Seven Axiom SL versus Trek Domane SL
A Policy of Isolationism
The Road to Isolationism
My riding is currently consumed in 45 minute chunks. It is a digital certainty that at 44 minutes and 30 seconds a piercing pain in my mid-lower back will overtake proceedings.
Riding with Morgan and James will alter the algorithm by around 20% and truncate pain-free riding to about half of one hour. James and Morgan are to be avoided.
And so my onward quest to find a bike that either elongates the ride window beyond the current 45 minutes and/or sprinkles around so much fairy dust that the 46th minute is simply unnecessary because so much pleasure has already flooded through the system by way of trillions of neurotransmitters shooting their bolt ; thus leaving me ridden to satiety. So to speak.
Axiom SL vs Domane 6 SL
I selected these two bikes because they both offer a notional route to isolation. Actually my back issues are structural so I am not especially sensitive to jolting and bumps per se, but a degree or so of separation from the road is incontestably a good thing – otherwise we would all be riding around on aluminium bikes – stiff, light, cheap and of course entirely horrible.
Trek Domane 5.2 - £3100 (Complete bike)
Trek are a funny onion. Not so good at marketing but creative and imaginative with R&D. The original Trek OCLV came out almost 20 years ago and pound for pound is still better than most carbon frames around. Its light, however, remained resolutely under a bushel until Armstrong strong-armed it into public perception. Trek were until this point oblivious to the fact that they had de-facto wrong-footed all other bike companies with the quality and performance of this frame. As I say,… strange. This time Trek worked with Fabian Cancellara to develop a race bike that would give him a competitive edge over rough ground. Simple enough remit. The route they took is once again creative:
• Low bottom bracket - to lower centre of gravity
• Long chainstays - for overall stability
• IsoSpeed Decoupler to isolate seat-tube from vertical frame forces
• IsoSpeed fork – increased offset and trail for stability and self-steer
It’s The Maths, Stupid
To me the ethos of the geometry is cleverer than the decoupling pivot at the junction of seat and toptubes, which itself is fairly smart. But making the leap that a Paris-Roubaix cobbles bike needs a lower and not higher bottom-bracket is pure lateral genius. It places the CofG palpably lower and sits the rider deep into the control space. Similarly increased trail of the fork (think self-steering super-market trolley wheels) and chainstays stretches the wheelbase in a wholly good way. Too many assumptions of how a great race bike should look and feel have been made and too many of them have been wrong. What the Domane exudes in abundance is stability and a feeling of connectedness to the bike. This exerts a powerful feeling of control and confidence in the rider. What more can you want from a race-bike I ask. And the truth is that a lot of us in the custom world have been edging our designs this way for years.
Some Bumps Are More Equal Than Others
The Domane has, over the last year or so, become the everyman performance bike – mudguards, winter-training, commuting, sportivs, touring, etc. Lots of my clients have one in their arsenal and use it as their default ride. A real Swiss Army bike. But that is not how his Swissness actually conceived it. This is a very specific weapon for a very specific road. It feels good everywhere with the BB90 comic-book BB shell as stiff as a manhole cover. But get it on a bumpy road and get that coupler twanging a centimetre or so and it comes more into its own. But let’s deconstruct the Decoupler a bit more. Where the Domane excels is on regularly spaced big bumps taken very fast in the saddle - ergo cobbles! The inherent lack of rebound damping in the seat-tube flex means that it returns super-fast at you as you ride, which is great if there is another bump right away but not so good if you have just happened to fall into one big pothole. Also standing over the bumps is no good because you are now manifestly not loading up through the coupler so no benefit is enjoyed. You have to ride like Fabian to get the best out of it – big gear, rooted deep in the saddle, at speed and hitting the stones smack in the mouth. That is the best route to Domane heaven. Anything else will be a performance compromise.
If anything standing exaggerates the shock felt through the pedals and hands where there is now no break-point between you and that 90mm BB shell that dominates your horizon.
Seven Axiom SL - £3460 (frame only)
I have been here before. Back when I used to do this kind of thing for a living in 2002 for Cycle Sport Magazine. Back then I was a racer with an unusual predilection for quality American titanium and the Axiom Test was part of a series that included a Serotta Legend and Moots.
Where the Domane is all R&D and shouty graphics the Axiom is the result of an evolving continuous improvement programme at the Seven workshop. Walk through the doors and the air is thick with milled titanium, cutting compounds and weld-flux. They have done virtually the same things the same way for nearly twenty years. Virtually but not quite. Rob Vandermark is a deeply thoughtful and cautious man. He knows that the recipe is successful and compelling. He will need a lot convincing to change anything. That is a back-handed compliment by the way, and typifies by the fact that in all the time we have been working with Seven we have never had any warranty claims. Not one. Vandermark is invested in titanium in every way, emotionally, intellectually and professionally. He has personally been involved in every single innovation and advance that this mystical metal has been disinclined to offer the bike industry. Which is precisely the reason that the big companies have studiedly avoided it - too expensive, too difficult, impossible to scale. It just screams niche, which suits Rob Vandermark just fine, we suspect.
All Titanium is Equal
Buying a cheap titanium frame is right up there with a cut-price root-canal in the lexicon of poor buying decisions. Download and read Seven’s titanium manifesto HERE to horrify and inspire in equal measure. In the right hands titanium fabricates into a frame that is a loyal and beautiful lifetime partner. In the wrong hands it is an elephant material with a very long memory that can’t wait to revert to a previous state or shape – yes that is a euphemism.
This is my daughter’s favourite bike. It doesn’t look like the others and blends well with the pastel shades her mother prefers. The monastic aesthetic is a metaphor for the ride. If the Domane is an exciting overflow of New-World technology and smash-mouth flavour; the Axiom is a fine aged Burgundy that builds its character with balanced acidity rather than fruit, tannins or alcohol.
Everything is understated and minimal; from the tiny multi-pass welds that have been crafted by tame obsessive silk-worms to obstinately classic round tubes in an age of aero and ‘Kam-Tails’ - not a micron out of place. Not much has changed in the eleven years since because not much needed to.
Eleven years on and so little has changed - a bit of weight shaved, the odd butting profile altered (all Seven’s tube machining went in-house in 2004). The BB area is a little stiffer to match time’s-arrow of component and wheel development but I am not sure I can feel that. But what I can feel is a suppleness and light-touch in a ride that most manufacturers can’t achieve so assume that we don’t want. In the canonisation of stiffness we forsake so much nuance and subtlety that the coiled-spring mechanics of fine metal gives to a bicycle. What you are left with is a sense of space – acoustic silence and calm control. No wonder titanium is de-rigour with our architect clients – they appreciate both the integrity of the materiality and the wonderful inner workings of this extraordinary substance. They don’t question the price because they no what it takes to make this most difficult material yield safely to the artisan. The Axiom is certainly mellower than both my Serotta Legend SE and Passoni Top Force over all road surfaces and that is no bad thing. And it is real world fast - firstly because it is so light and secondly because the ride is so damned predictable and luxurious that you just keep pressing down hard without a flicker of distraction. It is a bike for all seasons, all occasions and all times for as long as you care to ride.
Is There A Conclusion?
Yes there is. Which bike did I keep for myself? Which do you think reading back through the test?
The Domane of course. The clue was in the body of the text – I already have a Serotta legend SE so an Axiom SL would be a hair away, a close cousin from the factory a 100 miles up the I90. I love both bikes because the two men that make them are so similar. Uncompromising, stubborn and anachronistic in their pursuit of perfection and quality. I am sure if that if they weren’t competitors they would see that they have more that unites than divides them.
So the Domane joins a stable of bikes that live life in 45 minute bursts. Ride it right and the Domane is the perfect all-rounder with an amazing gift to hit huge bumps are high speed and feel nothing. Ride it wrong and you have a Team Replica with the delivery of a missile wrapped up in geometry that will probably ride you around your own short-comings. Come winter a set of mudguards will be attached via the hidden braze-ons, facilitated by the increased chainstay clearance.
In short, the Domane is so good that it has caught every other manufacturer off-guard. Expect a plethora of imitators next season. It was a strange test because these bikes are just not natural competitors in the way they ride or their position in the market-place; One of them isolates you from the road and the other isolates you from the bike. Quite simple.
Moreover, Seven and the work they do in their workshop with titanium is not on Trek’s radar and I suspect Rob Vandermark prefers it that way.
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