Vintage Trek Bikes: A Beginner’s Guide

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If you’re in the market for a second-hand bike on a budget, it’s likely you’ve come across some vintage Trek road bikes during your search.

Trek is now a hugely popular brand amongst amateur cycling enthusiasts, enjoying the biggest slice of the bicycle market in the United States. However, it wasn’t always this way, and for a long time, the US market was flooded with European-made bikes.

But since its founding in the ’70s, Trek has exploded in popularity, not only in the States but around the world. They have been producing a range of different bikes for over 40 years, so there is a huge number of different vintage models that you may come across.

But with such a vast range of different models available, it can be difficult to navigate the vintage Trek market and understand the differences between models.

So it begs the question: Which ones are the best? And what do the model numbers mean? To get you up to speed on Trek’s best vintage buys, we’ll be covering:

  • A Brief History Of Trek
  • Decoding Vintage Trek Bikes Model Numbers
  • 3 Of The Best Vintage Trek Road Bikes

Let’s dive into Trek vintage bikes!

Trek Vintage Bikes: Title Image
Credit: Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0. Edited from the original.

A Brief History Of Trek

Trek commands 22.5% of the US bicycle market. With second-placed Giant at 10.5%, Trek is by far the most popular brand for budding cyclists in the modern US.

However, for a long time, cyclists in the US were limited to imported European bikes from the likes of Raleigh and Peugeot (with the notable exception of Schwinn).

Now, of course, riding a beautiful vintage Colnago is no hardship, but the cost of import on top of the already high-cost bikes from expensive brands made getting a high-quality in the US bike pretty extortionate before the ’70s.

But the US “Bike Boom” of the ’70s changed everything. European manufacturers could no longer keep up with the growing demand of the US.

Many different companies were founded in the US with the hopes of disproving the common quip that “Americans don’t do bikes” and taking advantage of the gaping hole in the US market.

Almost all of the most popular US bike brands were founded at this time. The likes of Cannondale, Specialized, and Trek began springing up all over the country and almost instantly found success.

Trek was founded in 1976 by Dick Burke and Bevil Hogg and was actually one of the later US brands to be founded during the bike boom.

Trek started out making mid-upper range hand-brazed steel touring and racing road bikes, taking aim at a chunk of the market dominated by Italian giants such as Bianchi and Colnago.

Until 1983, Trek bikes remained in this niche. They began to broaden their horizons through the release of their first mountain bike in 1983. Mountain bikes, to this day, remain a large part of their business, and they have been remarkably successful in this domain.

Through the ’80s and ’90s, Trek helped to pioneer bonded aluminum and molded carbon fiber framesets, a move that led to a rapid expansion of the company.

In 1985, Trek released one of the first bonded aluminum road bike framesets, the Trek 2000, by borrowing tech from the aerospace industry. Initially, however, this proved a difficulty for Trek’s manufacturing, which was all geared towards steel frames.

However, they spent over a year refining their manufacturing techniques, opening new warehouses and distribution branches, and the Trek 2000 ultimately became a source of great success.

Riding the high of success through innovation, Trek unveiled their first carbon composite bike the very next year. Unfortunately, however, the Trek 5000 suffered a number of issues and was swiftly discontinued.

Trek arguably invented the hybrid bike in 1990. Combining thin tires and road bike-style geometry for speed, with flat handlebars and an upright position for comfort, the Trek “Multi-Tracks” was very well-received.

During the ’90s, Trek acquired many big-name bike brands, including Gary Fisher, Bontrager, and LeMond cycles.

They also managed to release their first successful carbon fiber bikes during the ’90s, the 5500 and 5200, which included their proprietary OCLV (Optimum Compaction, Low Void) carbon. Weighing only 1.11 kg, the 5500 was the lightest production road bike frame to date.

Their catalog of innovations and successes throughout the late 20th century had earned Trek a great reputation as a manufacturer. All that was left for them to be viewed as a genuine competitor to the Italian giants was the sponsorship of a Tour de France team.

So, with that in mind, Trek sponsored the now-infamous United States Postal Service Pro Team.

They even managed to sign the then-up-and-coming Lance Armstrong to the team in 1997, who rode Trek bikes to every one of his seven Tour de France wins – all of which have now been stripped.

Decoding Vintage Trek Bikes Model Numbers

Trek has released such a high volume of bikes in its history, so it’s not easy to understand the differences between each model.

Luckily for the consumer, the early Trek model numbers are fairly well-organized and each number represents different categories. This applies up until the release of carbon and aluminum bikes when the materials became far more difficult to rank in terms of quality.

As far as pre-1985 hand-brazed steel-frame Trek bikes go, the model numbers provide a handy tool for deciphering the steel tubing code.

Trek steel bikes were numbered with three digits in the format of xx0. The first number represents the quality of the steel tubing. The second number represents the geometry of the bike.

The hierarchy is as follows:

  • 200 and 300 Series: These bikes used Japanese Ishiwata Hi-Ten steel tubing. There is certainly nothing wrong with Ishiwata’s tubing, but they are somewhat less renowned than Reynolds and Columbus. Hi-Ten had an unfortunately high weight-strength ratio.
  • 400 Series: This marked a significant upgrade, utilizing Ishiwata’s 022 Double-Butted CrMo (chromium-molybdenum) tubing or sometimes their IIRC manganese alloy tubing, both of which provided improvements in tensile strength and weight.
  • 500 Series: These would either use Ishiwata 022 CrMo or the equivalent Reynolds 501 (also CrMo alloy). There is actually very little difference between these two, despite the high reputation of 501 tubing, which is why they’re in the same range.
  • 600 Series: The 600 series bikes were constructed from high-quality Reynolds 531 tubes, the gold standard of Reynolds tubing, but cut the costs on the forks, which remained CrMo 501.
  • 700 Series: These were a very highly regarded range of Trek bikes but only represent a minor upgrade from the 600 series in that the frame was the same but they used Reynolds 531 for the forks as well.
  • 900 Series: The flagship range of vintage steel Trek bikes, the 900 series, used the Columbus SP and SL tubing that would be seen on flagship Colnago models at the time. For those who care a lot about the quality of the steel, this is the range to look for.

The second number represents the geometry and definitely can’t be considered a hierarchy. The different numbers simply refer to bikes intended for use in different scenarios.

  • x00 and x10: These are “sport touring” bikes. They are optimized for speed like a racing bike but with a slightly more upright position. They could be compared to a modern “endurance” geometry road bike.
  • x20: These are touring bikes. Their comfort is optimized for long days in the saddle and the tubes are sufficiently thick to ensure that they can support a lot of weight. This does come with a slight weight penalty, and the position of the rider results in further speed penalties due to the aerodynamics.
  • x30, x60, and x70: These are pure-breed racing bikes. In this era, this meant exceedingly thin tubing, extremely aggressive position for the rider, and would come equipped with brutally high gearing.

These two numbers combined will tell you everything you need to know about a vintage steel-frame Trek bike.

A Trek 760, for example, is a full-Reynolds 531 racing geometry bike. A 520 is a CrMo touring bike.

3 of the best vintage trek Road bikes

#1. trek 520

The Trek 520 is a cult-classic touring bike.

First released back in 1983, it has stood the test of time, still in production 39 years on. The original 1983 Trek 520 has Reynolds 501 tubing, a Japanese Suntour groupset, and pre-Bontrager Trek branded tires and wheels.

The original model, in contrast to the newest releases of the bike, came with classic down tube shifters and caliper brakes fixed to the hand-brazed steel frameset.

This is vastly different from most modern touring bikes (including the newer 520s), which generally come equipped with disc brakes and fast STI shifting, something many would now consider essential since with all the weight loaded onto a touring bike; the extra braking power is pretty advantageous.

Depending on their condition, old vintage models can be picked up for an absolute bargain, often below $300. If you’re after a modern edition of the 520, you’ll be looking at a much greater investment of around $1500.

#2. Trek 5500

Unveiled in 1992, the Trek 5500 was the lightest production bike of all time at the time of its release. Coming in at just 1.1 kg, many were doubtful about the strength of the frame.

Carbon fiber was relatively new to the cycling world, and concerns were raised about such a light material being used for bicycles.

However, Trek had spent years and two failed attempts to create an ultra-light frame that retained, and even exceeded the tensile strength of steel and aluminum. The result was the 5500, using Trek’s OCLV technology to achieve this record-breaking weight-strength ratio.

Lance Armstrong, cycling’s most decisive figure, rode the Trek 5500 to his first Tour de France “victory” in 1999. This was the ultimate proof-of-concept for the 5500, seven years after it was first released.

(Although, you could now question how much of that victory was due to the bike…)

Although other carbon fiber bikes had won major accolades, such as the Colnago C40 in the Paris-Roubaix, for example, this was the first American-branded carbon bike to do so. The last non-carbon bike to win the Tour was in 1998, and the 5500 was the first bike in the era of total carbon domination.

The bike remained in production until 2003, and there is a large amount of variation in price for the different iterations. At the cheapest end, you could be lucky enough to find one in decent condition for around $600, but it’s likely you’re looking at $1000+ for many of these.

#3. Trek Madone

Some cyclists are just synonymous with certain cycling brands.

Fausto Coppi with Bianchi, for example, or Eddy Merckx with Colnago. It would be difficult to find any more so, however, than Lance Armstrong with Trek.

After winning the Tour on the 5500, Armstrong initiated a remarkable period of dominance for the American brand. In celebration of this fruitful partnership, Trek designed a bike specifically for Armstrong, sporting the US Postal Service Pro Team colors.

The Trek Madone was released in 2003 as a refinement of Armstrong’s previous winning bike, the 5900. It was named for the Col de la Madone, an hors catégorie (beyond category) climb found in the foothills of the Alps in France, one of Armstrong’s favorite training climbs.

Armstrong went on to win three editions of the Tour on the Madone. These wins, and his previous four, were eventually stripped from Armstrong and the US Postal Service Pro Team after Armstrong admitted to doping during every one of them.

The Trek Madone will forever live on in cycling history, symbolizing the anti-hero of Lance Armstrong and the biggest scandal in the history of the Tour.

Armstrong’s custom Butterfly Madone designed by Damien Hirst and used at the 2009 Tour de France remains the most expensive bike of all time, selling for $500,000 at auction.

Trek still names their flagship racers Madone, showing that regardless of what it represents, the company remains proud of the engineering and technology that went into their original release.

The original 2003 model came with Dura-Ace 7800, the top-of-the-range groupset at the time. The newest models, of course, come equipped with the latest tech, and the top-of-the-range SLR 9 comes with SRAM RED eTap.

The 2003 Madone 5.9 will set you back around $1300-$1600, so it’s not cheap, likely due to its collectibility. The newest models, however, will set you back a lot more. For example, the new 2023 Trek SLR 9 retails at $14,000!

Whatever you think about Armstrong and his “wins”, his legacy forever lives on in the Trek Madone range, some of the most memorable vintage bikes in the Tour.

Found this Vintage Trek Bikes guide helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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