Trek Top Fuel 9.8 Review
The Top Fuel has been a staple in Trek’s line-up for many years now and its target market has always been those XC racers and enthusiasts wanting a full suspension option. However, the development of the Supercalibre as Trek’s pre-eminent XC race weapon has given the Wisconsin-based brand room to ex-pand the Top Fuel’s horizons and push it into the hotly contested, ‘downcountry’ category.
For those of you living under a rock for the past few years, the downcountry moniker has been given to the increasingly popular segment that takes the XC characteristics of a light, short-travel bike and blends them with the aggressive geometry and suspension design of more downhill oriented bikes. The result is a versatile bike capable of riding uphill at near XC pace and descending more demanding trails with composure. The 2022 Top Fuel is a perfect example of this new breed.
Compared to its former model, the new Top Fuel comes with a beefed-up version of the OCLV carbon frame and a new shock mounting position that allows for an extra 5mm of travel, allowing for a balanced 120mm of travel front and rear. The geometry also gets a kick in the downhill direction with a slacker 66° head angle and a longer 450mm reach (for a medium frame).
Another new feature is Trek’s integrated frame storage compartment – a lever under the bottle cage opens a trapdoor, providing you access to a recess within the downtube. There you’ll find a neat tool roll with pre-made pockets for a tube, levers and a CO2 bottle.
Our test model was the carbon-framed 9.8 XT, which sits a step down from the top-of-the- line 9.9, but still comes with an excellent complement of components—the Rockshox SID fork and Deluxe Ultimate RCT shock pro- vide great cushioning, the XT drivetrain and brakes are hard to fault, then everything else gets the Bontrager treatment.
A set of Line Elite 30 carbon wheels shoed with team 2.4” XR4 tyres and carbon handle- bars complete the lightweight build kit, giving our medium test rig a rider-ready weight of just under 13kg.
At 176cm tall I instantly felt at home on the medium Top Fuel, but as I headed off on my first ride, I was unsure what to expect from this 120mm race-bred whippet. While I really enjoy pushing the limits of the 130mm-travel bike in my shed, this was my first foray into anything smaller, and, in the spirit of any good review, I wanted to see what it was capable of.
The carbon thoroughbred powered up the first hill, giving me the illusion that I was a snarling beast of an athlete. In fact, the climb- ing prowess of the Top Fuel, with its improved seat tube angle, never wavered during the entire test. At the same time, I knew this was an area where the Top Fuel would excel; I was more interested in exploring how it would handle the ‘down’ bit of downcountry.
To start, I erred on the side of caution and eased the Trek into some fast, undulating flow trails to get a feel for things. Straight out of the gate the Top Fuel pushed me into the attack position and enticed me to be push harder. I complied, and with nothing but smooth trail in front of me, the bike’s race pedigree shone through. This thing was fast, really fast (Strava later informed me that those two warm-up laps were my fastest-ever on that trail).
Again, I’d had an inkling that the Fuel would be rapid on that style of trail, so I wasn’t that surprised by the way it held speed. What impressed me more was its handling and how balanced it felt.
However, smooth flow trails are one thing, but it was time to push the limits further and venture into some burlier terrain. Once again the Top Fuel impressed. Although it rode with the composure of a much bigger travel bike, although I did have to temper its natural race instincts and pick some more realistic lines from where it tried to coax me to go. Its light weight, small travel and short chain stays meant it was as agile a 29er as I’d ridden, and Trek’s choice to spec it with its mid-aggressive XR4 team tyres added another layer of confidence when things got spicier.
With that said, the limits of the 120mm SID fork weren’t hard to find in the rowdier terrain. While the back end handled most things I could throw at it, my arms and shoulders took a beating trying to control the front. The fork’s shortcomings seemed to be compounded by the back end’s liveliness, constantly popping me forward onto the short fork.
It’s worth pointing out that there’s a limit to how plush you can tune 120mm of rear travel and not bottom it out, so it naturally ramps up very hard at the bottom of the stroke. These rougher trails were a great test and put the limits into perspective, but perhaps these limits here were more based on my expectations rather than on the bike’s ability. The Top Fuel easily handled all the trails I rode; it was more my mindset that needed adjusting, as this wasn’t a big-travel enduro bike.
Overall, my mind was opened to the capabilities of a 120mm bike, and I was genuinely amazed at the Top Fuel’s speed and handling, but was there anything I would change?
I think that depends on which side of the ‘downcountry’ scale you sit. If you’re on the ‘country’ side, then no, the Top Fuel is a race- ready machine that can handle the rowdiest trails you’re likely to encounter. For those looking to push the boundaries on the ‘down’ side of things, I’d suggest beefing up the front end. Luckily there’s one very interesting fact that I’ve kept quiet about until now—the Top Fuel frame is specced to handle a bigger 130mm fork! If I was choosing my dream build for this speed machine, I would look at putting a 130mm Pike or Fox 34 on the front and I’d send the little Deluxe Ultimate shock to my local suspension guru for some custom tuning to maximise every millimetre of its performance.
Trek’s latest iteration of the Top Fuel is a huge leap forward in versatility over its predecessors, opening the door to more adventurous trail riding, while retaining its XC pedigree.
I think this is a great move by Trek, as I doubt (apart from the most hardcore gram-shaving racers) there’re many XC enthusiasts who wouldn’t mind a bit of extra help for the downs, and, God forbid, a dropper post.
For anyone else who could be in the market for a short-travel bike to mix things up on our fitness rides, the Top Fuel would go toe-to-toe with any of the top boutique downcountry weapons on the market.