Everybody has a word which they chronically mis-type. For this reviewer, it’s the word ‘fuel’… about 30% of the time, my fingers will key in the spelling ‘feul’, pushed into another typo by some inexplicably entrenched neurological pathway. While we battle with typing the word, we sure as hell didn’t battle with this bike: the 2016 Trek Fuel (yay, got it first time!) EX8 29 is a solid trail companion, and showcases some excellent improvements from the previous iteration of this bike.
We’re well placed now to comment on this bike’s performance too, having spent a year on both a 2015 Fuel 29er, and 2015 and 2016 versions of the Fuel EX 9.8 27.5.
[divider]What is it and who’s it for?[/divider]
While some brands are going all-in with 27.5, others like Trek still feel that 29″ hoops are going to remain popular and desirable beyond the realms of the XC race category. The confidence, traction and generally sure-footedness of a 29er with trail bike geometry does still make it the ideal platform for a lot of riders. Trek have reinforced this viewpoint by investing in reworking the 29er version of the Fuel frame.
Coming in at under three and a half grand, the EX8 29 sits at a price point that makes it the first ‘serious’ mountain bike for a lot of riders, and as such it needs to be able to handle the demands of a rider who suddenly has equipment that will let them push their limits a lot further. We think it nails it, delivering with a mix of proven Trek tech (the ABP/Full Floater suspension for instance) and new innovations (like the Boost hub spacing) which have facilitated some welcomed improvements to this bike’s geometry and handling that make it even more confidence inspiring.
Aluminium trail bikes mightn’t be a sexy category, but they are the bread and butter of the mountain bike industry. And bread and butter is still freakin’ delicious, especially as a pudding.
[divider]The frame: Big chop, less flop, more BB drop.[/divider]
Until you inspect closely or get out the tape measure (everybody does that, right?) you could easily overlook the changes that Trek have made to the Fuel 29er frame. First up, it gets Boost rear dropout spacing, with the rear hub a whopping 148mm wide. The extra width not only allows the rear wheel to be made stiffer, but because the chainline is shifted outward slightly too, it helps solve some of the tyre clearance issues that plague 29ers.
Long, tech-nerd story cut short, Boost spacing has allowed Trek to chop a massive 18mm off the length of the Fuel 29er’s chain stays.
At the same time, the rear end is stiffer too, alleviating two of our main gripes with the previous Fuel 29er; we never really got comfy with the super long rear end on earlier versions of this bike, and the rear end ‘twang’ robbed it of confidence. In comparison, this bike is crazy solid out back, and feels a lot better balanced too, with more wheelbase out in front, and less trailing you.
The Fuel 29er gets some geometry adjustment too for 2016, via Trek’s simple Mino-Link system. In the slacker setting, the head angle is a stable 68.8-degrees, compared to 69.5 on the 2015 bike. The bottom bracket is 4mm lower too. Put all these ingredients – stiffer, slacker, lower, shorter stays – into the melting pot and you get tasty blend that gives riders more confidence. And as we stressed before, in this category and price point, that should be the performance priority.
The only serious gripe we have with this frame (and we mention it in every Trek review) is the ABP skewer. It hangs out the back of the bike like some kind of anchor, smashing into rocks willy nilly. Please hire some smart engineer to fix this! Water bottle clearance is also super tight, and a 500ml bottle is a real squeeze.
[divider]All the right bits for a good time[/divider]
It’s not just the frame which contributes to the Fuel’s increased confidence, but a whole bunch of smart spec choices too. A 750mm-bar and 70mm stem combo is a real winner, giving you a strong position over the front end, and the Bontrager XR3 tyres are a proper 2.3″ width as well.
Of course a dropper post is a must on this kind of bike now, and the KS LEV on the Fuel works well. Being cable operated, it’s easy enough to maintain too.
Even though the Shimano 10-speed SLX shifters feel a little clunky (especially in comparison to the new 11-speed XT gear), the 2×10 drivetrain will suit most. In an ideal world, we’d go a single chain ring, and fit something like a Praxis 11-40 cassette, to simplify and lighten the bike a bit.
Shimano’s affordable Deore brakes feel a million bucks! They don’t have a huge amount of bite or raw power, but they’re super consistent and have a light, precise lever feel that’s easy to modulate.
Just like the rear end, the fork also gets Boost hub spacing, with 110mm-wide dropouts. The stance of the fork is noticeably wider, like it’s been riding a horse, but the legs are still only 32mm. With all the other tweaks that have been made to improve the bike’s stiffness and confidence, we’d have loved to see a 34mm-legged fork on this bike.
One hallmark of a quality bike is the length of time it takes to get comfortable and feel like you’ve got the setup dialled. With the Fuel EX8 29, it was seconds, not minutes or hours. Something about the Full Floater suspension system makes it incredibly easy to get right, or very close to it. While other bikes will punish you with a harsh or soggy ride if your suspension pressures are a little off, Trek’s system seems to handle a much bigger margin of error without issue. A quick check of the suspension sag and you’re 95% of the way there, with only fine tuning to do down the track. The same with the fork too, which might lack the more supportive damping of more expensive FOX offerings, but is very easy to get balanced with the rear end.
The handling is similarly simple to live with, and a marked improvement over previous Fuel 29ers. We always found the long rear end of the older Fuel 29ers made the bike feel like it needed to be steered through corners, and leaning it over wasn’t so easy. The 2016 bike doesn’t have any of those negative traits.
Whether it be getting onto the tyre side knobs, jumping or manualling, the new geometry makes things much more fun.
[divider]Buttery and gentle[/divider]
“Gentle” was a word that another rider used to describe the Fuel’s suspension, and it’s a pretty apt term for it. Both fork and shock are very smooth in the early stages of their travel, and have a pretty linear feeling. More aggressive riders, or those who like really supportive suspension to work the terrain, might find things a bit too ‘plush’ or isolating, but we don’t really think that’s this bike’s intended rider. Most folk buying this bike will be blown away by how well this bike smoothes out the trail, and that’s what it’s suspension is optimised to do.
[divider]Chuggy on the climbs[/divider]
Because it’s not a light bike, climbing isn’t the Fuel’s forte, and you’ll want to use the shock lockout lever too. We didn’t find time to convert the wheels over to tubeless, but it’s easily done using Bontrager’s rim strips (the tyres are tubeless ready) and that would have saved some rotating weight and likely improved climbing performance too. At least with the 2×10 gearing you have a good low-range gear should you need it.
We realise we’ve spent a lot of this review comparing this bike with its predecessor, but that’s only because we’re really impressed with how Trek have made what was already a good bike even better. Great handling, comfort and control galore, excellent suspension and a price point that won’t see you eating sardines and rice for a year either.