Shimano Ultegra Di2 Review

Among the things I got to spend some quality time with in California was Ultegra Di2.  The Domane we rode was equipped with Ultegra Di2, whereas the Madone we had was equipped with the latest version of Shimano’s mechanical Ultegra.

My previous 2 road bikes were both equipped with mechanical Ultegra, so I have a lot of experience with it.  When I built up my Madone 7, I built it up with SRAM Red Yaw (which I still believe has the best feel of any mechanical system on the market).  And I’ve spent thousands of miles on the hoods of the SRAM Rival on my Vaya.

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of the mechanical Shimano hoods.  After a lot of miles on the Ridley and its predecessors, I’ve concluded that Shimano hoods are just not the most comfortable out there.  In my opinion, the most comfortable hoods are Campy Super Record, followed by Sram Red.  I was interested to see how the Ultegra Di2 hoods felt.

To my surprise, they are substantially different from the mechanical hoods.  They have a nice shape, adequately wide (but not too wide), and nicely shaped to fall easily to hand.  I have no complaints about the hoods.  When I’m riding, I often ride with my palm on the hoods, my ‘trigger’ finger on the brifter lever, my next 2 fingers between the bar and brifter, and my pinky finger behind the bar (particularly when descending or riding in a paceline).  That gives me easy access to the controls and a good grip on the bar.  The spread between the hoods/brifter/bar made it very easy for me to do my preferred control grip.

The braking action was identical to the mechanical–it feels like exactly the same ratio of effort/braking.

Shifting…that’s what you want to know about, right?  In a word: perfection.

I don’t know how much time Shimano spent working on the tactile feel of the buttons, but I couldn’t criticize a single thing about them.  They just feel perfect–they feel substantial, but they’re easy to press.  Perhaps most amazingly (and I don’t know how they do this), the feel of the buttons changes at the end of the cassette.  With mechanical, when you reach the end of the cassette, the shift levers will not go over all the way–they stop mid-throw to tell you that you’re out of gears.  With the Di2, the buttons act similarly–there is a change in feel to tell you that you’re out of gears.  Amazing.

If you’re dumping a bunch of gears, going from the big end of the cassette (slow) to the little end of the cassette (fast), I get the sense that mechanical can make the shifts faster.  I could be wrong, but that’s how it feels.  Going in the opposite direction, Di2 feels faster.  There isn’t enough of a difference in speed to be a real advantage or disadvantage to either system…but it was something I was wondering about, so I checked it out.

Here’s the amazing part of Di2: it…functions…perfectly…always.  I tried to screw it up.  I tried to just partially press the shift button.  I tried to shift under load, on a hill, with a hard effort underway.  I tried to cross-chain to an extreme extent.  I tried shifting without pedaling.  I tried shifting while spinning backwards.  I tried everything I could think of to screw it up…and couldn’t.  It shifted perfectly every time, no matter what, load or no load.

Di2 on the Domane made a lot of sense…it made that a bike that you could do some Loooooooong rides on.  Even when you’re tired, you can’t miss a shift.  Honestly, I cannot overstate how impressive the shift quality was–it was outstanding, and amazingly precise.

The other advantage of the Di2?  If if needs adjustment, all you have to do is press the little inline trim button by the brifter.  No stopping to turn the barrel adjuster.  No trying to remember which way to turn it.  No worrying about running out of adjustment or cable tension.  Just press the button.  Now, mechanical systems shouldn’t require much adjustment…once the cables stretch, how often do you really touch the shifting?  (Not very often).  But the simplicity of adjusting the Di2 is pretty great…and there is no accommodating cable stretch, because there are no cables to stretch.

So for purposes of shifting (the intended purpose of a drivetrain), the Di2 is pretty hard to beat.  If all else was equal, in my opinion, the Di2 is more consistent and precise in its shifting than any mechanical system I’ve ridden, SRAM Red included.  You can’t do a partial shift, or miss a shift.  Press the button, get a gear.  It’s that simple.  Let’s be clear: Di2 made shifts under conditions when any mechanical system would have had a problem.  I can say this with absolute confidence because I duplicated the conditions with the mechanical Ultegra and got partial/missed shifts, and because I’ve done the same with SRAM Red.  You just can’t fool the Di2.

Of course, all else is not equal.  Here are the concern areas I have:

Wiring: The wiring is ostensibly waterproof and from what I’ve read, pretty durable.  On bikes that are built for internal routing, the Di2 looks pretty eloquent (save for the big bulk of the front derailleur)…but on bikes not intended for internal routing, the wires strapped to a bike frame don’t look nearly as clean as cable runs, for some reason.  Maybe it just takes getting used to.

Electronics:  Yeah–I’ll admit it…I’m skeptical about long-term durability of the electronics.  In the first gravel metric, my Vaya was ridden in water over the BB, and was portaged across a stream that was chest-deep.  I don’t know if the Di2 will stand up to that kind of abuse.  Shimano seems to think that it is pretty durable, and I haven’t read of any systems frying yet…but to be honest, I have the concern in the back of my mind.

Battery:  The first Di2 batteries I was seeing were mounted to the bottom of the downtube.  Ugly.  On the Domane, the battery was mounted under the BB.  Unless you were looking, it was pretty well concealed (from the drive side, it was hidden by the chainrings, and from the non-drive side, it was pretty unobtrusive).  As the Di2 matures, there are far more installations that involve throwing the battery into the seat tube.  That seems like an ideal solution to me–if you can hide it, so much the better.  As far as battery life goes, every report I’ve read has said that battery life is amazingly good…so that doesn’t really seem to be an issue.  I have to charge my garmin and lights once a week.  If I have to charge the Di2 battery once every couple months, that isn’t a big deal.

Would I buy it?

Yes.  And No.

I would have no hesitation or reservation about buying and using Di2 on a bike, from a functionality perspective.  It works great.  I’d use it on the Madone without any concerns, based on how that bike is used.  But honestly, with Illinois riding, I’m not sure that Di2 would give me a huge advantage…we don’t have climbing, and there really isn’t much shifting under load.  SRAM Red has been pretty flawless for me, so I don’t think going to Di2 would result in a marked difference in bike performance.  So yes, I would (in theory), but no, I don’t see myself upgrading.  (The better reason to upgrade might be to go to 11 speed someday, but I’m not feeling as though I’m missing anything there yet, either).

The Vaya presents a more compelling case to try electronic.  The Vaya gets run in a lot more challenging conditions…mud, wet gravel, slush, crud, steep gravel rollers, etc.  Those conditions present more of a challenge to mechanical shifting, and the advantages of Di2’s consistency seem to be pretty well tailored to those conditions.  That said, these abusive conditions are also the conditions that are most likely to expose problems with an electronic drivetrain (e.g. what happens when the rear derailleur is completely submerged into water?)  Perhaps if Shimano gets to market with Di2 and hydraulic disc brakes, we will see.  That would be a combination that I think would be hard to beat on a bike like the Vaya, assuming that the durability is there.  (That said, I don’t know where the battery would go.  The Vaya has a 27.2 seatpost…I don’t think a battery is going in there).

I had anticipated trying Di2 on this trip and saying: “Meh, no big deal.”  That isn’t the case. It is a big deal.  The shift quality, the tactile feel, the ‘always perfect shifting’…they’re pretty great.  As bike integration improves, the disadvantages are being addressed one by one.  And as riders get more time on Di2, my concerns about reliability and durability are slowly going away.

The Di2 Domane was a pretty compelling argument for how technology is improving bikes at an exponential rate, right now.  Purists gonna hate, but both sets of technology just plain worked–and improved the ride experience.  That, in the end, is what I want my equipment to do.  Di2 is worth a look.


Trek Domane Review

As devoted readers know, I reviewed a Domane before they were on the market, way back long ago.  At that time, my review wasn’t overwhelmingly glowing, and was based on a relatively short ride experience.  As a component of the Trek Travels trip, I was able to spend some quality saddle time on a 5.9 series Domane, equipped with Ultegra Di2.  It was a 56cm bike.

Here she is:

Bontrager RaceLite alloy wheels.

Ultegra Di2 (Aesthetic note: I LOVE the dark graphite Shimano is using this year.  Much better than the former silvery gray).

Slick integrated wiring.

Comfy hoods.

I’m going to reserve my thoughts on the Di2 for another day, because it deserves its own post.  What you’re going to get today is pure thoughts on the Domane.  These thoughts are based upon my experience on a host of road bikes, and perhaps most importantly, based upon my recent couple days on a 6 series Madone, and extensive saddle time on my own 7 series Madone.

First, the Trek people call it the Doh-MAH-nee.

Second, if you’re living under a rock, the Domane features a unique design, in that there is a pivot point at the juncture between the seatpost and the top-tube/seatstays.  With this design, the seatpost is isolated from the rest of the frame, such that it can pivot avound the above-mentioned joint, providing greater vertical compliance than a traditional road frame.  With a traditional frame, you might get some compliance from the seatpost or seatmast–the weight of the rider bends the seatpost and that vertical deflection provides a bit of a smoother ride.  The Domane takes that concept to the extreme–by isolating the seatpost from the top tube and seatstays, the whole seatpost can deflect, from the saddle down to the bottom bracket.  You get much, much more deflection, and thus much, much more compliance.

Some frame designers have approached the issue of designing vertical compliance by putting inserts into the seat stays, and introducing compliance into the rear triangle.  The Domane does not do this–and that’s hugely important.  Here’s why: the rear triangle on the Domane is very stiff.  The BB and chain stays are super-stiff…perhaps even more so than on the Madone.  What that means is that you have a very high amount of pedalling efficiency.  When you stand on the pedals, or put in a hard effort, the bike lunges forward. There is no power lost in the seat or chainstays deflecting.  The part of the bike that deals with the transmission of power is as efficient as possible.  By isolating the deflection to the seatpost, the rider experiences the compliance, without a loss of efficiency.  That’s why it is such a huge step forward–the rider gets the benefits of compliance without the detriment of riding a noodly frame.

Brief aesthetic note here: from my perspective, the clean frame that Trek is able to achieve with the Domane, with a concealed pivot point, is far more attractive than a bike with big inserts in the seatstays as well.  That’s up to the individual rider to decide, but it’s a positive in my book.

So you have a bike with a very efficient drivetrain, coupled with a seatpost that gives a very compliant ride.  What else should be noted?  The Domane has a custom fork with more rake than the Madone.  Turn-in isn’t as aggressive–the change in geometry is noticeable.  The wheelbase is also longer, which lends to stability–again at the expense of making the steering a bit slower.  The BB is lower than on the Madone, which eats a bit of cornering clearance (though I never ran into any problems), and which lowers the rider and bike’s center of gravity, again promoting stability.

So what do you get with the Domane?  You get a bike that is Madone-fast when you’re pedaling, but that has greater much greater vertical compliance, both through the fork and the seatpost.  Comparing the Domane and 6 series Madone, the Domane does a better job of absorbing both rough asphalt/chipseal chatter and of taking the edge off of bumps and potholes.  The change in geometry is also noticeable–the Domane is a bit more relaxed (though I’d feel very comfortable hustling it through a crit or other race).  Let’s be clear…the handling is slower than a Madone, but by no means is slow.  It isn’t like a one of the older Bianchi Coast to Coasts.

Comparing the Domane to the 7 series Madone, there is still a palpable difference in the ride quality.  Here’s a sneak preview of tomorrow’s post: I think there is a significant difference in ride quality between the 6 and 7 series Madone, with the 7 series offering substantially improved dampening.  That said, the Domane is untouchable in regard to dampening out vibration and big hits–there is simply no comparison.  From a comfort perspective, the Domane wins, hands-down.

I pushed the Domane up a big climb that topped out on a big flat, with a little-used forest service road that was pretty potholed.  By the time I summited, my legs were pretty shot, and I was in the saddle, spinning.  I was able to just stay in the saddle and keep spinning right through bumps, continuing to pedal.  On a Madone, I would have been out of the saddle, standing over the pavement irregularities.  In that regard, the Domane can be a more efficient bike on rough roads.  It’s kind of like the difference between a full suspension bike and a hardtail–suspension gives you the ability to keep pedalling at full effort, at times when a hardtail requires you to stand and do some shock absorption.  The Domane’s compliance enabled me to remain seated and pedalling efficiently over bumps that would have disrupted my efforts on a Madone.

And yet because the BB is so stiff, when I was standing and hurting myself on the climb, the Domane felt like a Madone, and surged up the hill with no power lost.

What are the Domane downsides?  Well–riding one would take some adjustment.  When riding over bumps, you feel the bumps in your legs/pedals more than you do through the saddle.  That is disconcerting at times, and would take some getting used to.

The other issue is that of the seatpost tuning.  With a full-suspension mountain bike, you can adjust the shock pressure and valving to meet your particular needs.  When I, at 150 pounds, ride my Spearfish, I run a certain pressure.  If a 200 pound rider got on it, they would need more pressure and more dampening.  The Domane seatpost is ‘tuned’ to one spec, and cannot be adjusted.  Let me say at the outset: the tune that they gave it works well for a variety of riders.  But if you’re at either extreme of the weight spectrum, it may be a ‘try before you buy’ situation.  Trek maintains that there is not a weight limit for the Domane–that’s probably self-limiting.  I would be curious to see how the bike reacts to a 300 pound rider–there would be a lot of seatpost deflection.  Perhaps too much.

At my weight, there were a couple big hits that I took where it felt as though the seatpost was loading up and then bucking me a bit…kind of like a spring without a shock to dampen the oscillation.  The Carbon does a good job of dampening hits–don’t get me wrong, it’s good–but there were at least a couple of bumps where I had a weird sensation that I was being thrown, rather than getting a compliant ride.  Here’s the important disclaimer, though: I had that sensation because I was in the saddle, hitting big bumps on a road bike.  Had I been on a Madone, I would not have had that feeling, because I would never be in the saddle, on a Madone, on a similar bump.  The compliance of the Domane lets you stay in the saddle on bumps that you would otherwise stand for.  That is 99% good–but once in the while, it leads to odd results.

So what about purchasing a Domane?  If I was going to the bike shop today and looking at Madones and Domanes, what would I get?

If my goal was road bike efficiency with a bit more comfort, a Domane would win, hands-down.

If my goal was minimum weight/maximum efficiency and race-bike handling, a Madone would win.

If I was planning on using the bike for long rides on varied surfaces, Domane.

Frankly, if I was comparing a Domane and a 6 series Madone, I’d get a Domane.  The few instances where the Domane has a wonky result (e.g. the ‘bucking’ sensation) are the result of exploiting the seatpost beyond its capabilities.  They’re the fault of the rider, not of the bike.  The weight penalty is negligible, the difference in pedalling efficiency is negligible (the Domane feels stiffer in the BB), and the gain in comfort is noticeable.  I think for the vast majority of road bike riders, the Domane is probably the better bike.  And I suspect that if riders had a chance to ride them back to back, they would feel that way.  Again, even for my riding, if I was comparing a Madone 6 (or below) to a Domane, I’d get the Domane.  (Note: I haven’t ridden one of the lower-level Domanes that are aluminum and carbon…so I’m not passing judgment on them).

Comparing the Domane to my 7 series Madone, I’d get my bike a majority of the time.  If I was looking for a bike to ride centuries on, I’d look hard at the Domane.  But the 7 series Madone is so sweet, I can’t claim to have any regrets with it.

So what is my takeaway?

  • Getting to spend some real saddle time with the Domane convinced me that it has real merit.
  • I suspect that if bike purchasers were really informed about how well it works, and if they were honest about their riding, the Domane would substantially outsell the Madone in any location of the world that does not consist solely of glass-smooth roads.
  • The longer your rides, or the more tired you get, or the worse the roads turn, the better and better the Domane becomes.  (Recall that a Domane-mounted rider won Gravel Worlds this past year).
  • I have a hard time finding fault with the Domane, except when you push the seatpost past the point of reason by hitting bumps that you shouldn’t be hitting on a roadbike.
  • Before you buy your next roadbike, you owe it to yourself to at least try a Domane.

Longer term, what are my thoughts?

  • I don’t know how well this would work on a mountain bike.  I think the seatpost likely has too much compliance, and would create more of the “I’m being thrown from the bike” or “I’m being hammered in the rear by my saddle” sensation.  Perhaps not, but I’d definitely want to do some real test-riding before committing to a mountain bike with this exact technology.
  • I wonder if we will eventually get to a point where the technology permits rider-tuning.  The seatpost is already decoupled at the top-tube/seatstay junction.  What if you decoupled the seatpost at the BB, and allowed the rider to select different seat posts?  (Some sort of mechanical joint at the BB that could be disconnected–perhaps a second pivot point?)  You could have thinner/thicker seatposts, or different modulus carbon, to accommodate different conditions (comfort vs. crit) or to accommodate different rider weights, just like riders can tune a FS mountain bike, or can select a different seatpost on a bike.  Or in the alternative, the ‘seatmast’ could be mounted as it is on the Domane, and you could have super long ‘seatpost’ inserts that would extend well down into the bike frame, and allow you to tune the responsiveness of the bike (again by changing seattube thickness and modulus).  There are some interesting opportunities here, for this technology to grow.  Imagine a Domane that you could make super-rigid for a crit, and super-compliant for a ride on the cobbles, just by swapping the seatpost.

My ‘now more informed after a couple long rides’ thoughts on the Domane: It’s a game changer.  It is both more efficient and more comfortable (more effective at achieving vertical compliance and a smoother ride) than bikes like the Roubaix.  I think it’s a harbinger of things to come in the road biking world, and I think the technology can, and will improve.  I also think it’s a bike worthy of consideration for just about anyone.

Trek Travel Review, Solvang Day 4

Day 4 was the final day of our Trek Travel experience.  We had been blessed with warm, dry weather for the first three days (notwithstanding the mist and wind atop Mount Figueroa), so I couldn’t really complain when the skies let loose on Thursday.

In Illinois, I’ve been riding all winter, in all conditions.  The only time I’ve been riding the trainer is when there’s ice.  I don’t ride ice.  I have ridden rain, what snow we have, wind, cold, etc.  Imagine my shock to find that when it rains in Solvang in January, the rain is warm.  The rain was at least as warm as the air–so even when it rained, it was still good riding.

Chad and I suited up appropriately in our Gore jackets, and headed off into the rain.

We didn’t have a destination in mind, but rather were focused solely on the journey to get there.  Along the way, we had the first flat of the trip…

Improbably caused by an insignificant fleck of metal.  Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken that gravel path past the industrial park.

(That’s it on the second finger from the left).

We found a nice, covered drive-in to do a flat fix, and then Chad sold a bike to a passerby.  (Seriously.)

The rain was intermittent–a bit here, a bit there.  When it rained, it rained.  We tooled up to Solvang at an easy pace, spun around town, stopped for a double espresso.  The pavement was soaked, and it seemed as the whole town was saddened that we were leaving–everything was muted a bit–dampened by the weather, and the realization that we were leaving soon.

This is the last photo I took on the trip.

I didn’t take a photo of the fog hanging over the coast as we headed back to the airport…or of the piles of Trek bikes back at the hotel…or of the people we hung out with, and said goodbye to as we were leaving.  My last pic was of Chad, riding in the rain, sitting at a stoplight, smiling.

Rain on the last day was what we needed.  It was a cleansing that cleared our minds and prepared us for the return flights.  The sopping pavement kept us from thinking about charging forward too hard, and the damp air made stopping for a coffee, and taking a few minutes to breathe, seem like the right thing to do.

It was a recovery ride, recovering from the trip of a lifetime, readying us to return to reality.  As we descended the hill from Solvang, headed back to the hotel, we crested 35mph without trying.  On the flat, tree-lined avenue back, I ker-chunked down to the bottom of the cassette, stood on the pedals, and did one last full-effort sprint on the Madone.  The chain whirred across the ‘rings as the bike leapt forward, and I poured one final, brief effort into the earth, channeled through the carbon fiber and aluminum.  I set my sights on a big evergreen overhanging the road, and winced to a sprint finish, just beating out Fabian, Bradley, Lance, and the doubts that I had about my own riding.  I reclined back into the saddle, and relaxed.  I pedaled at an obscenely low cadence, straining against the big gear, going nowhere and in no particular hurry to get there.  Chad and I rolled back to town, not really talking for the last mile, soaking in the trip.

Day 4 was simple.  Just go ride your bicycle.

(If you’re interested in finding out more about Trek Travel, get in touch with Tobie at North Central Cyclery).

Trek Travel Review, Solvang Day 3

Day 1 was a 35 mile jaunt on the pavement.  Day 2 was close to 50 between mountain and road.  Day 3 was one of the days I was looking forward to the most: road biking, on a mountain.

Day 3 called for an ascent of Mount Figueroa.  The route directions called for a 53 mile ride with 4,300 feet of climbing.  Being the flatlander that I am, we don’t have much call for climbing in Illinois.  And yet I’ve come to love climbing.  With my relatively light weight, I’m pretty good at it.  Perhaps more importantly, climbing is very compatible with my personality.  You just tune into the climb, shut everything else out, and go.  Cycling can be the purest form of suffering, and climbing is the purest form of cycling.  I didn’t have anything to prove, except to myself.

To our benefit, the weather was overcast and a few degrees cooler, with a chance of rain. Chad and I packed our Gore Oxygen jackets in a jersey pocket, and rolled out.  The road back to Mount Figueroa had a few little climbs, and some foothills that concealed the climbs to come.

The roads were a little crumbly at times, but still flat and pretty smooth.

I had my Garmin, and my cue sheet tucked into the brake cable housing.

At the base of the Mount, the road narrowed and became tree-lined.  The first few miles were the steepest.

I was watching the grade on my Garmin.  At their worst, the grade hit just over 20%.  I wasn’t taking many pictures, focusing instead on riding.  When I was taking pics, it was always in a flat spot where I could lighten up a bit.

Around every corner, the road unwound a bit further.

Chad and I had an early start.  When we got to the base of the Mount, we split up just by virtue of pace.  Chad knew I had a demon inside that wanted to come out.  My first goal was to complete the climb.  My second goal was to climb fast.  My third goal was to climb without stopping.

I completed the climb.

We didn’t start in a group–but no one passed me on the climb.  I was the first one to the top.

As for the ‘no-stopping’ goal, I stopped once, two miles in.  I stopped a second time, mid-Mountain, for a refill on my water at the Trek Travel van.  I stopped at the Road Closed sign, to hop the fence.  I stopped at the top.

If you’re going to ride Mount Figueroa, the first 3-4 miles are the worst (best?) part.  They’re the steepest, hardest, most intense climbs.  Once you’re up to mile 5-ish, there are still climbs–hard ones at that–but not as hard and not as steady as the bottom.  Climbs at the top are closer to 10%, with a few going up to 15-16% grade.  On the worst of grades, I was geared out, furtively pushing at the brifters trying to find that elusive 21st gear.  On the 5-6% grades, I felt like a hero, dropping a few gears and pushing up the hill.

(Smiling while trying to catch my breath).

After the Road Closed sign, if you hopped the fence, there was a single-lane road that went up to the summit.

The road to the summit was one of the best parts of the whole ride.

Having summitted, I turned around and descended.  For my first real descent, I felt pretty comfortable.  The road wasn’t closed, so you couldn’t go all out…but you could move right along.  On those corners where you could see the road ahead, you could flat boogie by starting on the outside, clipping the corner through the apex, and rounding out on the outside.  While I don’t Strava, I’m advised that Taylor Phinney has the Strava downhill segment KOM, at around 35mph average.  Let me tell you, 35mph is plenty fast, on the downhill.  I cannot imagine averaging that speed.

I’ll finish the ride review here, first: arriving back at the bottom, I snarfed down some grub and considered my options.  I had been told that no one on the Trek trips had done a double-ascent of Mount Figueroa.  That became my goal.  I wasn’t sure if I had the time or the legs to do it, but I wanted to try.  I hopped back on the Madone and pointed uphill.  I didn’t finish a full second ascent, but I did make it 6 miles back up the mountain–more than halfway, and through the worst of the climbs.  I did more climbing than I’ve ever done in a day–which was pretty amazing for me, personally, as a rider.  After my partial second ascent, I screamed down the mountain with considerably more confidence in my cornering, just barely touching 50mph at one point (despite the skinny tires, it is amazing how much traction a road bike has when angled over, hauling through a corner).  I then rolled back to town, through the beautiful Ballard Canyon route.

Here’s the other important part: Trek Travel rocked.  Their people were awesome.  At the base of the Mount, Jen and Hershey had a delicious lunch spread including a delicious quinoa salad and a gluten-free pasta salad that were amazing.  On a lot of bike adventures, I have to subsist on energy bars because the available food isn’t gluten/dairy free to accommodate my Celiac’s.  Part of the pre-trip prep for Trek Travel is advising them if you have any dietary issues.  I told them of my concerns, and they were amazing in meeting my needs.  It was nothing short of totally awesome to get back to the base after my first ascent, and be able to eat real, delicious food.  I cannot give enough praise–and thanks–to Trek Travel (and Jen and Hershey) for taking the time to come up with recipes and make food that I could actually eat.

I’m going to dwell on that for another paragraph.  For any cyclist, being able to eat and fuel your body is necessary to be able to ride your best.  Trek Travel accommodated my unique dietary needs and enabled me to have an awesome ride.  Perhaps the bigger takeaway for you, if you’re considering Trek Travel, is what this means for you: it means that Trek Travel will do whatever it takes to make your ride successful.  They pay attention to the details, to make sure that you will have a fun, successful trip.  I was blown away by the care they put into the trip–and it’s one of the reasons that I recommend Trek Travel wholeheartedly.  Their effort and care made my trip possible, and made my trip enjoyable. It allowed me to set new personal records for climbing–but more importantly, it allowed me to just focus on my biking instead of worrying about feeding myself.  They sweat the small stuff, so you don’t have to.

I’d like to do a little shout-out to Dave, as well, for his stoicism and sage advice on the weather, the wind, and the descent.  As the day went on, the wind picked up substantially, making the descent a bit harrowing.  Dave gave me a few pointers that made the descent far more enjoyable, and controlled.

Finally, I want to pass a word of thanks along to JV.  I had a chance to talk with him on a number of different occasions, and he passed along a ton of great advice.  He was incredibly knowledgeable about the routes, the bikes we were riding, and both Trek Travel and Trek the company.  He was a genuinely personable tour leader, and he offered both wisdom and encouragement.  My thoughts on him may be slightly colored by the delicious mid-Mount banana he offered at the rest stop, or by the support he offered when I talked about going back up the mountain a second time.  But throughout each day of the event, he helped riders in every way imaginable, whether it was helping find a spare tube for my seatbag, or providing ‘been there, done that’ guidance on route selection.  He was an excellent ambassador for Trek Travel and Trek, and an invaluable part of my trip experience.  He had a way of getting knowledge across to you, without seeming like he was reciting a marketing brochure–he gave riders a chance to be informed and to understand the days’ events, and quite simply made the event more enjoyable.  He’s a great asset for Trek Travel, and I hope he continues to be successful in his endeavors.

Those words of praise ring out for anyone from Trek Travel that I dealt with.  Ordinarily, in a group of people that large, you might expect to find one or two that you just don’t jive with. That wasn’t the case.  Every person, from the mechanics to the tour leaders, was kind and gracious, helpful, knowledgeable and fun.  They improve the quality of your experience by being great people to be around, and by identifying, predicting, and meeting your needs.

Day 3 was overcast.  It wasn’t as scenic, because of the rain, the wind, and the clouds.  Much of it passed in a blur of burning legs and never-ending ascent.  But it was awesome, despite the weather and lactic acid, because of what I was able to do, and because of the support I received from Trek Travel.

(If you’re interested in finding out more about Trek Travel, get in touch with Tobie at North Central Cyclery).

Trek Travel Review, Solvang Day 2

I’ve got to start out with this.

Yes, that’s me.  No, there is no photoshop.  I’ll explain in a bit.

On a ‘regular’ Trek Travel trip, you’d stay with your normal form of biking throughout the trip.  On a road trip, you’d keep riding road bikes, and on a mountain trip, you’d keep riding mountain bikes.  On this trip, however, we had a chance to demo Trek’s latest and greatest mountain bikes, at a site about 15 miles from our hotel.  In the morning, they told us that if we wanted, we could ride the shuttle out, do the mountain bike demo, and then ride our road bikes back to the hotel.  You know that Chad from North Central Cyclery and I opted for that option–for the most riding.

We had a great morning, with a number of interesting sessions.  I even got to hang out with Gary Fisher again, and do a little Axletree advocacy.

Then, we loaded up to go biking.  I had a chance to ride a Remedy, a Slash, a Session, a Rumblefish, a Superfly 100, and a Fuel EX9.9.  More on the bikes another day.  At the base camp, they had a little pump track, and Chad got his groove on.

The trails were pretty buff, with some pretty serious climbs.  They had a mini-Super D course, a mini downhill course, and some other interesting features.  Weather was beautiful.

I practiced my North Central Cyclery team kit model face.

Pretty sweet views.

I was riding along on the Rumblefish, intending to head back to camp to switch bikes, when I saw this group go by.

Wait–was that?

Could that be?

Yeah.  I went bike riding with Gary Fisher.  He flat hauls ass on a mountain bike…and while I ordinarily wouldn’t use that parlance, I’m pretty sure that is exactly what he would say.  I’ll talk about Gary another day as well.  For today, let’s just say that he unclips and puts a foot down, moto-style, as he flies through a fast and loose downhill sweeper.  It was incredibly amazing to be able to ride behind him and follow his lines…pedal when he pedaled, brake when he braked.  He didn’t brake very much.

Here we are, working up a climb.

I also got to hang out with Drew a bit more, and do some riding with him.

I hooked back up with Chad, and we had some lunch with Gary Fisher, and then headed back to the trails.


Hard not to smile.

Yes, there was a lot of climbing.

At this point, Chad and I were both Super-Flying.  We had about $20,000 of new mountain bikes between the two of us.

Gratuitous self portrait.

I don’t have pictures of the technical riding (there was some), as I was focused on riding and not shooting at those moments.

At the end of the mountain bike demo, we had 30 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing in our legs.  I was pretty hammered, and thought about taking the van back.  Chad suggested we stick to the plan and ride the road.  It was the best decision of the trip.

Being from DeKalb, we found some gravel to ride on our Madone and Domane.

My Madone.

Cattle Crossing Of Death.

We then blasted down the pave back towards the Hotel.

We hit a little climbing at the start of Ballard Canyon Road.

But nothing we weren’t ready for…

It was about 4:30, and the sun was just resting on the rim of Ballard Canyon.

And we rounded a canyon bend to find this.

So we stopped and took this picture.

The road rolled out in front of us, with a gentle descent all the way back to Solvang.

The temp was about 68, sunny, a light tail-wind, and a downhill road to the hotel.  I was riding a brand new Madone that fit me perfectly, with one of the greatest guys I know.  It was one of the only times in my life when I didn’t want to ride faster.  I could see the sun setting, but just didn’t want the day–or that ride–to end.  On the day, we had close to 50 miles (with 30 on mountain bikes), and several thousand feet of climbing.

Ballard Canyon was a pivotal moment in the trip, for me.  I will never forget it.  There are moments in your life when everything is perfect–when you are living the life you want to be, being the person you want to be, looking how you want to look, feeling how you want to feel–when everything is perfect, if only for a moment.  Ballard Canyon was one of those incredibly rare moments when this happened for me–when it all came together.

It was made even more rare by the fact that I realized it, in the moment I was living it.  I realized I was living a perfect moment.

It was made even more rare by the fact that Chad was able to snap a picture that captures that moment for me.  It looked like an advertisement–because it was a perfect moment, with a perfect friend, and perfect weather, on a perfect trip, and a perfect bike.  I can’t even write about it without smiling, uncontrollably.

Ballard Canyon was one of the best moments of my life.

And what’s amazing about that is that Ballard Canyon came after a day of incredible mountain biking with Chad and Gary Fisher.  We ended the day with a delicious dinner, and then a round in the hot tub with some great bike mechanics from BC and Portland.

Trek Travel Day 2 was perfection embodied.

(If you’re interested in finding out more about Trek Travel, get in touch with Tobie at North Central Cyclery).

Trek Travel Solvang, Day 1

I got back from Solvang last night (early this morning?) and am reflecting on what an amazing trip it was.  I tried to blog on the trip but couldn’t…there was too much other stuff to be done. Too much riding, gawking, and hanging out with Chad.  Too much eating.  Too much scenery.  Don’t get me wrong–there wasn’t “too much” of any of those things…there was just too much of them to make sitting at a computer seem palatable.  I’m going to revisit Day 1, to give a better report.

Chad is, of course, Chad from North Central Cyclery, in DeKalb, Illinois.  Through North Central Cyclery, I was able to go on this trip–which was a unique and amazing opportunity  appropriate from a unique and amazing shop.

The Trek Travel trip I did was a bit unique in that it incorporated some presentations and demos from Trek bikes–rather than just being the riding and training experience that it might ordinarily be.  Over the next several days, I’m going to talk about these things separately–covering both Trek Travel and Trek Bikes.  I’m going to revisit Day 1 now, to give a slightly more informed perspective on the riding.

We were shuttled up to the Marriott–which was honestly the nicest, cleanest Marriott I’ve ever stayed in.  We were fitted out with glorious bikes.  In advance of the trip, you provide your measurements and anticipated bike size.  Based on my time on the Madone, I knew I wanted a 56cm bike.  Fortunately, Chad (my good friend and tripmate) was also a 56.  For the sake of permitting back to back evaluation, we requested a 6 Series Madone and a 6 Series Domane.  As it turned out, our ideal measurements were just a quick saddle adjustment away from each other, so swapping was easy.  My bike had Ultegra, and his had Ultegra Di2.  I’ll talk in detail about the bikes another day.

The Trek Travel folks were pro.  Bikes were perfectly tuned, tires pumped, ready to roll.  They had an assortment of stems and seat masts available for customization, and the bikes had seatbags with tubes, flat kits, and CO2.  The bikes also had computers on them–which was handy.  I used my trusty Garmin.

I’m going to re-emphasize that last point–the Trek Travel people were great.  Fun, energetic, knowledgeable people.  They were prepared for every contingency, the trip was well-planned and well-supported, and it was amazing.  For anyone considering Trek Travel,  I would give it my highest possible endorsement.

Day 1 had an unstructured ride.  They had a number of options for us, and we selected one of their proposed routes.  When we were getting ready, we met Drew from Bike World in San Antonio Texas, and the three of us headed out.

The views went from pretty good to amazing.

Here’s Chad, motoring up a hill on his Domane.

The Solvang area was awesome to ride.  Motorists were friendly–people would wave with all 5 fingers.  If you got too much into the lane, or if a car snuck up behind you, you’d get a very gentle quick tap on the horn from an approaching car to let you know they were there.  We rode ~150 miles and didn’t have a single bad interaction with cars.  Most of the roads had nice, wide paved shoulders to ride.

Here’s Chad and Drew on another climb.  (It’s steeper and longer than it looks).

Yours truly, flying the North Central Cyclery colors.


You could ride this all day.

Many shoulders had ample width for comfortable, 2-abreast riding.

Speed on descents was limited only by your bravery.

Chad climbing a little roller.

We took a long loop, and then after some poor direction following on our part (no fault to the clear directions), we rolled back to a waterfall park.  This was a windy, 2-lane rural profile road through trees, with a good climb.  It was beautiful.

Verdant green in January?  Check.

The road rolled out in front of us like a welcome mat.

As we neared the steeper part of the climb, I assumed a place at the front of our trio, and pushed off.

At this point, I was on the Domane, and it climbed like a rocket.  The stiff BB translated every sweep of the cranks into forward momentum, and up the hill we went.  Gear changes were ridiculously easy with the Di2, and I tried shifting around a bit, even under load, to see how it handled.  It could not be fooled.

The Sun was shining, and in late January, the temps were in the low 70s in the afternoon.

We rolled back to the waterfall park, and saw what there was to see–more brilliance.

And then we looped back to the hotel for a shower, and got ready for dinner.

Dinner as a group was at a steakhouse in a nearby town, and was delicious.  We had an opportunity to sit and chat with Mike (Trek road bike) and Chris (Trek mountain bike) about things that have come, and things that are yet to come, and to gain some insight into how thoughtful Trek is.  They have their head in the game.  More on that later, too.

For now, I’ll say that Day 1 was amazing in every regard.  Trek Travel could not have been any better, and at the conclusion of Day 1, I thought the roads couldn’t get any better, either.

I was wrong. Stay tuned for Day 2.

(If you’re interested in finding out more about Trek Travel, get in touch with Tobie at North Central Cyclery).

Trek Travel – Solvang, CA Day 1

When Chad and I headed for the airport this morning, the temp in Chicago hovered around 0, and there was a nasty wind out of the north.  Little wind-driven rivulets of spite tore at any exposed flesh.  We hopped into the big aluminum tunnel-o-humanity, and flew out to Santa Barbara.

Even the airport is beautiful.

We grabbed some lunch in nearby Goleta at the International Cafe (or Cafe International, depending on which sign you read)…

And then grabbed the cleanest bus I’ve ever ridden on back to the airport, to await our shuttle.

I was sitting in the shotgun seat of the shuttle, when Chad says to me, “Hey Dean, don’t you think you should let Gary Fisher have shotgun?”

I’m all like, “yeah, whatever” as I turn and look…and see Gary Fisher standing there.

The next hour and twenty minutes were pretty awesome.  We rode up in the van with Gary, and he told us amazing stories…riding the Coors Classic with the first 7 speed drivetrain in the US…riding the biggest grades in North America with a 53/42 chainring and 13-21 cassette (of course, not geared out…that would be too uncouth).  He’s an amazingly approachable, interesting gent.

We arrived at Solvang, thoroughly amused by Gary’s tales, and were greeted with piles upon piles of carbony goodness.

Including my very own, personal Madone 6 series…

Chad had a Domane, so I had a chance to do a back to back.  More on that later.

We changed, and hit the road.  They had an option for a 21 mile loop, and a 31 mile loop.  Since it was the first day, and we had been up since 2:30am CST, we opted for the 21 mile loop.

Really?  Did you believe that?  Haven’t you been reading long enough to know me better than that?  We did the 31 mile loop, and missed a turn making it a 34 mile loop, with a couple thousand feet of climbing.

It’s late.  I’m tired.  Here are some pictures.  Overly grandiose discussion of how amazing the riding is here will follow in the next few days.

The climbs are steeper than the pictures show.

I could keep going…but now, I need to sleep.  Hasta luego.