2018 Trek Pro Caliber 9.7 My First Ride

 

I wanted a light mountain bike capable of speeding up the more mellow trails near where I live. Some people suggested that I get a gravel bike but I wanted a bike which I can also take it down steep, gnarly trails at speed. My road bike is fast but it can’t traverse that kind of terrain.

I needed a hard tail because I can’t get a reasonably light dual suspension 29er cross country racer in my price range. I grew up in the old days when mountain bikes had no suspension front or rear. I won the 1988 women’s pro downhill at a cross country nationals at Bear Valley with my rigid Ibis mountain bike. I had to go off the trail and into the big rocks to get around the person who started in front of me.

So I splurged for a 2018 Trek carbon fiber frame with DT Swiss wheels and Shimano XT components. This is the 9.7 model.

 

The Trek Pro Caliber stole my heart (if it can be said that a bike can steal its owner’s heart).  Let me explain; I once bought a Fisher X-Caliber in 1986 and I broke the frame within one year. Fisher gave me with a Pro Caliber frame to take its place. I put on the original Suntour non indexed shifters and the Suntour roller cam brake and it was ready to go. I kept it at my dad’s house and rode it for years every time I went to visit my parents before they died I rode it along the ubiquitous rocky trials that go up and  down short hills on the East Coast. The rocks were left behind by receding glaciers thousands of years ago. My Fisher Pro Caliber had no problem getting over and around the rocky debris, but that was then and this is now.

There is no comparison between the 1986 chrome-moly Fisher Pro Caliber and my modern Trek Pro Caliber. The Fisher was good for its day; being one of the first production cross country race bikes. However, the 2018 Trek Pro Caliber is night and day better than my Fisher in every respect (The technology has come a long way).

The new bike feels smooth and it responds to my every move. When I pull up the front wheel to get over an obstacle, the fork absorbs the impact and the bike follows without complaint. For the easier trails it has the IsoSpeed decoupler which Trek had already made for road racers to go over cobbles and choppy asphalt. It is said to improve  endurance on long fatiguing races.

“Since the introduction of the traditional diamond-shaped bicycle frame, it has been a  challenge to make the bicycle frame stiff enough to be efficient and handle predictably, yet compliant enough to reduce the jarring and fatiguing effects of rough roads.  The IsoSpeed decoupler was developed by Trek for Fabian Cancellara, one of the world’s most successful Classics riders.” It was built to smooth out the punishing cobblestones of European roadways favored in the Classics.

 

A frame with an IsoSpeed Decoupler will slightly flex underneath you for added comfort but will not give when power is transferred to the pedals. This is accomplished by allowing the seat tube to move independently from the top-tube-to-seatstay junction. Trek has taken this technology and carried it over to other styles of bikes including a women’s road line, cyclocross bikes, and, it goes without saying, this cross country mountain bike.

But does the IsoSpeed Decoupler work off road? I suppose it does to the extent that it smooths out minor bumps when you are seated and pedaling along. But what about an out-of-the-seat challenge on a rough descent; would it work there? The isolation of the seat tube increases vertical compliance but it is not useful for absorbing out of the seat impacts – or at least that is the official line coming from Trek.

Does the fact that the seat tube is not fixed, make it a different sort of frame; a parallelogram type quadrangle  with varying angles? I don’t know but I do know that the bike works. You can jump it, take it over drop offs and and then down across huge roots and even down off rocky cliffs with no fuss. It might have something to do with geometry and my riding technique but sometimes I have to look back to make sure that it doesn’t have rear suspension.

I suppose that the Trek’s proficiency has more to do with the carbon layup of the frame and the rigid through axles than any road bike sort of innovations. The official line is that the IsoSpeed Decoupler has no effect on the bike when you are out of the saddle. The bike works great in places where the traditional IsoSpeed endurance bike frame would flounder. I am talking here about rough descents, not cobblestones.

I can take the bike up over big roots and rocks along a steep up-hill trail and I can take it down the same trail (albeit carefully). At first I thought that it would be impossible to do on a rigid framed bike, but after I tried to pedal up and then  coast down the trail I found out how easy it is on the Pro Caliber. It hops roots and other trail obstacles as well as a full suspension bike albeit with a little bit more feedback in the rear.

The other thing that I really like about this bike is how it glides effortlessly along on the flats and even along moderate uphills. It feels fast like a road bike on asphalt. Of course it is not really  as fast as a skinny tire, drop bar bike; not with its fat knobbies and heavy Fox fork. It rides really well up-hill as long as the trails aren’t too steep (the wheel-set is slightly heavy). Sometimes on the flats it feels like there is a little electric assist motor inside when I am pedaling.

It has DT Swiss M1900, Boost wheels are set up for running tubeless. The 1900 SPLINE 22.5 is up to the challenge with its lightweight, high-quality pawl hubs. Altogether the wheel set weighs a decent 1843 grams, and although they aren’t the lightest wheels you can get, they are (presumably) bulletproof.  Maybe the lack of rear suspension and a lockout lever for the front is Trek’s formula for the uphills, but the bike works on downhills as well. It only weighs a little over 24 pounds.  The front fork is sensitive to all kinds of trail obstacles and where the front wheel goes the rear wheel follows.

You can go to Trek’s website to see all the specs. https://www.trekbikes.com/us/en_US/bikes/mountain-bikes/cross-country-mountain-bikes/procaliber/procaliber-9-7/p/2077690-2018/?colorCode=grey  I want to tell you how it feels riding the bike not just its specifications and features that you can get here online.

 

The other day I was riding the Pro Caliber fast down a steep hill that transitioned to a cliff like climb with a sharp turn out at the top. The bike kept up enough momentum to roll over the rocks at the top and I made the exit. This is a challenge that I was not able to do on my aluminum 29er full suspension bike. All the Pro Caliber needs are lighter rims and a dropper seat post and it would be almost perfect (it still needs better shifting action).

It goes over the logs with no hesitation; even  including the logs I put in my yard for my trials motorcycle. The bigger 29 inch wheels help there. It also hops over logs in the trail. I took it over a narrow wooden double plank bridge with no run in or run out (the rear wheel doesn’t follow the front wheel on sharp turns) and a steep drop to the bridge and a steep rise after you get off the bridge. It is tricky but my bike made it without complaint.

It also gets up to speed quickly and so it is not hard to get the momentum to go up over a steep rocky rise on the side of the trail and then down the other side over off camber roots. Getting it up to speed and then turning off the side of the trail to go up the hill without losing any speed is a piece of cake because it is incredibly maneuverable. It turns on a dime presumably because of its Trek 29er mountain bike geometry and its side to side rigidity.

The lateral rigidity of the fame with its vertical compliance and the through axles make it go straight and sure speeding through the worst terrain. The boost148/110 hubs provide the bike with stronger wheels, more tire clearance (for bigger tires) and shorter stays. It is another  item that adds to the bike’s rigidity and allows it to go straight and sure down the most terrifying drops.

It flies smoothly over roots and rocks. Most people do not expect this from a rigid frame-set but it is surprising how good the Pro Caliber is at speed. Most rigid frames will jump around but the Pro Caliber goes straight and true. I am not talking groomed single tracks here, but rutted gouged out trails through the worst terrain imaginable. It is not as smooth as a dual suspension bike but for the right person it is the real deal. It is especially relevant these days with tricky sections on most cross country race courses.

Without rear suspension on the Pro Caliber I have to pick my lines more carefully than on a full suspension bike. I used its quick steering response to veer off the trail and up a side hill when my rear wheel hit a bump and kicked the bike up in the air. I had to abort. When I looked at the place where my rear wheel kicked up, I found a line around it and got to the top and down the other side. You have to be careful picking your lines on this bike.

It is not a down hill bike; nor is it an all mountain enduro bike. It is fast on the easy stuff but if you are taking it down hill at speed to you have to pick your lines more carefully and you need to be on top your game. For example; I was taking the bike down a steep root entangled trail when I was distracted trying to clip back into my pedals (I was also trying to shift gears). I lost my concentration and took a horrible line dropping off straight into a big protruding root.

I didn’t have time to lift my front end and when my front wheel hit the root the fork bottomed and I started to somersault down the hill. Because I was unable to get out of my clips I landed  with my bike still attached to my feet. I squirmed to the side as I  went flying into the air and landed on my right side managing only to bruise my knee. I was not going particularly fast (evidently not fast enough to get over the obstacle). Having a dual suspension bike would not have helped me since I was not able to get the front wheel over the obstacle in the first place. It isn’t easy but it can be done with bravery and a lot of skill and no distractions.

I have two complaints. One is that the XT drive-train does not shift as easily as the SLX drive-train components on my aluminum full suspension bike.  It feels like it has mismatched components. No matter how much I adjust it, it is notchy and slow when I shift up while going up hill. The bike store where I purchased it was not able to help smooth out the shifting.

My other complaint is with Trek and the dealer where I bought the bike. A few days after purchasing it, I tried to take the rear wheel off by loosening the skewer on the quick release. When it did not come loose, I used a plastic tire lever to get some leverage. The quick release lever broke and I had to pay fifty dollars for a new through axle quick release from Trek. I did not receive any directions on how to use it from the bike shop where I purchased the bike. It is different from other quick releases. I don’t think that it works very well because after the mechanic tightened it up for the first time it would not release. It was still too tight and the store manager told me to kick it loose with my heel. What will they think of next?

So unlike other reviewers, who say that it is a good bike for beginners, I disagree and I think that it is the best bike for experienced racers who do not need rear suspension to smooth out normal trail obstacles. I think if I was going to go back to cross country racing this would be the steed I would race. It is light. It has the bigger wheels, it is affordable and the best bike for the  cross county racer on a budget. I love it even though I don’t race any more.

You don’t believe me? Then you should take the bike out for  test ride and you will see for yourself.trek-procaliber-97-2018-mountain-bike-grey-EV311892-7000-1

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