Earlier this year, the Fuel EX received rapid fire updates that first introduced a 27.5+ version then quickly made it the standard model by adding 29er wheels and tires for most of the stock builds. The frame was all new for both, bumping travel to 130mm, and it effectively did away with the standard 27.5 version except in a few smaller sizes for the women’s models.
Most of the stock 2017 Fuel EX builds come as 29ers with meaty 2.4″ wide Bontrager tires, and that’s what I rode here. The Fuel EX 9.8 comes spec’d with Shimano XT drivetrain and brakes, Fox Performance 34 Float fork and EVOL Float rear shock with the Trek-exclusive RE:active damping, Bontrager Line Comp wheels and XR3 Team Issue tires. Here’s how it rode…
Imagine taking the heart of an XC race bike and giving it the soul of a trail bike and you’d have the Fuel EX. A long time ago, before Bikerumor, I bought the Trek Fuel as my race bike and rode it for many years. Then, shortly after starting this site, I met up with Trek’s southeastern rep to test the new Top Fuel, which had just switched from their pivotless rear triangle design to the Full Floater suspension platform with concentric rear pivot/axle design. The difference between the two was stark, with the new FF/ABP design nearly levitating over the bumps in comparison. And it did so with no loss of efficiency.
Fast forward about eight years and the latest generation continues to have that ultra plush suspension that makes the Fuel feel like it has more travel than what’s printed in the catalogue. The trick here is that they’ve kept the Top Fuel’s efficiency while bumping travel into the full-on Trail Bike range.
Part of the story is the inherent efficiency offered by the concentric rear end pivot/axle design. Another part is that the Full Floater design, which sandwiches the shock between two moving arms rather than a fixed mounting position on the frame, mostly isolating it from pedaling forces. But, it’s still a suspension and you still bounce when you pedal, so they needed something more. That ‘more’ is the RE:aktive shock co-developed with Penske and Fox. Essentially, it uses a high volume piston that backed by a spring and has several small ports in it. Under slow compression, like when you’re pedaling, oil flows through the small ports, limiting movement for a more efficient “platform”. Under higher speed impacts, like when you actually hit something or land a jump, the added pressure easily overpowers the valve’s spring and lets a much larger volume of oil flow through, letting the shock instantaneously open up to track the terrain.
The effect is instant, and it keeps the bike pedaling like a race bike but taming roots and rocks like a trail bike. It’s a good combo that makes for a versatile ride that could easily be a one-bike quiver for many folks. Add in the Mino-Link that lets you adjust head angle by 0.5º and BB height by about 10mm and the ability to run 27.5+ or 29er wheels and tires, and it’s a bike that’ll handle quite a variety of riding styles and terrains.
On my test ride, I hit more of the aggressive sections with gnarly climbs (like the root infested lead in to Goat Hill shown at the top of the post, so named because you need to be nimble like a goat to climb it) and fast, swoopy and chunky downhills. The Fuel EX’s suspension lived up to my expectations by tracking true, shrinking bumps and cushioning impacts like a bike with more than 130mm of travel.
Stand up to power through a section or climb and it feels like a shorter travel bike. That’s aided by a stiff downtube that keeps power transfer going where it should, which also aids overall handling predicability, too.
There’s always some question in the back of my mind about big brands’ popularity. Are they everywhere because they’re good at business and distribution, or because their bikes are that much better. With Trek, there’s certainly some business acumen that’s gotten them where they are, but the bikes we’ve ridden justify their success and the Fuel EX is no exception. If you’re looking for a solid performer that can keep up with the XC dorks and hit the drops with the All Mountain kids, this bike’s worth a test ride.