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REVIEW: TREK FUEL EX 9.8

17th January 2017

After years of traffic light coloured mountain bikes it seems black is back, and Trek are winning with thenew stealth looking Fuel EX9.8. The Fuel has taken on many changes and stays right on the cusp of current industry standards. Another 10mm of travel bumps it up to 130mm, and it can be set up many different ways: 29er – yeah; 27.5+ – sure; adjustable geometry – why not? Many readers will connect the Fuel name with an XC race/ trail bike, but that is now far from the truth…


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FRAME AND FORK
A carbon front triangle and seatstay are mated to an alloy chainstay end on our Fuel EX 9.8. Trek stuck with their well-proven single-pivot, rocker-driven, ‘Full Floater’ suspension design that has been their mainstay for almost a decade, because it works. There have been changes though – Trek has managed to make the frame stiffer, mainly thanks to its straight down tube. The complication is that the fork crown then has the potential to hit the straight downtube if you crash and send the bike down the hill. Trek’s solution is the ‘Knock Block’, which limits the range of motion in the headset and fork. The system was
problem free for us and completed its task of protecting the frame. An added advantage is that those who run a low bar or low angled brake levers will save their top tube in a crash. The rest of the frame is nicely finished, with internal cable routing adding to its stealth appearance and room for a water bottle in the front triangle. The rear shock is a Fox Float EVOL RE-activ which is specifically tuned by Trek Suspension Lab to match the Full Floater design. The Fox 34 GRIP damper equipped fork was from the performance range and doesn’t have as many adjustments as the top-end Fox models, although this is sometimes a good thing, and once we had the air pressure and rebound damping correct the fork was left alone.

 

PARTS
A generous helping of Shimano XT is attached to the Fuel: shifters, derailleurs, cassette, chain, cranks and brakes. Wait on – shifters, plural? Yes, the Fuel EX 9.8 rocks a front derailleur, making it a 2x11 drivetrain. The gears were flawless throughout the test, providing a big range of gears and allowing for less cross-chaining than a single-ring set up if you spend a lot of time in the smaller climbing gears. The Shimano XT brakes were also on point with great power and comfortable one-finger levers.

 

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What tyres should go on a 130mm trail bike? Ask that question two years ago and the answer would have been very different. Trek’s answer was the Bontrager XR3 Team Issue 2.4” with 30mm wide Bontrager Line Comp Boost wheels. That is on par with many enduro bike set ups. We were quickly learning that the Trek wouldn’t shy away from a rough, steep track. Bontrager takes care of the final touches, which were reliable and well finished. The Line Pro 750mm wide carbon handlebar made for a great match to the bike, with a Line Pro stem with a 35mm clamp again reiterating the undercover-bruiser personality of the Fuel. Although we don’t foresee many riders will opt to change this combo, it’s worth mentioning that if you do the knock block requires an adapter to fit different stems.

 

GEOMETRY/FIT
The 18.5” frame would be considered a medium/large and was well suited for our main 180cm test rider. On its high geometry setting the chain stays are nice and short at 432mm and the reach is on the longer side at 450mm, giving the Trek a fairly long wheelbase at 1173mm. It was noticeable when riding the bike that it had a large reach, and for that reason we think that anyone under 178cm should look at the 17.5”. Alternatively, a slightly shorter stem could do the trick. The fairly upright seat tube angle of 74.7° meant that the seated position didn’t leave our riders reaching, and the fit proved to be comfortable even on long rides.

 

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The change between the high and low geometry modes allows the Fuel to move further away from its previous XC roots.The high position gives a head angle of 67.7 degrees. Moving to the low position the head angle slackens out a noticeable 0.7° to 67.0 degrees, and the bottom bracket also drops by 9mm. This adds to the ‘let’s charge over anything’ mindset, with a noticeable increase in high speed stability. However, the high setting beats the low setting when it comes to quick steering. Different riders in different locations may

prefer one to the other, but overall the bike is a winner in both settings.

 

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THE RIDE
With a high end spec list with many parts chosen with aggression in mind, just how capable was this 130mm bike going to be? The answer is we are not sure; we never managed to find the edge of its capabilities. With its 29er wheels and wide rim and tyre combo we were able to skip over 95% of the trail mess without thinking too much about what was under our tyres. The other 5% was well and truly countered by the Fox suspension that really complemented the frame well. As we have come to find with 29ers, once up to speed they hold speed well, the Fuel EX was no different.

 

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We found ourselves heading into sections faster than before, and the Trek’s ability to absorb small impacts such as braking bumps meant the control was available to leave the brakes off just a little longer into the corner. Yes, 29ers do have some hiccups coming into tight switchbacks at speed, thanks to the greater momentum of the big spinning wheels making them a touch slower to get them to break into a lean, but the Fuel’s short chainstays helped a bit to squirt the back end around corners, and the low weight meant it was that little bit easier to chuck around. Popping it into the air was natural and it didn’t mind a few hard landings.

 

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Despite all the trail-bike DH prowess, it still managed to climb admirably, better than many bikes it had already beaten down the hill…Like all 29ers a strong and fit rider will get the best results out of the bike on undulating courses. This is because once you put the effort in to get the wheels up to speed it hits a momentum-sweet-spot and allows you to carry a great pace on flat or uphill trails. Because the Trek has the large gear range of the 2x11 system, those who go for their weekend adventure just for the post-ride pie will be able to conquer the hills at a more leisurely pace, and still fang it down the road to get back home.

 

With a carbon frame, XT running gear, Fox suspension and Bontrager touch points the tag seems very fair considering, especially when the bike is capable in so many different ways. Those who wanted to enter it into an enduro definitely wouldn’t be slowed down by the bike on most courses. Those who wanted to ride the odd cross-country race also could, and the Fuel is up to the task of long epic rides or quick hit-outs. Not to mention all the new technology the Trek has such as boost hubs, 29 & 27.5+ capability and adjustable geometry, making it well future proofed in a quick changing industry.

 

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