Over recent years we’ve been hugely impressed with Trek’s mid-price carbon Madone. The combination of a quality frame and great geometry, blending all-day comfort with snappy handling, has made it a fixture on the Bike of the Year podium.
Trek is obviously pretty canny when it comes to business too, and like its key rivals Specialized and Giant has continued to commit to brick-and-mortar shops as opposed to the ‘cheaper’ direct-to-market lure of the internet. That has, however, meant losing ground to online outfits competing on price and specification. For 2014 it looks as if Trek is bringing the fight to the competition, offering the higher-grade 4 series 400 carbon frame with the Kammtail aero design as well as a drivetrain that’s predominantly Shimano Ultegra 11-speed. That means the 4.5 is future proof: it’s inevitable that Shimano’s long term plan is 11-speed across the board.
The new 4 Series frame isn’t quite the same as the 7 Series ridden by the pros. While the top-level model hides the rear brake under the chainstays, leaving the slender seat stays separated from seat tube onwards, the 4 Series design has a standard rear brake with a substantial bridge for the brake to mount onto. It also features hidden mudguard mounts, which for UK riders has to be considered a big bonus and a much welcome addition.
The Kammtail aero shaping, it's claimed, does offer watt savings over distances. But as with the 7 Series, what’s impressed us with this Madone is just how well Trek has managed to combine excellent comfort levels thanks to plenty of frame compliance, the oh-so-sorted H2 shape putting you in a great mid-range position between race and relaxed. The Madone is a pussycat when you just want to turn the pedals and get distances covered, but get your adrenaline pumping and start to throw the 4.5 into corners at full pace and its shows the agility of a cheetah. It’s a truly exciting bike to ride – but only when you want it to be.
To be honest, we always have reservations when a bike's spec deviates from its drivetrain – especially with brakes. And what makes us most nervous of all is when brakes don’t even come with a brand name, something that reeks of the worst kind of cost cutting. Surprise, surprise, the Madone’s unbranded brakes do lack the bite and stiffness of Ultegra units (which admittedly are some of the very best around). That said, the pads are soft enough to offer decent levels of feel, yet the squishy feel on full power left us lacking confidence when we needed to scrub speed quickly.
Progress uphill, though, is a joy on the Madone: a decent overall weight and the Bontrager Race wheels – easily a match for Fulcrum and Mavic’s mid-range offerings – certainly help, as does the well-chosen endurance riders' combo of 50/34 and 11-28 meant we always had a cog or two in reserve, even on the steepest slopes.
The conditions we had to test the Trek in, cold, damp, but rain-free, meant the roads were damp and greasy. This certainly didn’t favour the R2 Hardcase tyres. We couldn’t say if it was the puncture-protected rubber or the stiff shoulders of the white contrast stripes on either side of the centre tread, but through corners the rear end was all too ready to break traction – leading to a few instances of fishtailing and taken-by-surprise slides. In ideal conditions R2’s are a tough, fast-rolling set of boots, but in adverse weather they're a distance behind the best from Schwalbe or Continental.
All in all though, we applaud Trek for the 4.5. It packs the best drivetrain the firm has offered at this price, and the frame is an absolute masterpiece. Save for average brakes and tyres that don’t like greasy road conditions the 4.5 would be nigh on perfect… maybe next year?
US reader please note that this particular build is not sold in North America.