By Ron Koch
As part of the wrecking crew, we are often asked about our favorite bikes. It seems like my favorite changes about every six months when something new comes along and raises the bar. While many bikes have come and gone in recent years, one has stood the test of time for me—my 2016 Trek Farley 9.8 fat bike. It was a test bike that I simply couldn’t part with, so I bought it. This fat bike is way more than a soft-surface-focused ride. It sees more dirt than snow or sand these days, and I absolutely love it.
I’ve tested and reviewed numerous fat bikes over the years, and while I’ve appreciated them and their unique capabilities, none really spoke to me on a personal level until I rode this one.
Up to that point they all felt a bit too heavy, clumsy and narrowly focused. They were great on soft surfaces but left me cold (pun intended) on the dirt. The Farley was different, and it’s likely not a coincidence that it was also the first fat bike I rode with 27.5-inch fat wheels and tires.
Although I live in the mountains at 4500 feet and regularly ride snow in the winter, I ride this bike in the dry even more. I am old enough to remember when mountain bikes were referred to as all-terrain bicycles, or ATBs. The idea that you could ride these bikes anywhere, and the freedom that came with that, is what first hooked me on riding as a teen. Decades later I get that same sense of freedom and exploration on this fat bike. It lets me ride places that have me pushing on all but eMTBs. It’s comfortable, surprisingly fast and has traction everywhere. I am not suggesting that everybody should ride a fat bike, but if you’re looking for a different experience on a bicycle, this is one way to get it.
The Farley frame is still the same OCLV carbon frame that you’ll find on the current Farley 9.6 but with different paint. It has a few features that I’m particularly fond of, however. The sliding dropouts allow me to keep the chainstay length nice and short. I’ve found it easier to maintain rear-wheel traction in this setting, and the bike handles quicker, too. The only downside to this is that it creates a lack of tire clearance against the seat tube, and mine has the scars to show it. Rocks sometimes get sucked up by the tire and rub against the seat tube, and mud can create issues as well.
The other thing I really like about this bike is its geometry. It has a racy feel with a long reach and low stack. I was able to transfer my XC race bike fit right over to this bike, although I sometimes wish the seat tube were a degree or two steeper. It handles great, too, with a quick and responsive feel by fat bike standards. In a nutshell, this bike speaks to my inner XC racer of past years. I wish it had rack mounts for bikepacking, but I plan on exploring Robert Axle Project and Old Man Mountain rack solutions soon.
See the tire section below. Although the Farley’s fork length is suspension-corrected and you can buy the Farley with a suspension fork, I prefer the simplicity of a fully rigid setup on this bike. The tires offer a lot of comfort and, yes, in very basic terms, a crude form of suspension. Things start to get interesting as the trail gets rough and speeds increase. Care must be taken, because at some point the uncontrolled rebound of the tires gives the bike what I like to call the basketball effect; it literally bounces its way down the trail. Although I’ve never had a high-speed crash because of it, there have been numerous wild rides and close calls.
Other than a weakening roller-bearing clutch system in the derailleur, the SRAM X01 1X11 drivetrain that came on the bike has served me well, and I’ve made some significant improvements along the way. The biggest upgrade has come in the form of an e*thirteen Helix R cassette. The added 511-percent range filled the gaps at both ends of the spectrum. I no longer spin out or long for a lower gear. Some ask why I don’t upgrade to a 12-speed, and I have a few reasons. First, there is nothing wrong with a good 11-speed drivetrain. Sure, newer Shimano drivetrains shift smoother under power, but this one works well enough that it never bothers me. I also like the 380-gram weight and $290 price of the cassette. My stash of 11-speed chains is also a factor.
Another drivetrain upgrade came in the form of a SRAM NX Grip Shift that I bought new on eBay for $12. It started as an experiment for easier shifting with winter gloves, but I ended up liking it way more than I expected. Shifting is super fast and very precise. Grip Shift may be one of the most underrated products on the market.
I’ve ridden this bike with both 26-inch and 27.5-inch wheel sizes and much preferred the bigger setup. Not only does it handle better and roll faster in the dirt, I seemed to have better results in snow and sand, too. Bontrager no longer offers the Wampa wheels with carbon rims. It’s too bad, because I’ve had very good luck with them, and they’ve taken some very big hits.
This bike came with Bontrager Barbegazi 4.5-inch-wide tires, and they’re fantastic. I’ve tried others but kept coming back to these. They work in a wide variety of conditions, roll fast and are durable. For a while, I ran Bontrager’s more aggressive Gnarwhal 4.5-inch tires front and back, too. I really liked the extra control and traction in loose conditions, but the extra rolling resistance was noticeable. I found the perfect setup when I swapped back to the faster-rolling Barbegazi in the rear, and that’s what I’ve stuck with for the last few years now. Tread wear has been minimal in spite of hundreds of miles and years of riding. The sidewalls are showing more wear than the tread and often bleed sealant. I suspect that the sidewall will get cut or fail before the tread. Tire pressure is critical. I run exactly 7 psi on the dirt and down closer to 5 psi in snow or sand.
I’ve run Stan’s and Orange Seal over the years on this bike with equal success. I typically refresh the sealant about every two months. About once a year I break the bead to remove the rather large sealant booger that forms. Some were so big, I think they might have broken some kind of record. One was about the size of a baseball.
The Farley came with SRAM Guide brakes that worked okay most of the time but seemed to need bleeding more often than most. And then they suffered from the expanding master cylinder piston, locked up and were replaced under warranty. Even with the new lever assembly, I had to bleed them often and wanted more power in the steeper terrain I was riding.
I’ve been hoarding Shimano’s XTR BR-M985 brakes since they came out in 2011 and like them so much that I have swapped the same pair across many bikes. Newer Shimano brakes are outstanding, but these just have a special feel that I don’t get with the newer ones. These levers do not have the leverage-manipulating Servo-Wave feature. The feel at the lever is light and crisp, and power can be metered predictably. I paired metallic-finned Shimano pads with 180mm SRAM Centerline X rotors front and rear for a little extra power. Mixing SRAM rotors with Shimano brakes is likely violating some sort of manufacturer recommendation, but it has never given me anything other than great braking.
As good as these brakes are, they are not perfect. If the bike sits for an extended time, like more than a couple months, the brake pads get contaminated. While no official explanation has ever been given, my theory is that the piston seals seep lightly and mineral oil migrates to the pads over time. Newer Shimano brakes do not suffer from this condition, but almost all of them from this era seem to.
At the bars
I am still using the Bontrager cockpit that came with the bike. The 90mm-long RXL stem and 720mm-wide carbon bars have served their purpose well. The stem may seem long and the bars narrow by modern standards, but it’s still my ideal XC cockpit when paired with the frame’s geometry. I’ve worn through about three pairs of ESI Chunky foam grips. The 32mm diameter is perfect for my large hands, and the extra cushion goes a long way on bigger rides. I simply cut one down when I switched to Grip Shift. The XTR brakes and Grip Shift do not play well together. As a result, the grip is very short on the shifter side so that I can reach the end of the brake lever with one finger. I thought I’d try to trim the shifter down at some point so that I could run a longer grip, but I adapted to the setup and never bothered to change it.
As with most bikes, the addition of a dropper post changed the character and capability of this bike more than any other mod I’ve made. While I preferred the weight of the stock carbon Bontrager post, the 150mm Fox Transfer dropper let me ride aggressive terrain that I avoided before. With the saddle down and out of the way, I can ride this bike in technical terrain more like a trials bike. And, it makes it easy to get off the back in the very steep trails that I like to ride. As long as it’s fairly smooth, the traction of these tires lets me comfortably ride some pretty steep lines.
A no-longer-available Specialized Henge saddle has been a favorite of mine for years now, and I use the Henge saddles on multiple bikes. This one has a cracked shell, so I will be replacing it with something else soon.
I tend to prefer flat pedals for most of my riding on this bike, especially for winter snow riding and in sandy conditions. Stepping off tends to happen semi frequently, and not being clipped in eases the worry of my pedals icing up. I also bikepack with this bike and prefer flats there, too. Flat pedal shoes are typically more comfortable, and I don’t have to take a second pair along for the trip. I’ve really enjoyed Crankbrothers’ Stamps in the large size because of the support they offer, and this pair has given me years of trouble-free service. Plus, the shallow pin height offers enough grip with sticky-soled shoes and doesn’t tear up my legs. On cross-country-style rides, I’ll put on Shimano XTR pedals for a little extra efficiency.
Accessories and add-ons
Another significant upgrade comes in the form of an upgraded chainstay protector. Chain slap was loud when everything was new, but it got even worse as the derailleur’s clutch wore. I couldn’t help but notice that the chainstay’s shape was similar to the Pivot Switchblade that sat beside it one day. I ordered a Switchblade replacement, and with a little scissor trimming, the fit was very good, and the chain slap became a distant memory.
I run Specialized’s Zee cages with tools mounted to one of them because they’re my favorite. There is also a Rogue Panda top tube bag mounted at the seat tube with more tools, food and a jacket inside. In the winter, I flip it upside down for more clearance, and then in the summer I flip it back up so I can run a second tall bottle in the rear cage.
Estimated value: Priceless (to me)
Weight: 26 pounds (as shown)
Head tube angle: 69º
Seat tube angle: 71.5º
Chainstay length: 455mm (17.9″)
Reach: 441mm (17.4″)
Bottom bracket height: 321mm (12.6″)