Trek’s highest-spec’d aluminum Fuel EX is the sleeper in the lineup–it's what the company describes as the bike for the "in-the-know shop guy." At least a couple of Bible crew members agreed, stating that this would be their bike of choice if they had a real job.
While the rest of the 120-millimeter-travel 29ers in the EX line have matching front travel, the EX 9 comes with a 130-mil Fox Performance 34. Even on the not-so-steep Kingdom Trails, most riders appreciated the extra fork travel, although one tester did mention he would've preferred tighter handling for the serpentine trails there, which a 120-mil fork would deliver. The high/steep setting of the adjustable geometry (provided by flip-chips on the seatstay pivot) was enough for other testers to eke out extra steering quickness.For 2016, Trek shortened the Fuel EX 29's chainstays to 17.1 inches, creating a decidedly chipper trail attitude. New Fuels also get Boost 148 rear and 110 front spacing, making the bike feel remarkably stiff–an appreciated characteristic of a bike that charges as hard as this one.
A real standout in Trek's technology arsenal is its RE:aktiv shock, which makes this bike one of the best climbers and descenders in the category, all without flipping the compression lever off the middle setting: It's like what the Specialized Brain shock tries to do, only it actually works really well.
Testers liked the SRAM X1 drivetrain on this build; the only other single-ring offering is on the $8,400 carbon-clad 9.9. The only real complaint on this stellar build was with the 125-mil-travel RockShox Reverb seatpost. Everyone wanted 150 millimeters of drop and for the lever to be mounted under the left side of the bar rather than on top of it. Any quality shop will work with you on this, but it'd be nice to see those details covered on a bike that's spec'd so smartly otherwise. We also wish Trek would use a normal threaded bottom bracket, at least on its aluminum bikes. But most criticisms were replaced with whoops and hollers echoing through the Northeast Kingdom while testers discovered just how much fun this trail weapon is to ride.
Q&A with Travis Ott
Before this year's test bikes rolled into our barn, we had questions about them–some of the same questions that you might be asking yourself when you start poking around at a new bike. Here's what Travis Ott, Trek Global Mountain Bike Brand Manager, had to say. –Vernon Felton, Bible of Bike Tests Moderator
Vernon Felton: The Fuel EX has long been the bread-and-butter bike in your line, but what kind of rider is it actually designed for?
Travis Ott: The serious mountain biker who wants just one bike that does it all. Rather than choosing a purpose-built bike for a specific application, this generalist spans categories, from the occasional XC race to light Enduro racing and every trail in between.
VF: There are a lot of good bikes in the trail bike category–what sets this model apart from some similar bikes that consumers might be looking at in 2016?
TO: Our suspension layout gives riders the best blend of plush travel and pedaling efficiency; and our exclusive RE:aktiv damper takes that to the next level. We adapted Penske Racing's regressive damper to bring F1 tech to trail bikes. RE:aktiv gives riders firm support under low-speed compression forces like cornering and pedaling, but then instantly gives way under high-speed compression forces like big hits and square-edged bumps. The transition is seamless, but the increase in performance is quite noticeable, and it's unlike anything else out there.
VF: Are there conditions in which you feel this bike really excels and, if so, what specific design attributes of the bike make that so?
TO: The Fuel EX 29 excels in conditions that inspire dirty grins and high fives. Thanks to Boost148, we were able to get the chainstays down to 437 millimeters on this 29er which is about right for a 27.5 bike with this much travel. So riders get the capability benefits of larger wheels without sacrificing the playfulness. "Fun" is the most common adjective we hear from riders describing this bike.
VF: Are there any aspects of the frame design that you guys are particularly proud of? If so, what are they and why?
TO: This iteration of the Fuel EX 29 is not only the lightest and stiffest yet, but it's also the most playful thanks to its 437-millimeter chainstays. Boost148 hub spacing allowed us to make the stays short and nimble, and it also allowed us to increase tire clearance. While there were plenty of naysayers when we first introduced Boost148, we're now able to show how increased wheel stiffness is only one benefit in addition to opening up design possibilities that were previously limited by narrower hub spacing.
VF: What were you aiming for with the component spec on this model?
TO: The Fuel EX 9 is our top-of-the-line aluminum frame and the spec is chosen to appeal to extra-discerning riders. It's a parts spec that matches the frame's inspiring capability. With this in mind, Fuel EX 9 29 gets the simplicity-meets-capability of the SRAM X1 drivetrain. In the spirit of capability, we also gave this particular model a bump in fork travel and stiffness with the 130mm Fox 34 for that little extra edge in steep situations. Of course, Shimano XT brakes can't be beat for high performance at a reasonable price. Tubeless ready wheels and tires along with a Reverb dropper round out this capable setup.
VF: Are there any details/features on this bike that you think are particularly critical to its performance that might be easily overlooked by consumers at first glance?
TO: The RE:aktiv shock, and stiffer wheels due to Boost hub spacing along with the playful, yet capable geometry are all features that aren't immediately apparent when a consumer is looking over the bike online or on the sales floor. However, these features add up to make a remarkable difference in the bike's ride quality, and that's apparent as soon as a rider hits the trail.
VF: You guys put a 130-mm travel fork on this year's Fuel EX 29er–does this signal a slightly rowdier version of the bike (I realize we're only talking something like a half degree or so of head angle change, but I figure you had something specific in mind with that little change).
TO: As stated before, Fuel EX 29 eschews traditional categorizations with its excellent efficiency and inspiring capability. We figure the EX 9 customer tends even more toward the capable side of things, and we catered this particular model to that particular rider with a bump in travel and a corresponding reduction in head tube angle. This fork was a deliberate choice to nudge this bike closer to its rowdy all-mountain brethren without sacrificing its practical XC roots.
VF: What, in a nutshell, sets the 2016 model apart from last year's Fuel EX 29er?
TO: More inspiring geometry thanks to Boost148/110, along with RE:aktiv and dropper posts on more models. Also, increased versatility thanks to the addition of Mino Link adjustable geometry.
VF: Why/How is the Re:aktiv shock important to this bike's ultimate ride performance?
TO: RE:aktiv is one big piece of the overall package that makes the EX 29 so versatile. This technology amplifies pedaling efficiency and plush capability without compromise.