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[ct_story_highlights]What it is:Trek’s second-tier aero road bike, built with a more affordable carbon blend and less integration than the flagship version.||Frame features:OCLV 500 carbon fiber construction, truncated airfoil tube shaping, Adjustable Top Tube IsoSpeed “decoupler”, almost fully internal cable routing, T47 threaded bottom bracket, built-in chain watcher.||Weight:8.59 kg (18.94 lb), 52 cm, without pedals or accessories.||Price: US$7,030 / AU$n/a / £6,900 / €7,400.||Highs: Superb aerodynamics, comfy ride, excellent handling, accommodating cockpit design, threaded bottom bracket.||Lows:So-so front-end ride, so heavy.[/ct_story_highlights]
Aero above all else
Trek’s Madone SLR flagship aero road bike is undeniably fast and efficient when it comes to slicing through the air, but the significant amount of complication that goes into its design also results in a lot of cost. For riders that are chasing every last watt of drag — but are on more modest budgets — Trek introduced two years ago the Madone SL collection, which uses the exact same shaping, but with a less-fancy carbon fiber blend that shrinks the price tag at the expense of an additional 240 g or so of weight.
Indeed, if you were comparing on the design alone, the Madone SL is a literal carbon copy of the SLR. The deep-profile Kammtail truncated airfoil cross-sections are present and accounted for, there’s the same ultra-sleek seat cluster treatment with that no-cut integrated seatmast, an identical hourglass-profile head tube, and the same aggressively shaped fork blades.
Up top is the same ace-in-the-hole found on the Madone SLR, too: Trek’s incredibly effective Adjustable Top Tube IsoSpeed “decoupler”. While clever surfacing suggests the seatmast is all molded together with the rest of the frame, it’s actually an L-shaped piece with the base extending underneath the top tube, and an aluminum axle and two cartridge bearings at the seat cluster. As a result, that seatmast can pivot rearward on rough roads far more than appearances would suggest, with the lower section of that “L” acting as a leaf spring.
Even better, a hidden slider between the base of that “L” and the top tube also allows you to fine-tune the spring rate to your liking.
In addition to the different fiber blend, Trek reduces costs further by using a standard stem and headset on the Madone SL as compared to the more heavily integrated two-piece carbon fiber cockpit on the Madone SLR. Cable routing is still fully internal with lines entering the frame through a proprietary upper headset cover, though, and down below is a slightly tweaked version of the T47 oversized threaded bottom bracket standard.
Whereas many disc-equipped aero road bikes have surprisingly generous tire clearance for narrower all-terrain tires, Trek is clear on what the Madone SL is meant to be, with room for 700×30 mm-wide rubber and not really much more. In terms of geometry, you get a notably aggressive rider position with a long reach and low stack, together with classic stage race handling and trail dimensions in the mid-to-high 50s.
Our Madone SL 7 eTap model comes outfitted with SRAM’s mid-level Force eTap AXS 2×12 wireless electronic disc-brake groupset — including a crank-based dual-sided power meter — and Bontrager’s 51 mm-deep Aeolus Pro 51 carbon clinchers wrapped with 25 mm-wide Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite clinchers. Finishing kit is sourced from the corporate parts bin, too, including a Bontrager Elite Aero VR-CF aluminum bar with flattened tops, a Bontrager Pro forged aluminum stem, and a Bontrager Aeolus Comp saddle.
Weight weenies will want to turn away for a moment as this next part will come across decidedly ugly.
Actual weight for our 52 cm test sample is a rather hefty 8.59 kg (18.94 lb) without pedals or accessories, and yet despite that, retail price is a still-expensive US$7,000 / AU$NA / £6,900 / €7,400.
As well as other bike types can sometimes mimic the performance of a dedicated road bike, there’s simply no substitute for the sort of free speed you get out of a full-blown aero model. Despite being several years old at this point, the Madone is still one of the fastest bikes on the road. It’s a difference you can actually feel, and this second-tier Madone SL is no different.
It’s legitimately easier to hit higher speeds on the Madone SL as compared to bikes that are less aerodynamic, and easier to hold those speeds, too. It’s particularly obvious on descents, where both CyclingTips social media editor Mike Better and I noted we were going faster than usual on our everyday routes.
Further adding to that sense of speed is the frame’s superb stiffness, which perhaps should come as no surprise given all that carbon fiber and the massive tube cross-sections. The Madone SL is efficient through the air, but also efficient in terms of how the structure translates pedaling effort to the rear wheel. Even sprinting feels better than usual given the excellent front-end torsional stiffness.
Basically, the Madone SL is all about going fast, and feels every bit of it.
Handling is also superb, and exactly what I’ve come to expect from Trek’s long-running Madone family. It’s quick to turn in and can readily change its line mid-corner, but it’s also confidently stable at very high speeds. Simply put, it just does exactly what you want it to do while on the road, all the time, every time. The traditional stage-race road geometry of course has plenty of toe overlap, but it’s not an issue in the vast majority of riding situations.
Ride comfort is yet another high point for the Madone SL, at least out back. That Adjustable Top Tube IsoSpeed thingamajig may seem like a gimmick, but it absolutely works as advertised, which is especially amazing given the depth of the seatmast. There’s tangible movement when you hit bumps, and I’d argue there’s even a handling benefit since your weight isn’t getting bounced around as much as usual on less-than-perfect pavement when attacking corners and descents.
The motion isn’t overly bouncy, either. In fact, I found it to be quite well damped and controlled, and it’s easy to firm things up if desired by moving the slider fore and aft under the top tube. It’s literally a three-minute job, and one you could do roadside with a multi-tool.
One downside of the Madone SL’s fantastic aero efficiency, however, is its susceptibility to crosswinds. Between the deep tube profiles used throughout and the 51 mm-deep front and rear rims, both Mike Better and I noted how it was sometimes a little unnerving to ride the Madone SL in blustery conditions. Predictable handling or not, all that surface area gives the wind plenty to push on, and lighter riders should particularly take note.
Unfortunately, the excellent ride quality out back isn’t mimicked up front. Trek doesn’t bother to include its Front IsoSpeed mechanism here, and those deep-section fork blades and the massive head tube area aren’t exactly conducive to flex on bumps. The flattened tops of the standard carbon fiber handlebar are almost certainly more forgiving than the more aggressive integrated setup of the Madone SLR, but it still makes for a very firm, and somewhat disjointed, feel.
The Madone SL 7 eTap’s biggest performance drawback by far, however, is its weight — essentially, that there’s an awful lot of it.
Even with last year’s weight loss, the Madone SLR has never been renowned as a particularly light frameset, and this Madone SL is only heavier yet. Adding to the heft is the SRAM Force eTap AXS groupset, which — as well as it works — is anything but light. The bare weight of 8.59 kg (18.94 lb) hurts enough as is, but once you add pedals and accessories, you’re looking at around 9.5 kg (19.5 lb) for a road bike that still costs an awful lot of money.
On flat roads or moderately rolling conditions, that mass honestly isn’t incredibly noticeable; here, the bike’s superb aerodynamics will play a bigger role. But once the road turns uphill in a more significant way, it’s a different story. Both Mike and I had a hard time not feeling like the bike was dropping anchor a bit when climbing. Try as you might, there’s just no fighting gravity.
SRAM’s Force eTap AXS wireless electronic groupset may be heavy, but it’s functionally hard to fault. Overall shift performance is excellent, with smooth and reliable chain movement at both ends, and more range than we’ve historically expected from traditional road transmissions (although Shimano’s new 2×12 Dura-Ace and Ultegra groupsets are now roughly on par). It’s still not quite as quiet as what you can get from Shimano or Campagnolo, but SRAM’s eTap shift button actuation is the best in the business — and certainly the most progressive-thinking — and while the lever aesthetics are polarizing, the ergonomics are hard to beat.
The hydraulic disc brakes are also excellent with a gentler initial grab than Shimano calipers, and arguably more user-friendly modulation, too. And kudos to Trek for specifying 160 mm rotors front and rear given the higher speeds people are likely to be hitting on this thing, along with the stock dual-sided power meter.
Similarly, the array of house-brand Bontrager stuff that fills out the rest of the spec sheet is all solid kit as well.
Topping the list are the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 5 carbon clinchers, which — much like the frameset — offer virtually identical aerodynamic performance as the higher-end Aeolus RSL versions, just with more weight (and, in this case, a less-fancy hubset). Our test bike arrived with Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite tubed clinchers, which aren’t necessarily our favorites in terms of outright performance, but are a good option nonetheless for everyday racing and training. Should you decide to ditch the tubes at some point, the rims are tubeless-ready and only require dedicated molded plastic rim strips and valve stems for the conversion.
Bontrager has done a particularly good job on the ancillary bits.
The Aeolus Comp saddle is proving to be one of my favorites for its mix of all-day comfort and support, and I’m certainly a fan of the Elite Aero VR-CF bar with its semi-traditional drop bend and moderately flattened tops. Bonus points for the optional Blendr mounts that allow for clean integration of lights, computers, cameras, and other accessories on the stem and saddle. That said, despite what the name suggests, the bar is aluminum, and although the shape is excellent, it’s disappointing to not find a carbon fiber handlebar here for this kind of money.
The debate over weight vs. aerodynamics has always been an interesting one when it comes to high-end road racing bikes, and one that has largely been settled. In almost all situations, aerodynamic efficiency is more meaningful than low weight when it comes to going fast.
That said, it’s hard to ignore the emotional side of the equation when it comes to the Madone SL 7 eTap. It may very well be a super aero bike, and it may very well be faster than one that’s significantly lighter, but this is no modest increase we’re talking about here.
Whichever way you slice it, the Madone SL 7 eTap is an awfully heavy bike, particularly when you consider the price tag. It might get you where you need to go in less time, but it might not feel that swift in the process, and that’s something you’d just have to be OK with.
So when picking an aero road bike, do you shop with your head or your heart? And do some of those other Madone-specific benefits — that excellent ride quality, in particular — mean enough to you to overlook the weight?
That’s unfortunately something you’ll have to answer for yourself.
More information can be found at www.trekbikes.com.
Our Field Test group bike tests are by no means paid events, but they’re still only possible with some outside support. CyclingTips would like to thank the following sponsors for this round of the Field Test: