PEZ Reviews: Trek Domane 5.9
I first saw a Trek Domane at the 2012 Tour of Flanders Sportif ride. Somewhere into the second half of my 6 h 30 min day on the 140km circuit, we hooked up with a Swedish journo riding one of the very first production models. The bike looked really different, as different as Trek’s approach to building a road bike with ‘suspension’.
In this case – their version of suspension includes a pivot engineered into a road frame, but more than that, it’s an entire frame/ geometry/ suspension idea that’s been presented as a whole package designed to smooth out the ride, while maintaing the level of power transfer and control you need to ride this thing fast. The truly unique road bike design grabbed a lot of interest with Fabian Cancellara riding one at the next day’s de Ronde as it’s not every day you see a top level pro (let alone a race day favorite) agree to line up on a piece of technology that’s this different from the norm, but neither Trek nor Fabian are known for doing things half-arsed…
Trek’s own website offers the most complete collection of technical data on how this whole bike came about and delivers its promise. I’ll leave the vast amounts of detail to them, but I will offer a simpler and briefer explanation of how this bike works, and my own impressions of how it rides.
The entire platform is built with a smoother ride in mind, and Trek have addressed some key areas of geometry (specific to the Domane) and frame design (they call it Isospeed Technology) to deliver what I found to be a surprisingly impressive overall ride. The Domane is notable for its virtual suspension provided (in-part, but not completely) by a more flexible seat tube. In reality, that’s just one part of a full design intended to smooth out long rides, while allowing ProTour-level efficiency of power transfer to keep you moving fast.
FRAME IT UP
The first thing to catch my eye was the pivot (they call it “IsoLink”), but it’s really just one part of the bigger package here, so let’s start with the frameset as a whole. Overall, the frame feels a size bigger than what it measures. I have a 54cm Madone that fits me well, but the 54cm Domane fit noticeably bigger than I like, in fact so much bigger than the Madone, that I opted for the 52cm model for my test. I was glad I did, as the 52cm frameset was still almost an inch longer than my 54cm Madone, and the H3 headtube height of the 52cm Domane was still taller than I’m used to. This illustrates how numbers on a frame are only an approximation of whether the bike will be a good fit and the importance of getting a proper bike fitting before buying anything.
This longer wheelbase was for me the most notable difference to the geometry and it’s a very useful tool in ride-smoothing. Essentially Trek have tuned the whole frame package to offer a comfortable and stable ride – the stuff you want for long days in the saddle where the fatigue from the bike is minimized. The longer wheelbase really does feel more stable, and is the result of both a more offset fork at the front, and longer stays at the back.
Now back to the frame: it’s impossible to miss the massive – and I do mean massive – downtube and bottom end. I’ve written plenty before about bikes with ever larger ‘spines’, but I reckon this is the largest diameter backbone I’ve seen on a road bike. Visually it’s inspiring by its promise of stiffness, and in reality it delivers.
The frame is made from Trek’s 500 Series OCLV carbon (suffice to say their production has been refined to a point of excellence in the past few years) and used here to build a spine so stiff that it remains that way even while the seatpost is flexing. The OCLV stands for ‘optimum compression low void’, or in words that might mean more to those of us not employed by Trek – ‘squishing the crap out of it so there’s less holes’ – which also leads to reduced weight and increased strength. My complete bike – with pedals – weighed in just under 16 lbs. This tells me this OCLV business is good stuff.
Traditional frames create stiffness through the sum of the parts – all the tubes supporting each other so that energy transfer is maximized from the pedals to the rear wheel. It’s not hard to make a frame that achieves this super stiffness – but the cost is usually a pretty unforgiving ride and some changes to the handling in certain real world conditions.
Hidden behind that “Isospeed” plate is a sleeved pivot with 2 sealed cartridge bearings, which allows the seat tube to flex independently of the frame around this pivot point, and effectively absorb a lot road buzz and bumpy stuff of a variety of sizes.
The seatpost is isolated from the rest of the frame by a pivot Trek calls ‘IsoLink’, which allows the seatpost to flex around the pivot. With the seat post moving independently of the frame, and therefore not contributing to the frame’s overall stiffness, Trek’s solution was to build a “bottom end” taking in the headtube, downtube and chain stays that do a very good job of anchoring the bike to eliminate the flex that comes from pedaling and riding over rougher road surfaces, while the flexible seatpost absorbs the harshness of the road. The end result is that your butt stays in the saddle instead of bouncing around, and the rear wheel stays on the ground to better deliver power to the road.
The front end uses the tapered oversized ”E2” headset (that’s a 1.5 inch bottom bearing in the headset) to anchor the fork. This one curves out to add some rake, and allow more vertical flex to the front end. The fork blades themselves are a slightly wider diameter too, which adds some lateral stability which is really noticeable by the lack of wheel/ brake rub when standing to climb or sprint.
Cable routing is internal, and makes a neat home for the Shimano Di2 gruppo.
The IsoSpeed fork is designed to flex in the vertical plane, but remain more rigid under lateral forces. This helps smooth the ride, while maintaining a rigid platform for sprinting, out of saddle climbing, and better cornering.
Another difference to note is the kicked-back position of the front dropouts…
The rake of the blades is greater than the final actual rake number as relates to geometry. virtually all other fork drops kick further forward. These kick back to keep the handling from being SUPER slack, bringing the axle back toward you and making a front-center measure that’s closer to performance than touring… It’s what keeps this bike alive and fun rather than sluggish – and while the vibes at your butt and even a little at your feet are nicely muted, you still have what is a fairly stiff fork that feels more connected and performance oriented rather than comfort despite its look.
The Bottom Bracket is BB90, and claimed by Trek as the widest available on a road bike. It really does fill the gap between the crank arms, and certainly looks as stiff as it’s built to be. The “DuoTrap” readiness means you can easily integrate an ANT+ computer sensor without it dangling off the frame somewhere.
The stability of the headtube & downtube carries right through the chainstays, which are also longer than normal, adding to secure the handling platform while isolating the drive train from torsional forces that can rob power transfer. – it felt great in a straight line and even better carving turns on a descent – really stable.
I liked this bike a lot, and almost felt completely at home on it. As Trek promises, the ride is very stable – for me the defining word here is “solid” – the kind of solid that inspires confidence and makes me ride faster.
I’ve ridden a lot of road frames designed to ‘smooth out the bumps’, and I’m comfortable saying Domane does the best job I’ve seen. The ride feeling is in some ways hard to describe because it’s both very stiff and …very comfortable. When I’d stand for hard accelerations or hills, I felt a connection to the drive train that struck me as not something I feel on other bikes.
I rode it on a variety of surfaces, from smooth and regular tarmac, to dirt roads and potholed asphalt. That ‘solid’ feel I mentioned makes a real connection to the road, and provides the feedback you need and want to push this bike hard, and go fast. But the bumps didn’t seem as big or as sharp as I expected, and that fueled my need for speed even more.
One area the geometry really performs is descending. Get into the drops and that long wheel base and front end geometry almost take care of the rest. It’s easy to imagine being on rails when carving turns on the Domane.
The one part of the bike that didn’t work for me was the tall headtube. I pulled out all the spacers and still could not get the bars close enough to my preferred natural riding position. New riders may not notice a difference, and there wasn’t anything really wrong with this, but most guys I know who’ve been riding for years have found their most comfortable ‘natural’ position – mine just happens to be lower than I could place the handlebars here. That’s too bad (for me at least) as Trek reported no plans to offer the Domane with a lower height headtube.
The only real part of the ride this affected was my climbing position. The steeper the hill, the more I pull on the bar tops for leverage, and I like to bend over a certain amount for my own best efficiency. The taller bar placement had me feeling like I couldn’t get quite enough leverage in certain situations. Riding on a flat or down hill was no problem though, as reaching into the drops got me into a lower position.
Overall the frame geometry provides a very stable and predictable ride. The longer wheelbase makes a big difference in stability, cornering, and also in the amount of vertical compliance (where longer planes generally allow for more flex, and more stability at higher speeds). The isolated and flexible seatpost design is a hit too, really enhancing the ride comfort.
As James Wilson (owner of Obsession Bikes) said – “Trek should do really well with this platform”. It’s packed with technology, is a perfect build for guys in their 40’s & 50’s (or anyone) who just don’t want to, can’t, or care to, ride in the super agro-pro-position of their youth, but still want a fast riding bike. It’ll also appeal to newer riders who just don’t see the need to get all bent outta comfort for the sake of appearances – the truth is you just don’t need to be all bent over to enjoy the ride, and a bike like this makes it easy to enjoy more of that ride – while going fast.
While my tester retails in the $5 – $6k range, like most Trek models the Domane is available in a spec and configuration to suit a huge variety of budgets. See more online at TrekBikes.com.