What this blog is about

Bicycle commuting, bicycle touring, bicycle racing; bicycle ADVENTURING.
To the grocery store, up a mountain, across the country or to the finish line--
it's all an adventure.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Trek 520 Touring Bike Review

We made it! Parked on the shore of Atlantic waters.
*There is a sleeping bag and cowboy hat under that yellow jacket,
in case you're wondering why it's piled so high. :)

Last summer, I rode a Trek 520 across the country. These days, the 520 rolls both as a super commuter and a plain ol' fun bike. This is my review.

As a touring bike..
The 520 is fantastic. When purchasing any bike, what you're really buying is the frame. The material and geometry of the frame dictates both how it fits you and how the bike behaves.
  • Is it a long or short reach? 
  • Is it snappy or stable? 
  • Is it harsh or forgiving? 
The Trek 520 frame has remained unchanged for many years. Probably because they got it right. 
  • The 520 supports a comfortable upright position. 
  • The bike is super stable, with or without a load (downhills are a delight!), yet still remains lively (not sluggish) when pumping and rocking (loaded!) uphill. This bike performs not just under the weight of a cross-country tour, but when unweighted-- it's still a joy to ride.
  • As to be expected, the steel is stiff (power transfer!)-- but absolutely melts over bumps and lumps. The only downside to steel is the heavier weight-- but heck, this bike has gears your great grandma could turn over! So who cares?!
So the frame, complete with a metallic powder coat finish which absolutely glows in the sun, gets 5 of 5 stars. 

If you plan to use the 520 for day to day commuting and leisure use, I wouldn't change a spec on the bike-- except that saddle appears to be there just for looks. Slap on your favorite saddle and you're good to go!

However, if you plan to ride this steel beauty on a long and loaded tour-- there a few key parts and accessories that I would recommend replacing:
  1. TIRES. Those Bontrager Race Lite Hard-Case tires are great for rolling around town and over your favorite hill and dale.. but their durability and flat protection is lacking for true long hauls. I had 2 flats and my tire shredded in Booneville, KY. Mia, my touring partner, rode Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires-- not one single flat. So I recommend a tire out of the Schwabe Marathon line. Remember, though-- the addition durability and flat protection aren't the only features of a tire, that extra rubber detracts from the butter and snap of your ride; though I have no complaints of the Schwabes which now roll on my wheels.
  2. RACK. The suggested max load of the Bontrager rear rack is 50 pounds. My total gear nearly weighed 50 pounds, depending on the food and water we carried-- so only 30 pounds at most was ever mounted on the rear rack. And it broke. Fortunately-- we were in Blacksburg, KY-- where there was a bike shop. My rack recommendation is a set of Old Man Mountains, Tubus or Surly. OMM for pure performance and reliability, Tubus for the same plus they're pretty, Surly for all of the above plus added durability (and weight). I ride OMMs.
  3. FENDERS. While the abbreviated fenders improve your toe overlap (the fender simply 'boings' out of our way should you hit it with your foot while making an awkward u-turn in a grocery parking lot), you'll be much happier on the road with FULL FENDERS and dry feet. 
  4. SADDLE. It's not uncommon for a bike to be spec'd with a saddle that the maker expects the consumer to replace with his or her favorite or preferred saddle. This is one of those saddles-- it's pretty and brown, but it has no cut-out and instead, is rather crowned and squashes all the things you don't want squashed. I ended up riding my Specialized Jett, my racing saddle. If you want something softer, I'd recommend a Specialized Lithia Gel-- but remember, softer does not necessarily equate better! That's a whole 'nother post.

And finally, full disclosure-- I was obligated to ride a Trek 520, as I was sponsored by Trek at the time. I already had a Surly Long Haul Trucker that I planned to detach from my Xtracycle. So would I buy a Trek 520 now? Sure would. The Trek 520 is great for:
  • A $1300 price point. 
  • Touring trips from one night to several months (or years?!).
  • A sturdy commuter.
  • A stable, comfortable, wide-gear-range everyday bike.
The only reason that I would buy a different bike: if I had twice or thrice the cash to spend. In that condition, I might ride more expensive parts and wheels-- but I'd still enjoy a frame just like the 520.

Was this review helpful to you? Leave a comment if you have any questions!


Stacy said...

Good advice on the accessories! Good things to keep in mind when outfitting my new touring bike I plan to buy this summer. Would love to see your review of your Surly LHT as well.

Phil said...


Blundered across your blog looking for information on the Trek 520 for a TransAm Trail bike ride. Wow! Lot's of good information I'll have to study and digest. Thanks so much for publishing all this.


-- Phil

Richard said...

Hi RJ,
Can't possibly tell you how much I've enjoyed your blog. Incredibly useful, very well organized and presented, and just flat-out entertaining!
I've spent HOURS looking over all of it, and the video/slideshow of the actual tour nearly made me weep it was so beautiful (great soundtrack too btw...loved the Iron and Wine in particular). My brother and I (he's 56, I'm 47)did a "credit card tour" of Slovenia last year, and now I'm inspired to try something "substantial and self-contained"
Can you comment on the Novara Safari as a combination "around town and also touring bike"?
Thank you so very much for what you've done here...I'm using all your knowledge to my benefit.
Richard from Denver

Mike H said...

Ive had my 520 now for around 20 years, and enjoyed every minute I've been on it. Great bike for me.

Anonymous said...

Nice review - thanks for taking the time to write and post it!

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