Trek Domane SLR Review

To Joel, see the disclaimers at the bottom, before you start reading.

My local bike shop, North Central Cyclery, just got in a brandy-spankin’ new Trek Domane SLR.  For those of you hiding under rocks, this is the new design that Fabian took to Paris-Roubaix last weekend.  The bike was fully kitted out with Aeolus 3 tubeless ready carbon clinchers, SRAM ETap Red 2×11, Bontrager’s new brakes, the new Bontrager ISOCore bar, 700x28c tires and, most importantly, the adjustable ISO-Speed rear dampener and ISO-speed front dampener.

As I wrote recently, a few years ago when the Domane came out, my biggest criticism was that the flex in the seatpost was fixed–for riders of different sizes, it was not adjustable.  The new adjustability built into the seatpost answers that criticism and, in my mind, makes this a more versatile bike.  But what about the dampener up front?  What would it ride like?

The new owners at NCC offered me a chance to test ride the bike and I jumped at the chance–always being one who is willing to try new technology.  And the chance to put someone else’s $11,000 bike through 25 or so miles–something I’m always willing to do.

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This is the new front decoupler:

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This is the bottom of the rear bottle cage bolts. Loosening this bolt allows you to adjust the ‘firmness’ of the seatpost and its flexibility. All you have to do is loosen this bolt:

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And then slide this piece up or down. It’s an easy adjustment, and one that I played with mid-ride. Adjusting it takes about 10 seconds.

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I appreciated this panel on the downtube, for those who decide to build with Di2 and want access for wiring, batteries, etc.

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Aeolus 3 TLR carbon clincher wheelset:

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SRAM Drivetrain

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Carbon IsoCore handlebars

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The whole shebang.

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So what’s it ride like? Low-hanging fruit first…

This was a 58cm (I normally ride a 56), set up with the bars pretty darn high.  I liked the geometry of the bike, and even liked the 58cm size, but I’d drop the bars down a lot for my personal use.

The Aeolus 3 TLR wheels were impressive.  They spun up quickly and rode very responsively.  They are competitively priced and weigh a reasonable amount for what they are.  I would have no hesitation about getting a set.  They do not have as much vertical dampening as my ZIPP 202s, and aren’t quite as stiff as my ENVE 3.4s, but they rode very nicely and acquitted themselves well.

I was not a fan of the ISOCore handlebar.  The technology in it was great–it did an admirable job of dampening jolts (along with the whole bike).  The problem for me was the shape.  The reach to the bottom of the drops was just too far.  The distance between the top of the bars and the drops was too long–I clearly prefer compact drops.

I’ll write about the SRAM Red E-Tap another day.

The bike was light–it felt as light as my Madone, even with the technology baked into this frameset.

The bike itself?  It’s a unique experience.  Under power, it is as efficient and stiff as my Madone.  It’s a remarkable design.  With the ‘flex’ fully stiff in the rear, it feels very much like the Madone–taking just a pinch of the edge off of sharp jolts.  With the ‘flex’ as soft as it will go, it is quite a bit softer than the last generation Domane.  For some reason, the flex feels better dampened–even set fully soft, it doesn’t bounce abnormally, regardless of cadence.  I tried both extremes, and then settled on a middle position, probably about 45% stiff, and found it to be great.  When I started out, I wanted to see what the dampening was like, so I pumped the 28c tires up to 115 psi to try to net them out of the equation.  It really works quite amazingly well.  As noted above, changing the dampening takes about 10 seconds (with a 4mm allen).

To try out the bike, I steered into some jolts, potholes, manholes and other obstacles that I’d normally avoid–at least as much as I felt comfortable doing on someone else’s $11k bike.  The system flatly works in taking out the jolt.  On rough surfaces, it does an incredible job, and on flat surfaces, it’s invisible.  Sprinting, it’s stiff and responsive–and quick.  Get in the saddle and spin, and there’s no saddle bob.  You start to trust it, and you can sit in the saddle and stay under power, even when you’re crossing bumps, expansion joints, etc.

Mid-ride, I went to the 45% stiff setting as indicated above, and dropped tire pressure down to about 85-ish PSI.  The ride was fantastic.  I have no constructive criticism about the ride quality for a bike of this nature.  It was palpably better than the Madone, across uneven surfaces.  It also did a better job absorbing chatter–like rough chipseal–than the Madone does.

What about the front?

First, I like the geometry of this bike better than I like the geometry of the old Domane.  It feels a bit racier up front than the old Domane.

Second, the front dampening system works–really well.  It has a pivot on bearings that only permits fore-aft movement, and even under hard cornering there is no evidence of lateral shift.  Hopefully the system has been tested enough that it will hold up and not develop lateral shift with wear.

Under normal, in the saddle pedaling efforts, all you notice is that when you hit a hard bump, it doesn’t seem as hard as it should.  Road chudder (crap-induced shudder) is greatly diminished.  You hit an expansion joint or sharp edge in the road and the system takes the edge off of it.  The design is great–it feels intuitive.  You still feel very connected to the road, and can feel what’s going on with tire traction even under hard efforts and adverse conditions, but it takes the sharpness of bumps off in a way that would make this a very comfortable bike to ride for long distances.

That said, there were a few times when I was riding hard, out of the saddle, and felt the front working in a disconcerting way.  I have a tendency to get long and low when sprinting, with more weight over the front than I probably should have.  Coming up on one sprint point in the ride, I was pushing hard, out of the saddle, weight over the bars, and hit a big expansion joint.  The movement of the front end was palpable, and as I had a lot of weight on my hands, it upset my balance a bit.  It was enough of a jolt to be scary, ever so briefly.  The bike’s stability was not upset, but mine was.

I tend to think that this problem was exacerbated by my poor sprinting body position (weight too far forward), and that with more time on the bike, I’d get used to it.  That said, it is something to be aware of and to account for if you pick up this bike and spend time on it.

25 miles was a nice amount of time to spend on the bike.  It certainly wasn’t living with it for years as I’ve done with the Madone, but it was a lot better than the “take a few spins around the block” that you often get with test-rides.

So the $11,000 question: would I get a Domane SLR?

If I was in the market for a top-of-the-line, large-manufacturer carbon road bike, this would definitely be on the short list.  I can’t think of another comparable bike right now that would be ahead of this.  It’s an incredible bike and has a lot of features that are unlike anything else on the market, and that function really well.  I’m hopeful that the technology trickles down the market.  I think the front dampening will catch on a bit, and won’t be a ‘one-off’ trend that we laugh about in 5 years…but we’ll see.

You may note that there are some important caveats above.  So the direct answer is no, I wouldn’t get a Domane SLR, even if I was shopping for a new road bike today.  Candidly, I’ve come to realize that $11k is a ridiculous amount of money for a bike, and there are bikes with 98% of this capacity (for what I do) at 25% of the price.  That’s not really a fair criticism, though.  That’s like test-driving a Ferrari and noting that for most drivers, a Honda will accomplish the same basic objectives for less money.  For a cost is no object mass-produced bike, the SLR is an accomplishment, and an incredible bike.  I’d be curious to see how the technology works on some of the lower priced new-generation Domanes, as that may be a more compelling value for riders looking for a new bike.  I can say I left the ride far more impressed by the Domane than I had anticipated.

From a practical perspective, the Domane answers the call of a rider who wants a high-end bike with the latest technology.  It also answers the call for someone who wants to have a road bike that can handle very light gravel/dirt roads and crappy pavement–and that’s an emerging market.  If you have the luxury of having 2 bikes, I’d still prefer a ‘pure’ road bike like my Madone, plus a ‘gravel’ or ‘all road’ bike like my Moots…but the Domane is an interesting ride and represents some amazing developments in bikes.

Disclaimers:

  1. No, I’m not getting a new road bike.  I’m very happy with my Madone 7 and don’t foresee replacing it for a long, long, long time.  Honestly, even with all of the technology on the Domane, there’s not enough of a leap to make a bike change worthwhile–when I’m riding mixed surfaces, I ride the Moots.  And no, I’m still not happy with Trek.  From a personal perspective, I still dislike their online sales module and feel that it’s a step in the wrong direction.  I know some dealers support it and others don’t–for me, I personally don’t like it, as I’ve written about.  So no, this is not a creeping trend back towards Trek love…it’ll take more from the company, and more experience to see how their online sales pan out, before I fall back into the fold.  I know many people have different viewpoints on that, but I’m voting with my dollars, and expressing my viewpoint.
  2. I’ve expressed some concern about the change in ownership of my local bike shop.  I don’t know the new owners well, but they seem really well-intentioned.  Handing off a $11k bike for a test ride is a pretty good show of faith on their part.  It’s hard because NCC was a home to me–I could go there and see my best friends.  I could go work from there.  I could go there for problems ranging from bike to personal.  I have hope about the future of the shop again, and I look forward to working with the new owners.
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