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Domane vs. Madone Shootout

by Greg Pelican 12/30/12

Gone are the days when a cyclist only had to chose the brand when considering a road bike purchase.  Today road bikes are even segmented by application.  This adds complexity to a bike purchase.  The purpose of this review is to compare two radically different designs from Trek, the new “Paris Roubaix” centric Domane and the revised aero road racer Madone.

As always the best way to understand a bike is to ride it.  So Bethel Cycle bought both bikes for our demo fleet.  Our customers can test ride and even rent for these for a weekend.   We used Trek’s “Project One” program and tricked out the Domane’s paint scheme to match out team’s kit.  For the Domane we selected Shimano’s proven Ultegra group.  I planned to put a lot of miles on the Madone so that got the Campy Super Record treatment.  Both bikes had six series carbon fiber frames, which is the top model for the Domane and next to top for the Madone.

Full disclosure, I did have some preconceived expectations going into the testing.  Northwest CT has an awesome mix of steep, twisty hills and some real cool old dirt farm roads much very like the popular dirt sectors of Battenkill.  I have been training on these roads for years and I always use my normal racing bike on dirt roads with no problem.

I like a light bike that handles well, is responsive when out of the saddle sprinting and climbing, yet is stable on high-speed descents.  My last few bikes (kind of an all-star list) include a Pinarello Dogma 2, Moots RS-L and Cannondale EVO have done all of the above well.   And I don’t baby my bikes.  I ride them all the time, in all conditions, including bumpy dirt roads.  My point is that I never felt that any of these bikes were deficient on dirt roads.  In the winter I just throw on some Vittoria Pave EVO tires and I’m good to go.

That said, I’m wondering is a bike like the Domane really needed, even for dirt roads?  Sure I understand racing over cobblestones in France is a whole different situation.  We have dirt roads but cobblestones are very, very rare in the USA.

But I do have an open mind, and my role as a tester is to call it I see it.  This should be interesting…

Before I get started I just want to make a few comments about bike fitting and sizing.  Our philosophy is “fit first”.  Meaning a proper bike fitting should be done first to determine the correct size and setup of the bike.  We use the Guru Experience fitting system to determine the ideal position and the software then looks up in a database to see what bikes match the position.  The software not only recommends the target models and size but also the stem size, angle and number of spacers. 

For my position the Guru Experience software recommended a 58 cm Madone in a H2 fit.  But listed both a 56 cm and 58 cm Domane with different stem and spacer combinations.  The 56 was a little closer to start with so that is what I used for the test.

There is a reason why both bikes didn’t end up being a 58.  Trek uses what they call “endurance fit” for the Domane.  The head tube is longer which raises the handlebars yielding a more upright position.  A 58cm Domane has a 19.5 cm head tube.  The Madone is available in two fit options.  H1 is the most aggressive and a 58 cm H1 Madone has a 17 cm head tube.  The other more relaxed H2 fit has a 19 cm head tube.


Trek Madone: For 2013 the Madone was totally redesigned with the objective of making the frame aero yet keeping all of the proven attributes of the Madone.  Trek took many of the design features of their high tech and fast Speed Concept Tri / TT bike and incorporated them into the new Madone. The rear brake is hidden from the wind mounted under the chain stays.  The tubing and fork are given the full Kamtail shape treatment (tapered front and blunt trailing edge).  Even the front brake is custom designed by Trek to hide from the wind and is integrated into the front fork.  Trek claims up to 25 watt savings at race speed.  This is HUGE!  That is the difference between holding off the field on a solo break and getting caught.  

In was mid summer when I first learned of the new aero enhancements for the 2013 Madone and I immediately ordered one to see for myself.   Over the past 3 months I logged over 1200 miles on the bike.  I tested the bike with Zipp Firecrest 404 wheels and also with my trusty HED Ardennes SL.

Since the racing season was winding down I never got a chance to race the bike, but I must say with aero wheels the Madone did feel faster on the flats and rolling hills than my Moots or Dogma 2.  And although I have nothing to quantify that it was faster on the flats not only did it feel faster descending but I also recorded higher speeds on my normal training circuits.  This does make sense that at least from a speed perspective the improvement would be more noticeable at higher speeds where drag is the greatest. 

The funny thing is that for me the aero factor was almost icing on the cake, as everything else about the bike was just so good.  The Madone is not just a fast aero bike it is a great all around racing bike.  I would go as far as to say it is one of the best all around bikes I’ve ridden.  Not too dissimilar to a Look 595 that I loved (and regret I sold) a few years ago. 

Madone hidden rear brake

One concern I did have was about the braking performance of Trek’s proprietary custom designed brakes.  I’m a firm believer that great brakes are important to going fast.  If they work great the faster you take corners knowing you can make last second corrections to save your ass.  I have had some terrible experiences with hidden proprietary brakes.  The Cervelo P4 comes to mind, which was down right scary if you needed to slow down fast when descending. 

I am happy to report that the Madone’s brakes performed flawlessly in all conditions.  I even installed SwissStop brake pads and used with Zipp 404 Firecrest wheels with no issues.  I would have no qualms about bringing this bike to our French Alps Camp.

The Madone feels very balanced front to back, with neutral handling that inspires confidence.  Out of saddle you get the instant acceleration feeling, with no sensation of flex or energy loss.  The bike is nice and light, and easy to climb with.

The surprise for me is how comfortable the Madone is on all surfaces.  I did several rides over four hours where 25% of the roads were dirt.  And not only was the bike comfortable, but also stable on the dirt (Hed Ardennes wheels were used most on most of the dirt rides).

Trek Domane:  Trek designed the Domane for cobblestone classics like Paris Roubaix.  Bouncing over cobblestones on mostly flattish roads provides much different demands than racing in the mountains or Tour de France (which the Madone was optimized for.)

So for the Domane Trek put a premium on stability and comfort.

To start with the Domane has a much longer wheelbase that a normal racing bike.   For example the 58 Madone that I rode has a wheelbase of 99.2 cm.  A 58 cm Domane has a wheelbase of 102.2 cm. (I did my comparison on a 56 cm. Domane for fitting reasons, see my fit comments above, the 56 cm. has a 100.8 cm wheelbase).  In any case a 3 cm increase in wheelbase is huge and effects the way the bike feels and handles. 

Generally speaking the longer the wheelbase the more stable and slower handling.  But the bike’s trail (a combination of head tube angle and fork rake) also affects the handling of the bike.  Longer trail increases stability, but too much makes it difficult to steer.  The 58 mm Madone has a trail of 5.6.  The 56 mm Domane has a trail of 6.1.

There is one more handling difference.  The bottom bracket height of the Domane is 1 cm lower than the Madone.  A lower bottom bracket lowers the center of gravity, which further enhances stability.  The Domane also features what Trek calls IsoSpeed Technology.  Their design decouples the seat tube from the seat stays, which increases vertical compliance and comfort.

The Ride:  So lets recap… the Domane has a longer wheelbase, longer trail and lower bottom bracket.  All things that should increase stability yet at least in theory slow down the responsiveness of the bike.  Would I feel it?

YES.

In the first few pedal revolutions I could tell.  The Domane handled slower and felt longer than the Madone.See Clearance between tire and frame, long wheelbase evident here.

Over the next three weeks I rode at least 500 miles on the Domane.   And my initial feeling of just needing a touch more input and the bike feeling long never really went away.  Of course you get used to it quickly, make the corrections automatically and then feels normal.

I rode the Domane on the same long routes as the Madone that included a mix of steep climbs, fast twisty descents, rolling hills and plenty of bumpy dirt roads.

I have to say the Domane is a great all around bike too.  It is really nice!  The Domane is very stable, comfortable and efficient.  It is absolutely a bike I would love to have for all around riding, although it probably wouldn’t be my first pick for road races and crits.

Climbing out of the saddle the bike just felt a touch long, and it didn’t feel like it wanted to rip up the hill.  The platform of the bike feels so big and long it just doesn’t rock the same way when out of the saddle. Same feeling sprinting.  I couldn’t get it to jump and hop the same way I did with the Madone when jumping flat out.

Now descending the Domane just shined.  In fact there is one really nasty steep descent that has a bad left hand decreasing radius switch back.  And right at the worst point there are bad potholes, so it is even hard to slow down if you need to.  I bombed the descent on the Domane and it wasn’t even phased by the potholes, just sucked it up and felt predictable and stable.  I didn’t touch the brakes.  Faster and more controlled than the Madone in this situation.

And on the dirt roads the Domane was more composed and again sucked up the bumps.  At race speed throwing it down, I’d say a little more controllable than the Madone which occasionally gets unsettled in the same conditions.

Looks: As engineers like to say “form follows function”.  That said most of customers (me too) care what a bike looks like.  The Madone is OK looking.  I’d rate it a 6 on a scale to 10.  I’m not crazy about the bulky head and down tube.  And there is a big slope to the top tube.   On the 58 cm the seat tube is only 48 cm (center of BB to top).  The Madone doesn’t look aero or fast.  But like the Speed Concept, which doesn’t look fast, both bikes are!

The Domane looks a little nicer to my eye, I’d give it a 7 out of 10 on the looks scale.  A little more flow and more balanced looking.   When the bikes are side by side my general impression is that the 56 cm Domane looks like a big bike, and looks just as big (maybe bigger) as the 58 cm Madone.

Drivetrain: I think it is worth noting that it has been a while since I have ridden a Shimano cable shifted bike.  And I have to say I absolutely hated down shifting  (harder gear) the rear shifting of the Ultegra drive train on the Domane.  The lever travel is so long and vague feeling I kept miss shifting.  I would think I pushed it far enough and many times got no shift.  I thought a few times that the shifter wasn’t even working.  This is quite the contrast to the positive and fast shifting of Campy ergo levers.  Not only can I shift down one cog fast, but I can also shift 2, 3 or more down in one quick action.  Even though you can only down shift one cog at a time with Sram’s Red levers, it at least is very crisp and a short throw.

And the winner is... I have to answer this question conditionally.  If I didn’t race and wanted a really versatile and comfortable road bike I would pick the Domane.  But I do race, and since climbing is my thing I like the Mandone’s more agile and responsive feeling.  For me the winner is the Madone.

You are welcome to come in a test ride the bikes and see for yourself. 

bethelcycle@aol.com