2016 Trek TopFuel 9.8 SL

This year I have taken the leap to full suspension. In late December I added a 2016 Trek Top Fuel to the garage. I love my Superfly, a fast and lean hardtail, but the promised advantages of full suspension sounded far too tempting. I had to go 29er and with the brand new Top Fuel released new for this season staying on Trek was a no brainer.

The History

Rewind a few years, back to when I was a mountain bike obsessed 14 year old (maybe I still am?). I had school books covered with mountain bikers. Call in coincidence but over the last decade I’ve worked my way through nearly the whole wide range of the bikes that I had on my books –  from a GT IDXC to a Scott Scale and a Trek Superfly. One particular folder had Roland Green and Jeremiah Bishop on their early 2000’s Trek Volkswagen Top Fuel’s. Call it inception, but 14 year old Tom knew I’d ride one eventually.

Jeremiah Bishop on an early 2000's Top Fuel.
Jeremiah Bishop on an early 2000’s Top Fuel. Check those handlebars!

The Bike

The Top Fuel was obviously a weapon back then meaning the 2016 incarnation had big shoes to fill. The new bike shows a shared DNA with earlier versions of the Top Fuel, the rocker link setup and low rear shock hark back to earlier years. The 29 inch wheels are an obvious difference, as is the low top tube. The frame is finished in a bold light blue, with two tone red highlights. It is a distinctive colour scheme, that certainly stands out. I like the contrast of the blue with the predominately black components, the blue really does shine in the flesh.

2016 Trek Superfly SL in profile
2016 Trek Superfly SL in profile.

The switch from hardtail to full suspension wasn’t the only leap with this bike. The bike comes with SRAM 1×10, in comparison to my old Shimano 2×10. The suspension on both ends is also handled by Rock Shox, a depature from the Fox Forks I have ridden since the mid 2000’s. Shimano XT brakes are a nice touch – their reliability and performance clearly a factor in Trek choosing them as part of the spec. Bontrager handle most of the contact points – a Montrose saddle and RXL bars matching my Superfly nicely. I rounded the bike out with my usual Shimano XTR pedals.

The Ride

I trusted Darren at Cyco with the initial suspension setup – I jumped on the bike and rode it without fiddling air pressures or rebound/compression settings. The Rock Shox have a sag measure and I seemed to sit around 20% sag front and rear when I hopped on – pretty good as a starting point.

The rear suspension setup - compact and low lying
The rear suspension setup – compact and low lying.

My first impressions of the bike were that it felt incredibly pop’y and responsive. I felt like I lost little to the suspension on explosive accelerations. It’s hard to see what the shock is doing at these moments – but I certainly felt like I wasn’t fighting bob. This snappy-ness also comes in handy when aggressively attacking trail. I had been worried I would lose the ability to accelerate hard out of corners or over trail features. This has not been an issue, I can still give a hard pedal stroke or two and gain speed to clear a drop or crest a small rise. According to Trek the chainstays are shorter than previous full suspension xc bikes – this must be one explanation for the preserved acceleration.

The shortened chainstays also gain mention in terms of the asymetrical nature of the frame around the bottom bracket. Looking down while riding does reveal a rather pronounced asymmetry from left to right. This allows the tire clearance to be maintained despite the short chainstays. Asymmetry makes sense to me – the forces acting on the rear of the bike are difference from the right hand drive side to the left hand brake side. Efficient use of materials would demand different forms to cope with these forces.

You can appreciate the asymmetry from the non drive side. Looking closely you can also see the sag increments on the rear shock - helpful for setup.
You can appreciate the asymmetry from the non drive side. Looking closely you can also see the sag increments on the rear shock – helpful for setup.

The rear suspension has delivered some gains while climbing. Traction feels better and more maintained over uneven features of the trail. A test for me in terms of climbing is the As You Do trail in Rotorua, from the Lynmore side of the forest up to Tokorangi Pa Road. This climb features a crux feature right at the top – a steep pinch with a half buried log near the top. It requires a burst of speed, plenty of traction and a correct line choice. I could clear it most times on my Superfly – taking a zig-zag line back across the steepest part of the pinch to preserve momentum. On the Top Fuel the rear wheel just eats the final log. I need to be less active over the bike and ultimately save energy. I do all of this climbing without the lockout on.

Riding to and from the forest on tarseal is where lockout comes in handy. The Rock Shox suspension has the “XX full sprint” remote lockout lever. This is a hydraulic system that locks out both front and rear simultaneously. I appreciate the consistent feel of this system over a cable lockout system. The force required is consistent despite the riding conditions. The engineers have clearly considered the visibility of the lever too. When the lever is extended it is locked out, when compressed the suspension is full open. The extended lever tends to catch the eye more and is a good reminder to prevent riding any trails accidentally locked out.

The XX full sprint lockout button, set in the compressed position.
The XX full sprint lockout button, set in the compressed position.

XC full suspension isn’t just about climbing, it should yield gains on descents too. The Top Fuel shines when the trail tilts down. The first most noticeable is into rough or rooty sections that require a speed or direction change. This might mean braking on brake bumps into a corner, or changing lines across the roots at speed. In both situations the bike feels planted. The active rear suspension asks to be ridden into rough situations. I have found myself able to commit to bigger lines. The suspension widens the margin of error – this translates to more aggressive lines, more straight lines, more exit speed and ultimately faster times through sections of trail. For those who know Rotorua – the roots of Te Tihi o Tawa, Tuhoto Ariki and Hatu Patu are an example of where the suspension has a big benefit. The exposed roots and often stepped descents in these trails can unsettle a hardtail, or at least make the rider feel closer to the edge. The extra bounce on the Top Fuel pushes these sections back into the comfort zone, increasing speed and saving energy.

The suspension also helps in the steeps. A bit of weight over the back wheel and the bike stays stable even on consecutive steep steps in chutes. The classic 29er stability shines through when the speed rises on steep downhills. The front end also feels responsive and confident. The Top Fuel includes Boost hub spacing – a wider hub spacing front and rear. My first response was frustration when I noted this change. My Superfly is not Boost – so no wheel swaps. I think the different wheel builds and suspension design allowed by Boost do translate to better performance. The Rock Shox SIDs on the Top Fuel seem well in tune with the front wheel. I can notice minimal deflection or flex through the front of the bike even when riding really aggressively.

The rear suspension pivots around the rear axle. The rear of the bike also has the new Boost hub spacing.
The rear suspension pivots around the rear axle. The rear of the bike also has the new Boost hub spacing.

The Conclusion

I’m stoked on my Top Fuel. It has improved my descending speed, added some marginal gains on climbs and overall should add up to energy savings in racing. My Strava tells no lies ( Tom Reynolds Strava ) – the bike has helped to drop my times on some of my favourite trails. What do I want to change? Once the piggy bank is a little more full I’m keen to team the bike with some carbon wheels. I have also begun to fiddle with the stem and spacers to get the position right. The grips are pretty hearty – gloves are a must –  so I will switch them out for some ESI foam grips. The Bontrager XR1 tires go well in the dry, but I will switch to Vittoria Saguaros before the rain of autumn comes. Otherwise the bike is race ready out of the box.

Jump across to Trek Bikes for a little more background on the Top Fuel 

If you want to see one in the flesh, Cyco have at least one on the floor at their Kingsland shop. Get in touch with Darren to find out more via their website www.cyco.co.nz

Completely at home on singletrack. Look out for the fast baby blue machine on trails near you.
Completely at home on singletrack. Look out for the fast baby blue machine on trails near you.

 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Djt says:

    What’s your verdict on the 1x? I’m swrious on buying the TF but weighing the project one with XT 2x for more flexibility on climbs and flat speeds…

    1. I’m happy with it. Riding around Rotorua and some gravel road bashing I haven’t found myself wishing for an extra gear. The smallest gear for climbing is pretty similar to the smallest on my 2×10 in terms of the ratio. It really cleans up the cockpit too only having one shifter. Project one is pretty sweet though!

  2. Nice bike Tom. Did you go a medium frame?

    1. Yeah I went with the medium. Just put a dropper post on it too.

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