Trek's successful Fuel design has been around for a few years, spawning longer-travel offshoots as well as high end cross-country race machines. The Fuel 70 is true to its roots, offering a modest 76mm (3in) of rear travel in a package designed to appeal to cash-conscious trail riders and entry-level racers.
The combination of a conventional looking, conservatively designed front triangle and swing arm mated to a rocker-activated, vertically mounted shock gives the Fuel 70 cleaner lines than many of its competitors. The frame detailing and finish is also impressive for the price. The cross-ovalised down tube features a shock mount near its junction with the bottom bracket and a strengthening gusset up front, left open-ended to properly disperse stress away from this critical frame joint in the event of a heavy impact.
The swing arm is an exercise in minimalist engineering. An asymmetric pivot sits in line with the middle chainring for minimal pedal feedback, and at the top of the seatstays a beefy yoke connects to the rocker linkage that drives the RockShox BAR air shock. Most bikes using rocker activated shock designs incorporate an extra pivot near the rear axle, on the chainstays or the seatstays, to allow for the small degree of movement between the two as the suspension moves through its travel. Trek's pivotless design shouldn't, in theory, work as well, but in practice it's never been a problem, and there's a lot to be said for reducing the number of moving parts.
Up front there's a 100mm (4in) travel RockShox J2 fork with adjustable preload, rebound damping and lockout. It works reasonably well in conjunction with the air shock, although - in common with the Saracen and Claud Butler - it lacks the superbly balanced front-to-rear feel of the Mongoose. Coil spring preload adjustment on a fork is always a compromise, and it's only heavier riders who are likely to feel any benefit t. As for the air shock, we felt that the stock rebound damping was set a little too high on our sample bike and - unlike the Saracen - the Trek doesn't offer any adjustment.
Most of the Fuel 70's finishing kit - right down to tyres and rims - carries the name of Trek's in-house design guru, Keith Bontrager. It's all quality stuff with typically good attention to detail, like long saddle rails for plenty of fore-and-aft adjustment and a big stack of washers under the stem to enable you to change the height of the handlebar.
The Shimano Alivio chainset and low-end SRAM SX4 shifters don't quite mesh with the quality feel of the rest of the bike, but it's the brakes that are the biggest let-down. While there's nothing wrong with Shimano's cable-driven discs in the dry, the resin pads have a mayfly-like lifespan in typically wet and gritty British riding conditions. We had to stop halfway down a long descent to adjust the pad clearance, and by the bottom the levers were touching the bar again. Worse still, the discs aren't compatible with harder-wearing sintered pads, so an upgrade is neither simple nor particularly cheap.
With its understated looks and elegantly simple design, the Trek Fuel 70 is likely to appeal to riders who are interested in clocking up the miles rather than looking for a gravity-assisted adrenaline rush. And by the standards of an industry which is besotted with hardcore riding imagery, that's a relatively modest - but entirely worthwhile - goal. It's also one that the Trek Fuel 70 very largely achieves, and with surprising aplomb too, considering the price.
Although the Fuel 70 is no featherweight racer, the combination of careful component choice, a suspension design that's relatively bob-free and a riding position that combines both comfort and efficiency, makes for a solidly reassuring all-day riding companion.
The ride is more hardtail-like than some of its competitors, sacrificing some suppleness on technical climbs and over high frequency trail chatter for a taut, snappy feel that many riders will appreciate. It doesn't have the big-hit ability of the Mongoose and it's not quite as fluid through fast, choppy sections as the Saracen, but this 'connectedness' with the ground is more a difference in approach than a downside. The well sorted geometry contributes to the bike's lively, intuitive handling that will flatter any rider's skills, from beginner to hardened trail warrior.
If it weren't for the awful wet-weather durability of the brake pads, it would be easier to give the Fuel 70 a resounding thumbs up for keen trail riders and entry-level racers who are looking to upgrade from a hardtail. But as it is, unless your riding is confined to dry conditions, you'll be swapping the pads and discs for something more durable very quickly.