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The mountain biker's E bike?

The mountain biker's E bike?


Author: Gaz @ Nzo / Photos: Savanna Guet

This is a review of the Trek Fuel EXe, a great example of a new category of mountain bike.

It will not be like any review you have read before. To be honest, there is not much point in rattling off the geometry, the parts spec, the wattage and the torque figures. Anybody who is remotely interested in this bike has already watched a dozen in-depth videos, and people moderately interested probably know more about the kit that comes on each model than I do.

The exact version I got to test is not even available in New Zealand, so I am not going to pick that apart in much detail either.

What I am going to try to do is relate how this bike has affected me, and what it has meant to my bike riding. My last year or so has been so weird and life-changing that I have been planning to write a story about it, and this bike has come along at the right time to get me started.

Some context: I took up mountain biking almost 40 years ago. I had taken a few years off bike riding after I threw in the towel on my track racing career, and got sidetracked by learning to be a designer. I didn’t really miss bike riding until I saw my first mountain bike. I bought the first one I saw that was for sale. 

Since then I have slowly worked my way through many kinds of bike riding. Six-week bike packing trips, cross country races, downhill enduros, a short stint on a BMX, over 20 laps of Lake Taupo on various road bikes, single speed races, 24 hour races, multi-day mountain biking expeditions - I even ended up back on a velodrome.

I have always been able to ride enough that if any of the above activities came along I could select the appropriate bike and have a go at it. Even as I got older, fitness was never a consideration - I could get away with going on any of these outings without any need to prepare. 

2020 was one of my best years since bike riding once again became my thing. A weekly fang on the track bike, an unusually mild winter for mountain biking, some great days out on the gravel bike, then two trips to the South Island for long weekends riding legendary trails in great company.

Come February that summer, a swelling in my neck became a major health problem. I was very lucky - what I had was treatable. The treatment was pretty heinous.

So this story is about what it means to be a bike rider who is fairly capable, rendered completely incapable in order to stay around.

Treatment lasted seven weeks, plus another six or seven in a bit of a mess, and as many months in a much reduced state. On the plus side, I got down to what was my 1977 racing weight. On the down side I was weak as a kitten and needed to sleep a lot.

I started back on regular food about a month after treatment, and got the last of the tubes that were installed taken out a couple of weeks or so later. I had my first bike ride post-illness about then, and managed ten slow kilometres on the flat. With some half-hearted wheelies and skids.

Over the next few months I got better at bike rides, got busy on some landscaping projects, and tried to remember what I do for a living.

My specialist, to whom I owe the success of the treatment he designed, happened by chance to also be a mad-keen bike rider. Bizarrely, he ordered a product from our online business the day before our first clinic, quite by coincidence. He understood what I would be trying to do when I got back into it. He encouraged me, with a round of cautions. Don’t expect too much, you won’t be like you were before, and get yourself an e-bike. 

I sort of listened, but mainly figured if I ate a lot and was patient I would get back to normal eventually.

I didn’t get an e-bike.

I slowly added kilometres to my distance covered and metres to my altitude climbed. By six months out I could do a decent three hour ride in the trails, and climb up to the best bits under my own steam several times in a ride. I was probably back to being ok for my age, regardless of being in recovery. So, pretty good. 

My problem was a ride like the one described would lay me out for several days. I might not get back on a bike until midweek, if at all. My old coach used to say “a little, and often” was the best formula. I didn’t follow that adage, I went out and did the ride I really wanted to do, smashed myself, then took days to get over it.

That was my status when I got the chance to do a long-term review of the new Trek Fuel EX e.

Getting acquainted with the bike was very easy - my daily ride is a Fuel EX from 2021. The e-sled shares that DNA, and is a logical development of a model that has been around in the Trek range for seventeen years. 

It looks really good. Whether you like the look of a bike is obviously a matter of personal taste, and for me it is one of the best looking mountain bikes of any kind, ever. The design of the full-carbon frame is considered and resolved. That it is electric assist is irrelevant, it is a good looking thing. 

The initial thrust of the bike industry’s e-bike thinking was to give riders heaps of grunt over a long day out. Like, if we want to sell any of these things we have to make them go as far as any of our customers will ever go, even if they only go that far once a year. 

Well, OK. But that means riding a big, heavy beast on all your outings. The Fuel EXe weighs in around six or seven kilograms less than its full power brethren, and the electrics are packed into a much smaller part of the bike. 

The motor and electronics from German robotics company TQ fit into a slightly enlarged bottom bracket casing, and under a neat little display buried in the top tube. A discreet pair of switches next to the left grip controls the system.

Whether it matters or not to the general populace, it doesn’t look like an e-bike.

On my first ride I met some people I know at the top of the trails, about to head into the jungle. One of them came and had a good look at the bike, which certainly is attention-grabbing with its one piece carbon bar and stem, honeyed butter-coloured frame and electronic gizmos on the suspension and valves. We chatted about it. We rode more or less together to the first junction on the trail. Later that day I posted a photo and a few notes on Instagram and my friend messaged to say he had not even realised the bike was an E. 

The other thing that really stands out on the EX e is the noise it doesn’t make. If you are used to hearing what sounds like a blow dryer coming up the trail, you will be surprised by the silence of this bike. Honestly, I struggle to hear it over my tinnitus. 

It does emit a bit of a whine when it is really under load, but even that is usually smothered by tyre noise and heavy breathing.

Which brings me to next part of my story - what the Fuel EX e is like to ride.

It feels like my regular Fuel EX. The motor is not engaged with the cranks when it isn’t driving, so riding the bike around with the system turned off just feels like a normal bike. In factory default settings, the Low power mode feels like a normal bike might feel to Anton Cooper. The way the power comes on is very subtle, almost imperceptible, you just feel a lot stronger than usual. 

That is where the heavy breathing comes in. In Low power, I was working as hard as I normally would, or nearly as hard, just going faster. It isn’t at all like the full powered bikes I have giggled my way around the trails on. If you don’t punch the power up you still have to earn your turns.

Mid power offers more of a surge at the pedals, but is still fairly muted and gentle. Full gas is definitely a big boost, but nowhere near the rowdiness of the Rails or Levos I have ridden.

And going hard on the power will rinse the battery fairly quickly. 

I started a lot of my rides with a 150m, one and a half kilometre, singletrack climb. Low power would see me use seven or eight percent of the battery charge, high power double that.

By riding nearly everywhere in Low power, I squeezed 49 kilometres and 1350m of ascent out of a charge. 

On another day, using a bit more throttle here and there, I got 40ks and a little over 1000m vertical.

But for this bike and me, the sweet spot was about 35 kilometres of trail and around 800 up. At that distance and elevation gain, I could ride the entire distance on Mid power or Full power, which is at least 37% more fun, and get a really good workout at the same time.

On the example I had, with its 150mm RockShox Lyric fork and RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate (seriously, that is what it is called) shock working at their best, it was a real pleasure on the trails. Going downhill the bike was quiet and predictable. And quiet - it will be interesting to get astride one that doesn’t share the ASX shifter and seat dropper of the review sled. I wonder if having two less cables makes the bike less clattery, but honestly the only bike I have been on that made less noise was a single speed. 

One of the interesting aspects of the motor is the lack of drag. On some other e-bikes, once you hit the built-in speed limit, you go from having considerable assist to having the drag of turning the motor over. This one completely disengages, so you dont feel like you are fighting anything. 

Another aspect of the lower power of this bike compared to the full-on versions, is that the rider is rewarded for maintaining a good cadence. For me, a pretty fast spin seemed to be the way to get the best out of the motor, I found myself changing gear maybe more often than usual to keep the revs up especially on flat or climbing trails.

And that right there is the real beauty of e-bikes in general, for me anyway. Trails that are a bit of a chore become a lot of fun. There is a favourite of mine in our local patch called Old Chevy. It is three kilometres of tight singletrack, with 49 metres of ascent and 78 metres of descent. It is full of short pinch climbs, and fun but very quick downhills, connected by contorted trail. Like I said, it is one of my favourites, but it always hurts. I am sure it is fun for the very fit, but now I KNOW it is fun for the electrically assisted. And on the EX e, it is fabulous. Coupled with enough torque to make the climbs fun to attack, the light and natural feeling of the bike means the downhill and traverse sections just feel like you are having the best day on a bike, ever, fitness wise. Every time.

And that brings me to the effect having this bike for a month has had on me.

As my specialist predicted, access to an e-bike has been a big help. I can go out on consecutive days, and give it what feels like a decent serve. I have ridden the bike much more than I was riding my bike before, and while the assist obviously makes that easier, the extra riding is putting kilometres in the bank and the benefits that brings.

I have done a couple of rides on my other bikes during the month of the EX e, and they have been the longest and hardest since I got going again. A big ride on the roadie, in the wind and rain, which incorporated a decent chunk of forest gravel, and a week later a long mountain bike ride all over the forest - neither one made feel anything other than satisfied. I could ride again the day after both outings, and did!

So not only did riding the EX e get me out more often, it added to my ability to get out more often.

That is a big deal from my perspective. I feel like I am more or less back, if not to normal (what exactly does that look like?), at least to a stage where I am up for whatever kind of bike ride presents itself. Like I was before I got hammered. 

I have figured out what it’s good for. And who it’s good for. 

It isn’t the guy who overtook me the last time I took the regular bike out. He came past me on a big climb, seat about ten centimetres too low, gear about four sprockets too high, shorts maybe a size and half too small. On a big e-bike, motor hauling him skyward while he pedalled with feet akimbo, heels on the pedals. He would not like the EX e, he would feel short-changed by its comparatively low power package. 

But a mountain biker, looking for a way to cram more riding into a busy schedule, or get a decent ride in when not at peak fitness, or maybe a person on the rebuild trail, I can’t recommend the bike enough.

Trek sells a range extender, which sits in the bottle cage and provides an extra 40% of range. Well, “up to 44%”, according to Trek. I will get one, when I get my own Fuel EX e. 

There, I said it. When I get my own Fuel EX e. It’s that good.




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