consuming as well, since the cable routing and actuation is different than traditional road brakes you’re likely used to. Center-pull actuation reminiscent of vintage roller-cam brakes also complicates set-up, especially on the front brake, which is tucked tightly into the head tube, leaving little space to maneuver fingers. Plan your day around this build. If you can typically build an internally-routed bike in an hour, plan on three to four hours for the Madone.
But that integrated handlebar and stem makes for a surprisingly comfortable cockpit. Between the flats and the hoods lies a perfect platform for your hands, and the drops, while ergonomic, eschew any sharp angles that might limit hand positions.
Our test bike features Trek’s H1 fit, which is its most aggressive geometry. With its 140mm head tube, H1 makes sense on the Madone, a bike made for focusing pure aggression into forward movement. With the rider’s weight forward and low, steering feels intuitive and tight.
At 15.19 pounds (size 56), the Madone is exceptionally light for a bike with so much going on. With moving frame parts and a Di2 battery, plus deep Bontrager Aeolus 5 D3 wheels, the Madone still gets close to climber-bike light.
But those are all numbers. The most important thing about the Madone is just how much fun it is to ride, and how, despite the massive tubes associated with stiff aero bikes, it manages to be so comfortable. The Race Shop Limited model we tested is ridiculously expensive, but the Ultegra-level Madone 9.2 is more attainably priced for the serious amateur at $6,000. You’ll take a step down from Trek’s top-of-the-line 700 series OCLV carbon to the 600 series, though, so the bike is not quite as light.
Specialized Venge Pro ViAS
The Venge may look like an awkward bird attempting its first flight, but there is a beauty in its details—the scooped handlebars that keep the rider in a comfortable position while cutting down on drag from head winds, for example. At zero-degrees yaw, the Venge ViAS yields 787 grams of drag, one of the lowest numbers we’ve ever seen. Straight on, or on a windless day, this bike is about as fast as a roadie could hope for.
Front-end geometry is tight: we experienced significant toe overlap, which can be a problem at low speeds. But this bike isn’t made for going slow. And despite its relatively narrow 66mm bottom bracket shell, the Venge feels rock solid in the sprints—a sensation that our lab testing bore out.
“When you have a frame with surfaces as complex as the Venge,” says Chris Meertens, a composite engineer at Specialized, “it becomes imperative to run finite element simulations and optimize material distribution. This understanding allows us to place small strips of material in high-gain areas.”
As is the case with most aero bikes, that stiffness translates into a fairly harsh ride here. Things aren’t so bad at the back end, where the low angle of the seat stays likely allows for some flex. But up front, where the integrated bar and stem flow into a fairly tall 160mm head tube (size 56), the Venge can be a harsh ride. Despite the tall head tube, our lab tests showed minimal deflection. That all means that handling is about as precise as one could hope for.
The Venge comes in at almost 18 pounds, thanks in part to the relatively heavy handlebar-stem combo and the added frame materials that serve as the mounting points for the front and rear brakes. It’s a complicated build, too. Home mechanics may want to trust this one to pro wrenches, especially when it comes to fishing new brake and shift cables through the handlebars and stem, then through the serpentine interior of the frame.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the proprietary integrated brakes Specialized developed to reduce as much drag as possible on the Venge ViAS. That’s why they sweep backward like a set of wings off the rear of the fork in such a visually striking way: to eliminate nearly all drag associated with front brake positioning. The rear brake, too, mounts in a unique position about halfway down the seat tube to help cut down on drag. In theory, that’s ideal; in practice, modulation is inconsistent in the rain and can even swing from squishy to grabby in dry conditions. And the angle at which the rear brake cable exits the down tube puts it so close to the rear tire that the housing rubbed the tires a few times on our test rides.
We test for stiffness at the bottom bracket, head tube, and seat tube. The Venge came in a bit stiffer at the seat tube, while the Madone edged it at the BB and head tube. Overall, the Venge’s total deflection number of 4.29 millimeters made it the sixth stiffest bike that we’ve ever tested. But at 4.34 millimeters, the Madone sits just behind in seventh place.
So while the Venge has a slight overall edge here, stiffness is quite nearly a wash between these two superbikes.
Engineering stiffness is one thing; doing so in an aerodynamic way is something else entirely. At A2 Wind Tunnel in Mooresville, North Carolina, we tested the bikes with their respective stock builds, wheels and all, in order to get a better sense of the complete aero package. We learned that the Venge is exceptionally efficient at zero-degrees yaw, which is typically where many aero bikes are least aerodynamic. “We identified early on that zero-degrees yaw performance was a target,” says Chris Yu, Specialized’s aero and racing R&D lead engineer. “In many ways, it’s hardest to drop drag there. So we felt that if we decreased system drag at zero degrees, that would be a good foundation for performance at higher yaw angles.”
Specialized certainly succeeded, largely as a result of the redesigned cockpit. The Venge ViAS’s low-profile stem has a minus-17-degree drop, which puts it horizontal. To compensate for the extremely low position that results from this, the aero tops of the bar flare up 25 millimeters, so that the engineers could deliver low front-end drag without sacrificing comfort.
The Madone was less successful at zero-degrees yaw, producing 836 grams of drag to the Venge’s 787. “We know the most prevalent yaw angle range, and we fine-tune our design with that target in mind,” explains Trek analysis engineer Mio Suzuki, who performed Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) analysis during development of the Madone. She says Trek’s real-world sampling of the wind angles that cyclists most frequently encounter led them to focus on a yaw range of 2.5 to 12.5 degrees.
The Madone does better at yaw than straight on. But where it averaged 780 grams of drag across all yaw angles from negative 12.5 to positive 12.5 degrees, the Venge came in at 762 grams. That’s an overall difference of approximately two watts.
The Venge rides like one of the best aero bikes in the world — remarkably fast but, like an aero bike, a bit on the harsh side. The Madone also delivers blazing straight-line speed. But thanks to the IsoSpeed decoupler, it feels all-day plush. If you’ve spent much time on aero-road frames, this bike is a revelation.
The Madone also excels at high-speed handling. We’ll credit this in part to the low 70-millimeter drop of the Madone’s bottom bracket and relatively long 410mm chain stays (as compared to the 69mm bottom bracket drop and 405mm chainstays on the Venge), which keep the center of gravity low and the bike tracking predictably. The flipside of this geometry is that, at low speeds, the Madone feels sluggish. But as with the Venge’s toe overlap, this isn’t something that you’ll notice if you’re riding the bike as it’s intended to be ridden — fast.
We consistently felt like we were leaning too far over the front wheel when riding the Venge, perhaps the result of the steep stem angle. While the Venge handled well overall, at high speeds there was just enough of that too-far-forward feeling to keep us from really diving in hard, especially in the drops.
In terms of braking, there was really no contest. Both bikes have broken new ground with their brake designs, but the Madone’s more consistent modulation, predictable stopping power, and sensible cable routing leave the Venge behind.
This is, by definition, completely superficial, but the Madone just looks cool. The logos are overstated, but the sleek lines make it an eye-catcher. The Venge is also striking, but it’s more brutalist, where the Madone seems more sculptural. It definitely comes down to personal preference, but we think Trek nailed the looks.
Winner and champion
This could not be any tighter of a matchup. Our VeloNews testers snagged Strava KOMs and PRs on both bikes with some consistency. Based on stiffness, the two bikes are identical. The Venge is a clear winner in the wind tunnel, while the Madone takes honors in the important areas of comfort and handling.
Given nearly identical stiffness numbers and close wind tunnel numbers, at the end of the day, the Madone’s superior comfort and handling give it the victory. Put a rider on either of these bikes and they’ll go faster than they ever have. But they’ll probably have more fun doing so on the Madone.
Wind tunnel protocol
We tested each bike as built — including wheels — and set them up as similarly as possible: no pedals, no cables showing externally, and identical saddle height. Each crank was positioned horizontally and did not rotate during testing.
We mounted each bike in a fixture with rollers beneath the tires and tested them in 30mph winds, with rollers in motion, at yaw angles from negative 20 degrees (drive side into the wind) to positive 20 degrees, in 2.5-degree increments.