Bicycle touring can be done on almost any kind of bike. After a few 100-mile days, however, having the right touring bike will determine whether your body can live up to the demands of life on the road.
That said, the Trek 520 caters to the touring bike scene with its chromoly steel frame that offers the perfect mix of flexibility, comfort and durability needed for long-distance bicycle touring. The stretched out geometry is just right for staying comfortable on the bike and at the same time allows you to get in a good aerodynamic stance for optimal speed. The 520 is perfect for long-distance bicycle tours or for the daily commute. Its classic touring geometry has stood the test of time and is considered a cult classic by many. Having been around since the 1970’s, The Trek 520 has earned its place in bicycle touring history.
Trek only offers one touring option – the Trek 520, which is altered each year with a new paint color and exterior design. While the paint may change, the components haven’t varied too much throughout the recent years.
The Trek 520 MSRP is set at $1,429.99 USD.
It comes in five different frame sizes: 48, 51, 54, 57, 60cm. I am 5’8” with a 30” inseam and the 54cm fits me perfect.
The included components are great for touring right out of the box. The Shimano Dura-Ace bar-end shifters are low maintenance and easy to fix on the go. If they do break, they’re also inexpensive to replace compared to other styles of shifters. (My friends shifter broke in a minor crash on his Cannondale T-1 and the cost to replace the broken part was almost $500. He was able to switch to bar-end shifters for under $100 USD – including labor.)
The wheel set on the Trek 520 is durable and able to take a heavy load even on mild trails, with Bontrager Race Lite Hard-Case 700x32c tires that are wide enough to add cushion yet able to keep good speed.
The bike also comes with a Bontrager Back Rack Deluxe (a rear rack) that is good for loads lighter than 20lbs.
The stock brakes hold their power and are able to stop your fully-loaded bicycle, even when traveling at high speeds and in downhill scenarios.
I went about purchasing this bike first by spending a good amount of time researching touring bikes online. After hours of research I had narrowed my choices to the Surly Long Haul Trucker and the Trek 520. My next step in purchasing the bike was trying to find a store that had one of these bikes in stock to test drive. I could not find any local stores that had the Surly Long Haul Trucker in stock. I quickly discovered that touring bicycles can be hard to find in many local bike shops.
After calling about 20 stores that carried Trek bicycles, I came across Helen’s Cycles in Santa Monica, CA that stocked the 520, and it just so happens they had my size! I took the bike for a test drive and loved the comfort and stability of the bike. I was sold! I was able to pick mine up in 2010 for just under $1,050 USD (including tax) due to some minor chips in the paint on the top tube.
The suggested retail price of the Trek 520 is a little steep in my opinion, because there are similar bikes of similar quality that sell for less. However, the 520 is specialty bicycle, which somewhat justifies its price.
Experience With The Bike & Upgrades for Long Distance Touring
I purchased my Trek 520 in the spring of 2010 with plans to use it as a touring bike, road bike and commuter. I had never owned a road bike before, as I was mainly an avid mountain biker at the time, so the Trek 520 had a completely different feel for me. After a few longer rides, however, I was hooked! I loved that I could cover 50-80 miles in a day without being exhausted.
After many long rides to train for my month-long Canada tour that I did in the summer of 2010, I invested in some upgrades. While the bike is set up for touring, I made some upgrades to meet my specific riding/touring needs. The biggest upgrade for comfort I have made was the saddle. The Trek 520 comes with a decent stock saddle, fine for 60-mile rides, but after doing a few 80-100 mile days in a row, I decided an upgrade was a worthy investment. After doing my research I decided on leather Selle An-Atomica. It is the best seat I have ever sat on! After proper adjustment and wear-in it feels like riding on air.
Soon after that I added Shimano 520 SPD pedals. Next, I installed a set of Kevlar lined Schwalbe Marathon Plus 700 x 35c tires. With the new tires I have only had one flat in 3,500 miles. My friend bought the same tires for his Cannondale touring bike and was able to ride over 6,000 miles on one set before replacing them. I also upgraded the stock fenders to SKS fenders. They give a lot better coverage for riding in the rain and dusty conditions.
The stock rear rack is good for carrying 20lbs or less. I carry my tent and all my gear on my bike while touring so I decided to upgrade to an Axiom rear rack and purchased Axiom Low-rider front racks to carry my 35-40 lbs worth of camping gear and clothes. To hold my gear I invested in the Axiom journey series panniers – front and back. Everything mounted very well, and the bike has sufficient braze-ons and welds for mounting heavy duty racks.
The one upgrade I have always thought about is lower crank gears. The stock gear ratio of 48/36/26 is a little high if you are using the bike to carry heavier loads on longer trips with mountains. My full load including the bike weighs in at close to 70lbs, while the bike itself weighs in at 27lbs. On long mountain passes, it sure would be nice to have a lower gear to switch into.
If I had to say one thing negative about the bike, I would say the paint job is not without its flaws. In 2010, when I purchased the bike, a rusty root-beer color was the only color option. For some, the color along might have been enough to turn them away from the bike. The brownish color of my bike has grown on me, however, and the metallic brownish/orange high gloss paint really stands out in the sun.
The problem that I have noticed, however, is that the metallic paint chips off easier than any other bike I have ever owned. An easily chipped paint job, of course, is not what you want in a touring bicycle that can be exposed to the elements for long periods of time. While the paint may be chipping, there isn’t a single spot or chip that has started to rust. You should also remember that the current models paint is different and I have not heard if it still suffers from paint chipping.
Would I Recommend The Trek 520 Touring Bike?
I would highly recommend this bike if you have the money to invest, and are serious about bike touring. You definitely get your moneys worth. The bikes durability, style and comfort definitely justify the price. I also get comments on the style of the bike frequently; a lot of people enjoy the classic look of it. This is the most comfortable bike I have ever ridden. The steel frame and geometry of the bike minimizes the bumpiest of roads and can take on some mild dirt trails – even when fully loaded.
The Trek 520 is capable of holding a lot of weight, taking a beating and coming out like a champ. I have almost 4,500 miles on my 2010 Trek 520. Other than re-greasing and tightening the bottom bracket, new brakes, new chain, basic maintenance and tuning, it rides just like the day I bought it!
Conclusion and Rating
Looking back I have had no regrets or any major technical issues with the Trek 520. I have also yet to come across any major complaints from fellow bikers that own this particular bicycle. On a Scale of 1 to 10, I would give this bike a 9. The durability of the paint and the fact that the bike is slightly overpriced when compared to similar bicycle models are the only things holding the 520 back from being a perfect 10. The Trek 520 is and will continue to remain a classic choice in the bicycle touring world.
About The Author: Justin Bernstein is a 23-year-old student at Cal State Channel Islands where he works part-time as a bicycle technician. Justin says he enjoys anything that has wheels and notes that bicycle touring has allowed him to see some amazing places and meet some great people. “I love touring by bike and plan to never stop riding!”