The flood of 2014 bikes has begun and our mechanics are feverishly wrenching to get ready for our annual test trip in January. But before we shift gears to the latest, we wanted to look back on a couple of our favorite bikes from 2013. One of our favorite—and most surprising—road bikes of the year was the Trek Domane, which won our pick for Gear of the Year. It’s a bike that we were sad to send back and one that, with the bad weather and rough roads of winter, we are missing even more right now. Which is precisely what has us ruminating on it.
The Domane was actually launched in the spring of 2012, just in time for Fabian Cancellara to—hopefully—dominate the spring classics on it. The big, splashy debut didn’t work out as planned though, as Spartacus crashed out of Flanders with a broken clavicle. It was, of course, no reflection on the bike, a point that was made loud and clear when the big Swiss returned in 2013 for back-to-back wins at Paris-Roubaix and Flanders aboard the Domane. About the same time, the bike became available to the public.
Endurance bikes, like the Domane, have become one of the fastest growing segments in the road industry in recent years. The idea is that not everyone is a racer, so these bikes are equipped with a taller head tube for a slightly more upright position, a longer wheelbase for more stable handling, and, often, a more forgiving carbon layup for added comfort. Those properties also lend themselves to the rough-riding demands of cobbles, so these bikes have become staples at races like Roubaix and Flanders. Specialized has been doing this for years with its Roubaix, and there are plenty of other great examples of the genre, such as the Felt Z series and the BMC Grand Fondo. And while Trek was slow to the game, with the Domane they roared into the competition with a unique design that manages to be as fast as it is comfortable.
The heart of the Domane design is what Trek calls the IsoSpeed decoupler. It’s a fancy name for a fairly fancy engineering accomplishment, which disconnects the seat post from the top tube with a pair of bearings at the seat junction. It’s analogous to the design of the Volagi Liscio, only Trek has taken an active approach versus Volagi’s passive take.
In both cases, the idea is to allow the seat post to flex in a backward arc to absorb the bumps and vibration of the road, and while we like the Volagi well enough we have to admit that Trek’s version does a better job of keeping things stiff so as not to diminish the stiff, fast ride quality. It’s a pretty cool feat—adding comfort but keeping things stiff for good pedaling efficiency—that might sound like just a lot of marketing talk until you actually see how it works (2:25).
The real proof is in how the bike rides, and we were literally blown away with the Domane. It has the same give and comfort as a soft-tail mountain bike (think Moots YBB) but still manages to handle like a sharp, hard-edged road racer. Rough chip seal feels as smooth as freshly laid asphalt. And even big hits on railroad tracks, seams, and potholes are much diminished. It’s something you notice in the short term of the immediate hit, but also something that results in a much fresher feel over the course of, say, five or six hours in the saddle.
And whereas the taller head tubes of endurance bikes have sometimes bothered us on other models, somehow the Domane provides a more neutral fit without making your feel like a flag pole in the wind. The bike is definitely hyper stable and feels rooted and solid on even the windiest, curviest descents.
It’s perhaps not the sprightliest climber ever, though in this top-end spec, which tipped the scales at a UCI-approved 14.7 pounds, the bike chipper enough to never feel like a hindrance when sprinting it up steep slopes with the group. In short, this is a bike that feels like it’s worthy of winning big, hard, rough races—Roubaix for instance, or, more likely a local Fondo—but keeping you fresher while doing it.
Beyond the big picture of the frame design, Trek got the small details right, too. Cables are all routed internally to keep them working smoother in muck and bad conditions. There’s a chain-keeper built straight into the frame. And, as with many Trek road bikes, the frame is equipped for built-in sensors that can report speed, cadence, and the like to your cyclometer. It feels like with the Domane, they almost literally thought of everything.
We tested the top-end 2013 model, which came equipped with Shimano Dura Ace 9000 mechanical components. If you have read much on Outside, you’ll know that we feel this group set is the benchmark for components and possibly the best argument against electronic shifting. Don’t get us wrong: We love Di2. But this gear works so well that it makes you wonder whether the extra money (and headaches in some cases) for electric is worth it. Shifting is glassy, the throw on the shifters is much shortened from the previous generation so it’s quicker and easier to shift, and braking is some of the most powerful and subtle on the market.
And you get it—plus all the other sweet carbon bits and lightweight parts—for $6,900. Admittedly that’s not cheap, but a comparable “race bike” with the same parts would well more expensive. And before anyone gets up and arms about the high price, Trek sells carbon versions of the Domane for as little as $2,200 and aluminum models for even less
The other standout parts on this Domane are the Bontrager RXL bars, which have elastomer pads built straight into the contact points on the tops and drops. This is said to cut road chatter appreciably. We were skeptical, so we switched up to a set of aluminum bars for a spell and can confirm that they were much more jangling and uncomfortable. We went back to the provided bars as quickly as possible.
Our biggest letdown with the Domane was with the wheels, tubeless Bontrager X Lite variety. It wasn’t so much that the wheels were bad—mostly just forgettable. They’re light and perhaps a bit flexy, but for a bike this good we’d have preferred something sweeter. And, to be fair, we were happy to see that Trek spec’d 25mm tires (and provided clearance for 28mms, and possibly bigger). A bike like this deserves extra girth, which complements the compliance of the frame with yet, still more comfort.
The Domane is the perfect bike for winter, when the roads are messy and uncomfortable. And it would be a great choice for those in the Northeast, who contend with lots of dirt passages to connect pavement. But more to the point, it is really just the perfect all-arounder.
While race bikes—with racier fits and snappier handling—have been the de facto models that people are sold when buying a road bike, we feel that the Domane legitimately shifts the paradigm. When the average rider goes into a bike shop, he or she should first and foremost be fit onto a bike like this, not a race bike. Think about it: the average rider is less flexible, less accustomed to being in the saddle for long periods of time, and will benefit more from stable handling and comfort. Having spent months and months on this bike ourselves, we can say that we never really missed our hard-edged racers but definitely appreciated the Domane’s forgiving feel. Part of that, though, is that Trek has optimized this bike so much that it’s not just comfortable, but also fast and fun.