I turned my 1997 Voodoo Bizango into a single speed this Spring, so I've been without a geared XC/Trail bike. This isn't a big deal for my local East coast hills, but I knew that I'd want a geared XC bike if I take any trips into the mountains. After a test ride, and tons of Internet chatter, I was set on trying to find a smoking deal on a used Giant Anthem X1. I was definitely not in a hurry.
Innocent Trip To A New LBS
On a whim I stopped into a local bike shop that I'd never visited. I'd written off the idea of getting a bike this season, so it was pretty safe for me to step inside...or so I thought. I got to talking with the salesguy about Trek's Full Floater and ABP. Seemed a little gimmicky, so I donned a loaner helmet and took a 2009 18.5" Trek Fuel EX 8 out for a test ride; in my flip-flips. I was surprised to see how well their Full Floater rear suspension felt while hammering out of the saddle. The lower third of the rear travel feel really nice too as I jumped up and down on it. The 18.5" was too tall, but I liked it since I'm accustomed to being strung out on my Bizango torture rack. And that was that, or so I though.
Later That Night
I was fascinated to see what Internet people were thinking about it. Seems like Giant's Maestro is still king of the non-exotics, but Trek was getting a lot of respect. I dropped an email to a very trusted bikeshop friend and he gave me some opinions. The Giant Anthem is a very racy platform with steep geometry. short travel, and very little weight. The Trek Fuel EX is way more slack, has nearly as much travel as an all mountain bike, and weighs a little more. The Giant Trance fits right in between the two on geometry, but also has lots of travel to spare. BTW, after my demos and test rides, I disagree. I'd put the Fuel EX between the Anthem and Trance.
His comments got me thinking. I freeride/DH on my Transition Preston a lot too, and I'm always doing stupid stuff on my Bizango. Maybe I didn't want a racy XC bike. I crossed the Anthem off my list and added the Trance and Fuel EX.
The next day, I stopped back by the shop and signed up for a demo on a 17.5" Fuel EX 8. On my way to some local trails, I stopped in at a Giant dealer. They don't offer demos, but I figured I could boing a Trance around the parking lot. It was garbage...IMHO. I haven't gone back through and crunched the numbers, but for some reason, I had a horrible bar height to seat height ratio. That got my weight off the front end and made the steering feel like a truck pulling a trailer with 3x the tongue weight limit. It actually handled a little like my Preston. It was not what I was looking for in a trail bike at all. BTW, the Trance is loved by many and only hated by a few...maybe just me. So don't put an ounce of weight on my opinion of the Trance. Go ride it yourself.
I continued onward to the trail thanking Giant for making my choices easier. I ride this trail on my Bizango and Preston a lot, so I know how both extremes feel. I unloaded the bike and pedaled away.
The trails were a little dusty, by East coast standards. They're hard-packed singletrack with lots of roots and gravel on many of the drier corners. I started out heading up a gradual and twisty climb. It climbed very well in the saddle, even with platform pedals on there. The extra travel had me picking the straightest line instead of steering around rough patches.
The trail then rewarded me with some equally twisty gradual pedaling downhills. The Fuel EX has plenty of pedal clearance to pedal through many corners leaned over. I only dinged my bulky platform pedals once. As soon as things sped up and I got out of the saddle, I was amazed at how well it tracked over the rough stuff. It switched lines underneath me really well, allowing me to keep my body running downhill like a creek while I bounced the bike back and forth across the trail and bending it around corners. This thing felt as agile as the Bizango, without the hardtail chatter.
Speaking of chatter, the ABP is no joke. The salesguy told me that it will do really well in those washed out corners where hardtails rippled the trail with their skipping rear wheel. I picked a few downhill, mild switchbacks and ran the bike in with about a moderate 65% F / 35% R brake force. The frontend tracked and the backend was right in step, allowing me to lay it over well before I'd normally want to. No brake jack, at all! Now I sped this up and got a lot more aggressive with the braking. This caused the front end to dive much more, which caused the read end to come up, but it wasn't so much an issue of brake jack as much as me just being jacked up period. I then tried to rear brake only into a few corners. Really no serious brake jack there either. My college statics class tells me that David Weagle's Split Pivot patent should eliminate brake jack, and I think that it's been copied/licensed/whatever well by Trek.
The next thing I tried was the all important out of the saddle climbing over loose rocks, gravel, and roots. I turned the shock's pro-pedal on for this, and it did splendidly well. The back wheel tracked much better than my hardtail, keeping power to the ground. The pro-pedal helped to limit the bobbing a little, but I still lost energy. You just don't get that feeling like one powerful pedal stroke will catapult you to the top of the climb. On a related note, the bike stayed settled well when transitioning in and out of the saddle on climbs.
I had some front end traction problems, but I think it's because my stem was too short and I was riding over the backend to much. I fixed this by trail braking the front through loose, fast corners to keep the front fork in the middle third of it's travel. I might have tried a lower pressure too, but I hate that washed out feeling you get.
This bike was way better than I expected. I was ridiculously fast, but it was still fun to bunny hop and jump off of little hits. I dropped the bike off the next day, and ordered an EX 9; that's how much I liked it. I wasn't quite happy with the build list of the EX 8, so I opted to ride their top-of-the-line aluminum Fuel EX. Specifically, I didn't like the Juicy brakes, I hated the cranks, and I didn't trust that the SLX shifters would hold up. We'll see what I think of the SRAM X-9 shifters. I might end up swapping them out for some XTs. My demo weighed in at 28.15 lbs., so I'm hoping the EX 9 will be mid-27 lbs. or lower. We'll see. I can't wait.