How America's No. 1 bicycle company secretly tested the world's lightest production road bike, then unveiled it the day before the Tour de France

Courtesy of TrekBike brands take pains to test prototypes, and keep them secret. Above, Alberto Contador tests the Émonda SLR 9, which Trek claims is the lightest production road frame at 640 grams.

Most major bike brands adore the Tour de France, and for good reason. Millions watch the three-week race from the roadside and hundreds of millions more watch it on TV, making it the ideal time to roll out new bikes and cycling gear.

But brands don’t just introduce new bikes at the race. Bikes need to be test-ridden, tweaked, and, yes, raced. At the same time, companies want to preserve the excitement of a new bike, build hype, and ensure customers keep buying the existing model that’s soon to be replaced.

Trek Bicycle Corp.‘s launch this past summer of its latest super-high-end road bike was a good example of how brands try to conduct under-the-radar real-world testing before unveiling bikes in prime time. The day before this year’s Tour it debuted one of the most talked-about new bikes, its redesigned Émonda SLR 9, an ultralight carbon climber for its Trek-Segafredo team.

But it came only after a year or so of redesigning the bike from its previous iteration and trying its best to test it in stealth mode with some of the world’s best cyclists.

In the run-up to this year’s Tour, Business Insider got an inside look at how America’s leading bike company readied and debuted one of the most important bikes in its over 40-year history.

It all began for us with a cryptic email from Trek inviting a handful of journalists to attend a private event at its headquarters, in Waterloo, Wisconsin, in early June, less than a month before the Tour’s start in Düsseldorf, Germany. The invite concluded by saying it was an embargoed event, meaning no teaser previews or “spy shots” on social media until June 30, the day of the official launch.

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So about three weeks before we headed to the Tour we made the drive from Chicago to Waterloo, wondering what lay in store. Almost certainly Trek would be announcing a new bike – but which one? A redesign or a completely new one? Or something else?

We arrived at Trek HQ in time for the opening presentation. The large building, sleek and modern, houses about a thousand employees (another thousand or so work at offices and stores around the world). Trek says everyone is encouraged to get out and ride during the workday, and employees we talked to said the company has a “very generous” employee discount on bikes and gear. Trek is the only billion-dollar bike company in the US.

Once inside we checked in at the front desk and were asked to wait for our contact. From where we sat we could see that, unlike on a previous visit, there was a black curtain pulled across the entrance to the main showroom.

Not long after we received our invite, and before we went to the embargoed event, we started seeing pictures online purporting to show a new Trek spotted at key Tour tune-up races. At couple of sites suggested it was a new Émonda (we asked Trek about it, but the company would not comment). As with rumours of new iPhones, bike “spy shots” create no shortage of intrigue.

YouTube/PelotonTVAn all-white, sticker-free Trek prototype out for a test ride.

Trek owns the WorldTour team Trek-Segafredo, which competes in all the top races. It’s a huge advantage over just sponsoring a team as it allows the brand to extensively test its prototypes out on the road and in races with its riders, who, as Trek employees, are trained to give precise and regular feedback on how the bikes perform in the real world. Designers then incorporate their feedback. It’s a winning strategy: These days Trek wins “best bike” awards all the time.

Compare that with Trek’s No. 1 rival, Specialised, which sponsors teams but does not own a WorldTour Tour de France team outright, even though it too makes award-winning bikes and counts three-time World Champion Peter Sagan as its superamabassador.

Above, a screenshot from a video by Peloton magazine showing Swiss pro Fabian Cancellara secretly testing a Trek Domane prototype on the cobbles of northern Europe.

Meanwhile, at the Waterloo presentation, Trek did in fact introduce the all-new Émonda SLR 9 to an intimate room full of journalists, confirming what cycling Twitter and several websites had been reporting. During the presentation, the company revealed all the specs of the new bike and claimed it was the lightest production road frame on the market at 640 grams.

YouTube/Trek BicycleFormer Tour winner Alberto Contador test-riding the new Émonda before the 2017 Tour.

Ben Coates, the director of road bikes at Trek, told Business Insider that even though it’s not always great for business, it’s important that riders spend time riding new bikes before they actually start racing them. One notable example: Alberto Contador, one of the most successful stage racers of the past decade and a former Tour winner. Though Contador was still officially riding for another team at the end of 2016, Trek said it was able to get him on a prototype Émonda for some test riding.

“Alberto was part of the development of the new Émonda,” Coates told us. “He’d been riding it since before he was officially paid by us. As soon as we had a contract, he wanted to be part of development. That’s still legal in the UCI rule book, that you can ride another team’s bikes. You just can’t wear another team’s kit [clothing].”

“When he goes to ride that bike at a race, he’s familiar with it. There were times in our past when we said to riders, ‘You can’t race this thing before the Tour. You have to go ride this thing anew there.’ We’ve learned valuable lessons about mental and physical tribulations that can cause athletes, so even though it’s not the best thing to have Alberto out there riding on a new Émonda, and it’s not the best for our business for it to be shown that way, it’s a concession we make for the health of the athletes. They need to perform their best at the Tour, and showing up on a brand-new, never-been-used race bike is not good for them.”

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesIn his final Tour, Contador struggled to find the legs that saw him win the race on two previous occasions; he finished ninth overall without a stage win.

“One of the things that the UCI has done to us that does have a negative impact is that, before you can race a bike in the WorldTour, it has to be approved by the UCI,” Coates told Business Insider. “And part of the approval process is a ‘guaranteed to sell by date’ that you give them. So you don’t get the benefit of saying, ‘Well, this might work – let’s race it and then we’ll make a decision and go forward.’ We actually have to be to the point where we say: ‘This is a real thing. We’re going to make it and we’re going to sell. It’s going to come to market before the athletes can consider riding it.’ And there are secondary problems with that for us, too – the publishing of what it is [and so forth].”

“You know, F1 cars are testing stuff that nobody know what it is, it’s secret, they’re pushing the boundaries, and in some ways they’re adhering to a set of rules that govern the total car, but they’re pushing the limits in ways to figure out what’s best. We don’t have that luxury now with the new regulations. There are good things to that, but one of the bad things is that there’s not an avenue for us to say, ‘Let’s make a size 54 in some radical concept, just to check it out.’ We don’t have that option.”

Daniel McMahon/Business InsiderA prototype for a previous iteration of the Émonda.

When Trek ships prototypes, it sends all-white frames with no lettering or decals, in part to keep new bike designs under wraps as much as possible. On our visit to Trek, we spotted, among some office cubicles, a prototype for the previous edition of the Émonda. And it’s not just the pros who test-ride prototypes; employees do too. Trek said it considers feedback from everyone. Why white? It reveals defects most clearly.

Coates explained how its pro riders carried out the testing for the new Émonda.

“What they got from us were four test bikes,” he said. “They all looked exactly the same, but were all radically different. They got a form with 30 objective questions, and they’d take one bike that was their baseline, and then they’d ride each bike against the baseline. They’d then say which one is better than which one. So it was very black and white: ‘Does A corner better than B?’ ‘Does A descend better than B?’ ‘Does A sprint better than B?'”

“So instead of relying on the athlete to say, ‘I really like this one,’ we actually go to blind testing, back to back, A versus B, which one’s better, and we do that usually three days in a row. We mix them up, and the test coordinator pays attention to, like, ‘OK, well, today they really liked B for these reasons, so let’s make B the baseline bike.’ Then we’ll test against B, and if B is the winner across the board, then that one is categorically the winner.’ So Peter Stetina and Alberto Contador and Bauke Mollema and Fränk Schleck – there were probably 10 professional athletes who went through at least one stage of testing like that.”

“It’s way more sophisticated than it used to be, which is why I think we are definitely at the pinnacle of rider testing, because when I was with the team, you literally showed up with a bike and went, ‘What do you think?’ And you’d take your notes and go back and say, ‘We need to fix these eight things.’ There’d be no structure to it. Now, it’s very regimented.”

Daniel McMahon/Business InsiderThe Émonda SLR line offers models at a variety of price points and includes rim- and disc-brake options.

Coates added: “The really interesting kind of feedback we received from the athletes – and specifically Peter Stetina, who’s a really big disc-brake advocate – was that they wanted the disc-brake bike to be different from the rim-brake bike. So through testing, both in objective testing and through Stetina’s communication, he’d say, for example, ‘The rim-brake bike does these things, and I noticed the disc-brake bike does these things, and so I want the disc-brake bike to be less stiff than the rim-brake bike.’ So he was articulating clearly, like, ‘I know these are the same bike, but if you make them the same laminate or the same tube shapes, they’re not actually going to be the best bike individually that they can be.'”

A frame designer at Trek told Business Insider: “We spend a lot of time with riders and try to understand their goals and their pain points, what they don’t like about products, and how we can make them better.”

“With the Émonda, when we started this project, just days after we launched the previous one, we had the unique challenge of trying to make the bike even better than it was. I think we did a great job in making a really fun to ride bike, superlight, easy to work on. It’s a really good bike. But to get to that next step was daunting.”

Daniel McMahon/Business Insider

Trek claims the 56 cm Émonda SLR 9 H1 frame weighs 640 grams (1.41 pounds) and is the world’s lightest production road frameset.

Daniel McMahon/Business Insider

Former Tour de France stage winner and current Trek brand ambassador Jens Voigt attended the event in Waterloo, one of his first stops on a world tour to promote the new Émonda.

Voigt was riding a team-issue Émonda SLR with disc brakes.

Daniel McMahon/Business InsiderContador’s race-ready Émonda SLR 9.

A few weeks later, at the Tour’s start in Düsseldorf, the new Émonda was finally on public display at the Trek-Segafredo team bus. A stock SLR 9 starts at $US11,000.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The SLR 9 was the go-to climbing bike for most of the team at this year’s Tour.

Daniel McMahon/Business Insider

Meanwhile in Düsseldorf, across town, Trek’s biggest competitor, Specialised, held a swanky launch party for its new Tarmac, the chief rival to the Émonda, the day before the Tour started.

Daniel McMahon/Business Insider

California’s Specialised and Wisconsin’s Trek are fierce rivals, with each company essentially laying claim to having the world’s best performance road bike. At its launch party, Specialised boldly claimed its Tarmac was faster and a better all-around bike than the Émonda.

While the Tarmac is one of the best bikes we’ve ridden, the Émonda is also a superb bike, and whether one is better than the other is not crystal clear to us so far – and likely to be decidedly subjective. We’ll try to test-ride both and report back.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

In the end, Dutchman Bauke Mollema, aboard the new Émonda, saved Trek-Segafredo’s otherwise quiet 2017 Tour de France by giving the team its only win in the race, on stage 15 at Le Puy-en-Velay. So while Trek didn’t have a stellar Tour, it at least got a taste of victory, and the chance to show the world its superbike so long in the making.

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