Words: Matt Nauthe   Photos: Tim Bardsley-Smith

I was super stoked to get a sneak peak into the 2017 Fuel range, with one of the first bikes to land in Australia. After testing the EX9 29 last year I was pretty excited to see that things that geometry had been slackened out to allow for greater control at higher speeds and that the Mino-Link has remained to allow adjustment to the bottom bracket height and head angle. While I tested the 29” version last year, in 2017 the bikes come in both 29” version or 27.5+.

Initial impressions
Sweeping your eyes across the Fuel EX 9.8 the most obvious observation that can be made is the stealth black colour scheme. No colourful highlights just gloss on matte and it looks super schmick. Going beyond the cursory glance the 2017 model has seen a number of tweaks from the previous incarnation.


The travel has increased to 130mm from 120mm and the geometry has slackened out to make it more stable and capable at high speeds. The bottom bracket and head angle are adjustable with their Mino-Link system, although the bikes are shipped in the high setting as standard for everyday trail riding. With a quick flip of the link you can slacken and lower the bike to tackle the more gnarly descents. It should also be noted that this frame and fork is capable of taking 27.5+ wheel set for those that are that way inclined.

The mainframe has been redesigned to straighten the down tube eliminating the curve behind the head tube to increase stiffness without adding weight. Frame protection has also been enhanced with the introduction of the Knock Block steerer top that protects the down tube from fork crown impacts and the top tube from handlebar controls. This is a trick little feature; check out the Knock Block YouTube clip for a full explanation.

The cable routing is super clean thanks to the internal routing which Trek call “Control Freak”. All cables or hoses are secured in place with bolt in grommets so that cable slap is eliminated through a simple zip tie retainer that is located on the down tube. This is the sort of detail that gets looked over without comment, only to realise when you try to pinpoint why another bike seems so noisy on the trails. The system is also readily adaptable to Di2 – so it is pretty future-proof.

The suspension design stays the same as last year with the patented RE:aktiv damper technology, Full Floater, EVO link and ABP though small tweaks have been made to the leverage rates and shock lengths for increased performance and shock compatibility. Boost wheel spacing is still a standard both front and back – and part of the reason why the bike can take 29” or 27.5 Plus wheel sizes.

Shimano XT M8000 is specced throughout with 2x11 drivetrain. A solid performer with little fuss. 1x setups are popular and if that’s your choice changing it is an easy fix really at minimal cost, though it must be noted that it can take maximum of 32T chain ring.

Although fitted with the RS Reverb for the test, production models will be coming out with the Bontrager Drop Line post. This cable actuated stealth post that has making its debute this season has had many positive reviews already. Watch this space for future product testing.

Bontrager accessories feature throughout and it all looks and feels great. The bar/stem combo is from the Line Pro series, with a 750mm/15mm rise carbon bar coupled with a 35mm stem with the new Knock Block technology. The titanium railed Evoke saddle is light and comfortable – and strong. The Fuel EX comes from the box ready to go tubeless with the 29x2.4” Bontrager XR3 tyres with the inner strength sidewalls.

The parts specced are well thought out with the serious trail rider in mind, full width bars, tubeless setup on wide rims as well as nice trimmings with Ti railed saddle. Bar the 1x setup there is nothing that I would change if it was my bike.

Setup up was by the book, with all shock pressures as per the manufacturers specifications. I put the stem as low as it goes and set the tyres at 25psi front and 27psi rear. The Mino-Link was set in the high position as it rolled out of the workshop.

Out on the trail with the Fuel EX 

After testing the Fuel EX 9 29 last year it appeared that most of my desired changes had been applied to this the 2017 Fuel EX 9.8. Geometry has slackened to make the Mino-Link useful. If I liked the bike in the high position, I loved it in the low. What felt really good was now great. The lower bottom bracket height lends a more grounded experience, like you can just throw it into any corner, float the rougher stuff and pop the rises. The bike has moved away from the XC end of the spectrum rooting itself firmly in the trail realm in a confident and unabashed manner. This is a bike that loves the rough trails. The ride is precise and direct, and this stems from a number of factors, the Boost spacing, the straight down tube and the oversized stiff bars – plus of course the sturdy wheel and tyre combination that lets the bike track so well.

While the Fuel EX descends like a champion, it climbs without qualm though it is a stretch to call it an XC whippet. Sizing was spot on for me, the large frame coupled with the 35mm stem put everything where I wanted it. Riding the bike I tended to be switching between the trail and descend mode on the rear.

Thanks to the Knock Block, it was so good to be able ride hard without the fear that you would slam brake levers and shifters into the top tube. On other bikes, this has meant I haven’t been able to run the bars and stem where I wanted to, to make sure they cleared the top tube. But not so on the Fuel EX.

From downhill runs to all day in the saddle this bike was put through its paces, mainly because it was so fun to ride. Riding new lines unseen, I had the confidence to push harder into corners and also hold out and brake later. The big wheels always found plenty of traction especially when braking in straight lines.

The Fuel EX did tend to bog down and wallow a little when popping in and out of tight terrain but I feel that this a more a symptom of the overall size and travel of the bike. This bike favours the wider more open terrain than super tight slow-speed trails.

The Shimano drivetrain was flawless throughout the test, with solid shifting and the chain staying put. Both rings were utilised though mainly due to the 36T large ring being a little too big for steeper climbs. A 32T would be the go if deciding to go down the single ring route. XT brakes provided plenty of power, and given the speeds the Fuel EX was comfortable at, they were perfect.

Our Take
Out on the undulating trails the Fuel EX just hums along, pop the seat up and it chews through the kilometres with no questions asked. The Fox Float EVOL with RE:aktiv is super efficient when set in trail mode, the pedal induced bob being negligible and the suspension still retains that lively and playful aspect that makes you want to pop off the small rises in the trail. Drop the saddle and it descends like a bike with more than its 130mm of travel, on more than one occasion I cleared a section and was left wondering how I didn’t get bucked over the bars. The ramping up of the suspension is so seamless that I didn’t feel it bottom out throughout the test. Coupled with the 130mm Fox 34 Floats the bike has good balance front to back that allows the rider to stay centred and ready for anything that the trail throws at them. With a component package to complement it, Trek are on a winner with the Fuel EX, as one very confident trail bike.
 

THE ESSENTIALS

BRAND Trek
MODEL Fuel EX9 29
RRP $6299
WEIGHT 12.1kg (as tested)
FROM trekbikes.com
   
AVAILABLE SIZES

15.5, 17.5, 18.5, 19.5 (tested), 21.5"

FRAME MATERIALS

OCLV Carbon mainframe & seat stays, alloy chainstays

FORK

Fox Performance 34 Float, 130mm travel

SHOCK

Fox Performance Float EVOL, RE:aktiv 3-position damper

SHIFTERS

Shimano XT M8000 11 sp

DERAILLEURS Shimano XT 
CRANK

Shimano XT 36/26

CHAIN Shimano XT
CASSETTE

Shimano XT, 11-42, 11-speed

WHEELS

Bontrager Line Comp 30, Tubeless ready

TYRES Bontrager XR3 Team, TR 29x2.40"
BRAKES Shimano Deore XT brakes
STEM Bontrager Line Pro
HANDLEBARS Bontrager Line Pro, OCLV Carbon 
SEATPOST

RockShox Reverb Stealth, as tested

SADDLE

Bontrager Evoke 3, titanium rails