What makes a bike good? And what makes a bike even better than that, to the point of being great? I think there are two factors:
Every suspended mountain bike is more or less the same. They have gears, suspension, components, wheels and some rubber. If you build up a Trek, Salsa, Specialized, Giant, Cannondale, Scott, etc, with all of the exact same parts, can you really tell the difference? Is there any actually discernable ride qualities that change between each company? Or is it just paint and stickers? Most would say “yes” there are differences, but when it comes down to it, in a blindfolded test, would you know?
This year I got the fantastic opportunity to build up a Trek Top Fuel. Having raced the Trek Superfly (top fuel predecessor) and the Specialized Epic (main rival competitor bike), I thought I would be hard-pressed to notice any differences. I know about carbon layup, geometry, tube angles, link design, travel, stay length, BB drop and all manner of ridiculous little bits that supposedly change the way a bike rides. But this build would be the true test.
I absolutely loved my Specialized Epic. It was a tough decision to sell it for the Top Fuel. And, I did NOT love the Superfly, so I was even more hesitant to go back to a Trek from what is commonly agreed to be the best XC bike that you can buy in the Epic. Then I started hearing the arguments for the Top Fuel, and people I trusted like Adam Lewandowski saying, “you just need to try this thing.” Ultimately, it pushed me over the edge.
With the Top Fuel, Trek started over. If you look at the Superfly next to the Top Fuel, it’s a completely different shape. You’d think it was a different company. Trek changed the angles of the tubes, updated the geometry to be much more aggressive AND much less so (more on that later), and totally changed the suspension linkage (how the suspension is positioned, activated and compresses). It’s a totally new bike.
One way Trek was behind the times with their full suspension racing 29ers, was with their geometry. They had long chainstays and the Superfly drove like a boat. It was light years away from the Epic or even Trek’s hardtail Superfly in terms of its handling personality. One huge difference Trek made then was to shorten the chainstays dramatically on the Top Fuel making it a very whippy and playful ride.
At the same time though, with aggressive geometries, you always sacrifice something. Typically that means downhill confidence. as the front wheel is positioned closer to the crank, the ride of the bike gets a bit squirrely at speed. When you’re going 25 mph down the side of a mountain on a trail 12 inches wide, the last thing you want is to have your bike feel lively underneath of you. You want it to feel planted, firm, like a tank that will not buck you off the side of the mountain. When you start adding in rocks, or big drops and other obstacles, your confidence begins to plummet exponentially. So, Trek added the Mino Link.
The Mino Link is a simple bolt that allows you to make a slight (but significant) adjustment to the geometry in 60 seconds. If you’re headed out to some big riding on rocks or long and fast downhills, this quick change can be a huge help in improving your confidence. With this little feature in the geometry, Trek effectively made 2 bikes in one by allowing you to change the angle of the fork and thus majorly enhance confidence at speed. Huge.
Riding the bike confirmed the data: Trek nailed the geometry. Climbing, descending, clearing rocks, going over logs, taking tight turns, sprinting; all of it was perfect. Better than I had ever experienced it. I couldn’t believe it. The suspension design also made it feel like a new type of bike. Heading down massive rocky downhills never felt so fun. I went faster and smoother than ever. Strava confirmed the sensations, I was consistently going 25% fasterwhen the trail pointed down, an unbelievable margin. Increasing any other area of my riding by 25% would require me to have world class fitness and genes (something I will never have). The suspension linkage is a huge improvement and I couldn’t be happier with it. With a perfect amount of travel for XC, it somehow still felt like all that I needed when I was flying down a local downhill course with massive kickers.
So yes, the new frame itself has been designed perfectly. But there’s also the details. Of course, the Mino Link is great, but Trek also revamped their cable running to allow for any combination of internal cable runs. From electronic, to dropper post cables, everything can go inside the frame. You could theoretically run: 1. Dropper 2. Front Derailleur 3. Shock Lockout 4. Rear Derailleur all inside the downtube. Not only is this great for keeping things clean and neat, it’s really nice to not have to worry about snagging a cable on a stick or rock. Great touch from Trek.
Further, Trek is pushing the move to wider hubs with Boost. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle to have a new standard, but ultimately this is a change worth making. With 148mm being the widest you can go in the rear without moving the crank outboard, Boost is probably the last width change for a while, and with the extra stiffness you get from it… it’s a great move by Trek, one you can actually feel!
Give me two bikes with the exact same parts, the Specialized Epic and the Trek Top Fuel, blind fold me and send me down a trail, and not only will I be able to tell you which is which within 10 seconds, but I’ll keep the Top Fuel over the Epic every day and on every trail. It’s simply that much better of a bike.
Kudos to Trek on an excellent innovation.