Touring Bike - My Trek 520 after numerous upgrades

A picture of my Trek 520.

This picture shows my Trek 520 in commuting mode. Switching back to full on touring mode requires removal of the space arm on the front handlebar and mounting of the saddlebags and handlebar bag. Minimal effort required!
Click to enlarge.

In 2002 I purchased my Trek 520. At the time of purchase I stayed with the factory default configuration. After all these guys had been making these bikes for decades and surely they knew exactly what was needed on a self-contained and fully loaded touring bike right?

Well the theory was great but as you will see in the page that follows I have made a number of upgrades to the stock configuration. In truth it would likely have been cheaper to have just started with a standard frame and add components or just order the changes at the time of original purchase rather then pay for some parts twice.

Since purchase the bike I've learned that the rumour is that Trek sells most of these touring bikes to club riders rather then fully loaded/self-contained touring cyclists.

The upgrades I list below all share a common goal. I have been aiming for a bike that has reliable parts that seldom have issues, a bike that works for touring and commuting as well as a bicycle that I can trust to get me home regardless of the length of the tour.

So without further delay let's get started!

New saddle

The original saddle that came with the 520 now sets in a box of spare parts. After my first four day tour using that saddle I decided that something a little more butt friendly was in order.

I tried gel saddles and they worked for the first 30 to 40 km before becoming painful. From discussions with other bicycle tourists I kept hearing about how great a Brook's leather saddle is. In fact it seems like over 50% of long distance tourers use them. In actual fact 95% of the upright cyclists that I've met on tour who were also touring were using Brook's saddles.

Brook's Champion Flyer saddle.

My Brook's saddle after over 10,000 km of usage in both summer and winter including five tours.
Click to enlarge.

My longest rides are 178.44 km and 169 km. On both days when the day was done my butt was pain free. No need to search further for another saddle!

People are often leery about forking out money for an old style bicycle saddle. Well I was too. Wallingford Bicycle Parts offers a program where you can return the saddle for a refund should you be unsatisfied with it. I purchased not one but two saddles from them (both Brook's Champion Flyers). This winter I will likely purchase another one for my winter Icebike

It took about 400 km for my saddle to become fully broken in. Not everyone goes through this step. A buddy of mine has never had to break his in at all!

New Rear rack

I used the original rear rack for three tours including my trip around Lake Erie. I never experienced problems with the main body of the rack but after a little less then 400 km my tail light bracket snapped off leaving me feeling a little less comfortable with this rack. The cause of the damage was likely vibration induced.

My new rack is the Axiom Tour de Monde. Here's a blurb from their webpage:


THE STRONGEST Pannier Rack ever made!
Incredibly strong Tubular Stainless Steel construction
10.4mm diameter double welded stays
Micro adjustable alloy frame fastening brackets
Adjustable height to accommodate different wheel sizes
Stainless hardware
Triple stay design with sweepback support for heavy duty pannier support
Incorporated reflector bracket
Fits 24', 26', 27', 28', and 700C
1020 grams
Lifetime Guarantee
MAX CAPACITY = over 150 kg !!!

Suggested Retail Price: $119.90 [Cdn]

Axiom rear rack.

This is my Axiom rear rack. If you look closely you can see that there is a rear light bracket just below the rack's deck. Normally I have the light on there. I just removed it earlier in the day to put in new batteries and haven't replaced it yet.
Click to enlarge.

I now own two of these racks including one on my Icebike. It's successfully survived a winter of salty roads. The rack itself worked well for getting me around Lake Huron. I never had any concerns about it and the tail light bracket is still going strong thousands of kilometers later.

Look Stem

When I first received my Trek 520 I could never get comfortable. It seemed that I would end up riding for about 70 km and then my shoulders and upper arms would be sore. After that I would stop about every 25 km to stretch the muscles.

The stem gave me additional options for easily raising and lowering the handlebars depending on my mood. I used to use these features regularily although I seldom use it since going through the Fit Kit process just before my Round Lake Huron tour.

New fork

I ended up replacing the front fork with another fork identical to the first. The reason for the replacement is that the original fork was cut down too much! While this may be great for racing bikes on a tour I want to see more of the scenery instead of just the road itself. As you can see in the picture I have many options when you look at the combination of a special stem and a fork with tons more space for upward adjustment.

New gearing

Look stem

This picture shows the Look stem as well as the new fork that hasn't been cut down. Between the two I have tons of adjustability options.
Click to enlarge.

Originally the 520 came with front gearing of 52/42/30 and a rear cassette going from 11-32. This gave me 128.4 gear inches in my highest gear and 25.5 for my lowest. Conventional wisdom seem to be to aim for a high end gear around 100 and go for as low as you can on the bottom end.

My first change was to swap out the stock rear cassette with a slightly wider range, 11-34 one. This change dropped my low end from 25.5 gear inches to 24.0.

I used this setup for four tours including my Round Lake Erie tour but I found that on the steepest hills I would often wish for lower gearing. I could make it up the hills without it but I couldn't help but reflect on all the unneeded higher gears and the missing lower gears.

A change was in order and just before my Round Lake Huron tour I implemented it. The change was to a mountain bike crank that gave me front gearing of 44/32/22. With my 11-34 rear cassette this gave me gearing from 108.6 for the high end and 17.6 gear inches for the low end. This dramatically improved the lower end performance of the bike while giving me plenty of high end performance as well.

Of course I didn't stop there. The one thing I didn't like was the varying gap size between gears Especially when cycling on the flats it often felt like I should go up or down a gear but the jump was just a little too big or small.

The solution for me came courtesy of Sheldon Brown. He offers a cassette called the CycloTouriste 13. Using this rear cassette I lose a bit more high end, preserve my low end and have nicely spaced gears. He also has an awesome gear calculator if you are interested in checking out your own gearing.

My final gearing has a high end of 92 gear inches and a low end of 17.9 gear inches. I haven't yet found a hill that required a walk with this gearing. I also tend to enjoy hills more knowing that I can always sit back and just spin my way up the hill.

New tires

Trek 520 drivetrain.

This is the current and possibly final drive train.
Click to enlarge.

I used the original stock tires for my first four tours with this bike. The tires worked ok but I always wanted something a bit more durable and with better gravel handling capabilities. I ultimately purchased a set of Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires for my Round Lake Huron tour. At this point I intend to stick with these tires. I wrote a complete review following that tour.

Front rack

I originally installed a used Blackburn front rack on the bike. Following my Lake erie tour I decided to upgrade to a Tubus Tara front rack. Tubus racks have a very good reputation amongst long distance cyclists. I crave equipment reliability on my tours so I decided to do the upgrade. The old rack has since been passed on to a friend who is currently giving touring a try.


I installed some SKS fenders on the bike. These fenders are full length and stay mounted all the time. I like the comfort of not worrying about having a nice wet butt when riding on wet roads plus I enjoy knowing that mud and stuff stays off my gear and I too.

Other nice features on the bike

Schwalbe tire and tubus front rack.

The Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires have reflective sidewalls as you can see from this flash assisted picture. The tubus front rack is also visible in this picture.
Click to enlarge.

I really enjoy how nicely this bike rides when it's fully loaded. The bike seems to become more responsive and have a smooth, silky sleek feeling.

The bike also has bar end shifters which are reputed to be one of the most reliably types of shifters available. These shifters feature the ability to do indexed or friction shifting giving you options if damage to the shifters or deraileurs occur.

Space for three water bottle cages exists on the bike by default giving you the ability to carry a reasonable amount of water on the bike.

V-brakes have great stopping power and that's the kind of brake on the bike.

I haven't experienced any problems with the wheels at all despite riding some technical singletrack using this bike.

What's next?

Right now I don't really have any plans for further upgrades. My bike is turning out to be very reliable and I feel confident that this bike will bring me home from any tour I embark upon. That's a pretty important thing to feel good about.

I own numerous bikes but if I had to settle for only one then this would be the one that I would keep.

I might look into different handlebars sometime. This is more out of curiousity then it is actual need.


Tell A Friend about this page!

Copyright © 2004 - 2009James Noble All rights reserved.