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Why I Switched to the LOOK 595 Ultra from Madone SSL

Last updated 2012-02-01 - Send Feedback
Related: gear, Lightweight, Moots, Road Bikes, Shimano, training
My Trek Madone 6.9 SSL +
Lightweight Ventoux 240 wheelset

The main issue I was looking to solve by acquiring the LOOK 595 Ultra was the handling with my Trek Madone 6.9 SSL (two of them). Specifically high-speed descending, staying on-line, and to a lesser extent, I was also looking for a greater feeling of stability over lumpy/bump/rough pavement.

I have now retired the Trek frames (both of them are for sale)— the LOOK 595 Ultra (and 695 SR and Moots Vamoots RSL) prove that my descending errors were not due to my incompetence, but rather to a frame design that just does not perform well for the way I ride, with the wheels I ride.

Handling

LOOK 595 Ultra

Yes, the Trek Madone 6.9 SSL is 3/4 or so of a pound lighter and has excellent power transfer, but on the LOOK 595 Ultra I can go faster with much greater confidence on fast descents, over rough stuff, etc. And I could do so instantly on the LOOK 595 Ultra, after a year of riding the Trek and still feeling nervous on fast and familiar descents. I am certain there must be many faster descenders than me out there, but I’ll say this: I was not passed while descending Old La Honda even once in 2011, and I passed many many other riders, so I am not slow; I am fairly competent at it.

A great expense

My feelings about the Trek Madone 6.9 SSL are now tinged with some not so happy feelings at having spent $4600 X 2 for frames that degraded my bike handling experience for a year. Switching the same wheels to the Moots Vamoots RSL and LOOK 595 Ultra and LOOK 695 SR banished the handling issues, and it was not a subtle change.

What I tried to mitigate the handling

To give the Trek a fair shot, I also installed a beefy Campagnolo skewer, to rule out the Lightweight racing skewer as an issue, as well as the Shimano Vibe PRO handlebar. These changes did not address the issue. I would have swapped the fork for a stronger one, but the Trek frame/fork is not easily changed to another brand fork.

This is what I rode for 10+ months for ~8000 miles and ~3/4 of a million vertical feet in 2011—

  • 2011 Trek Madone 6.9 SSL 'H2' Project One frame (my comments cannot be applied to the 'H1' frame with its shorter and possibly stiffer front end, since I have not ridden the H1 frame).
  • Bontrager Race XXX Lite handlebar (for 10 months). Replacing it with the ultra stiff Shimano Vibe PRO handlebar felt slightly better, but did not address the underlying handling issue.
  • Bontrager 110mm Race XXX Lite stem.
  • Lightweight Obermayer, Lightweight Ventoux, Lightweight VR8 wheels— all very laterally stiff high performance wheels with Veloflex race tires. Most miles with the Obermayers.

My conclusion after such extensive riding of the Trek Madone 6.9 SSL 'H2' is that its front end does not remain rigid enough during corners, high speed sweepers, or rough pavement; it has some 'give' and flex that introduces a slop that makes the bike harder to control under those conditions, at least with the setup above. The only thing I did not swap out was the stem. Based on what I observe in the front end on rough pavement (a front end that has movement), it is my belief that the stem is not the issue. The skeptical can call the foregoing an opinion (fair enough), but I assert that it is a fact for the wheels I ride with; I swapped the wheelset between bikes many times, and thus introduced only one variable. There can be no more (real) objective riding test than that; all test bikes were my size, fit adjusted appropriately.

I acknowledge that if one is riding a “soft” wheelset (not laterally stiff), and/or one has the Trek 'H1' variant with the lower riding position and shorter head tube and/or one runs lower tire pressures, perhaps the handling behavior would be different, and it might well be masked by other weaknesses in the system. In other words, we are talking about a high level of performance, perhaps only nuances for some less aggressive and/or less aware riders. But put high performance wheels on an H2 frame, pay attention, and weaknesses can emerge that might go unnoticed with other wheelsets.

It is my opinion based on what I can see the front end doing over bumpy/lumpy pavement (by “see”, I mean that literally, with my eyes), that the 'H2' frame/fork/head tube is (somehow) too light a build to remain adequately stable under stronger forces of cornering and uneven and rough pavement. At least for high performance handling that makes me feel comfortable. That this is also true in a straight line with only one hand on one brake hood is immediately evident; it feels unstable to me on rough/bumpy pavement.

Now perhaps if the rider is 130-140 pounds, the issue would be mitigated, but at 170 when lean (me), the Trek Madone 6.9 SSL 'H2' is unequivocally a frame design that I am unable to make perform to my satisfaction, using some of the very best wheels (and handlebars) available today.

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Straight line riding shows the effects also

I descend very fast, so this issue might seem to be of less concern for straight line riders, but it does matter in a straight line also— hit some rough stuff with only one hand on one brake hood, and the front end of the Trek cannot be said to inspire confidence, whereas the LOOK 595 Ultra thrum-thrums over the same stuff, soaking it up and staying firm.

It is clear to me (riding the same wheelset) that the front end of the Trek Madone 6.9 SSL is not actually more comfortable than the ultra-stiff LOOK 595 Ultra. While stiff, the LOOK 595 Ultra with its UD carbon weave and lugged frame and elastomer seat post soak up the high-frequency vibrations, making for a very comfortable ride. So one cannot equate a more flexible frame with comfort simply because it is more flexible (and lighter).

Weight and stiffness and comfort

The figures I have found on official frame weights are ~815g for the Trek Madone 6.9 SSL (56cm, which is what I ride), and 1080g for the LOOK 595 Ultra (Large). Surely a whopping difference of 265 grams has something to do with the feel of the two bikes, even if other technologies are involved (the LOOK 595 Ultra being both much heavier and using high-end UD carbon for added stiffness). Note also that stiffness can be present laterally, torsionally, vertically, etc. My statement is that I can feel the difference in a very obvious way, and this affects my entire experience on the bike in a profound way when descending.

Finally, the foregoing is NOT a comment on drive-train power transfer stiffness, which I find quite competent on the Trek Madone 6.9 SSL.

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Reader comments

Rainer U from Germany writes:

It is very interesting to see how your opinion concerning the Trek 6.9 changed after you had been so enthused in the beginning.

Your remarks match many test reports I read last year: some bike magazines examine the frames in labs, metering their contortion behavior under specified conditions, plus test-ride them with three different riders on different tracks.
The outcome always was that the Trek 6.9 is very well balanced and comfortable, but somewhat weak in the front, missing responsiveness in fast corners and downhill.

Especially in direct comparison with other bikes the Trek always lost some points, on a very high level, though.

Since I shall ride the 24-h-race on the Nuerburgring all on my own this year, I finally made up my mind and ordered a new racing bike, which will be up to the task: a Rose UD-Carbon racer (a traditional German brand), which was tested to be one of the ten stiffest frames available here. Much stiffer than Trek and other famous brands, at 1080g. Just right for a race track with excellent tarmac, steep ascents and descents.

I shall keep you posted about my riding impressions and training progress during the season.

DIGLLOYD: for the magazines to report anything negative usually means the effects are pronounced and cannot be glossed over. Especially for a bike approaching the $10K mark (with Di2), even “minor” issues are in fact not minor, in context. Riders spending top dollar cannot be expected to feel good about such compromises; the bar for issues must necessarily be very high for a $4600 frame vs a $2000 complete bike.

The Rose UD-Carbon weight of 1080g is essentially identical to the weight I see quoted for the LOOK 595 Ultra frame.

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