FIRST RIDE REVIEW
THE NEW TREK FUEL EX REVIEW
Photos & Words by Dario DiGiulio
As mountain biking has evolved into what it is today, the trails we ride on have slowly but surely raised the bar of what modern bikes have to keep up with. Sure, some tracks have been sanitized over time, but there’s no question that the pointy end of the sport has kept pushing forward. As a result, trail bikes have had to pick up the pace to match the expectations of the average rider, leading to more capable and confident rigs with every new model. Stepping up to the plate, we have the evolved version of the Trek Fuel EX, Trek’s mainstay trail bike. This time it’s really meant to do it all, riding anywhere and doing anything. Being this adaptable can be a tricky task though, so has Trek painted themselves into a corner?
The new Trek Fuel EX breaks just about every mold that the prior generations had fit into, with a full-on redesign for the new model. The name of the game here is adaptability, whether in the geometry, the suspension kinematics, or even what size wheels you’ll run. Thanks to their Mino Link flip chip and two sets of press-in headset cups, you can shift the character of this bike drastically to suit your terrain and preference. As a result, it’s a bit hard to parse out the specific geometry of the bike (however Trek’s site features a geometry tool to let you do so), so I’ll just speak to it in its most neutral form, which is where many will likely settle. There are a whopping 8 size variations to this bike from XS to XXL, so it’s worth digging through the geometry tables to see which might suit you best. They’re all sporting 140mm of rear travel with a 150mm fork, upping the numbers on the prior generation by 10mm.
I’ve been testing the large frame, which puts the reach and stack at around 485mm and 621mm, which are in line with the majority of the industry right now. In keeping with the new Trek Fuel EX’s theme of being adaptable and capable. In its neutral-low setting, the bike comes with a 64.5-degree head tube angle and the effective seat tube angle sits at 77.2-degrees. Chainstays shift with the frame size, and on a large come in at 440mm. Thanks to the Mino Link flip chip, you can adjust bottom bracket height by 8mm up from the slammed 38mm drop in stock configuration, with a 0.6° steeper head tube and seat tube angle. The more significant head tube adjustment comes from the independent press-in headset cups that Trek supplies, which can steepen or slacken things by a full degree, giving a very wide range of handling characteristics. The last frame toggle is the progression flip chip, offering a simple more or less option to tailor the suspension feel and offer uncompromised coil shock compatibility.
As is trend right now, you can set the Fuel Ex up as a mullet, simply by popping a 27.5” wheel in the rear, swapping the Mino Link to high mode, and bumping up fork travel to 160mm. The bike comes stock as a 29er front and rear (or 27.5″ in XS and Small), so you’ll have to make this change on your own accord.
A notable thing lacking from the newest Fuel EX its the Knock Block – you’ll find no such thing on this frame. X-up fans take note, as this is a big move for the engineers in Waterloo, Wisconsin, and was necessary to achieve the headset adjustment range they wanted. Trek has also moved away from the RE:aktiv damper shock, now simply relying on an off-the-shelf model. Still included in the frames are the handy-dandy stash box in the down tube, with what I think might be the best weather sealing of any of the options on the market at this point, and a neat BITS tool roll.
Build kits come in as many flavors as the sizes, and the range of options is quite extensive, beginning at a respectable $3,699. I’ve been on the highest end build, the 9.9 AXS especial, coming in at a healthy $10,749. From Bontrager Line 30 carbon wheels, to the RSL one-piece carbon cockpit, to the XX1 drivetrain, just about everything is as nice as it gets, as you’d hope for this kind of money.
At my height of 6’3”, the geo combination of the Neutral-Low-More flip chip configuration on the large size makes for a really comfortable fit, one that feels stable enough at speed while still remaining lively for your average trail. I started my time testing the bright yellow Trek up in Whistler, riding some gnarly rocky pedal-access trails around the Valley. This was a great context for deciding where I stood on the less or more progression debate, and I settled on the latter end of the spectrum. Increased bottom-out resistance and a more supple top of travel were worth a slightly punchier suspension feel, and I stand by that choice for most of the riding I have around me. On my home trails in Bellingham, the Fuel has been a choice companion for fast and fun rides in our local trail systems, where technical and engaging climbs lead to fast, rooty, and jump-filled descents. My general synopsis is that this is a bike that loves to ride fast, both up and down.
The climbing characteristics are comfortable and neutral, without wallowing too much or lacking grip in trickier terrain. Like many of the take-aways of the bike as it comes stock, things are extra-medium, in the best way. Compared to the new Hightower, the bike has slightly less support, but is significantly better in rough terrain and successive hits. Compared to the Stumpjumper EVO, the Fuel EX is definitely more of a trail bike, less of the all-mountain enduro-lite ride that the Specialized offers. All three bikes serve as a nice gradient from the lighter and sportier end of the trail spectrum to the burlier and more capable side of the category. Sitting pretty right in the middle is the Fuel EX, but I’m sure one could tweak it to either of the other extremes, given how much variability is baked into this frame.
Build kit notes are mostly positive, which you’d hope to see from the highest end build. My main gripe is with the Bontrager SE5 tires, which are some the least confidence-inspiring I’ve ridden in recent memory. The casing and tread pattern are fine, but the compound doesn’t seem to want to hook up anywhere, whether it’s dry loose terrain, rock slabs, and especially wet roots. This would be an immediate swap in my book, and I’d just keep the stock tires to run in the rear when conditions are dry and beat at the peak of summer.
The removable shuttle pad doesn’t seem to want to stay close to the frame, and bows out slightly when attached, giving the downtime a funny bulged look to it. One other frame annoyance has been a recurring suspension knock, despite chasing through every bolt in the linkage with a torque wrench. I still have yet to find the culprit, but luckily it’s not very noticeable when riding.
As a system, I’ve been more than impressed by Trek’s work on the new Fuel EX. Not only does it feel quick and confidant in the stock configuration, it also offers a whole host of layout options to better cater the bike to your preferences.
THE WOLF’S FIRST IMPRESSION
To close out our review of the new Trek Fuel Ex, it’s clear that Trek’s engineers and designers set out to design a bike that caters to that wide center of the market – the trail bike – where most riders spend their time, and where a bike can take many forms. In that goal, they found success. Sure some riders may feel the new Fuel EX has departed from what they were used to and liked about the bike, but many other riders will likely welcome the advancements in capability and confidence on the trail. The Fuel EX is a highly adaptable bike that feels comfortable in a really wide variety of terrain but doesn’t confuse itself for anything more or less. Bike riders, rejoice.