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By Matt Pacocha
If the past three weeks are any indication, Trek is going to have a very good year in 2008.
Earlier this month, Trek unveiled thenew 2008 Madone. It’s an impressive bike that challenges a number of age-old approaches to frame – and component – design. Lennard Zinn saw the technology first hand, reported on it here and has a more detailed impression in the latest issue of VeloNews, issue 13, due out July 9th.
Following that tough act, Trek’s mountain-bike suspension designers, engineers and product managers unveiled a completely new version of the Fuel EX, as a side note to the Madone during its launch and then again this past weekend in Idaho, where a number of us got to do more than just look at the new bike.
Trek has always produced a quality product. Consumers have always been able to have confidence in purchasing a Trek bike, road or mountain. The stuff is well tested and built to perform safely, first and foremost. The brand ensures this by standing behind its wares with a lifetime warranty. Old reliable.
Of course, no one has accused Trek’s mountain bikes of being on the cutting edge of the industry’s technological front in the recent past. Admittedly, Trek’s mountain-bike efforts have taken a back seat to the road line ever since Lance Armstrong started winning that bike race in France every July.
For the most part, Trek’s Fuel platform hasn’t changed since the turn of the millennium, when all that road business was in full swing. It’s been simple, a linkage activated single pivot, and somewhat reliable and Trek’s racers have been able to do quite a bit of winning on it, but for all intents its lost most of its sexiness over the years to more advanced designs.
Whether Trek hadn’t figured out how or what to do to revamp the suspension design or if it just didn’t want to build something solely because it would be new, the brand took a subdued approach while evolving the bikes over the last couple of years. Carbon engineers and product managers focused on weight and on stiffness. They focused on tweaking parts of the bike in a manner that made small, incremental improvements in the Fuel platform. Until this time around, that is.
Forces of change
John Riley, Trek’s mountain-bike product manager, has been responsible for the line for the better part of a decade. A 17-year employee, he was once product manager for both road and mountain bikes, a job that made him responsible for spec’ing more than 160 models.
Even Riley concedes that for a while he was over-extended and wasn’t able to push the line to the next level. Now he’s back to his roots and solely responsible for mountain bikes, cutting his workload to a much more manageable 60 models.
In 2005 Trek’s long-time racing icon, Travis Brown, retired from full-time competition to transition into a full-time product tester and developer. Brown brought a passionate history of tinkering with his own equipment and the legs to test his ideas. Upon his arrival the boat started to rock. His energy, efforts and creativity – tinged with just a bit of eccentricity – are easily illustrated in Trek’s new 69er line.
But things were really shaken up last summer when Trek hired ex-Manitou suspension guru Jose Gonzales. With a background in suspension that dates back to his time with Kawasaki’s factory motocross team in the mid ’80s, Gonzales proved to be a crux piece of Trek’s mountain-bike puzzle. He receives help from crack bike designers like Dylan Howes, Trek’s Senior R&D engineer, who’s responsible for taking Gonzales’s concepts and building them into the new Fuel EX.
If the new Fuel EX is any indication, the Trek mountain-bike line is making a big switch from its recent history as just a “safe bet.”
The new Fuel EX
Trek says the new EX is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes the brand’s plans for the mountain-bike world. From an outsider’s perspective, the Fuel EX is the “big one,” possibly marking a turning point for the manufacturer and something it desperately needed to regain a competitive foothold in the evolving high-tech suspension bike market.
The new bike builds upon a solid foundation from last year’s model, which featured major chassis developments. That bike debuted a new carbon front triangle, new wide stance bearing pivot and asymmetric ZR9000 chainstays. The 2008 adds three new – and key – technologies to the mix.
The first is the EVO link. This is the last piece of the Fuel EX’s chassis. It is an ultra-stiff rocker link that is actually lighter than last year’s multi-piece system. The EVO link is made from magnesium using a forging technique called thixomolding, which gives the frame a 95-gram weight reduction as a bonus. The weight drop is a bonus, because the added stiffness is the real story. A frame is only as stiff as its weakest link and after 2007’s redesign; the rocker link on the Fuel EX was its weak point. The EVO link finishes the Fuel EX chassis, but to be competitive in the world of suspension the Fuel EX’s linkage activated single pivot design also needed a revamp. It got that with two new suspension components: Full-Floater and Active Braking Pivot or ABP.
The most striking of the two is the ABP. It is a concentric pivot around the rear axle that separates the suspension from most braking forces. Because the pivot is inline with the axle, the brake is able to stay with the rotor as it moves through the bike’s travel. The design allows the front and rear suspension of the bike balance in tandem, rather than having a brake jack in the rear. One short ride over rough terrain requiring braking will convince just about any rider of the merits of ABP.
The second and final big suspension development is the Full-Floater, a floating shock mount. By eliminating the fixed shock mount, Gonzales was able to capture more complete control over the bike’s shock rate and manipulate it. The result is a rate that better matches the spec’d air shock. The suspension is suppler at its start; similar to last year’s R1 design mid-stroke, for pleasant pedaling characteristics, and slightly regressive at the end to better deal with square edge bumps and an air spring’s progressive end stroke.
Put all of these technologies together and you have the new Fuel EX with R1i tuned suspension. Its light, stiff and has incredible suspension performance.
Look for a full-report of Trek’s 2008 race and trail bike line as well as highlights and prototypes from Gary Fisher in VeloNews issue 15.