Chipps nips over to take in some Italian singletrack and bring you this Trek Fuel EX 9.8 First Ride Review
For the first ride launch of the Trek Fuel EX, Trek had chosen a quirky hotel about an hour from Venice. Yes, Venice is flat, but head north (or in our case, west) a hundred kilometres and you are suddenly presented with wooded green hills rearing up from the plains. It was here that our funny sort of spa hotel was situated.
The hotel seemed to be a healing spring kind of deal, with a naturally heated swimming pool and an assortment of scary looking ‘treatment rooms’ for mud baths and the like. And in between the leathery Italians in bathrobes, there lurked polo shirted Trek employees, moving between meeting rooms and a large tent full of demo bikes.
The reason for the huge takeover of the Galzgnano Terme spa place was that this was Trek’s European dealer launch, as well as press presentation, for several bikes (and only one of which is featured below, so get guessing…) – and after the press had carefully spun around on a few different models and gone home, the world’s top Trek dealers and distributors would be arriving and doing the same over the following couple of weeks.
One meeting room was dedicated to the 2020 range and the presentation covered a few key models. The one that probably raised the biggest interest was the bike we have here – the Trek Fuel EX. It’s always been an important bike for Trek, being the mid-level trail bike Swiss Army Knife model, and this new model has been completely revamped, as you’ll see in our accompanying news story.
Fuel EX 9.8 spec
The bike we got to demo, on some wonderfully hand-built, technical trails, was the Trek Fuel EX 9.8 – the nearly top-end model that sits just shy of the full-on XTR and SRAM AXS models. There’s a Shimano XT and a SRAM spec. This model comes with SRAM Eagle 12 speed and the rest is a ready-for-anything spec, with Shimano SLX four pot brakes and Bontrager’s Line Carbon 30 trail wheels. Interestingly, on the higher spec models, the Fox 34 or Rockshox Pike forks are upgraded to beefier Fox 36 forks (though the decals are stealthy black on black, so it’s not immediately obvious). This is a great upgrade for what turns out to be a super capable trail bike.
Fuel EX 9.8 First Ride Impressions
Sitting on the bike, with its short, 35mm stem, the fit seems great. I’m usually between a medium and a large and Trek conveniently does an M/L size just in the middle of the two. Looking down, there’s a lovely light to mid blue paint fade and those chunky Bontrager XR4 treads on 30mm internal Bontrager carbon rims. There’s room for a bottle and, as we mention in our news story, there’s a compartment below the cage for a Bontrager burrito of get-you-home flat fixing equipment. It’s a great addition and something to ponder as to how Specialized seemingly haven’t found a way of patenting the idea. As is frequently the case these days, there were no punctures so we didn’t even get to use it.
The local trails here are a mix of dry bedrock, washed out streambeds, dusty vineyard edges and technical slabby rock steps and roots. All a great test of an all round trail bike.
The Fuel EX 9.8 seems to take everything in its stride. It encourages a ‘chase the rider in front’ riding style, backed up with the confidence that the bottomless-feeling suspension gives – especially with the Fox 36 forks up front.
Unusually for a modern trail bike, I found that I was reaching for the ‘Trail’ switch on the rear shock more than I usually do, which tends to be never, just to calm the bike a little on the climbs, so eager is it to soak up bumps. Perhaps I’ve been riding too many bikes recently with suspension that stiffens under pedalling – it’s personal preference really and some riders prefer a bike to surge forward at every pedal stroke at the expense of a bit of comfort, whereas with the Trek, the suspension really does stay active, whatever you’re doing with it.
Accessing the ‘Flats Happen’ Bontrager Burrito
That active suspension doesn’t hinder climbing though and I was racing my fellow journos up washed out stream beds knowing that traction was always available. There doesn’t seem to be anything that knocks the composure of the Fuel EX. Following riders blind into wooded singletrack, there were many situations where the bike (and rider) needed to brake and turn, or pucker up and pick a steep line, or to fly off an unannounced drop, with very little notice. The feel of the bike suits this kind of riding. It’s fulfilled its Swiss Army Knife brief in that you can cruise along, taking in the countryside and letting the supple suspension soak up the bumps, or you can really press the bike and demand a lot of it. The same bike, with the same setup seems to be able to offer both extremes.
It’s a crowded market of 130mm 29er trail bikes out there – you need only look to great bikes like the Cannondale Habit, the Specialized Stumpjumper, the Kona Process 134 and the Cotic Flare MAX 132. There’s quite a scrum, which is what makes this a very important point for Trek to hit with the Fuel EX.
Based on my brief day of riding (with an Italian lunch in the middle of it), the Fuel EX is definitely a bike I’d like to ride more. There doesn’t seem to be much it can’t do.
Chipps’ (quirky) accommodation and (hugely delayed Easyjet) flight were covered by Trek.