A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of test riding a 2011 Madone Series 6 SSL with Race XXX Lite carbon fiber clincher wheels. When you read the phrase, "I had the pleasure of . . ." it is usually just being polite, but in this case, it really was a pleasure. In fact, it may have been just short of fantastic.
The Madone name started as the top of the line frameset at Trek. It has grown to include most of the road bike collection with a variety of numbers from 6.9 down to (I think) 1.2. Along the way you will start at steel frames and modest, price-point components. At the stratosphere, you will find the 6.9 SSL with Race XXX Lite wheels. And, not only at the stratosphere of the Trek line-up, but also just below some freakingly good riders, including the Radio Shack and Leopard (please pronounce this "Lay-o-pard)-Trek team. Pretty good company, no?
So what are they riding and why should you care? Because this bike is awesome, that is why. It is light in a way that frightens a big guy like me; it is stiff in a way that impresses and pleases a big guy like me; it handles in a way that is positive, linear and comfortable for anyone; and it is weirdly quick going uphill even for a big guy like me.
Two Wheel Transit Owner, and contract specialist, Geoff, was there for the Demo Days and made the comment that the bike helped him see the efficiency in his pedaling, or lack thereof. What he was referring to is the crazy light wheels on this bike that provide so little resistance to your pedaling action that it is easy to find the deadspot in your stroke. Think about moving a really heavy coffee table on carpet - you push and it moves. If, in contrast, you push a really light coffee table on a slick floor, you can easily exert enough force that you accidentally push it away so that it moves out of your hand and you have to move your quickly to catch back up. This wheelset on this bike is like that. You push the pedal and the bike immediately moves forward with no perceptible resistance except gravity. If you are on the flat, there isn't much and it is easy to squirt forward in the strong part of your stroke. On an uphill, you don't have that momentary lightness but you do have an oddly responsive and quick movement up a hill. So, think about that - that you have to pedal more smoothly because the bike is so light and responsive. Wow, what a problem to have.
The downside of light is usually that the object is not strong. Definitely not the case here. The bottom bracket has a rock-solid, no movement feel. I may not usually go uphill fast, but I can put out some watts (yes, for a limited and useless period), but it does mean that between some leg strength and weight, I can find the flexy or weak points in a ride. This bike exhibited no such characteristic. It was amazingly stiff and strong.
Similarly, the wheels, despite their light weight and lack of rolling resistance, seemed very stiff as well. Carbon absorbs vibration in a completely different way than other cycling materials, so that road chatter is smoothed, but it is also stiff in other directions, so while every bike claims to be "laterally stiff but vertically compliant" it is true in some instances. You aren't, however, looking for that in a wheelset. I once read a scientist type saying that riders can't really tell which wheels are more or less flexible directly, but they do easily communicate whether they feel "comfortable" going downhill at speed. Well, it turns out the more downhill comfort, the more stiff the wheels. In this case, I only got one reasonably fast descent, but there was no hesitation on my part from the wheels or frame, although this does raise the one issue that I noticed about this bike.
I noticed that as I turned at higher speeds, the frame slightly resisted going off of center before it leaned, then it leaned appropriately and in a smooth linear fashion, but then as soon as I started to come out of the lean, it seemed to come back to vertical very quickly - more quickly than I remember any other bike. This seems like it is an issue of some combination of rake or trail or some other metaphysical bike geometry property, but it could also be a size, stem, etc. combination that wasn't quite perfect for me (remember, this was a demo bike and "close" to my position). In any case, it wasn't bad, it was just different than other bikes. In thinking about it, it could also be the wheelset again. Did I comment on how light they are?
I think that Trek has always tried to balance the various attributes of bikes. They want strong and light and durable and comfortable. Some companies go just for one attribute - aero or light or stiff - but the trick is to get all of these in the right combination. Trek has done that with this super-sweet, super nice bike. I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to try it out if you missed Demo Days, but if you do get the chance - hop on it. You will not only not be disappointed, you will be amazed.