2019 Trek Top Fuel 9.8 SL 1st Ride Impression



Let’s be clear - Trek’s Top Fuel is a XC race weapon. This is not your typical ‘Whistler XC’ bike, which the greater industry may characterize as a ‘trail’ or ‘all mountain’ bike. The Top Fuel is designed for World Cup XC race courses. It is meant to be precise, light and fast.

Why is it now in my stable of bikes? Well I am an age group XC and cross triathlon racer. So it makes sense to have the right tool for the job. The Trek Top Fuel 9.8 SL to me by way of an ambassador program with a local Trek dealer (https://www.trekbikes.com/ca/en_CA/retail/port_coquitlam/). I am part of the local Daryl Evans Racing team. I picked up this bike in the dead of winter and as I’m writing this review, I’m staring out at 3’ of snow on my deck. But i have had the opportunity to throw a leg over the bike, riding in both Vancouver area and Squamish. So what are my initial impressions?

The 9.8 model sits just down from the ultimate spec’d 9.9 model. At a MSRP of $7,000, it is nicely appointed with various carbon goodies as you would expect. But there are also subtle clues to decisions that had to be made to meet a price point. It shares a frame with the 9.9, but not much else. The 9.8 SL does boast carbon bars, carbon cranks, carbon seat post and Ti railed saddle. And it is also factory spec’d with carbon wheels, Bontrager’s Kovee Elite 30 Carbon. As I understand from chatting with some of the Trek reps during Crankworx last year, the Elite wheels are overseas manufactured for a better price point as compared to their USA manufactured Pro carbon wheel line. It also appears their Carbon Care Wheel Loyalty Program offers no-cost repair/replacement for the first two years of ownership. This aligns with many carbon wheels now available on the market with good warranty service. The 9.8 SL is spec’d with SRAM’s Eagle GX and interestingly Shimano XT brakes.

At 5’10”, I threw my leg over a 19” frame and immediately felt comfortable in the cockpit. Honestly, I’ve done nothing other than adjust seat height so far. With 100mm RockShox SID SL up front, the bike rides low, even with all of the factory spacers under the stem. Yup. Did I mention this was a purebred XC bike? Riding up to some local trails, I rolled through the gears multiple times. This is my first Eagle drivetrain. Shifting was generally crisp, if not a bit on the hard and loud side. I’ve heard this about GX, versus XO or XX. In fact, apparently some EWS racers are using GX deraileurs because the spring is stronger and the shifts more definite. I did find myself fiddling with the barrel adjuster and never quite finding it perfect across all 12 gears but it never missed a shift and after a few minutes the recognizable clunk felt reassuring during shifts. Trek has done a really nice job on cable management, with the right brake line and shifter cable together in a heat-shrinked sheath. My only complaint with this is that I will have to cut it back just a bit to allow the shifter and brake lever to rotate away from each other a bit for my own cockpit comfort. I was surprised by the XT brakes. I had thought that SRAM Guides would be spec’d, for overall integration and potentially build cost savings. I have lots of experience with both Shimano and SRAM brakes, and I am fan of the Servowave on the XT brakes. Also interesting, the spec has a RockShox SID up front but a Fox Float shock. Again, I would have assumed the product manager could have got an overall better price with a full SRAM groupo. One of the features of most interest to me on this bike was the TwistLoc. For those old enough to have ridden GripShift, this TwistLoc looks very familiar. It is essentially a GripShift on the left bar to manage shock/fork lockout. The integration of both cables into a single mechanism is really nice and makes for a clean looking cockpit. I really disliked the above-the-bar dual fork/shock levers that both look bad and seem complicated. The TwistLoc also leaves space for a dropper post lever should you wish to retrofit to the bike. Excited as I was about the TwistLoc, on my initial ride I found it counter intuitive. It’s named TwistLoc, yet the ‘twist’ actually unlocked the fork/shock. This is backwards from how my brain works. The default position is locked, and the engaged or ‘twisted’ position is unlocked. And then about 30 minutes into my 1st ride, it was just locked. I’m not sure how, but somehow the internal mechanism (which I assume is just a metal catch of some kind) broke. The bike was now locked out. Again I thought this opposite of how you would think to engineer a failsafe. If it fails - it should fail open not locked. A quick trip back to the Trek store and a new warrantied TwistLoc and I was on my way again. I’m now very apprehensive about the TwistLoc, but it has worked flawlessly for the next 2 rides I’ve done.

Overall, the bike feels fast. This is my 1st XC rig with carbon wheels and they feel firm with excellent power transfer. This would be a direct comparison to my old bike with Mavic CrossMax SLR wheel set. Based upon my race schedule, including a foray to race in Spain, I seriously debated buying a ProCaliber hardtail for power transfer, weight, and speed. I’m delighted that the Top Fuel is still nice and light, and I have found myself riding in the locked position frequently. Even in the locked position, the bike has a nice compliance and does not feel harsh over rougher rolling surfaces. I am still running tubes. This is also an interesting point. The wheels are tubeless ready but are spec’d with tubes. I’m not sure why and don’t know any competitive XC racers still running tubes. For the cost of removing 2 tubes, I would think you could include 2 tubeless valves. But I suspect the bigger issues is final assembly at stores and need to include sealant. I am also getting used to not having a dropper post. This is a XC race bike, and I should ride it as such without a dropper. The forward weight bias does make some steep rollovers more spicy. On the flip side, the front wheel felt very firmly planted climbing steeps.

Is the bike fast? Yes. On a local XC race circuit called the Junkyard Dog (https://www.trailforks.com/trails/junkyard-dog-loop/) i managed to post a Top 10 segment time on this new bike riding at night with lights. I was intentionally pushing the bike and my pace to see what it could do. But I was pretty happy with the result. Final thoughts for now? Based upon my home base, Whistler, I may add a dropper post to the set up. I know another team member from my club has already done this. And I’m also doing a bit of research, but it appears the 2019 SID SL is easily convertible from 100mm to 120mm. This would provide a bit more travel for the local terrain and further slacken the bike out. But so far, I’m really happy with overall build and initial ride impressions!