Ridden & Reviewed: The 2013 Trek Domane
“Good things come to those who wait.”
If there’s ever been a time when that famous quote has applied to a large-scale bicycle manufacturer, this may well be it.
For a number of years Trek had stayed out of what many call the “endurance road bike” or “plush road bike” category. Arguably started for the masses by Specialized with their venerable Roubaix, and quickly–at least more quickly than Trek–adopted by other companies, it seemed that everyone had their take on a bike that was supposed to be just as great under a Pro Tour rider in Flanders in the Spring as it was under the weekend rider tackling a century, a favorite charity ride, or the local club weekend throw down. Everyone but Trek.
To be fair, Trek didn’t entirely ignore the fact that riders were looking for comfort. In fact, starting with the 5000 series bikes and continuing through the last generation of Madones, it was often said that those bikes were great Grand Tour bikes precisely because they offered the comfort and stability necessary to ride a bike for days and miles on end. Having owned a 5900, I can say the bike was pretty great at mile 5 as well as 105–if you wanted a pretty “long and low” position. With the Madone’s last redesign Trek did eventually make a nod to the fact that most of us don’t have the physical characteristics of pro riders and started offering bikes with longer head tubes for more upright, relaxed riding positions. But the Madone remained, at heart, a race bike. There was no real concession to ride quality in terms of stiffness, handling, or, well, anything aside from that slightly taller head tube.
Enter Fabian Cancellara.
With Leopard Racing and then the merger with Radio Shack, Cancellara, probably his generation’s greatest classics rider, was aboard Trek. And with that, Trek upped their game to make a bike worthy of the man nicknamed Spartacus and really aimed at what many consider the greatest races on the calendar. Lucky for us–and we don’t say this lightly–the UCI has rules in place where pros basically have to ride what’s available to the consumer masses. So like Fabian, we get the all new Domane from Trek.
The Domane is, first, a complete re-look at road bike geometry from Trek. Not only are we talking about taller head tubes, but we’re also looking at a longer wheelbase, a shorter effective top tube, and a lower bottom bracket height. All of these things relax not only the rider position but also the ride quality itself when compared to a dedicated race bike–like the all-new Madone for example. Second, the Domane is constructed in a way to enhance ride smoothness. Tube shapes and build methods used are designed to maximize offering a smoother ride–without completely giving up the get-up-and-go you or Fabian might require. Third, the Domane is about new technology. At the heart of that new technology is IsoSpeed, a simple decoupler built on a sealed bearing system that separates the seat tube from the top tube and seat stays. The systems allows for added vertical compliance compared to a more traditional bike and, as a result, keeps the rider feeling better and fresher longer.
The shop’s rental department, which has no shortage of amazing bikes to ride, recently got a few Domane’s in. And before the dust had settled on the 56 cm demo bike, I was on it and out the door. Well, first I had to set it up. The 56 cm bike presented me with a bit of a conundrum. I would normally ride a bike that had an effective top tube closer to how a traditional 56 or even 58 cm bike is sized. That is to say the 56 cm Domane presented a particularly short top tube and thus a particularly short cockpit for me. Knowing though that the bike was intended for a more relaxed riding position I rolled with it. I lowered the stem and raised the seat–right to the minimum insertion line on Trek’s super nifty seat mast–and shoved the seat backwards on it’s rails. I was though at the limit on the 56 cm in terms of fit and position, needing either a longer seat mast and a longer stem or the 58 cm. If you’re looking to mimic a more aggressive position on a Domane, be sure to double check fit and size before you buy. Good advice on any bike, but especially useful here. If you ride, say, a pretty traditional 56 cm road bike and you’re looking for a more relaxed ride, you’re likely to be blown away by the very non-aggressive feel for a very performance-oriented road bike.
Set up and ready to roll, I hit the door and pedaled out into the start of a 2.5 hour ride with about 2.4 hours of it being in a solid rain, if not a down right thunderstorm. I figured the ride was perfect for this bike. After all, aimed at the Spring cobbled classics–which fans generally regard as more “epic” when wet, even though statistically they are pretty darn dry–I could imagine myself like Cancellara powering though the elements aboard my Domane, specifically built just for rides like this. But the Domane isn’t really about rain riding–although it sports really slick hidden fender mounts–it’s about ride quality on less-than-ideal road surfaces. So not only did I point the bike towards the rain rolling into town, but I also pointed it East, out towards the construction surrounding the new F1 track.
If you’ve ridden out there you know it can be quiet in terms of traffic, but noisy in terms of road surface. Pot holes, chip seal, cracks, gravel, dirt, loose dogs, and other debris can run rampant on some stretches of roads out towards the old Tuesday Nighter course and beyond. The Domane handled them all with the greatest of easy. The bike really, really shined over the worst sections of asphalt–or what sometimes passes for asphalt in Central Texas. And it was as equally steady on the the terrain changes I could see as those that were buried under standing water from the welcome torrential downpour. I was thoroughly impressed with the bike’s ride quality in terms of stability and comfort, even though my position wasn’t “perfect.” The most noticeable thing was how well the bike handled larger bumps. Sure a well made carbon bike is going to offer some road vibration isolation, but even then large surface imperfections are still large surface imperfections. The Domane though ate those up, especially on the bike’s back end, although the fork sports what Trek calls IsoSpeed shaping as well and felt comfortable without really giving up anything in the handling department. Pretty amazing overall.
That first ride was a Wednesday. And I shot a quick picture of the bike after I got it home and cleaned it up and posted the photo to my Facebook page. Friends quickly asked if I was going to take it to the Driveway the following night. I thought about it long and hard, but aside from the rental department’s “do not race our stuff, this means you employees” policy, I also thought the bike would be somewhat wasted out there. After all the Driveway sports a pristine surface and the Domane seemed after that first ride to be clearly meant for terrible roads. But I did want to see it perform on some faster efforts.
So Friday I took it out for a couple hours for some hot laps on the South Mopac TT course. The slightly rolling terrain and the relatively smooth surface let me contemplate the bike from another angle–that of able racer–even if under a less-than-able-racer in the form of this Cat 4. The bike was great again. The Domane’s noticeable compliance on Wednesday’s rough roads was not a distraction on the smoother surface under harder, more sustained efforts. Whereas some of Wednesday’s ride was spent navigating the storm, Friday’s ride was focused on pushing the pace a little and the bike felt like, well, a race bike. Even though the IsoSpeed set up remained noticeable, it did not give the sensation of robbing power or speed. Rather, it did leave me feeling capable of giving a bit more, but family dinner called and besides, I was getting rained on again.
Saturday broke cloudy with a pretty good chance for rain again–at least in terms of Austin weather–so I grabbed the Domane and hit the door early and headed for the hills. Three and half hours would for me put the bike to the test in terms of seeing if the claims of staying fresher longer and being able to push the pace longer were really true. And, with a little over 4,000 feet of climbing on tap, I’d finally really get to see the bike’s Shimano Ultegra kit, including a compact crankset, in action. The drivetrain did not disappoint as I hit Terrace Mountain, the High Road, and Torro Canyon. In fact, the drivetrain had been spot on since I first pedaled the Domane across the parking lot back on Wednesday. But here, in Westlake Hills, the compact set up showed its real value. The slightly lower gearing made each of the particularly steeper pitches so much more manageable compared to my traditional standard set up on my personal bike.
The bike itself climbed well. On the much smaller rollers the day prior I thought “Wow! Comfortable race bike!” But on Saturday’s very steepest inclines the longer wheelbase, which gives the bike much of it’s great, stable ride quality, shone through a little negatively. The bike seemed to lack the snap of a shorter wheelbase (re: shorter chain stays) bike, although it was still a quite capable ascender. Initially I thought there was maybe some added heft in the bike given the decoupler set up on the IsoSpeed system. But a post-ride check of the scale showed the bike to be right at 17 pounds with base model Look Keo pedals and two aluminum Bontrager bottle cages–right around what my own bike weighs. The very, very slight lag in climbing Austin’s short, punchy walls was quickly displaced though by the joy of descending and cornering on the Domane.
Yes, the IsoSpeed isolates the rider from road chatter. But it also has the apparent effect of keeping the rear end of the bike planted firmly on the ground–something I noticed descending the back side of the High Road. Even over uneven surfaces heading downhill at speed, the bike felt remarkably smooth. And that sensation led to more confident descending even though I’d only been on the bike for a couple of non consecutive days (don’t worry rentals staff, I took my bike to the Driveway). The longer wheelbase, which I shrugged off a bit heading uphill, let the Domane rail around corners and stay true to the line it was set in as the road curved. I was, where sight lines and traffic permitted, easily riding no handed as I dug through my pockets to find rice cakes I had made the night prior. And, I finally managed to complete a ride on the Domane without getting rained on.
The Domane proved to me to be a spectacular all-around road bike. Equally at home on rough roads as rollers, it gave up a little on the steepest of pitches, but more than made up for it gong downhill and around turns. As a race bike, I can see it making a splash on the Central Texas road race scene more than the criterium circuit, but that’s to be expected given the bike’s purpose-built design. Besides, you could take it to your local weekly crit if you wanted anyways–as long as it’s not a shop demo. Where I think the bike has the biggest likely impact though is the citizen road bike rider. Not only does the bike perform well in the comfort arena, and not only does it have the ability to cruise at speed if desired, but it comes in a host of models, both carbon and aluminum, and various trim levels making it accessible to more riders too.
Over the last couple of weeks when friends asked about my demo rides on the Domane I would tell them simply I’d buy a Domane if I were looking for a road bike. After all, the vast majority of my road riding isn’t racing, it’s riding with friends and exploring Austin and Central Texas. But already having a road bike and maybe looking for a new cyclocross bike as the season nears, I’m probably not getting a new road bike any time soon. But the Domane will remain on my short list of bikes to check out if I decide to get a new road bike, or if my wife asks what I want for my birthday.
After all, good things come to those who wait.