Friday, March 18, 2016

Old vs. New: Trek 720

I was just reading a BikeRadar review of Trek's new 720 model - which is a bike with a grand touring tradition, re-imagined for the modern bike market. The reviewers praised the bike for a lot of points, calling it "an understated all-road all-rounder with excellent potential." The "highs" were "light, rapid, and potentially smooth - with luggage included" and the "lows" were its "soft" frame, and stock tires that were too narrow for the bike's mission.

The bike comes equipped with those neon-yellow
cinch-sacks that attach to the fork legs.
I suppose it's a matter of personal taste whether someone likes or hates the neon yellow cinch sacks that come with the bike, but it isn't often that bikes come with such a useful accessory as standard equipment, so I'll call them a plus. The bags attach to specially designed mounts that can be removed in a jiffy. Much is made about the bike's fork-mounted load carrying design, but in reality, really serious tourists have long known that mounting luggage on a bike's front-end is a smart idea because it has less of a negative effect on the bike's handling. The old French constructeurs knew it. And Bicycle Quarterly's Jan Heine writes quite a bit about front-loading for better handling.

The frame of the new 720 is built from aluminum with manipulated tapering and profiles. The sloping top tube and weird tubing profiles (some are flared, while others are flat, squarish, or even squashed) are thoroughly modern, but abhorrent to a confirmed retrogrouch. The welds look like they may have had some smoothing, but are on the whole still very noticeable. I'll just say they don't have that "carved of one piece" look that a nice fillet-brazed steel bike might have (or even an old Cannondale) and leave it at that. The bike is equipped with disc brakes and a mix of black Shimano 105-level components and Trek's own Bontrager-branded parts.

The reviewer in Bike Radar says that the 28 mm tires (actually measuring closer to 26 mm) aren't cushy enough, and that the bike is much improved by larger tires. If I could ride the bike, I'm sure I'd agree with him. Apparently it has room for 35 mm tires, but there's no mention of whether the fork will allow tires of that size with fenders. The bike has some mounting points for fenders, but the review didn't mention actually installing any. The 43-cm chainstays might allow room for a large tire and a fender in back, but the gap looks like it would be pretty crowded in there.

As far as the frame being "soft," I can't even imagine how that's an issue. The review says that it makes the bike's acceleration "adequate rather than amazing," which falls right into the conventional wisdom that bike frames must be as stiff as possible. Laterally stiff but vertically compliant, right? It's one of those canards that gets thrown around so much and people just accept it without proof. Certainly it fits with a basic instinctive notion of efficiency and "wasted energy" but nobody has ever been able to prove that a stiffer frame is any faster than a flexier one. On the contrary, Jan Heine has been writing quite a bit lately about frames that exhibit more flex and compliance as feeling faster -- a phenomenon that he calls "planing," which when combined with large-volume supple-casing tires can make a bike almost feel like it's flying.

If I were more than a part-time blogger and had the clout and resources to run some road tests of my own (the folks at Trek aren't exactly knocking on my door with bikes to review) I would LOVE to do a full out head-to-head between a 2016 Trek 720 and a nice '80s example, like one of these classics from 1984:

The 1984 Trek 720. One of the top touring bikes of its day.
And what good days those were. (Catalog scan from vintage-trek.com)
Right away, one can see differences in the frame design -- the '84 classic was one of the best touring bikes of its day. Reynolds 531 tubing, silver-brazed into clean, fairly traditional-looking lugs. The workmanship was top-rate.

Retrogrouches will notice the level top tube and the extra-long wheelbase. To my eye, the bike looked great then, and still looks great today.

The '84 720 was equipped with some of the best components for touring that were available at the time, including the Huret Duopar rear derailleur that had some pretty serious range (though I'll bet a lot of them were eventually replaced with the more bullet-proof Shimano Deore), a wide-range triple crank, SunTour power-ratchet Bar-Con shift levers, and a Brooks leather saddle. It also had a Blackburn rear rack as standard equipment. Since the 720 had braze-on mounts for just about anything a long-distance tourist could want at the time, it isn't unusual to see these equipped by their owners with a low-rider pannier rack on the front (there's that front-loading concept again), fenders, and three bottle cages (one for the camp-stove fuel bottle).
This lightly modified 720 belongs to Wayne Bingham of Velo Classique.
(photo from the gallery at vintage-trek)
As I've already mentioned, I can't ride the two bikes and give a true head-to-head comparison, but we can look at specs and see how the two bikes stack up. Both of these are based on a 56 cm frame size.

Trek lists the 2016 model 720 as having 43 cm chainstays and a wheelbase of 101 cm. It has the fork-mounted bags already mentioned, and attachment points for a rear rack - though mounting panniers on the back might include some heel interference depending on the size of the bags. The new bike's angles are listed as ST 74°, HT 72°. Why the steep seat-tube? For a more aggressive seating position? The fork offset is listed as 47.5 mm, yielding 62 mm trail. I believe most people would consider that a medium trail figure. The BikeRadar review says the new bike weighs about 22 pounds in the 56 cm size.

The 1984 Trek 720 is a true grand tourer and has a wheelbase that stretches a full 106 cm, with 47 cm chainstays. Lots of room for big tires and fenders - and the long chainstays mean that there is plenty of heel clearance with rear panniers. However, it should be mentioned that the bike was designed around 27" wheels (ISO 630) which were still common at the time. The bike's angles were ST 73°, HT 72.5°. The '84 Trek catalog doesn't specify the trail figure on the bike, but fork offset is listed as 52 mm, which should yield a trail figure somewhat lower than the 2016 version (more rake equals less trail). Many people believe that a bike with less trail will handle a front load nicely. Speaking of forks, the classic rake and tapered 531 fork blades should give a sweet, compliant ride -- better than the modern bike's large carbon fork with its disc brake mount. A disc brake fork has to be much stiffer to handle the braking forces which are concentrated so far from the fork crown. About weight, the Trek catalog says that the fully equipped 720 would weigh under 25 pounds. Heavier than the new bike, to be sure, but how much of a difference those couple extra pounds make is debatable.

Here's another thing to compare: Where were the bikes built? In 1984, almost all Treks were built in Wisconsin, and the workmanship on the 720 -- one of their top models at the time -- was really good for a production bike. The new 720 is almost certainly built in Taiwan, or possibly China. According to a 2014 CNBC article, the only bikes that Trek still makes in the U.S. are their top of the line carbon fiber race models, and those only account for about 1% of their total production.

As far as price goes, the new bike is listed at $1889. The 1984 version retailed for just over $800 in its day, but I do know that they have held their value very well over the years. Occasionally one can find really clean used ones for about $700 complete, but it isn't unusual to find "like new" examples on eBay fetching well over $1000. If somebody bought one of these new in 1984 and kept it in good condition, it would have proven to be a decent investment. I wonder if the same will prove true for the new version?

So, which one would YOU choose?

22 comments:

  1. Those 720s from the mid-80s certainly are great lookers and riders. Plus, whatever the new 720 is intended to do, the old 720 probably does better.

    I find it interesting that from about 1979 to 1986, Trek and almost every other manufacturer offered at least one fully-loaded touring bike in its lineup. But then they abandoned the genre altogether in 1987 or 1988. If you went into a bike shop and asked for a touring bike, if they didn't have leftover stock, they'd try to sell you a "hybrid" or convince you that you'd be better off on a mountain bike.

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    1. Yes, isn't that the truth! In fact, as I recall, road bikes of any kind were being pushed off the showroom floors in those days to make more room for mountain bikes -- many of which probably never left the pavement.

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  2. Damn, now I want to go work on that old black and red lugged Trek I have sitting in the back room at the shop. Build some Camp wheels for it or sumthin', hmmmmm....

    What would I choose? Old, all day long.

    I have litte love for the new Trek brand, the price is something that we as a nation, should be ashamed of.

    Thanks for the smidgen of Cannondale love there too. They were close to the last big US companies to shutter their US factories (what Trek's doing at this point could hardly be considered US production). Not that I'm happy with the new Cannondale either, but they at least have that going for them. And they did build an awfully pretty bike frame BITD, too.

    http://imgur.com/3bz1RPM

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    1. Cannondale made a pretty impressive tourer back then, too, in their 1000 model, which came with everything a person needed, including fenders and C'dale's own racks. All one needed to do was get the C'dale bags, tent, and sleeping bags, and they were ready to take off cross country. The welds on those bikes were smoothed very nicely.

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  3. The new 720 isn't perfect, but walking into a shop and seeing 520s, 720s, 920s, and Specialized AWOLs is a sight better than seeing a row of slammed carbon fiber road bikes with 23mm tires.

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    1. Yes -- you are definitely right there.

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  4. Just looked at the Trek website, they are still selling a steel framed 520 tourer. Is is list priced at only $300 more than I paid for my 520 18 years ago, not bad. The Bontrager components don't look nearly as interesting as the Shimano 105/DX/Avid mix that was on the '98, but all of the original components are long gone...

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    1. You're right about the 520. I think I read somewhere that it is one of the longest running models still available today (they've offered the 520 since the early 80s -- so 30+ years?) - though very different from what they were back in the day. A fine bike, I'm sure, if someone wants a new bike that has a lot of versatility, and isn't hung up on nostalgia for lugs, Reynolds tubing, level top tubes, and shiny silver components.

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    2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, I'll now go down the internet rathole researching the 520! I see the current version has a sloping top tube, just doesn't seem right on a touring bike (sorry my first was a third-hand Dawes) but great to see that Trek has commitment to its roots.

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  5. My everyday bike is a 1984 Trek 830 Mountain bike with an Xtracycle bolted on. It's a very good frame. I can imagine the 720s were marvelous also. I have yet to see a contemporary production frame I would want, which I guess makes me retrogrouch, though I despise the term "retro." Is it retro if you never moved away from it?

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  6. I have one of those 1984 720's. It's my main commuter bike. I keep it in mint shape, but alas, the only original equipment on it is the frame, seat post, cantilever brakes and levers, Simplex front derailleur and saddle (Brooks Professional - lasts forever). The 27" wheels (indestructable Wolbers) have been replaced with 700C for tire selection. I have Schwalbe 700 x35 Marathon Supremes with VO fenders. It's a little tight but works, and the original brakes reach just fine. The original chainrings were a half-step, not a triple. I've swapped them for and old Ultegra set (still polished aluminum). Handlebars are VO Grand Randonneur, with the original gumby brake hoods and Brooks leather handle bar tape. It's truly a classic bike. The frame is in great shape and it rides like a dream on the wider tires.

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  7. Dawes still makes the Galaxy and Super Galaxy which I believe has been in production for over 300 years with only a break to allow the production line to be used to make Spam cans during the war. Maybe not though...

    You can even buy a Galaxy Classic with steel tubing, a HORIZONTAL toptube and a quill stem(!). It might even have an umbrella clip for all I know. It makes one wonder if there are more grumpy old bike geeks per capita over there than over here...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Yep - the Dawes is another long-running model. Not 300 years long (I get it - that's a typo) but longer even than the Trek 520. Can't remember the last time I saw a Dawes here in the U.S. though.

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    2. You are seriously off on the dates of the Dawes Galaxy. A still ride-able Galaxy (no lugs, just hammered together in a process archeologists call "cold welding") was found in one of the pyramids at Giza. New rubber, it was good to go.

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  8. A "touring" bike with 43 cm chainstays? 43 cm?! My 1973 and my 1960s racing bikes have 43 cm chainstays!

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  9. What's wrong with round tubing?

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  10. After I graduated from college and got my first “real” job, I looked longingly at a Trek 720 but instead bought a 614. It was a great bike, and equipped with Blackburn low-riders on the front carrying Tailwind panniers and standard panniers on the back made a fast, stable touring machine. I eventually sold it (regrets, I have a few...), and still would love to have a 720 — an old one, that is.

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  11. It's not even a competition, in my mind, between the classic and the new version. Though I will say that I am happy with any effort for a new bike to marketed as anything other than race- or mtn- biking.

    Those old Trek 5xx,6xx,and 7xx series touring bikes are so nice. Actually any old Trek is pretty hard to beat.

    Wolf.

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  12. Ah, the 1980s hay day of touring cycles. I have a Gitane Tourer bought new in 1986; long chainstays and wheelbase, lots of room for 35mm tires with fenders. Rock steady handling with 55 lbs of camping gear on front and rear racks. It was fitted from new with the Huret Duopar Eco derailleur. I had heard they were short-lived so picked up a spare new one when they were being closed out. Sure enough, recently the rear shifting deteriorated. After getting the dropout hanger alignment checked, it was OK, I decided to install the 'spare' Duopar. That did it, back to fine shifting again. And to think, the original only lasted 30 years! Cheap French junk. I love my Gitane and my similar vintage Bertin Cyclocross bike.

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  13. The old Trek 720 was a POS. My frame broke after a lousy 20 or 30,000 miles :o) And at the worst possible time. Fortunately a bike shop in Fairbanks had a 520 frame that fit me in stock.

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  14. Trek 720's back hidrolic disc brake was frozen in the low tempture (mines c grade) I rode this cycle from barcolana to turkey I took 3514 km and 16 days. Trek 720 Bycle was very fast but ıf you ride rainly days. Water fill the back brake cable. and then the brake is frozen.

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