Trek has a generous discount for coaches of NICA teams so my new ride this fall (or whenever it comes in) will be a Trek Top Fuel. I’m vacillating between the 9.7 (carbon frame, NX drivetrain, aluminum wheels, 27.89lbs) and the 9.8 (carbon everything, GX drivetrain, 4 piston brakes, 25.88lbs).
My riding consists of 2-3 3hr races in the spring, trying to keep up with fast kids in the fall, and some long gravel climbs. I’m 190lbs with hopes of getting to 180 by next summer. (I’m down from a recent high of 215 so this seems possible). I’m mid pack in the 3hr races.
Either bike will be a step up from my current 32lbs Hawk Hill (lighter, remote lockout). With the discount I’ll never be able to upgrade the 9.7 for close to the same price as getting the 9.8. But the difference after discount between the two is the cost of a decent used CX bike, single speed toy, trips to the bike park or the like.
In terms of performance, enjoyment, etc. is the 9.8 worth an extra $1200 over the 9.7?
If I could afford the Top Fuel 9.8, it would be my first choice.
The 9.8 is much lighter than the 9.7. At ~25 pounds, the 9.8 is light enough that it would make a reasonable XC bike.
The 9.8 has much better suspension. The 35mm stanchion Sid fork is vastly superior to the 32mm Reba fork that comes on the 9.7.
The 9.8 has a much better drivetrain. The 10-52 GX cassette has a 520% range. The 11-50 NX cassette on the 9.7 has a 455% range. You’re really going to appreciate that extra range.
The 9.8 has wider i30 rims. The i23 rims on the 9.7 are outdated and too narrow by modern standards. Most XC bikes now come with i25 or wider rims. I guessing Trek had a bunch of these i23 rims setting around that they needed to dump. The i23 rim is not ideally wide enough for even a 2.4 tire. With the i30 rims you could use up to a 2.6 tire and the Top Fuel might actually have clearance for 2.6 tires. The 2.6 Maxxis Rekon is my all-time favorite Trail tire.
The 9.7 is basically a budget bike with a carbon frame. Many of the components on the 9.7 are what I consider outdated and low-quality. Before you buy the 9.7, consider buying the 3300$ Specialized Epic Evo which comes with a better spec than the 9.7. The 9.7 is overpriced for what you get. You might also want to consider the very well specced 4100$ Epic Evo which weighs 26 pounds. It might be cheaper than the 9.8 even with the discount.
One of the things I like about Downcountry bikes, like the Trek Top Fuel, is how versatile they are. With an aggressive Trail tire, DC bikes make great lightweight Trail bikes. Put on XC tires and you can go to the races. And here’s the one most people don’t consider. With a Gravel tire, DC bikes make pretty darn good Gravel bikes. A 43mm or wider Gravel tire is compatible with an i30 rim. Instead of buying a CX bike, just mount some Gravel tires on your DC bike. I’ve been using my XC bike (with 43mm Gravel tires) as a Gravelbike for a couple of years now and I really like it. With Gravel tires, my XC bike rolls way faster than with XC tires especially on pavement and gravel.
The Top Fuels come with a short toptube and a long 60-70mm stem. If you do buy the Top Fuel (or any DC bike) which has somewhat XC-ish geometry consider doing a geo-fix. A geo-fix is when you buy a bike one or even two sizes larger than recommend for your height. You then slide the seat forward and install a shorter 35-50mm stem. Sliding the seat forward improves seated climbing. Riding a bike with a longer reach and a shorter stem improves descending. A long reach and a short stem is one of the hallmarks of modern progressive Trailbike geometry.
I did a geo-fix on the last bike I bought which had geo similar to the Top Fuel. Instead of buying the recommended for my height size ML(medium-large) bike, I bought the size XL, shoved the seat forward, and install a 35mm stem. This gave me a bike with about 40mm more reach. It still fits exactly the same (saddle to handlebar) as the size ML bike but it climbs better and descends better.