By Ryan LaBar
Trek Fuel EX 9.8 29
I've always been a fan of Trek's EX series. Though a few years ago, after spending time on hordes of excellent 29er trail bikes, I found myself wondering what wagon wheels would feel like strapped to Trek's EX platform. Well, that question has finally been answered.
As I unpacked and built up Trek's $5,770 Fuel EX 9.8 29er I was a bit awestruck by the bike's paint job. It is really quite beautiful--while many bright paint jobs are gaudy, love-it-or-hate-it affairs, the EX's "Red Smoke / Viper Red" finish makes the bike look fast and has an elegance and beauty to it that needs to be seen up close to truly be appreciated. While a color scheme can't dictate how a bike acts on the trail, it can match the bike's ride quality--and that's just the case with the Trek.
The EX performs brilliantly on everyday singletrack--the kind of trails you want to ride for hours upon hours. Its handling traits are balanced and nimble, thanks in part to its low bottom bracket and ample standover. The efficient DRCV suspension platform and the 27.5-pound weight (for the 18.5-inch size) combine to make the EX 9.8 feel like a no-holds-barred race whippet while on the pedals. I ran the rear suspension in the "Trail" setting about 90 percent of the time, only switching to the climb setting on extended fireroad grunts. The trail setting does a good job of keeping the suspension from needlessly pushing into the DRCV's high-volume setting when mashing on the pedals or pushing the bike through corners or trail undulations. Every once in a while I'd open it up into the "Descend" setting, but this was mostly just for comparison's sake.
The large wheels and neutral geometry, mixed with the bike's efficient-yet-active suspension, allow the bike to scoot up hills like a cat up curtains. The EX scales equally well up long grinders as it does up steep, ledged-out, crux-move-filled climbs. It pedals efficiently with just a hair of anti-squat in the granny ring.
The EX 9.8 is competent and predictable on the descents. The suspension eats up big hits well with a nice, slightly progressive, shock rate as it pushes deeper into its travel. The RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper post performed flawlessly (though it does have some cockpit fit issues when paired with Shimano's XT brakes) throughout the test, and adds confidence while charging into the chunder.
While the EX handles downhill duties quite well, it's here where the bike shows minor shortcomings. On big g-outs and in hard corners, the rear end flexes, and the tires rub slightly but audibly against the chainstays. I couldn't pinpoint whether this flex was originating from the wheels or the rear triangle.
The Bontrager XR3 Team Issue tires are the first set of Bonty rubber that I have legitimately liked in years. I kept these tires on for nearly the entire test period, and they performed well in just about every imaginable condition--even on wet roots and rocks.
Up and down, the EX is a solid choice--straight off the shop floor--for everything from quick lunchtime rides to full-on high-alpine adventures. If you are in the market for a trail bike, and are partial to long days in the saddle with equal emphases on climbing and descending, take a close look at the EX 29.