First ride: 2009 Trek Fuel EX

Super-tunable five-inch travel trail bike

Trek’s 2009 Fuel EX adds yet another machine to the list of bikes you must consider if you’re after a five-inch travel trail bike.

What a difference a day makes.

After just a couple of hours riding when the bike was initially presented to the press, my first impressions of the 2009 Trek Fuel EX were a bit lukewarm. Sure, it was a light, rigid and accurate machine, but it lacked a certain spark, that inspiration factor that the greatest bikes possess, which simultaneously thrills and encourages you to push your limits.

The next day, as we prepared to ride Durango’s 30km Hermosa Creek Trail, I switched from a 17.5in to an 18.5in bike to get a bit more reach. Fox suspension wizard Jared Connell set the new bike’s suspension up for me, most importantly increasing the sag from 25 percent to 30 percent compared to the previous day’s rig.

Completely. Different. Bike.

Where the 17.5in had been precise but a bit uninspiring, properly tuned the Fuel EX was far better coupled to the trail and more comfortable. Still there in full effect was all the snap and accuracy that comes from the frame’s impressive torsional and lateral rigidity.

Hermosa Creek Trail is rightly considered one of the world’s finest mountain bike rides. Mostly downhill, it's shallow enough that you're pedalling a lot and twisty enough that you have to be constantly paying attention.

As I barrelled along, absorbed in the fusion of trail and motion, the Fuel EX was a perfect partner.

It responded calmly and accurately to changes of speed and direction. It got me out of trouble more times than I can remember as I went into corners and off-cambers a bit too hot.

Of course, if its handling and suspension weren't so good, I would never have been in high-speed trouble in the first place, but that's the fun factor of this bike. It’ll entice you in over your head, then bail you out. Marvellous stuff.

The first Fuel EX I rode had a slight tendency to wag its head on climbs. It was nothing you couldn’t live with but it detracted from the bike’s enthusiasm for surging uphill.

Perhaps it was the better suspension tune allowing the fork to sit deeper in its travel and steepen the head angle; perhaps it was the longer top tube of the 18.5 in frame, but my second Fuel EX behaved perfectly on the uphills.

It was also completely unfazed by a flailing, thrashing uphill sprint as I overtook Mountain Biking UK magazine’s test editor Steve Worland on one of the day’s final short climbs. The Fox suspension was calm and controlled in the face of rider abuse, making sprints to punch short climbs or get back up to speed a doddle.

I don’t want to get deep into the components, but Avid’s juicy Ultimate brakes really stood out for the gentle initial modulation that made feathering round trail switchbacks a doddle. When you needed it though, there was power aplenty. They’re my new favourite band.

Trek has crafted a superb trail bike in the 2009 Fuel EX. It encourages you to go hard on wide open trails and singletrack alike, and its combination of calm, neutral handling and highly tunable suspension make it a great choice for all-day rides and endurance racing as well as just playing in the woods.

Trailnote: it pays to tweak your suspension

Too many riders jump on their shiny new suspension bikes and just go riding. Heck, I’ve done it lots of times myself. But my experience on the Fuel EX really slapped me round the face with a wet fish labeled ‘TUNE THE SHOCKS, YOU MUPPET’.

It wasn’t just me either. A rider from another British publication (I’ll get into trouble if I name it, but it rhymes with ‘dingletrack’ – hi, Sim) was also struggling the handling of his Fuel EX, which was almost pitching him over the bars. A few moments’ attention from Jared Connell’s magic shock pump and mad damping tweaking skillz and he was off and raging on a properly behaved bike.

The tunability and sensitivity of bikes like the Fuel EX means they really reward time spent learning to set them up well.

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