TREK FUEL EX 9.8 29
The 26-inch version of this bike is celebrated as one of the greatest trail bikes on the market, but Trek believed it could create a better bike by adding larger wheels. Would this remake prove to be a genuine improvement? Or would it be the mountain bike equivalent of watching a classic movie in 3D – a cool effect, but not actually better?
I was bringing my own nostalgic baggage to this review. I absolutely loved my time on board the 26″ Fuel EX when I reviewed it last year, so much so that I hung onto it for weeks after the test period had finished. As dispassionately as I tried to approach my time on board the new EX 29er, this wheel-diameter-enhanced remake was always going to have to live up to the glorious memories of my time on board the earlier rendition of the Fuel EX, the 26-inch version.
The Fuel is an interesting bike in terms of the evolution of the Trek brand. Up until a few years ago Trek and Gary Fisher Bicycles co-existed but had separate identities: Trek manufactured the ‘core’ mountain bikes, while Fisher produced the 29ers and had a more quirky approach. As the 29er market grew, this two-pronged approach no longer made sense, so Trek absorbed Gary Fisher Bicycles, creating the Gary Fisher Collection of 29ers under the Trek banner. In the meantime, Trek had been beavering away on a massive program of redevelopment for their mountain bikes. Let’s be honest: up until half a dozen years ago, Trek full-suspension bikes were absolute dogs. Acknowledging this (though perhaps not so bluntly), Trek began investing heavily in its mountain bike program, bringing in some of the industry’s best minds and starting with a clean slate. The results are clear to see; the Trek line-up is consistently excellent, and the Full Floater and ABP suspension system Trek uses across its entire full-suspension range is one of the best. And the Fuel EX 29 marks the completion of the Trek and Fisher merger – the Fuel EX 29 is Trek’s first 29er to employ the complete host of technologies developed by Trek for its full-suspension range.
On a bleak Canberra morning, I got acquainted with the Fuel. You only get one first impression, and the Fuel EX 9.8 29er made it count, with an incredible smoky-red carbon finish that glistened in the light like heavily lacquered timber. All of the same sensible and practical details that had left me enamoured with the 26″ Fuel were on display; clean cable routing, a Rockshox Reverb Stealth post, Trek’s trademark Full Floater and ABP suspension system… But more importantly, the bike still looked fun and sleek. Somehow Trek had grafted bigger wheels onto the Fuel EX platform without making the bike look like it had run into the back of a car.
The EX 29er’s OCLV carbon frame has compact proportions and gorgeous lines, all packaged into a wheelbase that’s less than three centimetres longer than its 26-inch predecessor. The EX 29 doesn’t present as a ‘big’ bike, unlike many 120mm-travel 29ers. Twenty-niners with an excessively tall front end and a head tube length of just 10.5cm is one of my pet hates. But even the bar height on the Fuel EX 29 reminded me of the 26-inch bike I loved so much. Before I’d even turned a pedal, I was enjoying this remake.
Stromlo was the first testing ground. Funnily enough, this was also the first place we rode the 26″ Fuel last year. The maiden ride began with a long climb, right to the top of the mountain, and instantly revealed the new Fuel 29er to be a superb ascender. The more technical the terrain became, the greater the bike’s climbing performance. The rear suspension tune demonstrated the perfect balance of sensitivity and efficiency. In its trail setting, the EX’s CTD shock kept the rear wheel on to the ground but used only as much travel as was necessary. It may be that Trek has improved the suspension tune, or it could be simply the result of the bigger wheels, but the EX lapped up Stromlo’s rocky pinches where keeping climbing momentum is key. With an 80mm-stem, the climbing position was ideal, keeping the steering responsive, without making the front end light or prone to lifting.
The top of Western Wedgetail, with its incredible views from the top of Stromlo, is a good place to ponder a bike’s performance. Hands down, the Fuel 29er has the edge over the 26-inch one when it comes to climbing. I’d barely had to leave the 38-tooth big chain ring the whole way up, and the bike had made it round even the tightest of Stromlo’s switchbacks without feeling like too much of a squeeze.
Trek has given the Fuel 29 the G2 treatment – that’s a geometry concept that was developed by Gary Fisher as a way of increasing the slow-speed responsiveness of 29ers without sacrificing high-speed stability. Essentially, it uses a custom offset fork crown to reduce the trail measurement of the bike, allowing the use of relatively slack head angles but simultaneously reducing the tendency for the steering to wander or flop about at slow speed. The results speak for themselves: I was consistently surprised by the way the Fuel nipped around tight slow-speed turns.
Compared to the 26″ bike, the 29er Fuel loses 10mm of suspension travel, front and rear, but overall the 29er’s sheer bump-eating performance far exceeds that of the 26-inch-wheeled version. Back on home turf in Sydney, I took the new Fuel to the same trails I’d ridden on the Fuel 26″. These are rocky, rough tracks, and they require a mix of high-speed blasting and slow-speed technical moves. When it comes to carrying speed through the rough, the 29er was far superior, its wheels sailing over obstacles that would’ve tugged at the 26-inch bike. The abilities of Trek’s suspension to deal with the big hits is inspiring; the DRCV rear shock feels bottomless, and we felt happy taking the Fuel into trails that would ordinarily be more suited to a 150mm-travel bike.
When I pushed hard, I found myself wishing for a wider bar, but this would be the only tweak I’d make if this bike were my own. Oh, and I’d go tubeless too, of course – having to fix four flat tyres in as many rides may be good for the biceps, but it’s a pain in arse. Otherwise, Trek has done a splendid job with the build kit, selecting only the most reliable components for this trail bike.
When remaking a classic, preserving the character of the original is one of the biggest challenges. For the most part Trek has succeeded, surpassing the ride quality of the original Fuel EX. But fitting in the bigger hoops has reduced the playfulness of the bike. Amongst my favourite elements of the 26-inch wheeled Fuel’s ride performance was how easily it took to the air and how it could be chucked into corners like a go-kart. These attributes don’t carry over to the 29er. The chain stays on the Fuel EX 9.8 29 are 450mm (as compared to 425mm on the 26″ bike), definitely on the long side for a modern 29er and contrary to the design trends of other brands. It takes more muscle to get the 29er airborne or to pop the front wheel up for slow-speed drops, and you just can’t flick the back-end into a corner with quite the same pizzazz as on the 26-inch bike.
Of course, these attributes won’t be particularly important to every rider. In the more primary areas of speed, confidence, comfort and efficiency, the new Fuel EX 29er is superior to the original. And these traits bring their own flavour of fun – you will blast your local trails faster on this bike. For the time being, Trek will have 26- and 29-inch versions of the Fuel available, so there are options to suit your riding style.
And me? Do I prefer the original version or the remake? It’s a very tough call and I’d be happy with either bike, if I could switch between them for different circumstances. On the balance of things, however, to put it back in movie terms, while the original version will always have a place in my heart, I’m picking it’ll be the 29er that gets the popular vote and claims the Oscar.