Planning a trip to Derby late last year we were faced with a tough call to make, what bike should we take for someone who’s never been there before?
The Fjord Lord, our friend from Terrengsykkel, Norway’s best mountain bike magazine was visiting, and he’s a great photographer and keen adventurer, but he was bike-less Down Under.
It’s not as simple as it might sound, that place is not suited to just one style of bike, there’s a vast variety of trails there! Derby covers the whole spectrum, from Enduro World Series rock gardens that will eat your wheels as an entree to mellow all-day singletrack rides through the lush wilderness. But there are jumpsquicker are climbs, there are berms, gaps, rocks, mud, dust, arrrrrgh, what to do!?
We were going to be carrying camera gear and riding all-day and riding many trails for the first time. So, it had to be light, tough, and confident. It would most likely suit a 29er, they seem less phased by changing terrain than 27.5” wheel bikes. The suspension needed to be enough to handle the rocks, but not too much to lug around the green and blue trails.
We narrowed it down to two bikes, got on the phone and made it happen. Mick would take the Specialized Stumpjumper 27.5” we already had on review, and Kristoffer would take the Trek Fuel EX 9.9, a lustrous matte-black beauty with a chunky carbon frame, 140mm of travel and a high-end spec.
We felt the Fuel EX was a good match for the job, so how’d it go? Read on.
Bikes with around 130mm of travel tend to fit well into the ‘all-rounder’ category, they have a little more bounce than short-travel cross-country race bikes, but you don’t seem to get too lost in it like you would 150mm when pedalling around at moderate speeds on mellow trails. It’s a nice balance to feel engaged, yet still controlled.
We’ve had great times on the Fuel EX over the years, we’ve ridden them all, from the long, light-but-flexy 2014 model to the lively 27.5” wheel Fuel EX we had two of on long term test, both had been to Derby with us before. It’s a familiar bike we get along with well, it has its focus firmly set on the trail riding segment, and with the Remedy and Top Fuel on either side of it, there are options if you want to go bigger or smaller in travel.
Stretched out and robust.
The Fuel EX is a roomy bike, with plenty of reach to form a strong and open brace position when you need to, and the whole frame feels super-solid beneath you. Take a hard landing, and you don’t get that feeling of the bike squirming or shuddering from the impact. The Fuel seems to avoid that harsh feeling that plagues many carbon bikes with a solid chassis; the suspension is ultra supple, perhaps that is part of the puzzle?
The FOX suspension is a real standout, the FOX 34 fork in our opinion is the best around, ultra-predictable and supportive. And out the back Trek’s proprietary Thru-Shaft shock with their twist on damping, dubbed: Re:Aktiv few remedies are floatingAktiv has an edge over the competition want sensitivity and it really does feel like the bike floats through choppy sections of trail nicely. The top-end fork and shock from FOX come with a wide range of adjustability, dial in the compression adjustments and you’ll find the bike feeling ultra-firm under your pedalling motions for the climbs and flatter trails, yet still able to react to bumps as they occur.
The Trek suspension bikes tend to feel very smooth and supple, like a Norco or Specialized, where the use of the fork and shock adjustments is key to bringing efficiency to a bike with such supple suspension.
Derby has all sorts of surfaces, in one short section of trail, you can often encounter anything from hard pack to soft, dry to wet and everything in between. That calls for a tyre that’s tacky enough to stick to rock, yet open in the tread pattern to bite.
We dig the Bontrager tyres, the XR4 tyres in 2.4” size are pretty impressive. They feel quite speedy, yet very grippy, a hard balance to strike. There were times we wished for a bigger tyre up front when the turns got faster and looser, but never did we wish for a faster tyre on the more mellow trails.
These Shimano XT four-piston brakes with the finned cooling pads rattle like a coin in the clothes drier. It’s a big distraction and makes the bike feel a little rough, a significant oversight from Shimano, a total flop.
There are a few remedies floating around the mechanic realm, aside from sticking foam inside the calliper to dampen the noise, the simplest remedy we’ve found is to remove the spring between the pads, stretch it out a little, and re-install. Repeat as necessary, you’re welcome.
All rosy, then?
Pretty much, yes! We built the bike, rode it around the local trails a few times to dial in the setup before flying to Derby. For the whole trip, it never missed a beat, no flats, any creaks, nothing going out of tune.
The dropper post lever felt hard to push, perhaps improving the cable routing somehow might reduce friction, and like we said a larger tyre with a squarer profile up front would be a handy idea.
The bars are 750mm, pretty standard for a trail bike, but a little wider would be or preference, at least you’d have the option of cutting down to the right width.
Tall sizing, watch out, test first.
Watch the sizing if you’ve got short legs, the 19.5” felt nice and roomy in the length, but the seat tube is quite high. For Mick who has short-ish legs, the result was a saddle height too tall with the dropper post down all the way. We had a similar issue with the Canyon Spectral, where upsizing for long reach had us running into the issue of a bike too tall for the correct saddle height.
Derby, Beechworth, Lysterfield and home again.
After the Derby trip the Fuel EX was Mick’s bike of choice for a trip to Melbourne and back for Christmas, stopping at Beechworth for a couple of rides in the MTB Park and summer laps of Lysterfield, Melbourne.
For more on the specs, frame geometry and other models available, head to the Trek page here: More Fuel EX!