Trek 520 Review

This is a review of the 2014 Trek 520, just released at Trekworld.

So Tobie at North Central Cyclery just got back from Trekworld this week.  I’ve been spending the week looking at pictures of the new Madone, the Crockett disc-brake CX bike, the Farley fatbike, and various other wunder-bikes.  I’m usually Mr. New Technology, preferring things made from carbon and titanium.  So when I saw the 520, I was all like, “Whoa, a steel frame, steel fork, straight-steerer, linear-pull brake, triple crank, bar-end shifter touring frame with moderate components.  Sign me up!”

Actually, not really.  This bike isn’t shouldn’t be my bailiwick.  I should not like this bike.  I should not enjoy riding it.  It’s everything that I customarily would not look for in a bike.

But it’s so much fun to ride.

Before today, my time on a steel frame has been largely limited to the Dummy.  Sure, I’ve spent a few minutes here and there test-riding other bikes, but I’ve never owned one.  I’ve never ridden farther than, perhaps, 5-7 miles on one.  And bar-end shifters?  An anachronism, right?  Triple cranks?  On a road bike?  I keep trying to talk myself into all of the reasons why I, a tech-oriented guy, should not like this bike…but it just doesn’t work.

What is the bike?  Well, for 2014, Trek has gone to old-school, retro labeling on the bike.  Given that this is actual Trek labeling from days of yore, I think that’s pretty legit, and pretty nifty.  Note that this is a stock, out of the box build.  The only non-stock parts here are my clipless pedals.  So yes, please excuse the dork-disc and reflectors.

Bontrager 700×32 AW1 semi-slicks.

They rolled fast and had nice volume that helped with road irregularities.  They’re semi-slick, so don’t expect anything heroic off-road, but they did just fine on a couple miles of gravel and on some light-grasstracking.

Bontrager Camino wheelset with Deore hubs.  (Editorial note: naming bike wheels “walk” is kinda, sorta not confidence inspiring.  Thankfully, the wheels themselves are bombproof and very confidence inspiring, so it’s just a naming issue.  (Sub-editorial note: the foreign language division here at RATG has advised me that Camino means road or pathway.  That’s a fantastic name for this wheelset, given the varied talents of this bicycle.  Editorial comment withdrawn)).

Some sturdy parts with stainless spokes, for a build that will withstand loaded touring.

Shimano Linear-pull brakes (super-easy to adjust, durable, functional).

I ran over to my secret training grounds and bombed downhill a few times.  The brakes had plenty of gusto, good modulation, and a great feel.  Simple and effective.

Bontrager Race 44cm alloy handlebars.

With my recent experience with 44cm bars, I’ve come to appreciate that they have a place in the world.  On a bike like this, intended for long rides and loaded touring, the 44cm bars felt perfect.  I can imagine that they’d be excellent for throwing the front around with some panniers on a front rack.

Did I mention the delicious vintage labeling?

The paint has a beautiful pearlescent finish.

Deore 3×9 drivetrain.

I believe it’s a 48/38/26 crank and an 11-32 cassette.

Gobs of tire clearance.  35s will fit, no problem.  38s or 40s might even fit.

Obviously, it has plenty of mounts for fenders and racks.

The fork has a bit of rake to it…

Bar-end shifters.

This was my first ‘real’ experience with bar-end shifters.  (That’s probably some kind of cyclist sacrilege).  I actually really liked them–on this bike.  On a bike for hard group rides or faaaaast gravel, I’d keep integrated brifters, so you can shift when hammering, without moving your hands away from the brakes.  But on this bike, the bar-ends made perfect sense and functioned flawlessly.  They were intuitive, easy to use, and for someone who’s a bit A/R like me, being able to tune the front derailleur a tiny bit here and there was greatly appreciated.  You can cross-chain to your heart’s delight.

Some basic Tektro brake levers.

Stock Bontrager saddle.

It had a bit more cush than I’m used to, but was surprisingly comfortable.

Downtube cable-tension adjustment.

It’s a pretty bike.

And of course, it’s from…

As-shown, it’s a little over 25 pounds.

I brought it home last night, and planned on riding this morning.  When I woke up this morning, I was strangely excited about riding it.  I woke up before the alarm, threw on some bibs, and hit the road.  Weather was perfect–upper 50s and sunny.

As built, the bike has a comfortable and confident, upright position.

Here’s a little more of that pearlescence…

And of course, it is…

So what’s it like to ride?

I wasn’t doing touring, so I didn’t know how to ride it.  Friday is an interval day for me.  Should I go hammer?  Should I loaf?  Should I hit the pavement, or the path?  I ended up trying a bit of everything, in 25 miles.

On pavement, the handling was predictable.  The geometry is definitely not aggressive.  Turn-in is comfortable, handling is confidence-inspiring.  The steering is a bit slower, and wheelbase a bit longer, than what I customarily ride.  It was an easy “hands-free” rider.  That said, it wasn’t boring.  I was worried that the ride would be mid-80s Cadillac, all floaty and imprecise.  Instead, it was more like a contemporary Lexus.  You could throw corners at it, and it would roll through at whatever pace you threw at it.  It would soak up bumps and imperfections with aplomb.  I didn’t find its limits, riding on pavement.  If you want to sprint, sprint.  The BB and drivetrain are more than willing to accommodate you, and the huge gear-spread will handle just about anything you can throw at it (up to the max of the 48/11 top gear).  In the lowest gear, I’m pretty sure it can turn back time.  There was no noticeable deflection in the cranks, even under the hardest efforts that my 150# can throw at a bike.  Riding up the hills at my training grounds, you could drop down to the lowest gear and spin effortlessly, or gear way up and stomp on it.  The 520 was happy either way, and walked up anything that I threw at it.

So would I go ride it in a crit?  No…not unless I had to.  The stock wheels are heavy-duty for loaded touring, and were noticeably slow to spin up in comparison to a pair of light alloy or carbon road wheels.  But would I hop on the 520 for a day in the saddle?  Absolutely.  Would I hop on it for a cruise down the prairie path?  Yup.

I’m a competitive person by nature.  I don’t like riding bikes that aren’t responsive.  Even when riding for pure recreation, I like to be able to step on it from time to time.  The 520 is a willing partner.  If you’re willing to push it, it’s willing to go.  And dare I say it, it’s an excellent introduction to drop bar bikes.  I have friends who ask what kind of bike they should get as an intro to exercise biking.  They usually steer towards something like a Trek FX.  I think the 520 is an excellent alternative, both because it’s stable and fun to ride, and confidence inspiring for a beginner, and also because I can see its place in the stable as a lifelong riding partner.  Will it replace a Madone?  No.  Different bikes for different purposes.  But it’s certainly far more versatile than a Madone.  I could ride the 520 in a group ride.  I wouldn’t be the most efficient, but it’s doable.  However, I could not take my Madone for a loaded touring ride.  (Of note, I didn’t ride this with racks/fenders/panniers, but given how it rides and given the component spec, I imagine that it would be a WONDERFUL touring partner).

So on pavement, it handles like a dream, avoids being too aggressive, is comfortable over bumps (thank you steel frame/fork and straight steerer), and has plenty of gear range.

I did a brief jaunt through a grass path, and found that even with the semi-slicks, the long wheelbase and confident geometry allowed me to track through just about anything in comfort.  The frame again did an excellent job of handling bump-absorption duties.

I also did a couple of miles on gravel.  I didn’t have any chunky, hard-core gravel to ride by my house, so it was pretty nice, packed stuff I was on…but again, the combination of confident geometry and steel-cush was greatly appreciated.  As you might expect, the longer chainstays and fork geometry give a predictable ride, and the 520 tracked precisely even over a few loose sections (even on slick 32c tires).  Even when I tried to throw it around or slide through a corner, it would break free predictably, slide progressively, and recover cleanly.

When I rode it, I had fun.  I enjoyed myself.  I wanted to throw different things at it. I can see this being a great companion for long trips.  I can see throwing a pair of slightly more aggressive tires on it (maybe some 34c Bontrager CX0s, or even a set of Clement X’Plor USH), or for that matter, a set of Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires, and having a bike that is comfortable for gravel grinding, loaded touring, cruising, doubletrack, all-day excursions, commuting, etc.  If you want to ride fast, contemplate a set of lighter wheels and some 25c slicks…and recognize that you’re eventually gonna run out of gearing with 48×11.  This bike will go fast if you push it…but I don’t think that’s its core mission.

If you look at this bike as solely an old man’s touring bike, you’re missing the point.  It’s a multi-mission mount, with an incredible range of versatility.  It looks great, and I’d give serious kudos to whomever at Trek is responsible for its aesthetics.  The combination of the pearlescent paint and retro-labeling was perfect for this bike, and truly captures its spirit.

This particular bike was a 57cm, but it fit smaller than that (my Madone and Moots are both 56s, and this felt smaller than either).  I was very comfortable on it.  The stem is pretty upright (angled up) and it had quite a few spacers under it.  It’s a pretty ‘upright’ ride, so there’s a lot of adjustment to be had.  I typically ride a 56cm frame, and the 57 definitely did not feel big.  Trying one out for size at your local Trek dealer may be a good idea, before ordering (if possible).

I was anticipating writing a blog post talking about the 520 being a model for slow and steady…a great bike for someone looking for a retro look, who isn’t concerned about performance or speed (or their personal dignity, when overtaken by other cyclists).  That was before I rode it.  The 520 made me like it, because of how fun, how pleasant, how rewarding it was to ride.  My garage is full at the moment, but if it wasn’t, I can see how this bike would fit in.  And again, my biggest takeaway is to not undersell the versatility of the bike.  It’s not just for touring and retrogrouches.  I can see it being very capable on a myriad of surfaces, including gravel and dirt, with the right tires.  I can see what a cool, capable bike it is.  Did I mention I liked it?  Because I did.  A lot.

I’m glad I had a chance to try it out, and see how much fun it could be.  You can check one out too.  Thanks to North Central Cyclery for the demo.

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14 thoughts on “Trek 520 Review

  1. Pingback: Knog Blinder 2 Review & Blinder R Review | ridingagainstthegrain

  2. Great review. Honestly, bicycles like this are what more shops should be steering people towards for a first bike rather than something like a carbon Madone or Tarmac, unless the person is focusing on racing or fast club rides. Bikes in this class are designed with all day comfort in mind, from their seating position to things like larger volume tires. If people had something like a Trek 520 (or a Surly Long Haul Trucker) as their first “road bike” they would end up riding more often because they would find it more pleasurable.

  3. Whoa! Finally it’s here! It looks as though the components are the same as last year and I will now pull the pin and get last years model and upgrade everything to XT or better. Don’t like the color, don’t like the retro look…..yuk. That being said, and I’m really not trying to bash the bike cause its an awesome bike as you pointed out in your review-my sediments exactly. But I wish that Trek would get onboard with disc brakes, or just simple framesets and let us do the rest if we feel like it. Great review!

    • I’m ordinarily all about upgrades, but in this case, the Deore: 1) functions perfectly; and, 2) makes sense to keep the price point down.

      The aesthetics have to be judged in person…it’s a beaut.

  4. Thanks for your thorough review and great photos! I’ve been juggling three different Trek models (CrossRip Comp, FX 7.6, and 520) as my next bike. I’m a quasi-geezer (62) and newly returned to cycling for fitness and fun. I want a relatively comfortable and forgiving riding position, since I’ve gotten used to NOT being curled up/dropped down on my Trek 4900 mb. I want a wide gear selection that will let me make it up and down all the hills in my area. And I want something that will let me carry a reasonable load if I decide to do some short tours and/or shopping expeditions – and the CrossRip and FX could be accessorized to achieve this, since they have mounts for racks. They are given some very effective marketing as “new” and “sexy” and, succumbing to that crap, I’ve been regarding the venerable 520 as sort of a distant third choice. However, your review has moved it to the top of the list! I’ll give each of them ad good try before I buy, but I have the feeling that the 520 is going to be the one to make it into my garage. Again, thanks for taking the time to explain your reactions to the 520 and to offer reasonable evidence in support of your opinions. Great work!

    • For what you’re discussing, I think you need to decide if you want straight bars or drops. If you want drop bars, which I’d highly recommend for versatility and comfort, you’re looking at the 520. If you want flat bars, an FX may be more your style. Having started with an FX and quickly come to the conclusion that flat bars are not good for comfort on longer hauls, I’d urge the drop bar route. The CrossRip is a nice looking bike, but I don’t think the spec makes a ton of sense for you… In any event, good luck with the purchase!

  5. Real nice review….except now you got me thinking. I was torn between the CrossRip or FX series for an on road fitness ride for a 250 pound rider. I was leaning more to the crossrip because I liked the drop bar option better. Now I have another choice to consider? The CrossRip has the discs which I like, but the steel frame sounds mighty fine too. I don’t think I’ll ever tour so I wonder if the lighter frame of the CrossRip is the way to go? Decisions decisions

    • For a 250 pound rider that’s starting and looking for a fitness option, I’d look strongly at the 520, unless you’re in a super-hilly area and NEED disc brakes. I think the 520 will likely be more versatile for you…

  6. I test rode the 520 on Saturday, what a nice bike. Smooth riding and so comfortable. I’m actually selling my 06 Madone to buy it.

  7. Great review – thank you. I’m planning a cross-country trip this summer, and am currently deciding between this bike and the Long Haul Trucker (also considered REI’s Randonee, but they told me their models don’t go large enough for my 6’4″ frame). Would you be able to comment on the 520 vs. the LHT by any chance? I’ve test-ridden them both at shops, but neither stood out (nor proved noticeably worse). Any insight would be greatly appreciated! Thanks.

    • 520 v. LHT: Both great choices. The LHT is available with Disc brakes, which could be a serious benefit depending on where you’re touring. If that isn’t critical, I prefer the parts spec on the 520 (I’d take Deore on the 520 over the Sora/crap on the LHT). As far as riding comparison goes, both handle pretty similarly. If it was me, and I didn’t need disc brakes, I’d probably go to the 520 based on the parts spec.

  8. I’m looking to get myself a touring bike in the next few weeks, I have a Trek Soho for my commuting which I just love, so I was looking at the 520 as one option it being a Trek as well. Another bike that got my attention is the Vaya 2 which is being marketed as a touring bike by Salsa. The Vaya comes with 105 components which might not be as sturdy as what Trek put on the 520, but it also comes with disc brakes which is something I appreciate greatly on my Soho with its BB5. How would you compare the two, I’ve seen that you have a Vaya (albeit the titanium kind) yourself?

    • Wow. That’s an interesting comparison.

      Comparing the Vaya 2 to the 520, the Vaya is a couple hundred dollars more. It is a LOT more bike, however. The geometry lends itself to loaded touring, and you’d have disc brakes, and you’d have a LOT more tire clearance and more versatile wheelset. With a Vaya, you can throw slicks on it and roll on the street as a reasonable road ride, or you can throw some 40c tires on it and crush gravel.

      The Vaya is one of my all-time favorite bikes, and one of the most versatile bikes out there. If I could only have one bike, it would be a Vaya. As far as 105 (Vaya) versus Deore (520), I wouldn’t have any concern or hesitation about using the 105. Salsa uses that on their Warbird as well…it’s a solid, well-sorted spec on the Vaya.

      If the Vaya is in your budget and does the things you need, I’d be hard pressed to not tell you to get a Vaya. They’re fantastic, amazing bikes–and so versatile!

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