Trek Madone long-term review: Hyper-aero, surprisingly comfy
The Madone is the oldest model name in the current Trek road lineup, with the first dating back to 2003. That nameplate has worn several hats in that time, but it’s always represented the best that road bike Trek had to offer. The latest generation is no different, offering cutting-edge aerodynamics, an incredible level of integration, and a level of comfort that is unmatched by its competitors.
But what’s it like to live with a Madone over the long haul? CyclingTips US technical editor James Huang sought to answer just that, spending nearly two full years of quality time on a workhorse Madone 9.5 model. The honeymoon ended long ago, and there have been some rocky moments since then. But for the most part, it’s been a pretty solid relationship.
Aero performance without compromise?
The science of bicycle aerodynamics has greatly matured in recent years, and it seems like every major industry player has cracked the code on how best to reduce drag. While it could easily be argued that aero road bikes from different brands are looking increasingly derivative, it could just as easily be argued that it’s because there just aren’t many ways known to do it well without sacrificing other performance metrics, such as chassis rigidity and weight, and staying within the stringent UCI technical guidelines for frame design.
As a result, the never-ending fight to save watts is increasingly a matter of splitting hairs, but even independent third-party tests have confirmed that Trek’s latest Madone is one of the absolute best in this regard. It’s fast when pointed straight into still air, but also posts enviably low drag numbers at a wide range of wind angles, meaning that it also maintains that aerodynamic edge in more realistic outdoor conditions.
Trek was one of the earliest proponents of the flat-backed, Kamm-tail tube profiles that are now so common; its original Speed Concept time trial/triathlon bike debuted the concept almost 10 years ago, at the 2009 Tour de France. It’s not surprising that Trek has continued to refine the idea, incorporating the philosophy fully in this latest Madone. While the down tube, seat tube, head tube, seatstays, and fork blades all look conventionally deep in profile, a closer look reveals that they all have clipped tails, with the theory being that the truncated shapes maintain the aerodynamic efficiency of full airfoil sections, but with the weight and stiffness advantages that come from the rounder cross-sections.
Details matter as always, and Trek has complemented the frame’s basic shape with similarly well thought-out ancillary components. The front and rear rim brake calipers are nicely integrated into the surrounding structures, and Trek has gone the extra step of partnering with TRP to create dedicated units specifically for the Madone. They blend in so well, in fact, that were they painted to match, they’d almost be invisible at first glance.
Up front is a proprietary one-piece carbon fiber cockpit; the steerer clamp is matched with profiled headset spacers for a cohesive surface contour. Save for very brief appearances at both derailleurs and the rear brake, cable routing is fully internal from tip to tail, running inside the flattened bar tops, through the bulbous molded carbon-fiber stem, and down the sides of the unique square-profile steerer tube before making their way inside the frame. On the down tube, just aft of the head tube, is a small hatch with either a holder for a Shimano Di2 junction box or a barrel adjuster for a cable-actuated front derailleur. It’s very slick.
Overall, the layout is strikingly clean, and it makes other aero bikes with exposed cabling look comparatively unfinished and cluttered.
Other examples of integration include proprietary bolt-on accessory mounts for computers and front and rear lights, a pocket in the non-driveside chainstay for a wireless speed and cadence sensor, and Trek’s now-commonplace BB90 press-fit bottom bracket shell, whereby the crankset bearings are pressed into seats that are molded directly into the shell; no separate cups are required. A chain keeper is mounted to the base of the seat tube, too.
Such deep-section tubing would normally produce an unyieldingly stiff ride quality, but it’s here where the Madone shines brightest.
Trek has incorporated its ingenious IsoSpeed “decoupler” into the Madone, which places a pivoting axle at the seat cluster to promote movement on rougher roads. Even adding a pivot axle and a pair of cartridge bearings isn’t going to make a deep-section seat tube flex much under load, however, so Trek has instead developed a rather brilliant tube-within-a-tube design. That aero-profile extended seatmast necks down at the seat cluster to a much smaller, round-profile seat tube that is hidden inside the seat tube. In this way, the main frame can still be shaped to cheat the wind, but the ride quality is akin to a more traditionally shaped frame.
As on the previous three generations of Trek’s flagship road racer, this latest Madone features a clever semi-integrated seatmast design that requires no cutting. Although it looks cool (and omits many of the hassles of full-length integrated seatmasts), it’s also what makes the IsoSpeed concept possible since more traditional designs with overlapping frame-plus-seatpost layouts would make that area too stiff.
It makes little sense to report a traditional frame-only weight here since there is so much integration on the Madone and so many proprietary parts that must be included for it to function. Instead, it’d be more telling to describe the “module,” including the frame, fork, headset, headset cover, seatmast head, cable hardware, front and rear brake calipers, and bottom bracket. Actual weight for that configuration is 2.27kg (5.00lb).
A different approach toward bike reviews
It’s commonplace for us here at CyclingTips to test bikes for several weeks — or sometimes, several months — before sharing our impressions. The current Madone iteration had already been around for a couple of seasons by the time I took delivery of my review sample, and since I was unlikely to add much to the existing conversation, I decided to take a different approach. Savvy readers may notice that the Madone model pictured here is thoroughly out of date, but that’s because I’ve been evaluating it for the past two years.
Piling on miles quickly is obviously one way to get to know a bike, but there’s no substitute for simply living with the thing over an extended period of time: winter, spring, summer, fall, repeat.
For this unique ultra-extended test, I went with a workhorse Madone 9.5 model, built around Trek’s second-tier 600 Series carbon frame and its standard H2 semi-upright geometry. The bike arrived with Shimano’s now-previous-generation Dura-Ace mechanical groupset, Bontrager aluminum/carbon aero clincher wheels, and Bontrager finishing kit, with a total weight of 7.26kg (16.00lb, without pedals). Nearly every component was traded in and out over those two years, but that’s just as well; I was mainly trying to get thoroughly acquainted with the frameset.
And let’s just say that after two laps around the sun, I got to know the thing quite well.
For more information on current Madone models, visit Trek.
A sleek shape, a comfy ride, and lots of integration
Having already spent several months on a flagship model prior to starting this review, I was already familiar with most of the Madone’s salient performance traits, and am happy to report that most of them carry forth on this more affordable version.
Aerodynamic efficiency is always a dubious thing to evaluate from the saddle, but the Madone indeed feels fast on the road, especially when fitted with matching aero wheels. The bike accelerates just like non-aero bikes of similar weight and stiffness from a standstill, but it’s when you’re moving at higher speeds that you notice how much easier it is to do so. Scoff at the concept of aero gains all you wish, but the effect is real — and tangible, in this case.
More striking is the bike’s surprisingly comfortable ride. Most carbon fiber aero road bikes do a decent job of filtering out high-frequency road buzz, but kick back hard on bigger impacts. However, the Madone’s pivoting seatmast even manages to quell those handily. Whereas you’d normally brace for impact when approaching ugly-looking bumps on more traditional aero road bikes, you quickly learn on the Madone that you can simply stay seated and pedal through.
IsoSpeed is now featured on Trek’s Madone, Domane, and Domane SLR road platforms, and it’s perhaps worth noting how the ride quality differs between the three. Whereas the original Domane — with its rear-only IsoSpeed design — offered a pillowy ride out back, the fully rigid front end was comparatively harsh, and the feel was markedly unbalanced as a result. Trek corrected this on the Domane SLR with its new Front IsoSpeed device and newly adjustable rear IsoSpeed design, and the ride quality is decidedly more cohesive as a result.
Like the original Domane, the Madone features IsoSpeed only at the rear end, but it doesn’t suffer from the same mismatched feel. Whereas the first-generation Domane (and current second-tier ones) are plush out back, but very firm up front, the Madone’s stock IsoSpeed tuning is firmer to begin with, and feels more balanced overall. It strikes a pleasant balance between bump isolation, road feel, and efficiency with no noticeable saddle movement during normal pedaling. A plush endurance machine the Madone is most certainly not, but it’s still a striking improvement over the vast majority of aero bikes on the road.
If you want an even smoother ride, bear in mind that Trek officially approves the Madone for use with tires up to 28mm-wide (and rims up to 30mm-wide). Two years ago, Trek equipped the Madone 9.5 with 23mm-wide tires on 17.5mm-wide rims; today, the Madone 9.5 comes with 25c tires, which actually measure closer to 27mm when mounted to 19.5mm-wide rims. Especially in that configuration, the Madone is far more comfortable to ride than you’d expect based on appearances alone.
Such clearance would be meaningless without brakes that can handle the extra width, but the Madone’s proprietary calipers are up to the task. Integrated set screws individually adjust each arm’s position and spring tension, and handy quick-release levers are incorporated into the design as well for fast wheel changes. The direct-mount, center-pull design is also impressively rigid and yields excellent lever feel.
I found the calipers easy to control, but overall power is a bit lacking as compared to standard Shimano direct-mount calipers. Most of this difference was eventually sourced back to the stock TRP pads, however, which seemed overly hard and lacking in initial bite. Switching to SwissStop’s purple BXP compound helped tremendously, as did installing a set of HED Jet 6 Black aluminum/carbon clinchers with their aggressively textured sidewalls.
As I’ve come to expect from the Madone family, handling was unflappably capable. Years of refinement have produced a geometry that simply goes where you want it to, when you want it to, with no drama or objection, and with minimal input required of the rider at either the bars or hips. It’s not overly twitchy or stable, but rather as middle-of-the-road as could be for a high-end, everyday road racer; basically the embodiment of neutral handling.
While some might classify that sort of quiet competence as boring, I’d say it’s the perfect scenario for day-to-day riding.
Some will find the fit to be much more polarizing, however.
All of Trek’s aero road bikes wear the same “Madone” label, but there are essentially two different bikes on tap here. Not long ago, Trek offered many of its Madone models in two fit variants: the aggressive H1 version with its pro-friendly long-and-low rider positioning, and the masses-friendly H2 fit, with its taller head tube and slightly shorter top tube. These days, however, the only way to get the H1 fit is to go with a bare Madone 9 Race Shop Limited frameset and build it up from there; every complete Madone is now offered solely in the H2 version.
For my preferred 52cm size, the difference in reach is only 3mm: 379mm vs. 382mm, which basically just takes into account the head tube extension and still offers plenty of room to stretch out. The difference in stack, however, is a much more substantial 552mm vs. 523mm, for a whopping 29mm gain. For the sake of comparison, it’s not far off from what Specialized does with its Tarmac vs. the Roubaix families of road bikes.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on your personal setup, but Trek has obviously opted to favor the majority of the bell curve here. Truth be told, I was perfectly happy height-wise on the H2 setup just by removing all of the headset spacers. But that said, riders interested in the Madone who want or need a more aggressive position will either need to remove all the headset spacers or start from scratch.
Compounding the fit issue is the aero carbon fiber integrated cockpit. The effective stock stem length on my 52cm sample size was a stubby 90mm, and I definitely needed to go longer; other sizes are equipped with similarly short cockpits as well. Trek supplied me with a longer cockpit per my request, but the internally routed cabling doesn’t make the change remotely quick or easy.
I’ve noticed several Trek Factory Racing team riders opting for more conventional stems and bars for various reasons. However, I would encourage most Madone buyers to invest the time to get the properly sized one-piece cockpit installed because it’s very good once you get the right size. The flattened tops have more rounded edges than many other designs I’ve used, so they’re surprisingly comfortable to hold on long climbs (although I would recommend against leaving them bare as Trek supplies from the factory). And while I would have preferred a bit more wrist clearance when sprinting, the variable-radius drops offer a wide range of comfy hand positions. The monocoque design is also impressively stiff without being overly so, and as long as you’re running one of the supported brands, the slick Blendr bolt-on computer and light/camera mounts make for an ultra-clean setup.
I anticipated all of these fit issues right from the start, but what I didn’t anticipate was the difference in stiffness between the H1 and H2 frames.
Trek builds the top-end, H1-fit Team Issue frames with its premier 700-Series carbon fiber blend; the H2-fit versions get the lesser 600-Series mix instead (and are also made in Asia, not Wisconsin). The modest increase in weight isn’t a big deal, but the softer feel is harder to ignore.
I’ve never found Madones of any generation to be unusually rigid, but I’ve usually been happy to accept that given their balanced ride qualities. The 600-Series frame squirts forward with pedaling pressure well enough, but front triangle torsional rigidity is particularly lacking as compared to the stouter-feeling 700-Series Madone. The chassis feels a little soft when climbing or sprinting out of the saddle, and is especially distracting when hitting bumps in mid-corner, where the sudden out-of-plane twisting can knock you off-line and disrupt your rhythm through a series of turns. No matter how much time I spent on the Madone 9.5, that sudden wiggle was something I never grew accustomed to, and it ultimately sapped my confidence on fast downhills.
After the honeymoon period
It’s relatively easy to gauge a bike’s overall personality after just a handful of rides, but long-term issues often only rear their ugly heads over time.
Trek does its best to make the internal routing setup more liveable, including cleverly split headset spacers that allow for bar height alterations without having to re-run all of the cabling, and built-in adjustments on the brake calipers that can accommodate a reasonably wide range of cable tensions. As with many internally routed bikes, there’s also a big port at the underside of the bottom bracket to help guide everything through. Indeed, just changing inner cables is only mildly anger-inducing.
It’s usually better to replace both the cables and housing at the same time, however, and there’s no point in sugarcoating the process — it’s a royal pain in the ass. Trek thankfully provides guidelines and tutorials for the process, including detailed housing lengths, but there’s still a lot of fishing and disassembly involved. Whereas a reasonably experienced home mechanic could do a complete cable and housing replacement on an externally routed bike in the time it takes to watch a single episode of Game of Thrones (new bar tape included), it’s best to set aside a half day or so here.
Repeated rides in wet weather revealed a few more chinks in the armor.
Cable exit points are reasonably well sealed, but the slot for the semi-integrated seatmast topper is basically open to the elements. Water spraying off of the rear wheel easily gets in, but at least can drain out through the holes in the bottom of the bottom bracket shell. That said, any associated dirt or mud isn’t likely to flow out as well (and yes, I mostly stuck to asphalt for this one).
That’s a good thing in terms of the bottom bracket bearings, which on some frames can corrode from within. There’s an internal plastic sleeve that does a decent job of shielding the Japanese NSK cartridges from that sort of water exposure, but they’re not wholly immune to weather. And from the outside, the supplemental bearing shields — don’t you dare call them “seals” — do little to protect the bearings from road spray. And unlike a more conventional design that uses separate press-in or threaded cups, the molded carbon-fiber structure doesn’t provide as much flexibility for updating those seal designs.
It’s predominantly dry here in Colorado, so this Madone didn’t see nearly as much foul weather as it would have under someone who would ride it day-in and day-out in a wetter climate such as the U.K. Perhaps as a result, my bike stayed pleasantly creak-free during its stay in the Rocky Mountains. But nevertheless, periodic inspections of my bottom bracket bearings revealed a surprising amount of grime behind those plastic shields, and if dust and dirt can weasel their way in there, so can water.
As it turns out, it doesn’t take much online sleuthing to find heaps of Madone owners reporting premature bearing wear. Sure, the cartridges are relatively inexpensive and easy to replace if you have the correct tools, but even that reveals a more critical downside to the BB90 design.
BB90 is extremely efficient from an engineering standpoint since it eliminates every redundant part from the assembly. But since the bearing seats are molded directly into the carbon fiber structure, it’s the frame itself that gradually wears with every bearing removal and installation. Eventually, the bearing seat dimensions will change to the point where a bearing no longer fits tightly, which leads to creaking and even faster bearing wear. Trek’s solutions include oversized bottom bracket bearings for a tighter fit, as well as a factory repair of the bearing seats to restore their original dimensions.
Trek has been using BB90 (and its BB95 analogue) on a huge portion of its higher-end bikes for over a decade now, and these problems aren’t exactly ubiquitous. But when they do arise, neither of those “solutions” are particularly palatable for those affected. Without question, the design is extremely elegant and does save weight, but as with most press-fit bottom bracket systems, I’m left to question whether the performance gains made on paper are worth the real-world costs.
Where the Madone goes from here
I once welcomed with (relatively) open arms the engineering advantages that the BB90 press-fit bottom bracket shell design promised. That was back in 2007, when it first debuted. But the long-term ramifications after a decade of accumulated owner data are impossible to ignore. It’s time for this design to either go away, or at least get a major update in the form of more durable (metal?) bearing seats and/or compatibility with modern oversized cranksets. The new T47 threaded fitment seems like it could be an excellent alternative, and the wide-format version of that would retain much of the current Madone’s existing frame design, too.
I’d also like to see Trek re-introduce the once-plentiful range of H1 and H2 fit options. Trek clearly doesn’t feel it has the demand to support offering H1 and H2 variants of the Madone as it did before — and indeed, the road market has softened to the point where it probably isn’t economically viable — but that doesn’t mean that I don’t miss having the choice. For me, it seems that an H2-fit Madone built with the stiffer 700-Series carbon blend would have been ideal, but alas, such a combination doesn’t exist. At the very least, Trek needs to bolster the front end of the 600-Series frames to lessen the performance gap.
And will we see a disc-brake version soon? That seems inevitable, but it’s anyone’s guess when that might happen.