Trek Y-Foil

This exotic beauty was produced by Trek for only two years: 1998 and 1999. It was state of the art in cycling, a streamlined carbon fiber frame with beam suspension, an elegant blend of stiff frame and soft seat. Quite typical of the beam frame time trial bike that was popular in the mid to late 1990's.

When the UCI banned all frames that did not have a seat tube from sanctioned events in 2000 , Trek shut down production. Today, the Y-Foil has acquired a bit of a cult following. It's combination of sleek appearance, stiff frameset, smooth ride, and dazzling downhill performance make it rather unique.

The Foil's frame design is known as a beam frame, in that the seat sits on a beam instead of on a tube that runs straight to the bottom bracket. This gives a bit of flex to the seat, without taking away from overall frame stiffness, which reduces road fatigue. The beam frame design has been produced by several builders, most notably the frames produced by Softride and Zipp. Personal opinion, but I find the other beam frames to be a bit clumsy looking, though otherwise they are at least the Foil's equal. A bicycle doesn't have to be beautiful to be acceptable, but neither must it be ugly to be efficient.

Update: It has been over two years since I assembled the Foil. Time to revise this with events in the interim.

The Campy Chorus group has been flawless. Unlike a lot of triple cranksets, this one rarely drops its chain. In the past two years, I have had the chain come off during a ride maybe three times.

Wheelsets: You aren't a cyclist if you don't have at least two extra sets of wheels.

I have been waging a war with road vibration, as I had developed a serious numb hands problem after an hour on the bike. I made a few changes:

Wheels. The Vector Pro's gave way to a slightly milder set of Campy Zonda wheels. Same aero rim, slightly less stiff spoking. That helped a bit.

Gloves: Upgraded from the cheapos to gel gloves. Better.

Handlebars: Took off the very stiff Integralter bars and replaced them with the very expensive RAM bars. Definite improvement.

Wheels: Caught the ebay cycling community napping in the September doldrums, and snagged a set of Zipp 404's in tubular relatively cheap. Relatively, mind you... Most definite improvement, the Zipps and tubies have a much milder ride.

Riding impressions:

It climbs as well as any high performance bike, but certainly no better. Very stiff bottom bracket, no wasted motion there. Gear changes are crisp, the Campy shifters don't miss. The granny gear on the triple crankset comes in handy for those very steep hills. You know you'll make it, but will you have to resort to wimp gear?

On a level road, it strikes a fast pace and holds it. Handling is very tight, as one might expect with the short wheelbase. You really don't notice the beam, until you find that road harshness felt in the handlebars isn't felt in the seat, and you don't get quite so saddlesore after an hour or two on the road. The beam does it's job without drawing attention to itself. Let me make one aspect of the Foil perfectly clear: it is not a comfortable cycle. It is an incredibly stiff cycle that doesn't hammer your butt to a pulp. However, that applies only to the seat. The other points of contact, hands and feet, get a full dose of road vibration from the very stiff frame and very stiff wheels. You'd be well advised to wear padded cycling gloves.

Downhill. I saved the best for last. The Foil is a rocket on the downhills! It picks up speed very quickly, and you run out of gears trying to keep up with it. I'm not a particularly strong cyclist, but I've beaten several better people on downhill sprints. The bike normally isn't supposed to make that sort of difference, but going downhill, this one does.

One other thing to be aware of - this bike will get attention. Everyone stares at it, even people who wouldn't normally look twice at a bicycle. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions, and get interrupted on the road on occasion.

So there you have it. State of the art, sleek looking, stiff, reasonably light, and wicked fast. Add to this the bonus of being shot down by the Europeans as being an "unfair advantage", plus a lower price due to the end of production, and you have a very fast cycle that puts the traditionalists to shame.

Component observations:

Why the Campy group? My old college days road bike was all Record, and it was durable and a joy to maintain, very well thought out. Cost is on a par with Dura-Ace, quality is a bit better. The Chorus and Record components are finished so beautifully, with an almost jewel like quality, they just seemed right on that spectacular frame. Besides, once you've spent some time on an all Campy bike, it's hard to ride anything else. The 10 speed may seem like overkill, especially with the chain woes I had, but on the road, you can always find a good gear, regardless of the incline. Campy gear is still as pricey as it always was, but if you stay away from the bleeding edge stuff, it's fairly reasonable and always well designed.

No real reason for getting the Integralter bars, other than they looked neat, and this wild looking bike deserved wild looking handlebars. Cinelli took their Alter stem, and welded on aluminum bars with streamlined tops. They are pretty much out of production now, though you can buy the same bars in carbon fiber from Cinelli, if you don't mind paying $400 for them - Integralter bars usually sell for $75-$100 when you can find them. The flats on top of the bars are great for resting your palms on when you hit a casual stretch. Yo, Mario! Nice bars!

The Campy shifters work extremely well. Rear never misses, one click per gear, and you can go up or down several gears with just one push on the shifter. The front shifter is particularly nice. With the 8 adjustments on the Campy shifter, you can knock out chain rub on the front der., regardless of what gear combo you are running. Clicks on the shifters are a bit stiff, but give a positive indication of shifting, and you can go two or three gears on the rear with one push. Shifters are getting easier with use - Campy wears in, Shimano wears out. No problems at all shifting on the Record triple crankset, very little grind, it catches quickly. So far, the chain has yet to come off.

The paint job on the frame isn't all that good when you get up close to it, but most high end Trek frames have this problem. It seems a bit silly to put a $20 paint job on a $1700 frame, but they do.

The Campy 10 speed chain can be a royal pain to deal with. While it can be broken and reconnected with a Park tool, more often than not, it ended up popping loose on me where the link had been rejoined. I finally ordered a new chain and SuperLink removable link from branford bikes, and that seems to have solved any issues with removing and reinstalling the chain, and eliminates the need for a $60 tool and the one use only pin.

I use an ultrasonic cleaner to clean my chains. You should see the piles of crud that come out of an MTB chain after an hour in the cleaner. Road bikes don't accumulate near the dirt, so dips in the cleaner are done once in the spring. Be aware, though, that this removes all lubricant from inside the chain, so if you go this route, lube the daylights out of the chain when you're done. Needless to say, this requires removing the chain from the bike, so a removable link is definitely in order.

Putting brakes on the Foil requires extended nuts, due to the thicker carbon front fork and especially the rear stay. Trek included these with new framesets, but they aren't always there. If you acquire a Foil frameset, and it doesn't come with the long brake caliper nuts, you can get a set from Specialty Racing Products in titanium, $5 each. While you're there, check out their Ti crankset bolts, I got a set for my MTB. Very nice, and color coordinated. You can try your local Trek dealer for the brake nuts, but I didn't have any luck there. I placed an order on October 1, and still haven't heard back.

The Rolf wheels are superb. I suspect a good deal of the Foil's performace comes from these wheels. On the road, the streamlined spokes have a muted whistle to them, not the usual spoke noise. These particular wheels were bought very used, and appear to have quite a few miles on them. The bearings are still extremely smooth.

There is some chain noise resonating in the frame, but it's not objectionable. Click of the freehub is amplified quite a bit.

I'm 6'2" with 36" inseam, and the 59cm frame fits me, but just barely. I would have preferred a 62cm, but couldn't find one.

The handlebars can swing over and smack the frame pretty hard, and with a hard bar end, the frame could be cracked. I couldn't find any rubber end plugs locally, so I improvised and crazy glued chunks of cork bar tape to the plastic plugs. This seems to offer good protection.

I haven't put a computer on yet. Sort of hate to break up those beautiful lines with a clutter of wires, but will probably get one and find a way to hide the wires, maybe on the brake cables. Be aware: owning a Foil will turn you into a raving aesthetite. When it looks this sharp, you want to keep it that way.

Finding a Foil:

The most common question asked by would be Foilers, and the hardest to answer. It is over two years since production ceased, and remaining unused stock is dwindling. Complicating the rather thin supply is the fact that Trek dealers cannot sell remotely, a limitation that is fiercely enforced by Trek.

Here are the places I found that have had Foil framesets and complete bikes.

ebay is the most consistent source, but the usual caveats for buying big ticket items off of ebay apply: beware low/dubious feedback sellers, ask questions, study photos carefully, don't buy without photos, don't buy if a stock photo is shown.

Chain Reaction Cycles had a substantial supply of framesets and complete bikes, but their inventory is shrinking. Trek dealer, will not mail order.

Helen's appears to have sold all of their framesets. Pity, they were cheap at $500.

RACycles was showing some last summer, but doesn't list them on their site any more. You might call or email, I've heard that they have a few left.

If you really want a Foil, the best place to start is the Y-Foil list (see below), someone there will be up to date on the current supply situation. Larger frames seem to be more scarce. Prices can range from $500 to $1000 for a frameset, depending upon size, color, condition, and time of year. Larger frames are in higher demand, so their price is correspondingly higher. High end cycle prices tend to be seasonal as all get out, and the Foil is no exception to this. If you want one, patience will pay off handsomely.

And if anyone finds a clean 62cm Y66 frameset in ice inkwell (dark blue) that isn't too horridly priced, please drop me a line. I'd love to have one.

Other thoughts

Why were beam bikes banned by the UCI? The official explanation is that beam frames were considered an 'unfair advantage' against the less developed nations. This is really a bit absurd, as the cost of a competitive frameset in international cycling, beam or otherwise, is well in excess of the $1700 or so a Foil frame sold for in 1999, or a Softride, or Zipp. As befits international cycling, the real reason is a good deal more subtle: probably a combination of the ultra traditionalists being put off by the radical appearance, plus an anti-USA bias, as most beam frames are made in the US.

Here's a trick I learned from the MTB, that works well for keeping the Foil's paint clear: ArmorAll the frame. When you wipe off the excess, a very fine film is left on, that keeps road dirt from sticking. After a long ride, road dirt pretty much brushes off. Needless to say, don't get any on the braking surfaces. Not if you plan on stopping...

Getting back on the road, after a year of the MTB and quite a few years off before that, has been a rediscovery of an old passion. The MTB was, and still is, quite a challenge, but it just doesn't have that pure focus that a long road ride has. Always something to do on the MTB, always calculating the next move, the next gear change, the next uphill or downhill, the crisis-of-the-moment. If the MTB is the bad boy of cycling, the road bike is the zen. Clear the mind of the usual clutter of worry and tension, strike that perfect pace, and just go.

I was a cycling fanatic in college, and just forgot about it after graduating. Sold my magnificent Falcon San Remo 76 - wish I had kept it. Twenty years later, I caught the bug again. It's good to be back, and while I may never regain that competitive trim, I can already see a dramatic improvement. So if you're like me, who once cycled heavily and quit, give it another try. It's as fun, and as addicting as it always was, and you'll find that the old form never really left you, it's just been neglected. But it comes back quickly enough. And if you're going to do it, why not do it in style, on one of these sleek machines? Your slightly older butt will thank you.

Further information on the Foil can be found at: The Y-Foil List

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