Test: Trek Fuel EX 9.9

We raved about Trek’s 2009 carbon fiber Fuel EX 9.9 trailbike (MBA, August 2009). The 4.7-inch travel machine screamed uphill like a race bike, and the top-notch Fox Shox suspension smoothed the trail on descents, making it worth every foot of elevation gained on the climb. We liked last year’s Fuel EX 9.9 so much we used it to test numerous components you saw in “Thrash Tests” throughout the year. It’s not often we test a new version of a bike that we feel we already know so well and have developed some strong opinions about. But comparing the performance between the two models was a challenge we were looking forward to.

With cross-country geometry, the full-suspension Fuel EX is the ideal trailbike for the cross-country rider who wants premium suspension performance in a package capable of all-day excursions.

Trek offers seven different models of the Fuel EX (plus two women’s designs) ranging in price from the Fuel EX 5 ($1590) to our EX 9.9 test bike ($6820). Trek has blessed every 2010 Fuel EX with their ABP (Active Braking Pivot) suspension platform and Full Floater shock. Kudos to Trek for sharing the technology throughout the entire line.

The Fuel EX 9.9 frame uses Trek’s proprietary hand-laid-in-Wisconsin OCLV Black Carbon and has a new carbon fiber rear seat stay that is lighter and claimed to be more rigid than last year’s aluminum version. Trek says the new carbon Fuel EX frame is stiffer than last year’s and is about a half-pound lighter.

Although last year’s EX 9.9 utilized Trek’s ABP suspension and Full Floater shock mount, this year’s model receives the lighter and easier to use ABP Race system previously only found on Trek’s World Cup-proven Top Fuel cross-country bikes.

The Fox Shox DRCV (Dual Rate Control Valve) previously used on Fisher Bikes is also on the EX 9.9. Think of it as two shocks in one to achieve active performance in the first half of the travel, yet feel plush for hard impacts. The DRCV shock requires slightly more attention than adding air to a “traditional” air shock, but it’s still fairly simple. And with the included Sagometer, you’ll know right away if you’re in the ballpark.

A tip of the hat goes to Bontrager for their redesigned carbon Race Lite XXX stem and handlebar. Not only do they look sweet, they are lighter, too.

One of our recommendations for last year’s EX 9.9 was upgrading to a thru-axle fork. Done. This year’s model sports the Fox Shox 32 F-Series RLC FIT fork with a 15QR axle. The fork’s tapered head tube is a perfect match for Trek’s E2 head tube design.

Trek’s impressive attention to detail includes red highlights throughout, found on the Cane Creek Frustum SE Light headset, SRAM X.0 shifters and rear derailleur, and chainring bolts on the Truvativ carbon fiber Noir crankset. The tubeless-ready Bontrager Rhythm Pro Disc wheelset rolls on 2.2-inch-wide Bontrager XDX tires.

Ergonomics: The Fuel EX 9.9 has a cross-country feel in the cockpit, but the slightly lower-rise handlebar and seven-degree rise stem lack the torture-device qualities of a pure racing build. We slid the saddle far forward on the rails to achieve proper body position.

Pedaling: The Fuel EX 9.9 is a lightweight bike with fast-rolling tires, so getting it up to speed is a breeze. This bike carries so much speed on hard-packed terrain that it feels like you’re cheating?or having a superhuman pedaling day.

The rear suspension moves noticeably when hammering in the saddle with the ProPedal lever in the off position. Last year’s EX 9.9 had near hardtail-like pedaling performance with the ProPedal in the firmest setting. The 2010 version is suppler and less harsh in the firmest setting. We prefer to run the ProPedal in the third setting (firmest) for maximum pedaling efficiency during long climbs and hammering the flats. Riders preferring to set their shock once and leave it alone can choose between the first and second ProPedal settings for their desired feel.   

Climbing: We already mentioned that we prefer the firmest pedaling platform for uphills, but climbing loose and rocky technical trails with the DRCV shock open provides better traction, especially for the low-profile XDX tires. The EX 9.9’s geometry makes for a comfortable climbing machine, and with each rotation of the eye-catching Truvativ Noir cranks, we were confident that our efforts were paying off.

Cornering: The addition of a 15-millimeter thru-axle to the front end of the Fuel helps it hold lines better in off-camber corners. With a 69-degree head angle, uphill switchbacks become afterthoughts. The frame’s rigidity and suspension’s impressive performance make the EX 9.9 just as much fun when negotiating wide-open corners.

Braking: The Avid Elixir CR Mag and redesigned Avid Matchmaker combination brake clamp and shifter mount are well-suited to this bike. The lever position and pad contact point are easily adjusted. The size medium Fuel’s seven-inch front rotor and six-inch rear are perfect, and the Elixir’s titanium hardware contributes to the Fuel’s overall light weight.

The ABP suspension works as advertised, remaining active under hard braking on technical descents. This is most useful on very steep, rocky descents where a rider has no choice but to slam on the brakes to maintain speed and control.

Descending: The Fuel’s low standover height invites aggressive descending. One of the annoying things about last year’s test bike was the flexing and twisting of the lock-on Bontrager grips. Initially, we thought we were being nit-picky, but Trek didn’t think so. The problem was addressed with a new design for 2010.

The DRCV makes a major improvement in how the rear end of the Fuel EX 9.9 tracks technical terrain at speed. When set up properly, the rear end gives off the sensation of having more travel than it really does because of the progression of the two-step air canister.

The 69-degree head angle often feels a tad on the steep side, especially when the rear end of the Fuel invites you to hammer it through whatever the cross-country trail throws at you.

Although they are often tough to get to properly seat, the tubeless-ready Bontrager Rhythm Pros can really take a beating. They survived countless wide-open descents over rocky and rutted trails with no sign of fatigue.

Trek again opted for an 11-32 cassette, as opposed to an 11-34. Although the EX 9.9 is very light for a bike with nearly five inches of travel, going to the 34-tooth cog makes more sense on such a versatile machine, plus it would make us smile (and let us think we’re in better shape).

The Bontrager XDX tires grip like mad on a concrete sidewalk or on the fossilized sandstone slickrock of Moab, Utah. But outside of those examples, they’re performance handcuffs. Whether you ride on the loose-over-hardpack  terrain of the Southwest, the darker soil of the Midwest, or everything in between, a legitimate side knob is necessary. When the XDX tires wear out, replace them with tires with more cornering bite.    

If your Fuel EX 9.9 is going to be used for more aggressive, technical riding, we’d let its hair down a bit with some subtle changes that will make an outstanding bike almost untouchable. Swap the 100-millimeter stem for a 90-millimeter, slap on a wider (27 inches) low-rise carbon handlebar, use an 11-34 cassette, and rake the front end out a bit with a 130-millimeter thru-axle fork. How do we know these changes are improvements? They’re precisely what we ended up doing to last year’s Fuel EX 9.9 after we were done riding the stock setup for the review.

We realize it may sound as if we had a bunch of tweaks for the Fuel EX 9.9, but that’s because we thought so highly of this bike that we used it as the platform to test numerous components. Trek did a great job of making an already supreme-performing machine better with the new carbon rear end, DRCV shock and thru-axle fork; and would you believe it sells for about $300 less than last year’s EX 9.9! The Fuel EX 9.9 is among the most elite trailbikes in the sport. It charges climbs, has supple suspension for descending, is remarkably lightweight and is stunning to look at.

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