A small mountain town nestled in the Southern Dolomites, Cortina d'Ampezzo (Curtain of the Ampezzo Valley ) has an eclectic history that makes it one of the more interesting locations to visit, let alone mountain bike on the rocky, unforgiving mountains that loom over the 4,000ft high Italian hamlet. Cortina has the down-home atmosphere that all European mountain towns seem to exude, but it has also seen its fair share of strife throughout history. Conflict visited the region in both 1420 and 1508 as the Republic of Venice first came knocking, followed by Austria nearly ninety years later. The Habsburg dynasty laid claim to Cortina until 1920 when Italy ultimately took control subsequent to victory in the first World War. History then took a less violent turn, with the 1956 Winter Olympics coming to town, and you can actually still spot the
well-maintained ski jump tower and landing slope on the drive in on the twisting two-lane road. Lifts and gondolas make their way up the surrounding slopes as well, attesting to the area's heavy history in Winter sports. The vertical, rocky walls surrounding Cortina are also home to both many trekking and rock climbing routes as well, with climbing legend Reinhold Messner himself cutting his teeth on the local terrain. The adventurous mountain history has spawned many remote Rifugios, restaurants and hostels nestled high in the surrounding mountains, (shown above ) that provide shelter, food, and atmosphere to those who travel far enough to enjoy them. And even if you will never get the chance to visit Cortina's mountains, you've likely already seen them up close without even knowing it - the Sylvester Stallone movie, Cliffhanger, features many climbing scenes filmed in and around Cortina, as well as the classic Bond flick, For Your Eyes Only. It's fair to say that Cortina has quite a mixed bag of history behind it, not to mention some very challenging terrain for those who are looking for a two-wheeled adventure.
| From the Ferrari 430 Spider parked in the basement of our hotel, to the red, white, and green colours everywhere we looked, Italian pride runs deep in Cortina.|
| This is the proper way to tour Italy.|
Into The Mountains
We spent two days riding in the valleys and up on the peaks of the Dolomites, with the first leg of our journey beginning with a short pedal from the hotel to the cable car that ascends Mount Faloria. Sure, we could have climbed up the mountain's steep lower slopes, but with nasty weather moving in fast, the lift-assisted approach made more sense. As it turned out, the storms caught most of our group regardless. The lift, which begins right in town and gains 3,000ft in total, took us to the mid-way station where we disembarked in order to climb under our own power. As is often the case, the slopes that didn't look that intimidating while overhead in the cable car turned out to quickly put our entire group, barring Trek's Travis Brown, immediately into the red-zone.
What began as a steep gravel road, the bain of most mountain bikers, soon slimmed down to a rocky singletrack that emerged from the tree line, exposing both the views below us and the sheer drop to our left - unforgiving to say the least. Our entire group were on matching, blue Fuel EX 9.8s, likely looking to the congregation of hikers like some sort of wayward tour group that was about to jump in way over their heads. And that was partly true, because while we were all snaking our way along the rocky singletrack, ominous dark clouds were moving in quickly overhead. Most of our group didn't think anything of it at first - we've all been caught out in the rain and cold - but a storm high in the Dolomites is quite different than a storm at sea level, especially for those in our herd hailing from warmer, ocean-side climates.
It took less than ten minutes from hearing the first thunder for the black clouds to open up on us, throwing down hail fast enough to leave red welts on any skin left exposed. We all scattered immediately, leaving the bikes behind as we searched for even the shallowest of overhangs, crouching low and covering our ears from the missile-like onslaught. The first storm lasted only ten minutes at most, but the rain, hail, and wind strong enough to blow a grown man over the edge, left the steep slopes above us in distress, with bowling ball sized rocks zooming past our protected hiding spots from above.
| Our fractured group took shelter where ever we could find, from rock overhangs to a massive tunnel dug into the mountainside during the War.|
| While we used lifts to access the area's high mountain trails, there was still plenty of climbing to be had - much of it steep and taken at redline.|
| The mountain gods smiled down upon us once we reached the saddle, gracing our descent with sun and drying trails.|
| Smooth singletrack rolls just out of sight where, if you were one of the riders pictured in the photo, you'd be on the binders hard as the trail enters some very technical rock pitches.|
| The loose, rocky terrain eventually gave way to more forgiving singletrack that snaked down to the valley's floor.|
| The Fuel EX 9.9, complete with XO running gear and Kashima-treated DRCV suspension front and back, sits atop the range.|2013 Fuel EX - Added Versatility
|Despite the 2013 Fuel EX sharing the same basic lines as last year's model, the new version has gone through a "ground up redesign'', according to Trek. Trail bikes make up between 40 and 50% of Trek's global mountain bikes sales, and for good reason since a bike like the '12 Fuel EX can be ridden by many different types of riders, and on very different terrain, with great results. Further improving that versatility seemed to be the goal for 2013, though, with its travel bumped from 120mm to 130mm, an ISCG-05 chain guide mount (!), and a slightly shorter chain stay length, as well as internal routing for RockShox's Reverb Stealth dropper post.|
While the additional travel and chain guide tabs are likely to make many aggressive trail riders happy, Trek's suspension engineers, Dylan Howes and Jose Gonzalez, have also worked to improve pedalling performance. The bike is said to be more efficient, despite the extra travel, thanks to a tweaked suspension ratio that allows for a higher compression setting within the rear shock, but without the harshness usually associated with a firm tune. Up front, a new fork volume adjustment, via different sized spacers, allows the rider to tune the DRCV-equipped fork's progressiveness - possibly a great tuning feature given the fork's CTD damper.
Fuel EX Details:
• Rear wheel travel: 130mm (up 10mm from '12)
• ISCG-05 chain guide mount
• Internal Reverb Stealth routing
• 10mm shorter chain stays than the '12 model
• Removable front der mount
• Revised suspension ratio
• Added stand over clearance
• ABP Suspension
Fuel EX 9.8 On Trail
Having spent time on three generations of the longer travel Remedy, as well as both the SuperFly cross-country and Session 9.9 race bikes, we're well versed in Trek's ABP concentric dropout pivot design employed on the rear of the Fuel EX. To further make ourselves at home on the bike we swapped in a shorter, 60mm stem and wide bar combo that we're completely used to, with the hope of getting a bit rowdy on our steed.
While our black and blue 9.8 test bike sits one level down from the top, it is still assembled around the same OLCV carbon frame, but with aluminum chain stays in place of the 9.9's carbon stays. Given that we were jumping into some unfamiliar and very rocky terrain, we came away impressed with how quickly we felt comfortable on the 130mm travel bike - it didn't take long until we were just as relaxed on the EX as we would have been on our own steed. The bike's DRCV shock, which utilizes two, staged air chambers for a more coil-like feel, was quite forgiving on top, but we also never felt a hard bottom - and keep in mind that we spent a minimal amount of time tinkering with the bike's rear suspension. Up front, the 9.8's CTD-spec FOX 32 Float fork, complete with DRCV trickery, did well trying to keep up with the bike's impressive rear suspension, but we'll have to reserve final judgement until we can experiment with the fork's volume adjustment system - it could be just the ticket to tuning out the brake dive that FOX's '13 CTD equipped forks are prone to. While
we can see some riders wanting to make the jump to FOX's 120/160mm Talas 34 fork in the search for a stiffer front end, we'd say that the EX's balance and handling was spot-on with the shorter travel 32 - don't mess it up with the taller fork. Component-wise, the standouts have to be Shimano's amazing XT brakes and and the Reverb Stealth dropper post, two items that made the toothy terrain more manageable. The brakes in particular have a firm feel, offer consistant, fade-free performance, and have power to spare. We just wish that their near-useless 'bite point' screw adjustment actually changed something...
| A big climb followed by a rocky descent was on tap for the second day - a good time to be on your A-game.|
| The loose surface made for some exciting moments behind the bars.|
| It wasn't all rock and more rocks, though, with some equally bitch'n brown ribbons to chase each other down.|
| Big Mountain Bike Adventures' Chris Winter and his guides laid out a challenging route for our two days in Cortina.|
Big Mountain Bike Adventures
Putting together a trip of this magnitude, one that involves a large group of riders covering some very challenging terrain high in the rocky Dolomites, necessitates a good strategy. Trek brought in Chris Winter (pictured above) and his tour company, Big Mountain Bike Adventures, to handle the logistics of it all. Thankfully, Chris can not only throw down on a rowdy trail with the best of riders, but having been immersed in the world of an adventure travel company since childhood, knows a thing or two about putting on a good show. "I grew up with my parents having Michelin maps spread across the kitchen table,'' says Winter of his family's forty year history in the cycling tour biz, "I spent my childhood over here, then I moved to Whistler at the age of twenty and got straight into mountain biking'', which clearly shaped his tours of the future into true, aggressive mountain bike trips that just happen to be guided. While the focus of every trip on the Big Mountain roster, be it in Switzerland, Peru, New Zealand, or any of the other twelve trips offered, is to ride killer trails, Winter strives for an all-around experience that goes beyond killer singletrack. That philosophy rang especially true during our visit, where we not only rode great trails that had a high pucker-factor, but also slept in an Italian rifugio perched atop a Dolomite peak. Our home for the night was especially welcoming given the intense storm that rolled over us like a dump truck, making the hot food and drink even more rewarding than we had expected.
| The wood-fired hottub, even if it was a bit of a logjam, was exactly what our tired muscles needed. The cold beer didn't hurt either.|
| Cabin porn? Mid-ride lunch stop at a residence high in the Dolomites.|
| The Stache 8 features a FOX Evolution Series 32 fork and a set of custom green Race Face Turbine cranks.|2013 Stache - New Trail 29er Hardtail
|Fitting into more of a niche category than the other models shown here, the new Stache could be called a ''play bike'', among other things. Not to say that one can't have loads of fun aboard the new Fuel EX, or even the featherweight SuperFly 100, but the 29'' wheeled Stache looks more geared for the casual rider who is looking to ride a hardtail over some challenging terrain. The two model lineup - the Stache 7 and Stache 8 - both utilize the same aluminum frame, complete with a tapered head tube and closed, convertible 12 x 142mm dropouts - a nice point if you want the ability to swap wheels between the Stache and the other bikes in your stable. Hate front derailleurs, but hate dropping chains even more? ISCG-05 chain guide mounts should eliminate that particular headache. The frame also features internal routing for a Reverb Stealth seat post, although neither the Stache 7 or 8 come stock with one, and both front and rear derailleur lines are routed within the frame as well. |
• New model for '13
• 29er hardtail
• 120mm travel fork
• ISCG-05 chain guide tabs
• Reverb Stealth internal routing (external option as well)
• Internal front and rear derailleur routing
• Convertible 12 x 142mm dropouts
| The 2013 Rumblefish also made an appearance in Cortina, Italy. The 120mm travel 29er employs FOX's CTD-spec forks and clutch-equipped rear derailleurs on key models for the coming year.|
The 650B Question
Trek has spent a dozen years developing their 29" wheeled bikes, long before any other major manufacturer was putting weight behind the then new platform, but we've still yet to see a production 'tweener-wheeled bike from the American company. That's not to say that we won't in the future, and you'd be mistaken if you thought Trek didn't have a number of different 650B prototypes in their stable of test bikes, but they remain undecided on if and when a production model will make the cut. "We need to know exactly what it does well and what it doesn't do well,'' said Travis Brown, one of Trek's main development riders, when we asked his thoughts. While 650B seems largely curiosity-driven at this point (how many consumers have actually ridden one for an extended period of time?), many companies are debuting production models for the coming season. Trek isn't one of them, though. Travis Ott, Trek's mountain bike brand manager, was quick to point out that if a 650B platform does become a reality, it won't be rushed. "We're still moving the ball forward for 29ers, and we're not going to rush a 650B bike to the market for the sake of having one,'' said Ott. "Wheel size is one variable in the package, with the bike a sum of all its parts. The suspension has to be dialed, the geometry has to be dialled - it's all part of it. We're going to deliver the best overall package, whatever that wheel size might be."
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