We test-rode the 27.5in-wheeled version of the Trek Fuel EX 9 in the beautiful landscape around Burnsall in the Yorkshire Dale with Joe Vadeboncoeur from Trek. We last rode here with him 15 years ago and while neither the scenery nor the love for biking have changed much in that time, the bikes we’re riding have changed a lot.
So does Trek’s updated Fuel all-rounder set new standards or offer valid reasons to buy that other bikes don’t?
Frame and equipment: well-specced alloy frame
As it’s one of the first releases of 2015, the EX 9 27.5's pricing is hard to judge. The price seems steep for an alloy machine, but then SRAM’s X1 1x11 transmission and XT brakes aren’t cheap.
In terms of fit, the 720mm bars are wide enough for reasonable control without catching in trees and the top tube is long enough to cope with a mid-length stem without cramping breathing. The front-end feel matches well with the 68-degree head angle that is steady enough to feel safe but not downhill floppy or bars-on-your-knees slack on climbs and flat trails.
Trek loves an exclusive ‘technology’ and a catchy name and for 2015 its unique twin-chamber DRCV shocks get a new RE:Aktiv damping valve setup. Designed by American auto racing aristocracy Penske, this is a speed-sensitive regressive damper developed to keep Formula One cars stable under cornering but still suck up high-speed kerb hits. If this sounds a very familiar sort of claim for most inertia or threshold dampers then you’re not wrong.
However, Penske’s valve uses seriously complex multi-angle port and backplate technology that’s different enough to be patented, and it feels great on the Trek. The fully floating shock (it squeezes between chainstay tip and rocker linkage) and ABP concentric rear axle mean there’s still a bit of movement when you look down.
At under 13kg with a dropper post it’s okay – if not outstanding – on weight, lifting over stiles on the first sneaky singletrack without too much trouble. That means our assessment is going to be all about ride.
Ride and handling: under control
The Fuel EX 9 27.5 flicks and picks lines nicely on flowing riverside singletrack but doesn’t threaten to tuck under as the surprise steps at the start get steeper. Trek’s certainly not alone in having well sorted, friendly handling that lets you get on with the ride though, which immediately shifts focus to the suspension.
That Re:Aktiv DRCV shock gave better traction and a more connected feel when climbing or descending loose rock trails than a full lock like Specialized’s Brain or more aggressive threshold dampers. Actual pedal stability was excellent when we had to leap on the pedals to hunt down passing roadies or properly grind a gear up the last concrete slab pitch way above Coniston.
Surprisingly, given the amount of things happening in such a small space, there’s no spike or choke from either the RE:Aktiv or the twin air chamber DRCV valve opening or closing. The net result is a genuine delivery on the ‘back end that feels as tight as a short travel bike under power, but descends and grips like a 140mm travel bike’ cliché.
It’s totally neutral in the way it manuals, drops, drifts and brakes too.
This gave us confidence enough to drop the Reverb and clatter flying rocks against the rubber belly armour and push the travel ring to full through ditch yumps, but isn’t so bullish and enduro that you automatically push the 68-degree front end so hard it starts to feel unstable.
The Performance series Float fork is a lot smoother and consistent than 2014 models and the 32mm legs are just about stiff enough to make the most of the tapered top end and balanced handling. The Bontragertyres are also great matches, usefully fast on roads without feeling treacherous on washy shale or wet rock, and ready to turn tubeless just by snapping the supplied sealing strip and adding a slop of sealant into the wheel.
With SRAM 11 and the RE:Aktiv shock, the EX9 certainly worth the investment over the cheaper EX8. Then again we’re really keen to test the more-expensive carbon-framed 9.8 now, to see if that’s worth the extra too.
This is a great no-brainer package that uses the latest technology to remove lever faffing, position shifting and steering re-learning stress. If the views, easily cleaned climbs and carved descents are what you want to remember from summer days on your bike, rather than the bike itself then Trek’s new Fuel is a winner.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.