Switch back to 2019 and the UCI World Cup races specifically and you may remember the likes of Jolanda Neff, Emily Batty and Anton Cooper riding their Trek bikes with, let’s call it black tape, covering the rear shock. These were prototypes for what we now know is this bike, the Trek Supercaliber, which despite sounding like the start of a Mary Poppins song, is the brand’s top-tier race bike. We have the 9.8 derivative here, which is second from the top in the range and as of June 2020 retails for R99 999.
What you get
As a full-fat (or maybe that should be skinny) race bike, you get a carbon frame with a Fox Performance 32 Step-Cast fork with 100 mm of travel. You can go up to 120 mm on the fork travel according to Trek, and 120 mm seems to be more and more common on SA bikes but whether you’d want that on your race-day bike is debatable. Both front and rear axles are boosted to 110 mm and 148 mm respectively and the rear end suspension features Trek’s IsoStrut shock. It offers just 60 mm of travel and is integrated into the frame, apparently offering less lateral flex and twist than a normal rear shock. If it looks complicated, it isn’t. Once you strip away the mounting bolts it’s just as easy to service as any other Fox shock would be.
Bontrager comes to the party with an assortment of carbon parts comprising 30 mm Kovee Elite wheels, trick XR2 2.20 rubber (front and rear), Pro seatpost, 720 mm wide bars and for this large frame, an 80 mm stem. The stems vary in length depending on the frame size.
The drivetrain uses a SRAM GX Eagle 12-speed to do the shifting and a Truvativ carbon crank. The bike comes standard with a 32 tooth chainring, which works on race day, but you may want a 34 tooth for everyday use. Stopping power comes courtesy of Shimano XT brakes and make of them what you will but I struggle with the snatchy nature of XT and the unsettling reaction from it.
At R100k, the spec seems a little on the low side. I know I was expecting a little more than SRAM GX at this price, especially with the 9.9 being such a large step up at R180k, featuring XX1 componentary as well as a few other parts upgrades. However, I suspect we are in for a bit of shock as bike prices move further into the stratosphere in the future and there is always time to upgrade parts throughout the ownership period of the bike.
For those into their geometry, the Supercaliber hits all the modern marks. It has an adequate slack (for a cross-country race bike) 69.0-degree head angle, 430 mm chainstays and a wheelbase of 113.6 cm for the large frame. Claimed weight is 10.46 kg with sealant. Once I threw on some Shimano pedals and 2 bottle cages, I was surprised to see the scale read as high as 11.4 kg. Having done a bit of reading on this, it appears to be a common occurrence, obviously Trek’s in-house scale is rather friendly.
To the trails
Rather than listing all the tech specs in every detail, let’s get into how it all translates into the riding experience. Right out of the blocks the Supecaliber feels fast, from the front end responsiveness to the way you can rapidly flop the bike over from one side to the other. There is no delay in the bike’s reactions, it wants to move.
The dual lockout (front and rear together) is best reserved for flatter, softer surfaces where you can really make use of it. Having both shocks locked out on the trails is abrasive on the body and feels mechanically unsympathetic. In any case, with just 60 mm of travel at the back, you’re not losing much to the dreaded dual sus ‘bob’. It has the hardtail punchiness out of switchbacks and when trying to boost over things, unlike a hardtail, the bike does not get caught up on them and slow you down as the rear tries to settle. It is a climber’s dream, the swift front end gets you into and out of corners quickly while you get excellent value for every pedal stroke you churn out at the rear.
Send it at a negative gradient and it’s surprisingly more capable than you’d think. The fast front end is predictable and stable in the corners and if you need to quickly correct, it’s very easy to manipulate. Much of that is no doubt down to the slacker head angle and low bottom bracket height.
Down a succession of high-speed S-bend berms on Tygerberg’s Hoogekraal trail, I was impressed with just how quickly the bike shifts from side to side. You can force the issue and really attack corners with the confidence on the Supercaliber. The rear end feels light thanks to those short rear chainstays and tidy shock. A small flick of your heals in the cleats and you can lift the rear end up and have it wherever you want with very little effort.
I found myself going faster and faster on every trail, more confident in the bike’s abilities to deal with increased corner speed, jumps and ruts. The Bontrager XR2 rubber is soft and progressive the more angle you put on it. These tyres probably aren’t a long term option but for race day, they feel like a set of qualifying lap specials.
The short travel rear can get caught up on rockier terrain like a hardtail. Bigger drops and ruts run through the travel and you can find yourself slowed up momentarily where a conventional dual suspension would soak up the hit with less loss of forward momentum. I found that running a little harder pressure at the rear (10 psi above recommended pressure for a 65 kg rider) worked better for me. I wasn’t running out of travel so often and in knowing that, I would try harder to blast my way through bumpier terrain.
As a stage race bike, riders might find it a little too taxing on the body. I’m talking anything more than 2 or 3 days where you’re looking to preserve energy as much as possible. If you are a hardtail rider, then the Supercaliber is only going to be an improvement for you.
Trek seems to be somewhat of an underrated brand in South Africa and I can’t see why. It has quite a nice selling point in that the Bontrager parts are designed in-house and made specifically for Trek bikes. Keith Bontrager has pioneered many innovations in mountain biking and having someone like that underneath the Trek banner, ushering along part development has got to be a good thing.
The Supercaliber brings a new style of bike to the market, something race-bred and built for those eyeing podiums and KOMs. It combines the climbing speed of a hardtail with the ability to attack a descent like a dual sus can. Is it the best of both worlds? That depends on the type of riding you see yourself doing - XCO? Then yes. Cape Epic? No, consider the Top Fuel. 3-day stage race? Errr possibly, but you need to be fit.
You need to work to get the most out of the Supercaliber, it’s like a hardtail in that respect. You have to use your upper body and strength and in doing so it rewards you with a second here and there, which adds up over the course of a race.
While the pricing seems expensive now, there is nothing really this race-focused on the market. The latest Scalpel Si Carbon 2 is similarly priced and the new Specialized Epic isn’t far off that number either. Considering where the Trek is positioned, both of those rivals would be considered marathon bikes compared to the Trek Supercaliber’s race offering.