BUYER'S GUIDE: Superlight road bikes – Bike Magazine Australia

For all the time, money and expertise poured in to research and development, bicycle manufacturers are beholden to often simple truths. When it comes to riding fast uphill, less is more.

No matter what marketing campaigns will tell you, nothing will have greater impact on your times up the local berg than some consistent training and a few less post-ride croissants.

That said, with bikes like Trek Émonda SLR 8 rolling off production lines, it’s never been easier to find fat-free bikes perfect in the battle against gradients. And it’s fair to say that Trek have done as much as any brand worldwide to popularise carbon fibre as the material du jour for bicycle manufacture, particularly in terms of shedding grams.

Ubiquitous first as a frame material, and latterly in components and group sets, carbon has become the ultimate byword for high tech. Light, stiff, and when done right, comfortable, it’s the perfect material for a climber-friendly bike like the SLR 8.

As Trek’s flagship racing bike, the elevator pitch in planning the Émonda line is simple: “Build the lightest frame we can, and add as little to it as possible.” 

Wow factor

Lifting the box containing the Trek Émonda SLR 8 produced the first of many “wow” moments during the testing of this bike. The box was light. Really light.

Whilst the decidedly low-tech lift test boded well, it provoked two immediate reactions. The first was excitement. Reviewing high-end bikes brings you into contact with some incredible machines, and for a boxed bike to feel noticeably lighter than any before told me this was something special. The second was caution. It may be super light, but just how well could this bike ride?

The answer to that question was quickly apparent. With a claimed frame weight hovering around the 640g mark (the 58cm on test carrying a little extra), successfully combining stiffness with low weight and comfort is a challenge.

Trek’s approach is to focus material where it’s needed. Trek has well and truly adopted the semi-compact frame layout. The frame itself is made of the American company’s proprietary OCLV 700 carbon fibre, nowadays also described as Ultralight. 

With the exception of straight, thin seatstays – a feature typical of lightweight frames – no tube on the bike maintains a uniform shape. The most apparent example of this is the top tube, which flares into ridges at either junction to provide lateral support at either end of the top tube.

You can often feel the stiffness of a bike through the handlebars as much as the bottom bracket, and the Émonda feels sturdy as you whip the handlebars from side to side. A tapered headtube provides further reinforcement for a full carbon fork. This sturdiness in the top spine of the bike creates a fantastic feeling of connectedness with the lower half. 

Out-of-the-saddle pedal strokes, precisely like those when you’re riding uphill, are met with a reassuring sense of acceleration. The combination of a sturdy BB90 bottom bracket and Bontrager’s Aeolus Pro 3 wheels produces an effective combination to maximise power transfer. 

I suspect heavier riders may feel a little more flex through the wheels than my relatively lightweight 67kg frame, but from a standing start, or even midway up a climb, acceleration will be met with an immediate response.

If it feels good do it

It’s not often you spend much time thinking about the comfort of a bike whilst you’re slogging your way up a hill. There’s usually plenty of discomfort to drown out those thoughts. However, Trek have taken some important steps to ensure the comfort of the Émonda’s ride.

The Émonda stood up to chatter produced by the typically varied surfaces of Sydney roads. The OCLV carbon soaks up a lot of road buzz and while carbon fibre wheels can ride harsher than their aluminium equivalent, this is tempered by Trek fitting 25mm tyres to the bike’s Bontrager hoops. Off the shelf, the Émonda range comes fitted with tubes, however the Aeolus Pro 3s are tubeless ready, so you can do gravity a little bit more mischief by despatching the excess rubber.

And for anyone still rolling around on 23mm tyres, make the switch to 25mm. Not only have tests indicated that they produce lower rolling resistance, they will make riding your bike an even greater pleasure.

One of the little details that was really impressive was Bontrager’s grippy handlebar tape. As a critical contact point, the tape has a rubbery feel without feeling sticky. It helps to stamp out any vibration through the stiff Bontrager XXX OCLV carbon handlebars.

Dura Ace up its sleeve

The explosion of electronic groupsets has made the top tier of ranges swell with battery-equipped bikes. While the Émonda is also available with Shimano’s Dura Ace Di2, the SLR 8 model features the mechanical variant of the company’s top-of-the-line group.

Some riders prefer the feedback of mechanical shifting, and after a couple of years running an electronic grouppo on my own bike, it was exciting to see that Dura Ace has lost none of its reliability under cable tension. 

And, from a weight shedding perspective, dropping a battery (or batteries if you’re running SRAM Etap), is a boon. Cables are all neatly routed through the frame, and hidden from view for an elegant finish.

Trek have broken the Shimano ensemble by employing Bontrager’s Speed Stop Pro Brake set. Direct mounted onto the frame, the brakes are somewhat awkward to look at and setup, with the cable routed vertically downwards through the left hand arm of the brake. 

However, once you’ve got them tuned, their braking performance is impressive and they provide fine-tuned control over the power applied from either side of the brake.

Bang for your buck

Checking the RRP of this bike produced another of those “wow” moments. Having ridden it prior to looking up the price, I can attest that it represents value for the $9,749 you’ll hand over. You could spend a whole lot more for the same experience. 

If you’re looking for a bike to help shave seconds of your favourite climb, this is one of the best value lightweight options on the market and should definitely be on your shortlist.

Something that will reinforce the value of the package is the fact that manufacturing of the Émonda range has now shifted to Taiwan from Trek’s Wisconsin factory. It’s a significant compliment that production has moved to Asia, as it indicates that Trek’s faith in the product has been proven in the market. After just a few weeks with the Émonda, I’m a believer. 

The overall impression this bike leaves you with is purity of its purpose. There’s no excess. Components have been selected and deployed for their specific role in making the bike go and stop. Combined with a frame that lays the foundation, Trek have produced a bike that punches well above its weight.

If Trek’s Émonda doesn’t tickle your lightweight fancy, here’s some alternatives.

Wilier Triestina Zero 6 

RRP: $12,999 (with Shimano Dura Ace DI2 and Mavic Ksyrium Pro Exalith) 

Wilier have been quietly chipping away at the weight of their flagship Zero model. The current variant, the Zero 6, weighs in at a measly 680g for its smaller sized frames. Starting from a base like this means the application of any mid-to-top tier groupset and a set of low profile carbon wheels is going to deliver a bike well below the 7kg mark. 

One downside to all this weight shedding is that the bike comes with a weight limit. If your mass is anything north of about 72kg, this isn’t the bike for you. Wilier recommends a weight limit of 80kg for bike and rider combined. Should your body fit the specifications required, you’ll be rewarded with little to burden you when the road tilts upwards.

Cervélo RCA

RRP: $10,499 (Frame and fork) 

In the carbon fibre arms race that has taken place in bicycle manufacturing in the past 20 years, Cervélo’s combination of ingenious engineers and race-winning test subjects has delivered climber-friendly bike after bike. 

None more so than the Canadian marque’s RCA. Conceived as an invitation for the company’s engineers to push the limits of what’s possible, its eye-watering price tag is matched only by its astonishingly low frame weight. 

Handmade in California, the RCA weighs in at 667 grams without (according to Cervélo) compromising the stiffness or comfort of the Taiwan-made options. After several years of the program, the market concurs. Available in strictly limited numbers, often as low as a few dozen units, their reputation means RCA models sell out quickly. While they can’t provide a guarantee you’ll get up the hill any quicker, you’ll certainly be left with little excuse when it comes to your equipment. It’ll also trim more than a few grams from your wallet, with the frame and fork alone priced at over $10,000.

Focus Izalco Max Etap

RRP: $9,999

As tough as it is to refrain from making puns about Focus’ attention to detail, it’s fair to say they’ve done just that with the Izalco Max. Exhibiting the myriad benefits of German engineering and a slick matte finish, they’ve been one of the most common additions to bunches across Australia.

The growth of Focus in Australia owes a lot to the concerted efforts of the team managing the brand from Adelaide. However, as high performance racing bikes go, few offer the value for money that the Izalco Max does – coming in at just under $10k. High quality build kits and excellent wheel selections from the factory mean you’re ready to reclaim your Strava KOM straight out of your local bike shop. The lightest variant in the Izalco Max line up features SRAM’s wireless electronic Etap groupset and reliable DT Swiss wheels. 

Paired with most of the common pedal systems, you’ll have a bike weighing in substantially below the 7kg mark. 

Cannondale SuperSix Black Inc.

RRP: $14,799 (Shimano Dura Ace DI2, Enve wheelset, Hollogram crankset) 

Cannondale’s gradual shift from all-aluminium to full carbon frames took longer than most. The company was dogged in its commitment to alloy up until the early 2000s. But the brand has also always been focused on producing light road frames. They drew the ire of (and fines from) race officials in the early 2000s for decking their sponsored teams in “Legalise my Cannondale” kits to petition against the 6.8kg weight limit enforced by the UCI (rumoured to be decreasing in 2018).  

With their activist days seemingly behind them, their engineers have turned to tuning their full-carbon Super Six range into some of the lightest and stiffest bikes in the pro peloton. Cannondale’s gamble to invest in the development of proprietary components has also aided their ability to produce high performance, lightweight machines. Innovations such as the Hollowgram crankset and BB30, mean that weight conscious customers will always have Cannondale on their radar.