Trek Emonda ALR first-ride review: Light and fast, but best on smooth roads

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It wasn’t all that long ago that aluminum was considered largely obsolete as a frame material: too soft and heavy relative to carbon fiber, not as much zing or “life” as steel or titanium. But the material is nevertheless enjoying a strong resurgence, and Trek is the latest major brand to add fuel to that fire. The new Emonda ALR aluminum road family is reasonably competitive with carbon fiber in terms of weight and stiffness, and new manufacturing methods make it drop-dead gorgeous, too. It’s also comparatively cheap. But alas, there’s still a price to be paid.

The Emonda ALR by the numbers

On paper, it’s hard to argue with Trek’s new Emonda ALR.

At least as far as the scale is concerned, the Emonda ALR is nearly on-par with the carbon fiber Emonda SL. Claimed frame weight for the disc-brake is 1,131g, and 1,112g for the rim-brake edition — just 40g heavier than its fancier (and more expensive) cousin. And according to Trek, the Emonda ALR’s chassis stiffness figures aren’t far behind, either, thanks in no small part to the fact that its 300-Series Alpha Aluminum hydroformed tubes use nearly the same shapes as the upper-end Emondas.

The top tube gets notably wider and more rectangular up at the head tube. Torsional stiffness of the frame is very good.

Both rim-brake and disc-brake versions are on tap — naturally — and tire clearances are in-keeping with trends in the road space. Maximum official tire size on the rim-brake version is 25mm; 28mm for the disc-brake models. That sounds decidedly behind the times at first, yes, but keep in mind that Trek’s internal rating for maximum tire size is unusually conservative. Whereas most companies abide by international standards for clearance (at least 4mm of space on all sides of the tire at the closest point), Trek adds another 2mm on top of that, so comparing apples to apples, the rim-brake Emonda ALR will comfortably handle 29mm-wide tires, and the disc-brake bikes will fit 32mm-wide ones. Much better.

Handling-wise, Trek has carried over the same frame geometry as on the carbon Emonda models, which, in turn, were derived from the highly evolved figures of the long-standing Madone range. In other words, it promises truly neutral characteristics, with stable manners at high speeds, a seemingly contradictory willingness to carve through sinuous descents, and reasonable agility at low speeds without having the front end feel too floppy. Trek hasn’t changed its bread-and-butter road geometry much in ages, and that’s a good thing.

In terms of rider positioning, though, Trek will only offer the Emonda ALR in the tamer H2 fit with its slightly taller head tube. Riders who are specifically after a more aggressive posture will still need to look at the top-end Emonda SLR range.

Trek conservatively claims that the disc-brake Emonda ALR will fit tires up to 28mm-wide; the rim-brake one will only go up to 25mm. But if you go by how most other companies measure, you can tack another 2-3mm on top of those figures.

Other features include partially internal cable routing (just through the down tube), 12mm front and rear thru-axles and flat-mount caliper interfaces on disc-brake models, quick-release dropouts and direct-mount caliper mounts on rim-brake models, PF86 press-fit bottom bracket shells across the board, tapered steerer tubes on the full-carbon forks, standard 27.2mm-diameter round seatposts with conventional external seatpost clamps, and a small pocket built into the non-driveside chainstay for Bontrager’s DuoTrap wireless speed and cadence sensor.

None of this sounds remotely groundbreaking. And the focus on stiffness-to-weight means there isn’t a smidgeon of aerodynamic shaping to be found here. There’s not a single mention of wind tunnels or grams of drag or yaw angles in any of Trek’s marketing collateral. In an ever-expanding world of sleek two-wheeled machines that are starting to look more like airplanes than bicycles, the Emonda ALR might seem like a throwback.

But oh, man, you just have to see the thing.

Invisible Weld Technology

The way aluminum bicycle frames are welded hasn’t changed much in decades. With few exceptions, tubes are mitered at the joints and held together in a jig for a close fit, and then the intersections are basically just melted together at high heat, with an additional bead of similar material — the weld bead — added on top for additional structural reinforcement. Sometimes welders take two passes over the joint, and sometimes it’s just one, and sometimes the bead is filed down for a smoother look. But by and large, the process is the same today as it was when people thought Jeff Bezos was nuts for thinking he could sell books over the internet.

Specialized legitimately moved things forward a few years ago with the introduction of Smartweld. Normally, those mitered aluminum tubes fit together kind of like how you would join empty rolls of paper towels together in a grade school art project, with the end of one tube carved out to fit tightly against the unaltered wall of the other tube.

Trek’s new welding process is similar to Specialized’s SmartWeld concept, and offers similar claimed benefits, such as improved joint strength and reduced chassis weight. From most angles, it’s difficult to tell that this is a metal frame. The lustrous paint only further helps to disguise the weld beads.

But Smartweld is more like holding the bottom of two soda cans against each other. There’s a natural trough that the welding rod can fill, there’s more surface area to join together for better structural integrity, the weld itself is moved away from the areas of highest stress, the adjoining tube walls can be made thinner and lighter, and the resulting joint ends up more flush with the surrounding tube wall for a smoother finish. There’s more hydroforming work required to initially create that sort of interface geometry on the individual parts, but it’s a brilliant idea that Specialized has used to great effect.

Trek is now doing something similar, calling it “Invisible Weld Technology.” The concept is much the same, at least in terms of the weld joint geometry itself, but whereas Specialized moves the weld further up on the tubes, IWT uses the same weld location as a standard mitered joint.

Details aside, the result is visually stunning. For example, Trek has formed the head tube and top tube of the new Emonda ALR with the same shapes as the carbon fiber Emonda SL and SLR, and unless you look very closely, you can’t even tell where one part ends and the other begins; it’s truly seamless as far as your eyes are concerned.

Up front is a full-carbon fork. According to Trek, the total frameset weight for the new Emonda ALR aluminum model is nearly identical to the Emonda SL mid-range carbon chassis.

Other areas of the frame are joined using more conventional welding techniques, and the Emonda’s press-fit bottom bracket shell is a far cry from the bulbous and hollow two-piece clamshell that Specialized uses on the Allez Sprint. But it’s important to note that Trek is just getting started with the IWT concept, and it’ll be very interesting to see where it goes from here.

Off-the-shelf, or build to suit

As good as the Emonda ALR platform sounds, Trek clearly isn’t interested in having it cannibalize sales from the carbon fiber Emonda families based on the build kits on tap. Just five complete models are available, all of which focus more on value than outright performance. Complete Shimano groupsets are featured throughout, along with hydraulic brakes for all disc-equipped models. The one exception are the Tektro brake calipers on lower-end rim-brake models, since Shimano doesn’t make a direct-mount caliper at that price point.

At the lower end are the Emonda ALR 4 and ALR 4 Disc, built with Shimano Tiagra and Bontrager Affinity TLR tubeless-ready aluminum clinchers. The rim-brake version costs US$1,360 / AU$1,500, and the disc-brake version (which won’t be brought into Australia) costs US$1,680.

At the upper end are the Emonda ALR 5 and ALR 5 Disc, built with the same Bontrager Affinity TLR tubeless-ready aluminum wheels, but with Shimano’s 105 groupset. Retail price for the rim-brake version is US$1,580 / AU$2,000, or US$1,890 / AU$2,400 for the disc-brake version.

There will also be a sole women-specific model, the Emonda ALR 5 Disc Women’s. Basic spec is unchanged, and it’s built with the same frameset, but touch points are altered to promote a better fit and feel. Pricing is the same as the standard Emonda ALR 5 Disc, but like the Emonda ALR 4 Disc, Trek doesn’t plan to sell it in Australia.

Trek still isn’t ignoring the performance potential of the Emonda ALR, either; there’s also a bare frameset available for riders that might want to do a higher-end build. Retail price is US$960 for either the rim-brake or disc-brake version, but neither will be imported into Australia.

Pricing and availability for other regions is still to be confirmed.

Bones, shaken

I rode a custom-built Emonda ALR for several hours on the roads surrounding Trek’s global headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin, where the rolling hills and seemingly endless expanse of sparsely populated roads provide plenty of opportunity to test a bike’s mettle. Rather than set us up on stock models, Trek went the DIY route, outfitting the frames with Shimano’s latest Ultegra mechanical groupset, low-profile Bontrager Aeolus XXX 2 carbon clinchers, 25mm-wide Bontrager R3 tubeless tires, and an assortment of Bontrager carbon fiber finishing kit. Total weight for my 52cm sample was just 7.4kg (16.31lb), without pedals, but with bottle cages and Blendr accessory mounts.

True to claims, the Emonda ALR felt satisfyingly stout under power, and plenty eager to squirt up short and punchy climbs. Front-end torsional rigidity is good, too, although not quite on-par with top-end carbon models, with some flex detected when you’re really wrenching on the bars.

The new Trek Emonda ALR is the most advanced aluminum road frame yet to come out of the Wisconsin brand – and furthers the argument that modern aluminum bikes can still compete with carbon fiber ones in many ways.

As expected, handling is picture-perfect, like a well-trained horse that almost doesn’t require any physical input from its rider before doing exactly what you want it to. Set those numbers in stone, Trek.

But as pleasant as Trek’s home roads are, the asphalt is distinctly coarse and lumpy, and the pavement seams impossible to ignore. Trek has successfully showcased other bikes on this stage before, but for the Emonda ALR, it might have been better to choose somewhere with better-quality roads.

The Emonda ALR seems to put up a good fight against more expensive carbon bikes in terms of weight and stiffness, however it’s simply no match in terms of ride comfort. Even with the tires inflated to a modest 70psi or so under my 70kg body, the Emonda ALR offers a rough ride, with little vibration damping to speak of and plenty of impact harshness traveling up through the handlebar and saddle. If anything, it only highlights further the uncanny comfort of the new Madone.

The chainstays don’t appear to be particularly large in width or height, but the back end of the new Emonda ALR still feels plenty stiff. Perhaps too stiff, in fact.

That firm ride will certainly be viewed differently by different riders, and it’s important to note that frame compliance varies proportionally with frame size (and remember that I’m 1.73m tall, weigh 70kg, and ride a relatively small 52cm). Would a heavier and/or taller rider have a different experience? Maybe. But again, stiffness and weight still seem to me to have been the primary design objectives here, and frame compliance strikes me as falling further down on the list. Granted, switching to a more flexible seatpost and tires with more suppleness than the rather stiff-bodied Bontrager R3s of my test bike help, but there are limits to how much you can mask the inherent characteristics of a frameset. As is, the Emonda ALR wouldn’t be my first choice for a long day in the saddle on less-than-ideal road surfaces.

This isn’t to say that I wasn’t impressed with the Emonda ALR overall. I’m a big fan of aluminum bikes in general, and I’m definitely excited to see Trek (and others) devoting more attention to the genre. The Emonda ALR is light and stiff, and an unquestionably good value from a mainstream brand. Privateer racers will unquestionably find much to like here, as will anyone prioritizing stiffness and low weight, and living in areas with good-quality roads.

But just as perpetual motion machines, fountains of youth, and fusion reactors are still the stuff of folklore, the Emonda ALR isn’t quite a tale of getting true carbon fiber performance at aluminum pricing. If you enter into the arrangement with realistic expectations of what you might be getting, you’ll probably be happy with it. And as always, a test ride is probably a good idea before signing on the dotted line.

As much as some of us might like to believe otherwise, material properties are what they are, and as good as the Emonda ALR is, you still don’t get something for nothing.

Disclaimer: Trek provided flights, accommodations, and loaner equipment for this event, and has previously advertised on CyclingTips.

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