2013 Trek Fuel EX 9.8 29er Review

As previously noted, while at Brown County, I really wanted to get my hands on a Fuel EX 29er for a demo ride.  My first real bike was a Trek Fuel EX 5.?? 26er, with full suspension, hydro brakes, and a rad 3×9 drivetrain.  It holds a special place in my heart.

Much to my delight, Trek was at the demo day, and did have a Fuel EX 29er.

A 9.8.


Thru-Axle, ABP goodness.

EVO Link suspension with DRCV shock.

Carbon main triangle and seatstay, aluminum chain stays, Shimano XT 2×10 drivetrain, XT brakes, 5″ travel front and rear with CTD, stealth routing dropper seatpost, internally routed cables, Bontrager components.

Insert my standard, “I wish every bike had XX1 drivetrain” comment here, but on this bike, at least, the 2×10 makes a bit more sense.  I’d still rather have 1x.  Note that Trek does make an X01 and an XX1 version of this same bike, for just a few dollars more.

There is no possible way of describing to you how incredibly beautiful the frame color is.  Trek calls it Red Smoke/Viper Red.  It’s like a glossy red candy coating on a beautiful matte carbon frame.  You remember cherry blow pops?  Remember how they started off all dull, and as you sucked on them, they got shiny?  Eventually, you can see the gummy center under the red shiny?  It’s kinda like that.  But in carbon.  It’s amazing.  It’s glorious.  It is, bar none, the most beautiful finish I’ve seen on any bike, ever.  It looks good in the dark, in the sun, in the dirt.  If bike selection was purely aesthetic, this bike would be world champion.  It is really, truly, amazingly beautiful.  It cannot be overstated.

The Shimano components worked perfectly.  No complaints.

Normally, I’d be writing about how effective the CTD adjustments were.  That won’t be the case here.  As with the Salsa Horsethief, the suspension design is so effective that you don’t need to touch the controls.  I left the shock and fork in Trail mode at all times, and it was perfect.  It climbed without drama, descended like a maniac, and was responsive on the flats.

I rode this bike immediately after the Specialized Epic Expert, which isn’t exactly a fair comparison.  The Epic is a couple of pounds lighter, and is a 4″ XC bike with carbon rims.  And I really didn’t like the Epic.  Perhaps that made the contrast here even more marked.

I haven’t had a chance to run a Horsethief on a real trail like Brown County (some day, I hope to), but I cut loose on the Fuel.  It was the most confidence inspiring bike I’ve ever ridden.  I hit corners, obstacles, jumps and bumps with a newfound abandon.  I’d say newfound reckless abandon, but it wasn’t reckless.  I was in total control.  It was unbelievably balanced.

The beefier tires and alloy rims didn’t spin up as quick as carbon models, but they do hold the bike’s price around $5k.  If it were mine, wheels would be the first upgrade.  (Note that even on the higher zoot Fuel EX 9.9 which has carbon seatstays and a few other upgrades, the stock build is still alloy rims).

It’s not an XC bike, but did a good job of acquitting itself on climbs.  On the flats, it felt lighter than it should have.

On the descents and corners, or on obstacles of any kind, it was a monster.  It had a dropper post, but I didn’t find myself using it much.  The bike inspired enough confidence that I felt good with the saddle up at riding height.  It was amazingly responsive to body english, and felt like an extension of my body.  I knew where my tires were at all times.  Little tweaks to the position of the bike on the trail were supremely easy.  Is there a little rock ahead?  Slide 2 inches over without thinking about it.  A little easter egg bump to push you into the next corner?  Hop it.  A smooth, fast corner?  Rail it.

There was no bob, no matter how hard you pedaled.  There was no brake jack.  There were no bad habits.  I was riding corners with instant confidence.  The ABP worked as advertised to keep the rear suspension active even when braking.

There was no palpable flex/play/movement in any part of the bike.  The rear was tight, the front was tight, the bike was incredibly confidence inspiring.  It felt like you were riding in the bike, not on it.

When I talk about the Horsethief, I dream of a carbon version.  The Fuel EX shows how good that could be.  The Fuel is an amazing bike.  What would I change?

Well, with Trek’s Project One system, you can pick exactly what you want.  I’d do a 9.9 with the same coloration as this bike, with the red smoke carbon frame.  XX1 drivetrain with XTR brakes. Carbon rims.  Black outline decals and black components.  The stock tires.  I’d think about remote suspension, but probably ultimately opt against it.  I’d think about foregoing the dropper post, but probably ultimately opt to get it.  And then I’d go rail.  (Dear Trek, if you happen to have a spare one sitting around, unloved…)

If this is what we’re moving to, I’m a happy man.  We’re getting to a point where 5″ travel bikes have XC bike efficiency and weight.  It’s a good thing.

It’s a great thing.  And this is a great bike.


9 thoughts on “2013 Trek Fuel EX 9.8 29er Review

  1. Since the Rumblefish is in it’s last year and this is its effective replacement, how do the bikes compare? What are the main differences to the ride? Is the EX as much fun?
    I’ve demoed the EX platform in 26er form in the top of the range 2011 EX 9.9 and was very disappointed. It rode like it was twice it’s actual weight and felt unresponsive and dull.

    • No comparison.

      The Fuel feels lighter, more nimble, more aggressive, more capable, and more confidence-inspiring. The drivetrain and component spec is better, the geometry is better, etc.

      Perhaps most importantly, the suspension design WORKS much better, and has a far better anti-bob/squat mechanism built into it. On the Rumblefish, I was constantly fiddling with the shock to accommodate different conditions. On the Fuel, set it to Trail and go.

    • Now the million dollar question…Fuel 29, Horsethief, or Spearfish? I ask because my LBS carries all, and being a member of their team I can get a decent little discount. I currently ride the 2013 HorseT, which I sold my HiFi Deluxe to get. Love the HT, but probably don’t need that much travel in the St Louis area where I live. However, as you say, the newer trail bikes blur the lines between them and XC with their lighter weight and improved handling. I will also say that I’ve never been so stable / confident as I am on the HT. And it’s fun! So, looking at these 2014 offerings, if you had to pick one, which way would you go ?

      • That’s a tough one. I don’t NEED a ton of travel, either…and the Spearfish is a great bike.

        That said, if I was getting a bike tomorrow, it would either be a Horsethief or a Fuel EX. As far as which bike between those two, it would likely come down to price and dealers. If I had a great Salsa dealer and no local Trek dealer, I’d get a Horsethief, and vice-versa.

        If I had both dealers, I’d probably look at pricing. In a “cost is no object” contest, the Trek Fuel EX 29er, in the higher levels, is pretty hot. It’s basically exactly what I wish the Horsethief was: carbon triangle (or even carbon stays on the 9.9)…so a lighter, super-capable, longish-travel 29er trail bike that is light and slick enough to function as a bike for all seasons.

  2. “I hit corners, obstacles, jumps and bumps with a newfound abandon. I’d say newfound reckless abandon, but it wasn’t reckless. I was in total control.”
    Great writing there =)
    Great review.
    This bike is in my top ten dream bikes list.

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