If this bike screams one thing, it’s XC/marathon racing. At first glance, it's obvious: Every detail on Trek's Top Fuel 9.8 SL seems designed for the rigors of cross-country racing–particularly the endurance/marathon variety, when ultra-long distances must be covered in the shortest possible time.
For starters, it's a 29er. And it's hard to argue that big wheels don't cover ground faster than smaller-diameter hoops, especially when long stretches of fire road are involved. It also weighs 25 pounds with pedals, which is not too shabby for a 29er. Plus, it has the bells and whistles associated with XC duty, such as the 'Full Sprint' remote that simultaneously locks out the RockShox Monarch XX shock and SID XX fork.
Given all that, few testers were surprised when they pulled away from their counterparts on the opening climb of our test track. Nor were any eyebrows raised when the big wheels blazed over root-filled, technical ascents. With added stiffness from the Boost 148/110 spacing, jaws were dropped while descending through extended bumpy sections. "The small-bump compliance is superb for an XC rig," wrote one tester. "It feels like it has more than 100 millimeters of travel."
Another tester concurred: "The rear end is so incredibly plush. It stood out for being so supple, but still offered a decent platform for aggressive handling."
After fiddling around with the rotatable 'Mino Link' chip– which enables you to adjust the head angle by a half-degree and the bottom bracket by 10 millimeters–all testers preferred the 'low' setting, giving a plenty-steep 70-degree head angle. The front end could feel a tad twitchy on tough descents, but we agreed this was a fair trade-off for an XC race bike that one tester wrote, "motors the flats and climbs like a scalded cat."
While $5,000 is a tidy chunk of change, it gets you a purebred race whip with a smart array of parts: Shimano Deore XT brakes, a SRAM X1 11-speed drivetrain, DT Swiss X1700 wheels and Bontrager Team Issue tires that plead to be leaned hard into corners. And though testers lamented the genre-dictated absence of a dropper post, one tester found solace in the "super comfy" Bontrager Montrose Elite seat.
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’s Global Mountain Bike Brand Manager, had to say. –Vernon Felton, Bible of Bike Tests Moderator
Vernon Felton: When you guys were designing this bike, who was the ideal rider you had in mind for it? I mean, I guess that's a stupid question since this thing screams "pure XC race machine."
Travis Ott: It's definitely a cross-country race bike, but the XC discipline is more technically demanding now. Have you seen a World Cup XC course lately? It's like an obstacle course. With "XC" becoming more diverse and more technical, we found that World Cup riders and local heroes alike were searching for a more capable XC bike that didn't compromise speed.
VF: The 9.8 features aluminum chainstays, whereas the 9.9 frame features both carbon seat and chainstays, but other than that, we're looking at the same frame (grade of carbon, angles, etc) between the two bikes, right?
TO: Exactly. The carbon chainstay upgrade on the 9.9 saves around 100 grams over the alloy stay on the 9.8. Aside from that, both frames feature the same suspension linkage and features. The 9.8 gets a more bang-for-the-buck spec while the 9.9 has all top-shelf trappings.
VF: What were you guys aiming for with the spec on this bike and how did you achieve it?
TO: With a 9.8-level bike, we're catering to the rider who wants the ride feel and low weight of carbon with a great spec package that performs at the highest levels without breaking the bank. Proven performers like the SRAM X1 drivetrain and Shimano XT brakes speak for themselves, while RockShox SID XX and Monarch XX suspension keep the weight down without sacrificing any XC performance thanks to the XX Full Sprint lockout. One button push turns this confident descender into a relentless climber or sprinter.
VF: There are a lot of good bikes in this basic category–what sets this model apart from some similar bikes that consumers might be looking at in 2016?
TO: Capability and versatility. A common theme we've heard from riders is that this XC race bike feels like it has more than 100 millimeters of travel. Features like Mino Link adjustable geometry and Control Freak cable routing add to its versatility that blurs the line between XC and trail riding.
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: World Cup XC courses are getting more technical, and we built this bike to rise to the occasion. Top Fuel excels at cleaning challenging XC courses…quickly. The capable suspension package on this bike borrows from Trek's trail bikes. Active Braking Pivot (ABP) coupled with Full Floater creates suspension that stays active under braking. The stiffness gains over the Superfly full-suspension that it replaces are very noticeable as well. That was achieved through the one-piece EVO Link and Boost148 and 110.
VF: Are there any aspects of the frame design that you guys are particularly proud of? If so, what are they and why?
TO: We're quite proud of how our already-proven suspension layout has performed in an XC application. Our one-piece EVO link gives us a much stiffer, more responsive chassis, while Full Floater and ABP contribute to the confidence-inspiring suspension performance. You'll also notice the short chainstays on this bike that add to the quick handling.
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: At first glance, consumers might note that the bike didn't get any lighter than its predecessor, the Superfly FS. However, Top Fuel is significantly stiffer and more capable than Superfly FS, which was no slouch in either department to begin with. Also, thanks to Boost hub spacing, Top Fuel gets really short, nimble 437-millimeter stays that contribute to the bike's quick handling. That's not something a consumer will see, but it's something they'll definitely feel right away.