Bicycles

Trek 520 – Touring Bicycle Review

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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.

The Bike

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.

The Purchase

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.

Weaknesses

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!”

About Justin Bernstein

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24 Comments

  1. James Needham

    July 20, 2012 at 9:53 am

    I too have a 2003 520, has been an awsome bike…lots of miles touring with 0 problems. Great article!

  2. Rodney Burnap

    July 21, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I also love the 520, but there is or was for me toe wheel clip or what ever we call it when your shoe’s clip the front wheel…what do you think about using butterfly handle bars on the 520, with a 650 wheel you can add a little wider tire?

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      July 25, 2012 at 2:39 am

      Rodney, I’m not quite sure I understand you. Are you saying that when you ride the Trek 520 that the front wheel clips the front of your toes when you turn? If so, that could indeed be the right of the bike… or it might just be the way you have the toe clips set up.

      As for butterfly bars, this is a personal decision and it is quite a lot of work to change out the handlebars on a touring bicycle like this. If you want to make that change, then yes, it can be done. But the drop bars that come on the Trek 520 are great in my opinion and most people will be quite happy with them.

  3. John M

    July 25, 2012 at 3:00 am

    I’d really like to get one of these for my own touring but they don’t seem to be available in the uk?

  4. Paul Hamsun

    July 27, 2012 at 1:57 am

    It may be a good touring bike but as any Trek it is just ridiculously too short for tall people. I am 6.8″ and I would never buy Trek (except for Garry Fisher of course – shame they have a Trek label on it now…). So if you look closely you will see that the geometry of Trek bikes is really stupid where the tall people are concerned. They make some bikes up to size 25″ but still only about 10 cm longer then the 15″ version – what is that about. Plus you end up paying too much for the label, I’d rather go for Surly or something else.

  5. Earl Stine

    July 27, 2012 at 4:26 am

    I have enjoyed my 520 since 2010. I tour about 6,000 miles a tear and the 520 is very dependable and comfortable. The only negative has been the 3rd bottle holder. When you add the detachable fenders the 3rd bottle holder cannot be used because it hits the fender. I have recommended the 520 to others but it can be difficult to find in stock. Most bike stores want you to purchase before they order….without a test ride. If you do not like the bike you are stuck with it or you can return it but you are committed to buy something else.

  6. John

    July 27, 2012 at 6:41 am

    Wow, thanks for your help there was actually a dealer 2 miles away. Going to make a trip down tomorrow.

  7. Jeff

    July 27, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Earl,

    The inability to use the third bottle cage is quite common. There just isn’t that much room under there. A normal 21 oz water bottle is too long. But the cage is still useful for other things. If you use a stove that feeds off of traditional liquid fuel bottles, you can fit a half-liter fuel bottle in the third cage. I have a half-liter storage bottle down there that holds a spare tube, rag, patches, and wrenches. It makes sense to put something heavy down there. It wouldn’t be a great place for an actual water bottle anyway–it’s difficult to access while riding and it tends to pick up a lot of road grit. This is the storage bottle that I use: http://www.amazon.com/Pro-Storage-Bottle-500cc/dp/B004MGICFS

  8. ollin

    July 27, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    “there are similar bikes of similar quality that sell for less” could you name some of them for us, the budget tourers? :) I’m currently touring on an aluminum trek 7.3FX, is steel really much more suppler than alu?

  9. Thommo

    July 28, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Excellent review….I am in the process of looking around for a tourer, the top of my list was the Cannondale Touring but I understand these stopped being produced in 2010..Will be following your advise closely

    Keep up the good work

    Regards

    Thommo

  10. Jerry

    August 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    The Trek 520 is a good bike. However, it is quirky in that for many a front shoe and wheel impact can occur on turns – not sure why, but this is a commonly reported thing. I believe the Surly is a better overall bike, better ride, better fit for most…

  11. Steve

    October 2, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Nice review. I picked up a 2010 520 (barely used) this March and put 1200 miles on it over the summer. Never a problem. I really like the metallic root beer color and haven’t had the chipping problems you experienced. The bike rides smooth and shifts smooth. I also put SKS fenders on mine as well as a Brooks B-17. I’m still on the Bontrager Hardcase Race Lite tires that came on it and have not had a flat yet. The updated gearing has the granny necessary for the steep 13-14% grades that we routinely face in our area. The longevity of this particular model speaks volumes. Maybe more have crossed the continent than any other single bike model.

  12. Richard B

    December 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    The Trek store sized me and sold me a 57cm Trek 520. They said I was borderline between the 57 and the 54. After 3 years I have to say the bike is too small. I’m 5’9″, and to get it to fit right the seat has to be way up, and Trek had to order a new uncut fork to get the handlebars way up – to get almost level with seat. It looks funny. Another local bike store, that does not sell Trek, told me it looks too small. REI put my wife, at 5’4″ on a “medium” Novara Randonee touring bike (often compared to the Trek 520). Her bike is bigger than mine!

    I think Trek sizing works for guys with really short legs, and people who like that “seat post up in the sky” look you see with racers. The old Trek 520s, with less compact geometry, look far better to my eye.

    I’ll probably swap the parts to another frame. Big $ loss.

    Other than that, it’s a great., flawless bike.

  13. Steve

    January 23, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    Howdy. :) Nice review, but I’m not sure what sort of rack your 520 had to have come with to only carry up to 20 lbs. o.O That seems really low. The current model of the 520, which you have pictured at the top, comes with the “deluxe” back rack from Bontrager, which is rated to hold up to 25 kgs, or about 55 lbs (and even their smaller rack is rated for the same weight). Anyway, I’ve had my eye on the 520 for a while now, dreaming about the day I finally manage to get myself set up for touring! :)

  14. tom

    May 23, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I just bought the 520 and I did a lot of research before I made the purchase. I will stay in touch with all and tell you my thoughts as soon as get the bike this sunday.

  15. Jeff

    July 19, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    I bought the Trek 520 this year for a 3 day tour through the Rockie Mountains. The bike performed well and was able to carry my 20 lb. panniers with ease. The steel frame was heavier than my other bikes but did not feel heavy riding. The smaller frame size fit my short torso although I had to raise the seat quite a bit for my long legs. That being said the 520 is the most comfortable bike I have ever ridden.

  16. Mary

    July 26, 2013 at 9:14 am

    I purchased my Trek 520 about 20 years ago and used it for many touring trips. I have always taken good care of it, and today it still remains to be one of my favorite bikes to take day rides on. I paid about $500 for it 20 years ago and has proven to be a great buy.

  17. Vladimir

    August 13, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    In Europe Idid use for self supporting tours mind condition Cannondale 1000X . My brother try it and he was also hooked … When return to Canada I did buy new Trek 520 . About 20000 miles fully loaded touring on my trusted and comfortable burgundy red Trek 520 was poore pleasure and I do not complain at all. Set up: Brooks , Shimano SPD , Satori stem and stem riser , AC Lowrider , Axiom rack just slightly modified , Voyager heavy duty paniers front and rear + Voyager handlebar bag , ( you do not buy those quality anymore). Czech made Pigeon framebag is superior quality also so by Bilenky Bicycle Work installed S&S couplings for reason . This Trek 520 is last series proudly build in Wisconsin USA .

  18. Dave

    August 21, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for the great review and information. The Trek 520 is on my short-list of bikes and this is helping me make up my mind!

  19. John

    August 27, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Wondered if you still have the 520 or gotten rid of it? I see the CoMotion now with S&S couplers. I am purchasing a 520, and building it with components equal to the Americano, along with S&S couplers, a SON28 hub and Luxos U headlight. Your thoughts on this set up?

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      August 29, 2013 at 10:03 pm

      Hi John,

      This bicycle review was written by a BicycleTouringPro.com reader named Justin Bernstein. I don’t own a Trek 520 and I never have.

      You are correct about me owning a Co-Motion Pangea, however. The Pangea is the touring bicycle I have been riding since May of 2012.

      I’ve never heard of anyone buying a Trek 520 and totally transforming it the way you say you plan to do. It sounds like a lot of work and money. Why did you decided to do this rather than just keep the Trek 520 the way it is… or rather than just buying a touring bicycle with the parts/components that you want?

      I’d be interested in hearing how that hub works out for you and what you end up charging with it (besides the headlight).

  20. Drewbacca the Bookiee

    September 16, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    This review reads too much like a brochure from Trek, at least the first half. Today’s 520 is a relatively more compact geometry than the original. My 2002 is a completely different bike than the current model in both geometry and stock components. Trek has finally figured out what parts a touring bike should have, however, for years they were putting a standard road triple (52/42/30). While it’s a solid bike, I’m critical of the idea that it hasn’t changed over the years. Also, given this review was written two years ago, I should mention that Trek is adding disc brakes for 2015 (mentioning this for the sake of anyone reading the above review and considering the 520).

    Where are you getting that the rack (Back Rack Deluxe) can only hold 20#? Trek lists it at 50#. I’ve upgraded to this newer version and I’ve had no issues fully loaded with somewhere in the area of 50# of gear. It’s a well made rack.

  21. Mark Yelavich

    October 21, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    I purchased a 2013 Trek 520 earlier this year and enjoy riding it regularly. The bike rides smooth and steady and, while not necessarily built for speed, can sail down the road quickly. I chose to replace the stock Bontrager seat with a Brooks Flyer (springed) saddle which is almost broken in now – it works great to reduce road vibrations. I added a Light and Motion headlight for night-time daylight and a Bontrager pannier which easily mounts to and disconnects from the back rack. This is the second Trek touring bike I have owned – I love it!

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