Trek’s top-of-the-line, 4.7-inch-travel, carbon fiber Fuel EX trailbikes have impressed us with their lightweight and plush suspension performance. For 2011, Trek introduces the $3669 Fuel EX 9.7, a carbon-framed Fuel with a price tag geared to make it accessible to more riders.
WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
The Fuel EX’s sleek appearance and racy performance make one immediately think this bike is built to hang a number plate on the front of it. However, as a cross-country trailbike, it’s actually designed to be better handling and a more fun riding experience than a bike built specifically for endurance competition. The Fuel EX 9.7 is built for the cross-country rider who primarily rides moderately technical singletrack.
WHAT IS IT MADE FROM?
The 4.7-inch-travel Fuel EX 9.7’s carbon frame is handmade by Trek in Waterloo, Wisconsin. The elaborate carbon Fuel EX frame features Trek’s E2 tapered head tube, Syntace’s 142x12-millimeter rear thru-axle system, and the Carbon Armor downtube protector; yet, the heart of the Fuel EX is the Active Braking Pivot (ABP) suspension with the Fox DRCV shock and Full Floater shock mount. In a nutshell, the ABP suspension is designed to keep the rear suspension active under braking forces, and the DRCV shock combines the pedaling efficiency of a standard air canister shock and the plush travel of a large-volume air shock for larger impacts.
WHICH COMPONENTS STAND OUT?
To keep the carbon-framed Fuel 9.7 at a price less than half of the $7869 top-shelf Fuel EX 9.9, Trek does a good job of sliding mid- to high-level components into the build. The Fox 32F RL fork has an adjustable rebound and lockout, and the Fox RP2 DRCV shock has a two-position ProPedal setting (either on or off). The 9.7’s drivetrain includes mixed-and-matched SRAM X9 and X7 offerings. Avid’s Elixir R brakes do the stopping, and the Fuel now features Bontrager’s new XR3 Expert tires and 27.5-inch-wide handlebar. Trek spec’d the Fuel EX 9.7 with a 3x10 SRAM drivetrain.
Rock ’n’ roll: With 4.7 inches of travel and front and rear thru-axles, the Fuel EX 9.7 is capable of charging technical terrain and holding the rider’s desired line.
HOW DOES IT PERFORM?
Ergonomics: The first step to getting any suspension bike properly set up is to set the sag. Take advantage of Trek’s included shock and fork sag indicator to get the bike dialed. We liked the wider Bontrager Race Lite handlebar and 10-millimeter shorter Bontrager stem, as it makes the rider more comfortable pushing the boundaries of technical trail riding.
Pedaling: The Fuel EX 9.7 is a lightweight bike for having 4.7 inches of travel and no chic carbon components. It’s a snappy accelerating machine and relies heavily on the ProPedal feature to keep the suspension from squatting. When cranking in the saddle, there is some unwanted suspension movement. Riding smoother singletrack or riding fire road climbs, we always ran the ProPedal “on” to improve pedaling efficiency. On technical singletrack, traction and shock absorption take priority over anti-squat, so we left the shock in the plush open setting. SRAM’s 3x10 drivetrain offers plenty of gearing options for riders at any fitness level.
Climbing: We were happy to see some more versatile Bontrager tires on the 2011 Fuel EX. The new XR3 Expert tires seem narrow for their claimed 2.2-inch width, yet offer an interesting tread pattern that provides a good grip when climbing in loose conditions. Often, our trails include some fire road climbing sections, which eventually merge into singletrack. When charging up fire roads, we always opted for the ProPedal shock option to make the Fuel EX snappier with each pedal stroke.
The Trek ABP suspension has always been a “thru-axle” design. Incorporating Syntace’s wider 142-millimeter rear hub spacing and the 12-millimeter RockShox thru-axle makes a noticeable difference in power transfer to the rear wheel when putting down a hard uphill effort.
Cornering: The Fuel EX was always a lightweight and snappy-handling bike. With the addition of slightly more aggressive and versatile tires, a tad shorter stem and a wider handlebar, we were more comfortable hanging it out in high-speed corners. The 69-degree head angle makes easy work of uphill switchbacks, and the slightly wider handlebar helps reduce the front-end twitchiness when cornering at speed.
Braking: Where you really feel the Fuel’s ABP suspension at work is when you’re entering a high-speed corner that is riddled with braking bumps. Some bikes’ rear suspension firms up noticeably in these situations, causing the rider to experience less than maximum control and traction. The Fuel EX’s rear suspension remains active in this situation, and the front and rear of the bike remain balanced. The Avid Elixir R brakes are some of our favorites. They don’t break the bank, yet perform on par with other brands’ flagship models.
Descending: With 4.7 inches of travel, Trek’s Fuel EX 9.7 blurs the lines between today’s cross-country race bikes and longer-travel trailbikes. The evolution of the Fox DRCV shock has resulted in the best-feeling version to date. It’s plush throughout the stroke, and the rider feels as though he is truly getting full travel upon impact. For a lightweight trailbike that could be mistaken for a competitive cross-country machine, it can really hold a line when charging technical singletrack. The combination of front and rear thru-axles and reliable Fox suspension helps the rider hold his intended line and provides confidence for focusing on the terrain ahead.
TRICKS, UPGRADES OR TIPS?
For as impressive as the Fuel EX 9.7 is off the showroom floor, riders looking to shave weight and improve overall performance could invest in an ultra-lightweight wheelset. A remote-operated dropper seatpost would be a great addition if the added weight is not a concern and if you are willing to deal with the maintenance issues that the current crop of adjustable-height seatposts come with.
The term trailbike is subjective. Each brand has different models with different amounts of travel in its “trailbike” category. The Fuel EX falls between Trek’s 3.9-inch-travel Top Fuel race-specific cross-country machine and their 6-inch-travel Remedy all-mountain rig. The Fuel EX fits in nicely between these two offerings, and the 9.7 does a great job of providing a premium riding experience in a more affordable package.
Hats off to Trek for the addition of the Fuel EX 9.7, which makes the carbon fiber Fuel more accessible than in previous years. The Fuel EX is the perfect bike for a trail rider who focuses on cross-country singletrack excursions, because it has a wide range of gear options for a variety of fitness levels, reliable suspension and brakes, and a well-rounded and proven component spec throughout.
TREK FUEL EX 9.7 SPECS:
Country of origin
Bottom bracket height
Top tube length
Head tube angle
Seat tube angle
Fox 32F RL
Fox RP2 DRCV
DT Swiss M 1800 (26")
Bontrager XR3 Expert
DT Swiss M 1800
Avid Elixir R
Bontrager Race Lite (27.5" wide)
SRAM 10-cog (12-36)
25 feet (per crank revolution)
4.2 feet (per crank revolution)
None (weighed with Shimano XTR)