Cycling journalist and triathlon aficionado Rupert Guinness takes to the streets and gives us the lowdown on Trek’s tri-specific race weapon
For years I was a blinkered “bike is a bike” type of guy. It was the rider that made the bike go fast I felt, not the designer or builder. It was a belief that firmed further when a friend asked to take a look at my bike upon returning to Australia from a personal best in the 1985 Hawaii Ironman. After unzipping my bike bag at Sydney Airport to reveal the blue Reynolds 531 tubing frame I had bought off the rack at Cecil Walker Cycles in Melbourne and a set of 28 spoke road racing wheel that I had borrowed from a mate for the race, he asked: “How did you go so well on that?”
Sure, my Hawaii Ironman time of 10 hours 24 minutes 28 seconds and bike split of 5 hours 38 minutes 40 seconds (70th fastest) was not earth shattering, especially when compared to today’s times. But it was still surprising for me and anyone who knew me – and fast enough for a good result (48th) in an era when racing Ironman on standard steel framed road bikes with brake and gear cables pouring out over the handlebars was still commonplace. It’s worth remembering that the race winner, American Scott Tinley was the only finisher to record a sub-nine hour time of 8 hours 50 minutes 54 seconds, and that only two finishers clocked bike splits under five hours – Tinley in 4 hours 54 minutes 7 seconds and American Chris Hinshaw in 4 hours 57 minutes 50 seconds en-route to his second place overall behind Tinley in 9 hours 16 minutes 40 seconds.
Call me a philistine – many have. But that tri-bars and aerodynamic time trial bikes quickly became ‘de rigeur’ in triathlon after did little to alter my stance that the frame design, construction, weight and choice of components could make that much of a difference to the performance of a triathlete in an Ironman race, or of a road cyclist in a time trial.
No matter that I challenged that belief by using clip-on tri bars on a road bike in races such as the 1993 and 1994 Lanzarote Ironman; or that as a cycling writer, I would watch and report on countless road time trials while around me, the whirlwind of cycling’s ‘arms race’ escalated for the fastest and most aerodynamic bike escalated among bike manufacturers.
Change of Heart
Yes, I was blinkered to the possibility that ‘free’ speed was on offer for a little investment in time and faith to ride a time trial bike – and if you have some spare money, to buy one.
Fast forward to today: having raced in two Ironman triathlons on a Trek Speed Concept 7.5 series time trial bike since my return to the 3.8km swim, 180km ride and 42.2km run event after a 17 year hiatus at the 2012 Ironman Western Australia in Busselton on a road bike with clip-on tri-bars, I am now a true believer in the value of the time trial bike.
No doubt, this is the fastest bike I have ridden. With a previous best Ironman bike split of 5 hours 38 minutes 40 seconds from the 1985 Hawaii race when I was aged 23, as a 51 year-old I can’t argue with a 5 hour 8 minute split at this year’s Asia Pacific Championship in Melbourne in March and a 5 hour 12 minute time at Busselton this year.
Of course, training, diet and all that comes with an Ironman preparation still plays a big part in performance which for me led to a 9 hour 56 minute time at Melbourne where the swim course was shortened due to a rough ocean, and 10 hours 31 minutes at Busselton. But pluses from riding the Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike were just as crucial.
That I rode one twice for two pleasing times I never clocked for 180km (albeit on varying terrain) reaffirms my belief.
The only regret was not having longer to train on the Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike. Two weeks riding it before Melbourne and one week before Busselton was not idyllic to fully adapting to the positional shift and stresses that are inevitable with racing 180km in the tuck position for an Ironman distance. While it was easier to adapt to in Busselton than in Melbourne, I still had to regularly stand out of the saddle and stretch, while shifting in a bigger gear to maintain the speed I had. With a return to the Asia Pacific Championship Ironman in Melbourne on March 23 next year paid for and locked in, I would be keen to see the impact of having the same bike for a three month lead-in on my time.
However, it doesn’t take long to get a feel for the gain in speed of a Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike: it is almost immediate. The 10 minute ride home on it from Albion Cycles in Waverley, Sydney after having it fitted was enough; but what was a hunch became real with the first couple of training rides on its in those delicate days before an Ironman when you are trying balance between training enough to not become stagnant, yet without spending too much energy in your taper. One of the challenges from suddenly riding on a bike that feels smooth, comfortable and fast under you is you want to ride hard, and fighting that urge was difficult. But even when riding within myself – especially during those tentative first moments when you switch to the tuck position and surrender the broader centre of gravity from the handlebars of a road bike – I could feel free speed. An easy two hour ride at 27kmh in Sydney’s Centennial Park on the Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike amounted to 15 laps of the 3.8km circuit, whereas on a road bike the same ride would tally 11 or 12 laps – three to four extra laps, or 11 to 15km more without extra effort.
No matter the Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike is not approved by the Union Cycliste Internationale due to breaches of UCI criteria on design and aerodynamics. That is not the triathlon’s problem, but cycling’s.
Approved for triathlon, and clearly the sport is seen by Trek as a big market, the Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike is a veritable speed machine. It comes with a 500 Series OCLV carbon fibre frame of Kammtail Virtual Foil design that is lightweight, stiff and highly responsive, Bontrager Race wheels (for training) and a Hilo RXL saddle that is firm, but still supportive to the contours of your derriere, and Shimano Ultegra cranks and components that, with everything else, facilitate a smooth cadence that at 35kmh virtually puts you into a trance and reinforces your focus for the 180km. Another crucial element that influences the overall performance of the Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike is the wide winged integrated handlebar system that is extremely clean to create the least amount of speed-limiting surface area from the front of the bike and is critically more comfortable for the rider to put their weight on over the front wheel than road bikes with clip-on tri-bars. It also comes with full foil forks, brakes that are built directly into the fuselage, a speed fin that increases rear wheel breaking power and doubles as a rear- heel fairing, internal cabling to enhance its low-drag profile and a BB90 bottom bracket to make the frame lighter, stiffer and quicker to accelerate.
As crucial was not just the bike’s impact on cycling performance, but on the run leg. In my last two Ironman races – both Melbourne and Busselton – I have been able to begin the marathon feeling better than ever before and for respective run splits of 4 hours 6 minutes and 4 hours 2 minutes. Whereas in the past I suffered lower back pain early in the run (albeit possibly heightened by an incorrect an position on the road bike with tri-bars), since riding a Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike I have been able to start the marathon without any potentially debilitating back concerns and with a relatively stress free switch from the bike to run.
I may not yet have bought a Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike; but its impact on my return to Busselton for the Ironman after being impressed by it in Melbourne has brought me much closer to thinking about it.
At a retail price of $4,500, it seems a lot more reasonable now than it did before. All in all, I would say that the Trek Speed Concept 7.5 Series bike is great value for any triathlete who is planning on regular race competition, especially for the Ironman where comfort and speed are vital to success – and not just on the bike, but for the run as well.
Trek’s fork slices the wind from 2.5-12.5 degrees of yaw angle for greater aerodynamic performance in all real-world wind conditions.
Shimano Ultegra 52/36 crank is standard issue on the 7.5.
Shimano Ultegra 11-speed derailleurs are standard on the Speed Concept 7.5, with an Ultegra 11-25T rear cassette.
Rupert Guinness is a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media), a contributor to Cyclist and 220 Triathlon