Trek’s jack-of-all-trades gets a more aggressive geometry, longer travel, and can also be fitted with 27.5-Plus wheels. Is this the all-arounder you’ve been looking for?
2017 is setting up to be a very significant year for Wisconsin-based Trek bikes. Several months ago, the giant cycling corporation introduced no less than three new model lines. Though they bear the same names from past years – Remedy, Stash, and Fuel EX – these are all completely new bikes, clearly designed to appeal to more aggressive riders. All new models have had their geometries modernized and updated, frames have been stiffened significantly, and suspension travel has often been increased. The new Remedy line now sports 150mm-travel and comes only in 27.5-inch wheels; the Slash line receives 160mm travel and relies solely on 29-inch wheels; and the newly designed Fuel EX line, which we will discuss below, accepts both 29-inch and 27.5-plus wheel diameters, after having its travel extended to 130mm.
The Fuel EX line has always sought to bring people together around the most profitable common denominator, i.e., the all-around rig, the “jack of all trades”, “the One Bike” and other slogans. For the sake of this review we decided to curb our natural skepticism in the face of such promises, especially since the coveted carbon-fiber model landed in our lap only a week (!) after it was announced. In return, it got a comprehensive and rigorous three-month test.
- Full carbon fiber frame with aluminum chainstays
- ABP Full-Floater suspension with 130mm travel
- Fox 34 130mm fork with new 110mm Boost standard axle
- 148mm Boost standard rear axle
- Adjustable geometry
So what’s new (this time around)?
As mentioned above, all these years the Fuel EX played the mainstream role of the Trek line as an aggressive XC/All-Mountain/trail bike, depending on the way the model was marketed that specific year, and even more on the capabilities of the rider. Over time, the consensus surrounding it has not changed: the Fuel EX is understood to be a solid, reliable bike from a strong manufacturer, a sort of Toyota Corolla on two wheels – not extremely good in any specific area but generally solid, just plain solid.
The 2016 Fuel EX models received a major upgrade in the form of a modern, extra-stiff frame design, a slacker head angle, internal cable routing, and of course the new Boost standard, which allows manufacturers to build stronger wheelsets and shorten the chainstays. The new 2017 model introduced an aggressive twist. The idea was to keep the model just as fast on the climbs, but focus more on the descents and fun factor. Thus, suspension travel got bumped up from 120 to 130mm, and the head angle was slackened to 67.7 degrees. Additionally, with the intuitive Mino-Link mechanism, requiring several minutes of fiddling with an Allen key, you can further drop the head tube to 67 degrees, and at the same time lower the bottom bracket a few millimeters too, all for the sake of the Enduro bunch. In line with the global trend, the top tube, and with it the reach factor, were stretched by an additional seven millimeters, while the chainstays were chopped down to 432mm for the sake of agility and aforementioned increased fun factor.
Trek’s engineers and designers did not settle for merely ticking all the boxes on all the latest trends, and decided to further increase frame stiffness by straightening the bottom tube. In fact, they drew a straight line from the head tube to the bottom bracket, and did away with the curves that are supposed to make room for the crown fork when twisting the bars sideways – hence, the “StraightShot”. This design effectively enlarges the triangular opening in the front of the frame, resulting in a stiffer frame and even more weight reduction. The down side? Since the fork crown cannot pass under the lower tube, the frame is susceptible to hits, and the handlebar rotation radius must be limited. Trek solved these problems by developing a mechanism named “Knock Block” with head tube bearings maker FSA. Its job is to stop the rotation (handlebar movement) before the fork crown hits the frame. To summarize, if X-ups are a regular part of your ride, you don’t have to continue reading…
Like most company frames, the Fuel EX’s comes with Trek’s reliable Full-Floater suspension design, which aims to restrain the progressivity of the air shock by connecting it to links on both sides; in fact, the rear shock isn’t connected to the frame at all. Another staple technological patent that comes in all Trek full-suspension models is the ABP (Active Braking Pivot), the suspension axis which connects the seatstays and chainstays through the rear wheel axle. The role of the ABP is to eliminate suspension lock-up under braking, and provide uncompromised traction over rocky terrain.
Even the wheelset has been put under Trek’s aggressive approach, and the Fuel EX 9.8’s wheels come with Bontrager rims sporting an internal width of 30mm, which are paired to 2.4-inch wide XR3 tires. This perhaps may not be a 29-Plus configuration, but it’s close enough and it’s more than satisfactory, especially on terrain which especially requires extra traction.
The cockpit has also been brought up-to-date in the form of a short stem connected to a new generation, wide and elegant, 35mm-diameter Bontrager carbon handlebar. As one amazed member of the test team put it – “This comes as a standard?” Indeed so, friends. Last and particularly significant in the list of changes is the frame’s compatibility with 27.5-plus wheels, meant for riders who prefer not to feel every little bump on the trail, or those who want to get two bikes for one ticket. We tested both wheel sizes – regular and plump – with the same frame, and will report on the results of this experiment later on.
Beyond all the modern technology and compliance to this standard or another, the new Fuel EX looks good, in fact – it looks really good! Every part of the frame shows the high quality finish, and the coloring combined with the dark Fox fork really does it for me a lot more than the recently popular bright colors (not that there’s anything wrong with this type of coloring, but I’m a conservative guy). As someone who usually rides on size Large frame, I mounted the medium-large (18.5-inch) Fuel EX with slight apprehension as to whether it would fit, but to my great delight it fit like a glove. Long & slack, baby, yeah!
On the trail
Let’s get things straight: we all love technical challenges, dig the downhills, get all pumped up by good flowing segments, but in truth spend the majority of our time on our bike riding uphill. A rig that lets me down on the climbs screws up my entire ride, period. Previous Fuel EX models excelled in the climbing department and the 2017 downhill-oriented model are no exception. True, I was inclined to switch the rear shock to Climb mode on every long climb on dirt roads, but we can unequivocally say that despite the extra travel and slacker head angle, this is still an extraordinarily rewarding bicycle, particularly on technical, rocky climbs, during which the suspension remains in Trail mode. How rewarding? Enough for me to admit that for the entire three months of this test, I did not even take my favorite hardtail (usually my first choice) out of its shed.
When transitioning to descents and technical singletrack, the celebration continues. The suspension was super-active on the small bumps, yet also succeeded in instilling tremendous confidence on rough singletrack, and all in surprising silence. Drops are easily soaked up by the bike and, while the suspension does go through its entire travel, it never bottoms out.
At this point I must emphasize again the sense of confidence and fun this bike provides. The quick steering and level of suspension of the new Fuel EX, especially in tight singletrack, are not entirely trivial. In all honesty, it just made me grin like a madman during rides. Is it the new geometry, Fox suspension, rigid frame, or comfortable wheelset? I guess it’s the whole package, a show which is orchestrated first and foremost by the high-quality rear suspension, which is supple, stable, and rewarding.
For those who feared that the Knock Block mechanism limits the fork’s steering, I can only confirm that there is no switchback on my home trail that I had ever ridden in the past and could not conquer just as well with the Fuel EX, and quite easily, thanks to the short 432mm chainstay.
When switching from HIGH to LOW frame mode, the head tube angle slackened to 67 degrees and the bottom bracket dropped a few millimeters. In this configuration, the Fuel EX demonstrated an obvious improvement while tackling steep and fast descents, and it brought back distant memories of my DH bikes (RIP). Nevertheless, in the end I preferred to remain in the HIGH frame configuration mode, which reduced pedal hits on boulders to zero, and, truth be told, left me reasonably close to my personal comfort zone. More daring riders who live for the downhills and worship the god of Strava would probably prefer to stay in LOW mode and enjoy the more aggressive geometry.
Is 27.5 really a Plus?
As you may recall, we promised a quick comparison between the bike’s abilities when equipped with 29-inch wheels versus its behavior sporting 27.5-plus. The wheels selected were taken from the parallel Fuel EX 9.8 designed for Plus wheels, which also comes with a longer-travel 140mm fork. These wheels have a 40mm wide rim and a Bontrager 2.8-inch wide tire. At first glance there was no doubt that in terms of air volume , there is a beautiful addition to the suspension and grip. What surprised us was the fact that despite the huge tires, there were no differences in weight between the sets. Will the huge Chupacabra tires prove to be less durable over time? That will be explored in the 27.5-plus’s test, scheduled to appear next month.
To test the Fuel EX 9.8 with the 27.5-plus wheels, we two riders tackled some rapid and technical singletrack on a local favorite bike park. Pedaling hard over obstacles, we could feel the giant tires isolate and gobble up the terrain. On the downward trails, we experienced a noticeable improvement during turns over loose gravel and while tackling rocky slopes – though, in my opinion, not a dramatic one. However, a gutsy rider who will push the bike to its limits will probably slash a few seconds from his personal best. On the climb back on wide dirt roads we felt the increased rolling resistance and slightly lazy steering, though again – not dramatically. This led me to the inevitable conclusion – whichever way it’s set up, the Fuel EX 9.8 is a great bike.
At the end of this interesting experiment, I personally feel more attached to the 29-inch configuration, which felt sharper while steering (even while riding on stiff 28 PSI tires). However, I can easily understand the rising popularity of the Plus wheels (with cozy 20 PSI tires), which undoubtedly provide a little more confidence and traction in loose and aggressive riding conditions.
Which parts stand out?
If it was not clear from the start how good the Fuel EX 9.8’s package is, we wish to further point out the Rockshox Reverb dropper post in its 2017 edition, which promises to sport a new and more reliable mechanism than ever. We also noted the Fox 34 fork, which also comes with Boost as standard. The fork comes with the GRIP damper (the cheaper, but no less successful, brother to the FIT4 model), and instead of golden Kashima coating comes with flashy black stanchions, which perform just as well in my opinion.
To seal the deal, the 9.8 comes with Shimano XT brakes and a 2X11 XT drivetrain. Since this was a long-term test, we decided to replace the double chainrings with a single 32-tooth 1X11 configuration, simply because that’s how we like our trail bikes. As could be expected, the change slimmed the bike down by approximately 350 grams, tipping the scales at the overall weight of 12.9kg including pedals, a bottle cage, and plenty of sealant for the chubby tubeless tires.
The bottom line
For three months I ran the Fuel EX 9.8 through most of the ride parks, aggressive singletracks, and lung-collapsing climbs. Aside from a single gear tune-up, I did not encounter a single technical problem, not even a flat – zero breakdowns and quiet as a mouse. The bike provides excellent steering and stable terrain tracking, without foregoing anything in the pedaling efficiency department. For the common trail rider, we recommend switching to a single chainring configuration before leaving your LBS, and perhaps fitting a wider bar if 750mm is too narrow for your needs.
Furthermore, the wheels and tires are not the lightest, but the bottom line is that they came through big time, both in reliability and traction. Lighter and less aggressive riders will be happy to hear that swapping only tires and wheels for less aggressive models can easily slash 700 grams of rotating mass, which is a lot! Personally, though, I would not change the original configuration.
Aside from the two possible geometry configurations it offers, the Fuel EX also has great appeal to those who crave two bikes for the price of one – beefy 27.5-Plus wheels for aggressive singletrack, and with an additional set of lightweight 29-inch wheels, you can easily reach a 12.2kg rig which will devour any flowing trail with ease and come back asking for more.
The bottom line is that 2017 brings us the fastest, most stable, and most versatile Fuel EX that ever left Trek’s assembly lines. It features every modern trick in the book which until now was restricted to ground-breaking boutique manufacturers, and on the other hand enjoys the detailed finish that only a serious R&D department and strict production process can produce. Way to go, Trek!
|Head tube angle||67/67.7 degrees.|
|Effective seat tube angle||74/74.7 degrees.|
|Measurements||18.5” High setup:|
|Top tube length||617 mm|
|Chainstay length||432 mm|
|Original weight (in 2X11 setup including pedals and a bottle cage)||13.25 kg.|
|Weight after conversion to 1X11||12.9 kg|