TREK overhauled its entire performance mountain bike range for 2017, some models such as the Top Fuel were completely renewed and others were tweaked, such as the Fuel EX. Some get confused between these two models which both share ‘Fuel’ in their names, so here’s the main difference: The Top Fuel is a 100mm travel marathon/XC full suspension bike and the Fuel EX is a 130mm travel full-suspension trail bike.
From a South African perspective, both are very relevant models. We published our review on the Top Fuel 9.8SL recently. And here’s what we think about the Fuel EX 9.8…
Like the Top Fuel, the Fuel EX 9.8 is a stealthy matte black colour. The colour is practical and bold. And because TREK has used black gloss decals and accents, it’s also rather classy visually. The updates on the previous model include: 130mm of suspension travel front and rear (vs 120mm before); slacker headtube angle (from 67.7 degrees to 67.0 degrees in the HIGH setting); 5mm reach extension and a stiffer frame, courtesy of a beefier, straighter downtube. Because of the straight downtube there’s a chance of the fork crown striking the downtube in the case of a fall. To counter this, TREK has incorporated a Knock Block in the headset, which stops the handlebar turning too far and which prevents the fork crown from whacking the frame, although there’s still a rubber bumper on the frame in line with the fork crown just in case. It’s confirmation that TREK is not afraid to try something different in its quest for a great ride.
A key feature is the Mino Link, which is also present on the Top Fuel. This reversible chip at the pivot on the top of the seatstay adjusts the bike’s geometry by 0.5 degree in the headtube angle and up to 10mm in bottom bracket height. For the Fuel EX, TREK describes Mino Link as allowing you to adjust the geometry from slack to slacker…
Except for the chainstays, which are alloy, the frame is made from TREK’s OCLV carbon fibre. The suspension design is TREK’s Active Braking Pivot (APP) set-up, which uses a concentric pivot around the rear axle and a floating mount for the rear shock, which is a Fox EVOL air with 130mm of travel. The shock incorporates TREK’s RE:aktiv damper, an intuitive damper that offers highly efficient suspension performance (read more on this impressive technology here: ‘RE:aktiv damper, Trek Bikes‘.
The Fuel EX 9.8 also has TREK’s Control Freak Cable Management, a neat internal cable routing system that accommodates up to 54 cable routing combinations and, as with most current model bikes, Boost dropouts.
The fork is Fox’s Performance 34 Float with three (CTD) damper settings with 130mm of travel. The wheelset comprises Bontrager Line Comp 30 rims with Boost hubs and Bontrager XR3 tubeless-ready tyres.
The drivetrain is Shimano Deore XT 11-speed (11-42 cassette) with a 36/26 chainring combo, while the brakeset is also Shimano Deore XT hydraulic disc. The cockpit is all Bontrager components, with the exception of a RockShox Reverb remote-activated dropper seatpost and Bontrager Line Pro carbon handlebar, which is 750mm wide with 15mm rise.
Three sizes 17.5-inch, 19.5-inch and 21.5-inch come with 29-inch wheels, while the 15.5-inch version comes with 27.5-inch wheels. Thanks to the boost spec the 2017 Top Fuel and Fuel EX range has been designed to accommodate regular wheels and 27.5-inch Plus size wheels, essentially delivering a bike that can tackle anything from gnarly trails or Enduro events to stage races/marathons to ultra-endurance events. The weight of the 17.5-inch model we tested is 13.12kg with sealant, pedals and bottle cage…
Some years ago, we published a feature on why mid-travel ‘trail’ bikes should be the go-to category for most South African mountain bikers. The Fuel EX 9.8 confirms our opinion. It’s a bike that makes everything easier, from climbing, to cornering to descending… Easier being more comfortable, with more control. And when you combine increased comfort and control, especially in a stage race, you generally go faster…
Other than moving the brake levers and shifter inside a little and setting the suspension using TREK’s suspension setting formula here ‘suspension Trek Bikes‘, the Fuel EX 9.8 was ready to ride. We started with it in the HIGH position, which gives you a 67.7-degree headtube angle, and a 337mm BB height. It’s slack, but doesn’t feel like a pure gravity bike does. But you’re certainly in a relatively upright riding position, which your lower back will love…
After a number of rides on Joburg and Pretoria’s relatively flat trails, we then headed off to Afriski in Lesotho where there are real mountains with significantly long, steep climbs and descents.
We never expect a trail bike to climb like a marathon bike. But the Fuel EX 9.8 confused us somewhat. It’s responsive and smooth on any climb. Responsive no doubt because of the stiffer, straighter downtube design and smooth because in Trail mode the RE:aktiv damper is in its element. We seldom felt the need to switch to full damping (lockout) because it just manages the rear suspension really well over uneven surfaces, giving you traction movement when necessary, but no discernible bob.
With a double chainring (2×11), you get an efficient range of gearing options making it possible to scale some seriously steep gradients without feeling too defeated. We rode long climbs up to 25 minutes in duration and always felt there was something in reserve in terms of gearing, which is a great place to be. Admittedly, both our testers of this bike weigh less than 80kg and are reasonably fit.
Descents are where the Fuel EX 9.8 really shines. With the Fox Performance 34 Float fork, slack headtube angle, wide bars and capable brakes the front end never faltered. Drop the saddle out of the way and you feel super confident to tackle just about any descent. The rear suspension actually feels deeper than 130mm and never once gave a hint of bottoming out. And this included riding rough cattle tracks and rain-rutted singletrack as well as the manicured-but-rocky-in-places main slope lines at Afriski resort itself.
Some of the descents have you braking almost the whole way down and on those, ridden on the Top Fuel, we felt ourselves simply ‘hanging on’, whereas on the Fuel EX, we were noticeably composed and undoubtedly faster. Yes, the 180mm rotor front with a 160mm rear (we’d preferred 180mm front and rear) certainly help with braking performance on the steep stuff, but the more balanced body position and increased suspension travel give you more confidence to brake less and appreciate the trail rather than survive it…
Regarding cornering, there is little to say other than it is about as crisp as you’ll get. From long, fast bends to tight unpredictable turns we enjoyed a consistent sense of security and confidence, which also says a lot for the Bontrager XR3 Team Issue 2.4-inch tyres.
We did adjust the geometry to LOW, going from slack to slacker, which is obviously great for descending, but found that we preferred the HIGH setting, which was slack enough for Gauteng riding, but we’d probably change it more regularly if we lived where there are mostly significant climbs and descending trails. It just requires a 5mm Allen key and 5 minutes to make the switch should you feel the need to change mid-ride.
Perhaps the bottle cage is a bit tight for a long bottle (there’s only space for one, but not really an issue on a trail bike). Perhaps the grips were a little hard on the hands. Perhaps the matte finish takes a bit longer to clean. All of these are small things and while we thought long and hard about it and there’s actually nothing we can truly fault on the Fuel EX 9.8, so we have given it almost full marks as a high-performance trail bike.
Where the previous version of the Fuel EX was more an aggressive-terrain marathon bike, the new version is more of an agile trail bike. It’s the ideal bike for those that only ride trails and have a strong interest in Enduro racing and Strava-segment hunting, but also a good option for bigger, ‘average-guy’ riders that enter marathons and stage races to complete them, rather than compete in them…
The Trek Fuel EX 9.8 undoubtedly represents the pinnacle of the modern trail bike. The longer reach, slacker geometry, increased suspension travel, stiffer frame and myriad of category-leading features make the Trek Fuel EX 9.8 the perfect allrounder. Yes, ‘allrounder’ is a term used frequently these days, but it’s hard not to use it when describing a star performer in the trail bike category. At R84 999 the EX 9.8 is well-priced for the spec and technology it presents.
For those looking for a similar ride but at a lower price, there are aluminum-framed Fuel EX models available, such as the EX 8 (R49 999) and EX 5/EX 5 Women’s (R31 999). Also in South Africa is stock of the 27.5-inch Plus wheel EX 8 (R49 999) and the EX 5 (R33 999).
RRP: R84 999
Find the full spec here: Trek Bikes ZA – Fuel EX 9.8
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