Over the holiday week I met Trek’s Southeast demo guy, Tom Jenkins, at the IMBA Epic Santos Trails in Ocala, FL, for a solid 3+ hour cross country test of the new 2009 Trek Top Fuel 9.9 SSL.
This course is an Epic for a reason. Ã‚Â There are more than 40 miles of singletrack, ranging from easy, flowing trail to tight, technical rocky sections that can trip you up pretty easily. Ã‚Â In other words, it’s the perfect place to test the race-worthiness of the new Top Fuel design.
This bike is equipped and built for world-cup-level XC racing, and it’s certainly fast enough and light enough. Ã‚Â The great thing is, the lightness does not come at the expense of stability, stiffness or control, which means you can focus on the trail rather than any quirks of the bike. Ã‚Â There are a lot of factors that come together to make this an excellent bike…just read “more” for the full review, a run down of the specs and some of the interesting changes from the Fuel EX…
The Trek Top Fuel 9.9 is their top of the line race rig for 2009. Ã‚Â It uses an all-new “crossbow” frame design with the world’s first fully integrated, no-cut seatmast on a mountain bike. Ã‚Â Trek offers two sizes of seat post to allow the bike to fit most users, and each post has about 2.5″ of adjustment. Ã‚Â The bike pictured (which is what I rode) is an XL frame size with the taller seatpost option.
|TEST RIDER: Tyler
HEIGHT: 6′ 2″
WEIGHT: 180 lbs
RIDE DETAILS: 25.8 miles, about 3:15:00
BIKE SETUP: 100mm stem, 30psi in tires, 120psi in shock, 90psi (+) / 75psi (-) in fork
QUICK SPECS: 100mm travel, OCLV Red Carbon w/ ABP Race, Magnesium EVO rocker arm, RockShox SID World Cup w/ Remote PushLoc lever, Fox RP23 shock with ProPedal, FSA K-Force Light 2×9 cranks w/ 42/29 rings, Shimano XTR Shadow rear derailleur, Bontrager
Click on any of the pics to enlarge them
Even being an XL frame, the new Crossbow design gives the bike a low standover height, which makes it feel more maneuverable. Ã‚Â
The bike shown here is an early production prototype, but according to Tom, the only difference between this bike as pictured and what you’ll see in the stores is that we put a 100mm stem on (and perhaps the tires); it comes with a 120mm stem for the XL.
Astute observers may notice the empty cable guides on the downtube. Ã‚Â Originally, this bike was spec’d with a DT Swiss carbon shock with remote lockout, but apparently DT wasn’t able to get production to meet Trek’s specs, so they went with a Fox RP23 shock with ProPedal. Ã‚Â Production models shouldn’t have the guides on there.
There are three settings for the Pro Pedal. Ã‚Â I ran it briefly in the middle and firmer setting to test it out, and there is a noticeable difference, but it’s not a full lockout. Ã‚Â On the middle setting, it tolerated the big hits just fine, but the ride was a little firmer…perhaps making the softer or middle setting perfect for quick races where you don’t want to fiddle with anything while riding (although the lever is easy to flick by feel, so you don’t really need to take your eyes off the trail to use it). Ã‚Â The firmer setting is what I would want for race-intensity climbing, but probably not something I’d use during non-race riding.
To test the difference under hard pedaling, I stood up and hammered without the ProPedal on, and the bike bobbed up and down through the shock’s travel. Ã‚Â To Trek’s credit, the Full Floater design never made the bike feel mushy even though the shock was pretty active. Ã‚Â Flip the ProPedal switch onÃ‚Â to stand and hammer, though, and the rear end is much less reactive to pedal forces or even the “bouncing” that standing and hammering tends to cause.
Seated pedaling seemed very efficient under hard effort, but I could see the shock moving a little. Ã‚Â While it never really felt like it was robbing power, the bike did feel ever so slightly faster when the ProPedal was on.
The Full Floater design, shown above, places the shock between a rocker arm (top) and the chainstay swingarm (bottom), giving the shock a “bottomless” feel. Ã‚Â On the trail, that translates to a very supple feeling rear end that was never harsh, even when landing off 18″ to 20″ drops or (Tom, skip to the next paragraph) when I miscalculated jumping a log pile and cased the rear wheel on it.
The bottom bracket is a custom BB90 layout. Ã‚Â Unlike the BB30 standard, which is a 30mm diameter BB spindle, Trek’s BB90 refers to a 90mm width BB shell. Ã‚Â The bearings are dropped into carbon bearing races molded into the frame (this means no aluminum inserts, which means no creaking…more on this later). Ã‚Â Visually, it means a cleaner BB area, which should also be easier to clean, with no BB cups or bearings visible from the outside. Ã‚Â Performance-wise, it means a wider base to support the BB spindle, which translates into a stiffer junction and better pedaling efficiency. Ã‚Â Using the infamous “grab the seat and handlebar and step sideways on the pedal” test, the bike showed very little lateral flex. Ã‚Â This is good.
Trek uses a custom FSA 2×9 crankset on their Top Fuel 9.9 to both reduce weight and improve the Q Factor, which basically means a narrower drivetrain. Ã‚Â This is supposed to offer a more efficient pedal stroke, which is good, because you’re going to spend most of your time Ã‚Â in the 42-tooth big ring. Ã‚Â During the entire ride, I probably only used the 29-tooth little ring for about 40 minutes, all of which was on the “Red” technical trails. Ã‚Â Otherwise, it felt like spinning the granny on a traditional three-speed crankset.
For me, this was a mixed bag, and even Tom conceded that a lot of riders are probably going to want a Triple. Ã‚Â On the plus side, I probably wouldn’t have pushed a 42 around for three hours, but having done it, I’m now more likely to spend more time in my big ring, which hopefully will make me faster. Ã‚Â And, given that the trails at Santos are very, very flat, this gearing worked exceptionally well. Ã‚Â Remember, this bike is meant for racers, and as such, this gearing would probably work well for anything from podium-level Sport (oops…I mean Cat 2) riders on up in most cases.
However, for casual riding or anything with a lot of elevation and climbing, a triple is going to be a much more practical set up. Ã‚Â On my home trails in NC, there are enough short climbs and quasi-technical areas that a 32-tooth middle is the perfect gear…the big ring would be too tough, and the granny would be too spinny. Ã‚Â One of the downsides to riding singletrack in the 42-tooth was slower acceleration out of the corners, it took more effort, and my legs were a little more spent the next day than normal.
It all comes down to intended use, what your local trails are like and your fitness level. Ã‚Â You can change the gears out on the double with any standard 4-bolt pattern rings, so you’re not stuck with the 29/44 combo, or you can just throw a triple on there when you’re not racing. Ã‚Â The bike will accept any crankset that will work with a Shimano external BB, so basically any modern crankset, and it’ll end up with the same crank width as on a normal bike. Ã‚Â (NOTE:Ã‚Â FSA sells a 2×9 K-Force Light crankset for use on any mountain bike, so you can make your bike extra fast looking and drop a few grams, too)
One of the biggest technological advances in Trek’s 9.9 and 9.8 Top Fuel bikes is their new Net Molding carbon layup (pic here). Ã‚Â The Net Molding process removes the aluminum inserts, which lets the bearings drop directly into the frame. Ã‚Â This saves weight and allows for tighter tolerances, which means better performance and no creaking. Ã‚Â This process is used for the headset, rocker arm and suspension pivot point. Ã‚Â For the bottom bracket, the frame has carbon bearing races molded into the frame.
At the top of the rear end is a very clean cable criss-cross that keeps them close to the center and out of the way of your heel. Ã‚Â Just below them is the one-piece magnesium rocker arm (silver part). Ã‚Â Making it one piece keeps it stiffer and lighter than the bolt-together rocker on some previous Fuels.
Another difference between this bike and what’s featured in the catalog and originally spec’d at Trek’s media release are the wheels. Ã‚Â Production models will originally ship with the Bontrager Race X Lite wheels and not the XXX Lite carbon rimmed wonders. Ã‚Â The wheels you see on the showroom bikes will have updated graphics from what’s shown here.
Why? Ã‚Â Trek claims to have some production delays in getting the carbon rims manufactured properly because it’s a very technically involved design. Ã‚Â The carbon rims have a center ridge that alloy rims don’t, which requires two bladders in the mold or something like that…basically, they’re not ready to ship, the bikes will come without them at first, and the price of the bike has been adjusted downward accordingly. Ã‚Â Actually, with the Fox shock and the Race X wheels, the MSRP dropped from $7,150 to about $6,500. Ã‚Â And there’s very, very little weight penalty…the bike is still under 22 lbs.
Up front you’ll see another difference between the original spec and the production spec…a riser bar. Ã‚Â Thank goodness. Ã‚Â Not only is it more comfortable, but one way you could actually drop a little weight from the bike. Ã‚Â The XXX Lite bar is about 180g, but you could throw an Easton Monkey Lite SL on there and save 40g to 50g.
Keeping the bike on the trail are the Bontrager Jones XR Team Issue tires. Ã‚Â The Team Issue tires are tubeless ready, very light at 485g each and use Aramid particles to keep treadwear on the high end. Ã‚Â Unfortunately, what you see here are the last bit that is non-production spec. Ã‚Â These are the Bontrager Jones XR Tubeless Ready tires, which weigh about 585g each are Rear (above) and Front (below) specific. Ã‚Â Depending on what ends up on the showroom floor, this may or may not be another little way to shed an extra 100g to 150g.
Weight aside, these tires held their ground well despite the generous sprinkling of pine needles on the trail. Ã‚Â We ran them with 30psi, but from feel, I would have guessed more like 35 to 37psi. Ã‚Â They felt “thick”, which probably contributed to the beefy feel despite being a much lower pressure than I typically run. Ã‚Â Normally, I like about 38psi, though my habits are slowly changing, and these tires never felt squishy or at risk of pinch flatting. Ã‚Â They’re tubeless ready, but we ran tubes during the test. Ã‚Â On the tighter, slower rocky trails, which contain some quick power climbs, the tires never slipped or gave me pause.
The Top Fuel 9.9 SSL comes spec’d with the 2009 RockShox SID World Cup 100mm travel fork. Besides jumping to 100mm for 2009, the new SIDs also come with wider, 30mm sliders. Ã‚Â The effect is a much sharper handling fork with much less flex, and it plays well with the Top Fuel’s stiff frame. Ã‚Â One really cool feature is the remote compression adjustment built into the lock out. Ã‚Â The Lock Out uses RockShox’s Flood Gate to keep it moving just a little in the event of a big hit, and positive and negative air pressures let you dial it in for virtually any rider weight.
The Top Fuel uses the “Race” version of its ABP (Active Brake Pivot), which is a modified version of the ABP on the Fuel EX. Ã‚Â Shown above, the differences are a thinner driveside axle bolt, which allows it to be used in a trainer (pre-race warmup…remember, this bike is built to race) and supposedly allows for one-handed release, presumably to speed tire changes. Ã‚Â Another difference in the frame’s layout around the ABP is the the chainstay is outboard on the Top Fuel, versus inboard on the Fuel EX (shown below). Ã‚Â Notice, too, how much thinner the Top Fuel’s pivot points are.
Trek’s ABP allows the suspension to remain fully active during braking versus other suspension designs that put rear pivot point somewhere outside of the axle line. Ã‚Â The benefit of this is more applicable during fast, single track descents, which there was a total lack of at Santos, so I can’t speak as to the efficacy of this feature. Ã‚Â I can say the bike stopped plenty well when I needed it to, but there were no downhills to test this on.
WHAT’S THE VERDICT?
Overall, the difference in performance in the tight ‘n’ twisties between this bike and my 5-year-old Fuel 100 revealed just how much I’ve been compensating for bike flex when I ride. It’s subtle, to be sure, but when I pointed this bike around a corner or really carved around a tree, it reacted quickly and clearly as if to say “yes sir, right away sir.” Ã‚Â So quickly, in fact, that I really had to pay attention to what I was doing because it would highlight my overcompensations and turn too sharply.
This isn’t negative commentary on the bike, rather it shows how much this bike exudes pure, pro-level performance. Ã‚Â And it’s not to say the bike is twitchy. Ã‚Â In fact, I was able to ride along with no hands on some of the smoother single track without once feeling like the bike was going to lurch out of control. Ã‚Â It was really only during the very tight stuff that I had to pay closer attention to what I was doing, but that was entirely user error. Ã‚Â The bike itself did exactly what I was telling it to do, which meant that I could focus on what I was doing without worrying about whether or not the bike was going follow orders.
The beautiful part is that it performs so sharply without sacrificing comfort. Ã‚Â After a little more than three hours, the only complaint I had was the saddle…it just didn’t suit me. Ã‚Â The suspension was active and smooth the whole day, and it ate up the small stuff easily and kept control over rocks and roots. Ã‚Â Given that my only issues, the seat and the potentially limited usefulness of the 2×9, are both easily changed out, there really is nothing to complain about with this bike.
The only limiting factor to my review was the lack of real climbing and descending this test ride afforded me, which I hope to remedy in the Spring when Tom’s back up in NC. Ã‚Â In the meantime,Ã‚Â I can say this: It’s efficient, quick, light…which is what you’d expect from a bike purpose built to win World Cup races. Ã‚Â But it’s also comfortable enough to use for anything from a typical XC race to marathon and 24 hour events. Ã‚Â The 100mm travel is a huge plus over the 80mm travel race bikes from just a couple of years ago, and the suspension performance Trek has built in with the Full Floater and ABP give it a supple feel unlike any other bike I’ve ridden.
The slight spec change and corresponding price drop at retail just make it all the sweeter.
For some pictures and reviews of the trails ridden for this review, click here, then check the photo list along the right side of the article, near the bottom. Ã‚Â OMBA (Ocala Mountain Bike Assoc.) is responsible for developing the trails here with the help of IMBA, and they are some truly incredible trails and jump areas. Ã‚Â In fact, IMBA is bringing their Trail Care Crew to Santos from Dec. 1 through 14. Ã‚Â Check OMBA’s website for details.Ã‚Â
COUPLE OF NOTES
1. Tom mentioned that the bike was set up like he rides it…one of the fringe benefits of having a trailer full of bikes, you can pick what you want to ride. Ã‚Â His only comment about the bike was the chain noise coming from the chain hitting the inside of the big ring when it’s ridden in the small ring. Ã‚Â Because there’s such a large difference in chain ring sizes, there’s more real estate along the inside and he seemed to notice it more than I did. Ã‚Â I didn’t spend a lot of time in the small ring, so I never really noticed it.
2. When in the big ring, I noticed most of my time was spent on the top of the cassette. Ã‚Â When in the small ring, most of my time was spent on the bottom of the cassette. Ã‚Â Despite that, I never noticed any problem with cross chain tension or pulling the derailleur too far out.