Trek Procaliber 9.7 SL
Many find it hard to love a hardtail. Every time the humble hardtail finds reason for being, technology moves forward and we end up on dual suspension bikes again. Even with elite level cross-country racing – a traditional hardtail stronghold – many top riders are frequently running bikes with bounce; in some cases they’re using them all the time, even on relatively smooth courses.
Weight is increasingly a moot point. Unless trails are super buff or all uphill, a dually can be faster and a bucket load more fun to ride, even if it is a little heavier. Modern suspension bikes are efficient to pedal and you’re unlikely to find issues with flex or reliability on dual suspension bikes these days—the luddite advantage that hardtails once held is now long gone.
Other than price and weight, the reasons to go with a hardtail are constantly being eroded. So where does that leave ‘old faithful’; the platform that carried the makers of our sport?
We always hear of bikes being spruiked as being laterally stiff yet vertically compliant. Whilst there may be truth in the claims, any damping effects have always been relatively subtle. For 2016 however, we’re seeing a number of carbon hardtails that take this concept of vertical compliance to a new level. Examples include BMC’s new Team Elite, the Focus Raven Max and the new Trek Procaliber that we have on test here.
These bikes look relatively conventional but all feature a built-in shock absorption system. The BMC has a rubber pillow at the top of the seat stays that allows the rear wheel a small amount of upward movement, whilst the Focus and Trek rely on increased seat tube flex to enhance the ride comfort. All three are trying to keep the hardtail relevant, offering a ride with more positives than low weight alone.
Pro riders have been moving towards full suspension bikes because they’re faster; faster through rocks and less fatiguing whilst not slowing them down on the climbs. The Procaliber aims to take the harshness out of the hardtail and deliver similar performance benefits without making it noodley.
To do this, Trek employs an ingeniously obvious device dubbed the ‘IsoSpeed Decoupler’—it was originally developed for their Domane road bike. The seat tube is no longer solidly fixed at the top tube, instead it’s held in location by a small axle that acts as a pivot point. This allows the seat tube to bow freely along its entire length, all the way down to the bottom bracket. The unique design helps to isolate the rider from the trail when seated; similar to a flexy seat post but with greater effect.
Our painted 19.5-inch Procaliber frame came in at 1,115g. That makes it a bit over 100g heavier than the outgoing Superfly SL, but that was amongst the lightest hardtails available. We’ve encountered plenty of XC hardtail frames that are in and around 1,200g mark, so the Procaliber remains competitively light despite the extra hardware associated with the decoupler. Compare it to a lightweight XC dually and the Procaliber saves at least a kilo in the frame alone—a clear win for the hardtail there!
For this review we’ve been riding the ‘entry level’ 9.7 model but the same frame is used right throughout the line, all the way up to the Procaliber 9.9, which is a full blown Word Cup racer.
Spec-wise the $4,199 Procaliber 9.7 comes with a RockShox Reba RL fork (with remote lockout), Shimano Deore brakes, a SRAM GX 1X11 drivetrain and a truckload of alloy Bontrager parts. In this guise the bike came in at 10.7kg straight out of the box; so that’s excluding pedals but with inner tubes fitted.
If your pockets are deeper, the 9.8 variant comes with an X1 and X01 mix, XT brakes, lighter DT Swiss X1700 wheels, a SID fork and carbon Bontrager bars—it sells for $5,999. The top-tier Procaliber 9.9 will set you back around $9,000 but it’s dripping with carbon; DT Swiss carbon wheels, RaceFace Next SL cranks, an RS1 fork and so on.
While the spec on our bike wasn’t overly flash for a $4,199 hardtail, it was thoroughly workable and effective. Both the Reba fork and Deore brakes are a common sight on these pages. Like those before them, these units really hammered home the value proposition, delivering top performance for a budget price.
For The Masses
In a similar vein, SRAM’s GX group will most likely be the next super-value spec that we see on every second bike. This new SRAM group has finally bought dedicated 1X11 shifting to a mid-level price point. Despite being a way down the hierarchy, the GX drivetrain never missed a shift or dropped a chain. The shift lever has just enough resistance and ‘click’ to provide some tactile feedback with each shift. It does lack a little crispness when tested back-to-back with the X01 and XX1 parts, feeling slightly flimsy in comparison, but the differences are pretty small.
With a 32-tooth chainring up front and the big pizza tray 42-tooth out back, I never ran out of low gears. The 32/10 top-end was the trade off, being a little under geared on occasion—especially for marathon style riding with fast and open fire trails.
The Bontrager cockpit was all- alloy with a simple chrome moly railed saddle. Super solid gear but we might expect a little more pizazz for the price. At 2,047g for the pair, the Mustang Elite wheels are well porky—let’s not sugar coat it! Their inner profile is designed for tubeless applications, but only once you’ve fitted them with a set of Bontrager TLR plastic rim strips. I tried sealing the wheels with regular tape and it was an utter failure. With the TLR strips fitted, the Bontrager XR1 tyres inflated with ease. I was able to seat the tyres with a floor pump and zero sweat—it was effortless.
Once inflated the Bontrager rim and tyre combo held air like a boss. I ran pressures in the low 20’s for the duration of the test without a hitch. Prior to this I’d had little experience with the XR1 tyres; they feature a generous bag, rolled fast and hooked up well. There is no getting around the weight of the wheels but Bontrager certainly has their tubleless system dialled—I’d have loved to ride the Procaliber with a set of their 1,450g XXX TLR hoops fitted.
It’s also worth noting that the Procaliber makes use of the new ‘boost’ hub standard, with its 110/148mm axle spacing—Trek actually pioneered this new format. With a good result in the Highland Fling MTB marathon on my checklist, I’d planned to fit my own lighter race wheels for the event; unfortunately they weren’t compatible. Any good quality 135mm QR or 142mm thru-axle wheels that you already own will be made redundant if you buy a Procaliber.
Another new feature for 2016 is ‘Control Freak’ internal cable routing. The frame plugs are very tidy and accept all manner of mechanical, hydraulic and electric insertions. Even so, many will simply sigh at the sight of internal cabling on a bike that runs full length outer housing anyway; it’s a purely cosmetic feature that makes servicing more difficult. For these people Trek redeems themselves by adding ‘Microtruss’ cable mounting points. These are tiny slots that allow you to tidily zip tie the cable housing to the outside of the frame if you prefer—bloody terrific I say. This also opens up various options for dropper post mounting too.
The Procaliber is an elegant beast to look at. It’s solid without looking overbuilt and the stays are modestly sized. One advantage of the boost rear end is that it provides plenty of extra real estate around the bottom bracket for tyres and chainrings. This has allowed Trek to keep the chainstay length on the Procaliber at a neat 435mm. Their 2016 Top Fuel XC dually also gains short 433mm chainstays thanks in part to the boost system (prior to that the Superfly 100 had lengthy 452mm stays). Shortening the chainstays allows Trek to run a 69.5 degree head angle without blowing out the overall wheelbase. I find that 29er hardtails with short stays and semi-relaxed head angles almost always deliver a fun ride.
A couple of years ago I had the chance to ride the Domane road bike and found the ride super smooth. When the Procaliber was released, a mate of mine was salivating over it, believing it would be the solution to all our woes. I was less enthused because the Isospeed element only acts on the saddle, so it doesn’t help at all once you’re standing. To my thinking this made the system largely redundant in a mountain bike setting, as you generally stand on the pedals when tackling tough or technical trails. I believed that a design that offers some ‘give’ at the wheel would be more effective—something like the BMC for example as it should work when sitting and standing (only speculating of course and it’s unfair to compare the $4,200 Trek with the BMC which is upwards of $5,000 for the frameset alone).
Cushion For Pushin’
Now having ridden the Procaliber, any scepticism surrounding the design has since evaporated. The Isospeed system has to take the accolades, but the overall bike set-up plays an important supporting role as well. First up, the Procaliber’s low-slung frame leaves you with loads of exposed seat post, so even without the Isospeed you’d expect some reasonable compliance there. The wheel and tyre combo also allows you to run low pressures and there is ample room for 2.3-inch rubber. Even with the stock 2.2-inch tyres, I found the Procaliber delivered a hardtail ride but with a big dose of comfort.
Looking down it’s hard see the seat post or seat tube moving. It’s also hard to feel; I never noticed a bouncing sensation when riding in the saddle, even when riding it briskly on smooth road. When aimed at small raised edges and roots on the trail, the Procaliber still transmits a whack, but it’s far more muted than you’d expect. It’s no dually, but it’s no lower back crushing hardtail either.
Coarse fire roads that are littered with small stones and ripples are eaten up and a lot of the fatiguing buzz is dealt with before it reaches you. It also pays dividends when you’re pedalling through choppy trails whilst keeping the saddle lightly weighted. Again the ride is more forgiving and it allows you to maintain a good cadence rather than copping a mule kick to the nether regions. The actual rigid part of the frame feels extremely compliant too and I’d suggest the Procaliber is amongst the comfiest hardtails around, even without the Isospeed.
While there’s clearly some bump absorbing flex happening within the frame, it still offers excellent front to back rigidity. This helps to deliver good out of the saddle acceleration and affords real confidence when leaning into corners or coming into rocky sections at speed. In my experience, Trek 29ers always possess some distinctive handling traits; they provide an assured confidence in steep or fast terrain without being overly sluggish at lower speeds—the Procaliber certainly continues this legacy. Riders looking for a super-fast handler might find things a little too pedestrian, but for most the Procaliber strikes an ideal balance of agility and stability.
I took the Trek on a few 100km days, including the Highland Fling marathon race, and I can’t think of a better use for this bike. It ate up the fire roads, railed the singletrack, carried two water bottles, offered a decent gearing spread and a long cockpit for climbing, and it didn’t beat me up. It will never outperform a good dual suspension bike when the trails are properly rough, but for people teetering on the fringe between hardtail and dually, this bike may be just the ticket. It’s a light and rapid machine that delivers better comfort than most modern hardtails. If 100mm of travel is more than enough for your trails and you like the low weight and direct speed that a hardtail delivers, the Procaliber is well worth considering. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Procaliber.
Super comfy hardtail
Confident handler across all XC terrain
Humble but reliable component selection
Wheels are heavy
XC racers would benefit from a more upmarket spec
Frame: OCLV Mountain Carbon with IsoSpeed
Fork: RockShox Reba RL with remote lockout 100mm travel
Headset: FSA sealed cartridge
Handlebars: Bontrager Race Lite Alloy
Stem: Bontrager Elite Alloy
Shifter: SRAM GX
Front Derailleur: N/A
Rear Derailleur: SRAM GX
Cassette: SRAM XG-1150, 10/42 11-speed
Chain: SRAM PC1130
Cranks: SRAM GX 1000, 32 tooth
Bottom Bracket: SRAM GXP
Brake:s Shimano Deore
Wheels: Bontrager Mustang Elite
Tyres: Bontrager XR1 Expert
Saddle: Bontrager Evoke 2
Seatpost: Bontrager Rhythm Elite Alloy
Weight: 10.7kg without pedals (19.5 frame 1,115g)
Available Sizes: 15.5 (27.5-inch wheels), 17.5, 18.5, 19.5 & 21.5 (29-inch wheels)
Distributor: Trek Bicycles Australia www.trekbikes.com