Tested: Trek Fuel EX 9.8 27.5

A couple weeks ago Trek introduced some bikes and technologies at its media event in North Carolina. The Fuel EX 27.5 and RE:aktiv shock are the first of these new products to hit shop floors, so we’ve been spending every waking hour since with the new bike and shock putting them through their paces. We’ll talk about the bike today and dive into the shock in a post tomorrow.

Fuel EX 9.8 27.5

Little wheels reborn

Little wheels, reborn. Photo: Sterling Lorence

It’s only in the past year or so that I’ve actually started to prefer 29ers over smaller-wheeled bikes, and the category that won me over was 29ers with 120 or so millimeters of travel. So much so that I transitioned from 150- and 160-millimeter small-wheeled bikes. To me 110 to 120 millimeters is the perfect amount of travel for the 29-inch wheel size because the large wheels reduce the amount of necessary travel by rolling over terrain better, and the shorter travel creates a poppy, lively bike without being too long-legged. The result is a versatile trail-munching speed-demon ready for all-day rides, tours and even the occasional start line.

So, why even bother making bikes in this travel with little wheels? Because I’m not the only one on earth. Besides, it might share a model name with the 29-inch EX, but the similarities end there. The Fuel EX 27.5 is a fine-point pen compared to the 29ers wide brush stroke. It is nimble, flick-able and immediately comfortable. There’s no learning curve to riding the EX 27.5 like there is when transitioning to a 29er. The little wheels dive easily in and out of corners and around switchbacks with a sort of familiarity developed from a lifetime of riding 26ers. This bike is a blast to ride. Rather than exhibiting the overall speed or traction of the EX 29, the EX 27.5 prefers to dance around on the trail, finding obstacles to play on or pop off.

There's even a limited edition motion-blurred paint job available.

There’s even a limited edition motion-blurred paint job available. Photo Dan Milner

The Fuel EX 27.5 is categorized as a ‘trail’ bike, which essentially means that it favors uphill and downhill equally, and the geometry numbers reflect this. A reasonable 68-degree head angle allows for tight handling on undulating terrain, but maintains stability when things get a bit steep. The 17-inch chainstays and 13-inch bottom bracket also hit a nice happy medium between agility and stability. My favorite thing about the Fuel’s geometry is the relatively long toptube. Our 19.5-inch test bike sports more than 24.5 inches of toptube, which makes for a nice, roomy cockpit, allowing for shorter stems, which provide far superior handling over the long goosenecks that still somehow find their way onto mountain bikes. Like most of its models, Trek offers the Fuel EX 27.5 in five sizes, so make sure to ride a couple sizes to hone in on what fits you best. Keep in mind that a 19.5 inch fits similarly to a most brands’ size large.

The shifters are run internally on the Fuel EX, while the brake and dropper post gets routed through the downtube. The dropper housing re-enters the frame at the seat tube for stealth routing.

The shift cables are run internally on the Fuel EX, while the brake and dropper post get routed on the down tube. The dropper housing re-enters the frame at the seat tube for stealth routing. Photo: Sterling Lorence

All the parts hanging off the 9.8 Fuel EX 27.5 are solid. We always refer to Shimano XT as the workhorse of components, which continues to be the best way to describe the 2×10 drivetrain and brakes. Trek specs a lot of its bikes with a RockShox Reverb, which is a phenomenal dropper post, but the lever doesn’t mesh well with Shimano brake levers. There’s no ideal placement unless you’re not running a front shifter. Despite my affinity for the Reverb, it’s more important for me to actually reach the lever, so I’d opt for a Thomson or KS. Bontrager wheels haven’t always ranked super high for us, but they have come a long way in recent years, and these Rhythm Comp wheels offer a nice ride quality and fast acceleration. Bontrager XR3 tires are spec’d for their high rolling speed and versatile tread design. They’re good tires, but I personally prefer the more aggressively cornering XR4. This comes down to preference and riding style. I tend to beef up on tires and suspension, which brings me to the fork. I’m picky about suspension, and the Fox Performance Series 32 Float just doesn’t do it for me. It’s too harsh when it has enough preload to keep from diving and bottoming, and in order to make it supple, you wind up sacrificing ride height. Finding that happy place between sensitivity and stability is not easy with this fork. It’s not horrible, but its weaknesses are highlighted by the starkly opposite, supple, yet supportive RE:aktiv shock, which feels like a whole lot more than 120 millimeters in the rough stuff. I realize that this is a trail bike and that spec’ing it with a Pike or Fox 36 sounds ridiculous, but those are the only two forks I’ve ridden that can match the performance of the shock. Don’t believe me? Read all about RE:aktiv tomorrow.

The RE:aktiv shock looks the same as a regular DRCV shock on the outside; it's what's on the inside that counts, just like with people.

The RE:aktiv shock looks the same as a regular DRCV shock on the outside; it’s what’s on the inside that counts, just like with people. Photo: Sterling Lorence

I’ve been having an absolute blast on the EX 27.5. It’s a fantastic bike that keeps a smile on my face all day. If you’re in the market for a new trail bike, it’s definitely worth checking out, just make sure to ride the 29er too.

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