Trek Session 88- Believe The Hype?
Depending on your point of view, the Trek Session 88 is one of the most eagerly anticipated or over hyped bikes of 2009, regardless of which side of that fence you are sitting on it is doubtless one of the biggest bike releases of this year as one of the behemoths of the Worldwide cycle industry decides its time to get serious about the World of DH racing again. This is not a first though, despite what you might have read on your local friendly Internet forum, Trek do have a history in downhill which far pre-dates their experience with a certain Lance Armstrong. Remember any of these?
So now we have the rumour that Trek have no DH heritage out of the way lets take a look at what you get for £3800. The frame itself is a work of art to look at, the tubing profile, the colour scheme and most importantly the technology in it- there are a few noteworthy features here.
Steerer- Simple, start with a 1.5” steerer at the bottom and taper it to a 1-1/8” at the top thus giving you the slight weight benefits afforded by a 1-1/8 setup but the stiffness of a 1.5. This is a setup that is starting to make its way through the Trek high end line on a variety of bikes and we look forward to trying it. The drawbacks? What if you want to run a different fork? Easy, your Trek dealer can order you a converter for the lower cup to take it down to a standard 1-1/8. Want to sell on your forks? Buy yourself a new steerer assembly, ok more than happy to admit that this extra expense might frustrate me should I come to sell the forks but it’s not a deal breaker for me.
Full Floater- Just another way of saying the shock is attached to the linkage at the top and the rear triangle at the bottom, as opposed to the front triangle as it is on most conventional designs. This gives more scope to tune the suspension action through shock placement than normal since you are not working with a fixed mount at one end, all sorts of graphs and tables were available to illustrate how this improved performance over previous models, let’s just say the proof is in the eating and all that and see how we go in future tests.
ABP- Active Braking Pivot is essentially a rear axle and pivot in one, rather than sitting on the chainstay like an FSR type design or the seatstay like a linkage driven single pivot system here it is slap bang in the middle. Main benefit of ABP is isolation of braking and suspension action giving better suspension action and traction under braking, doubtless invaluable on the braking bumps of somewhere like the Fort!
Follow all that? If not one thing I did find when looking into all this was some good Youtube videos from Trek which help illustrate the technology, albeit on the shorter travel Fuel series but the technology is the same.
The finishing kit is a mix of Treks very respectable Bontrager in house stuff and some of the best kit that can be found elsewhere- From SRAM you get top drawer X0 shifter and Elixir CR brakeset, Shimano provide a Saint crankset, MRP their G2 chain device and finally Fox provide a DHX 5.0 to suspend the rear and a 40 RC2 to cushion you up front. For the price you have got some pretty top drawer kit there, in fact it is not very far from what any self respecting kit whore would spec up their custom builds with. Obviously to hit the price point savings have to be made and as with many off the peg builds this comes in the shape of own brand kit, fortunately the Bontrager kit is good stuff in it’s own right so while it is an area of obvious saving and not quite as exotic as the SRAM, Shimano and Fox bits elsewhere there is certainly not the compromise in performance you might normally expect from going in house. One thing that did strike me on opening the box is that the Bontrager kit adorning the Session is from the Big Earl range rather than the previous King Earl kit which sat at the top of the Earl downhill range, in fact not only is the King Earl kit not on the bike but it would appear to have disappeared from the Bonty range completely though the new Rhythm Pro range seems a more than capable alternative, and a little lighter too. It’s a shame though cause we had previous tested and really liked the King Earl kit.. All round it is dependable if at times unexotic kit, the wheels are a good off the peg set, if you really want something a little fancier then they will make a fine set of spares though they are not quite as swish as the old King Earl wheelset, the tyres spinning on the hoops were something of a surprise, they might not be first choice when it comes to a make or break race run but for general riding they grip well, they wear well and they wont break the bank, it is fair to say the Big Earl Wets are a great option (note the wets are a good all rounder, from past experience I suggest avoiding the dry version of the same tyre at all costs…….). Where things do fall down is the seat which while not particularly bad is a bit of a white ugly lump, most will no doubt stick on something a little more svelte to shave a few grams, similarly the stem is a bit of an ugly white lump, true it does the job of joining the bars and the steerer in a fine manner but it is not very sexy while it does it.
Out on the trail this test is a bit of a tale of two halves, from Joe Bloggs perspective you get my good self doing my best to ride to at least 50% of the capabilities of the bike while for the more serious racer we enlisted the help of Ali Maclennan who has ridden more downhill bikes than I have had hot dinners. In reality this should hopefully help to reflect most riders that will be reading this. Over to Ali……
Out of the box, the bike feels way too tall at the front, a feeling exacerbated by the odd bend of the stock Bontrager bar which belies its 710mm width. Granted, the additional spacers gives scope for adjustment but it’s hard to see many riders wanting to increase the height. Once the forks were dropped through as far as they would go, I flipped the stem over and fitted a pair of wider 760mm x 20mm bars on test from Nukeproof. These small tweaks, along with a lightweight SLR saddle, contributed to the feel of the bike being massively improved, with the sense of being a part of the bike rather than being perched on top.
As far as the ride went, it feels light and poised although it took a little tweaking to the suspension to get it feeling properly balanced. Once you could put more weight over the front, the progressive rate suspension was allowed to work at its best with the soft initial part keeping the rear wheel tracking well through off camber and rough corners where bikes can be susceptible to being knocked off line. Due to its weight it feels pretty sprightly on the flat but this is tempered somewhat when the track becomes rougher. The supple suspension still allows the bike to track over obstacles to a degree when sprinting or cranking it hard out of the corners but compared to other single pivot bikes with a higher pivot or something like a Mk3 V10, it doesn’t seem to pedal quite so well when the going gets rough. Granted, it isn’t a major effect and it is still up there as one of the better pedallers but it was perhaps a little disappointing to compare it to what is considered a big hitter (the V10) and find that even when on pedaly tracks, it doesn’t accelerate as well.
Out of corners, the rising rate keeps the bike stable and allows the bike to really accelerate hard out of corners, especially those which allow the suspension to get really loaded. G-Outs and berms are handled very well and through rooty singletrack, as is found on many British downhill courses, the bikes light weight allows it to be skipped through sections whilst not relying on potentially over stiff suspension and suffering the inevitable downsides. It allows you to go light with ease over obstacles on the trail, the effort of prejumping actually getting the bike off the ground rather than all your energy being simply absorbed by the suspension. When hitting the bigger and faster jumps, it manages to be stable yet flickable thanks to an even front to back balance. This generally allows you to move it about easily although it felt that should you take too many liberties with it, it wouldn’t be quite such a get out of jail card as some bikes can be. In simple terms, the bike is a very neutral handler, resistant to understeer yet quite happy to be provoked into stable slides and drifts once the changes to the cockpit have been made.
So that’s the view from the expert, what about myself. I got on very well with the Trek, as Ali has suggested the front end stock was a little on the high side, easy enough to sort though the Bontrager bar does seem to have a somewhat strange bend, now normally I am a fan of Bonty bars and I have given a stellar write up to both Rhythm Pro and King Earl bars here on Descent-World before however the Big Earls fitted to the Session just don’t cut it, I kept them on for the purposes of my testing but they would be immediately swapped for a Rhythm Pro or Easton EA70 were I to buy one for myself. Width of them was fine, but then I have always been a bit of narrower bar man despite my larger frame. On the trail I felt at home with the agile feel of the Trek, my trail bike runs on the twitchy side of lively so it was nice to have something that could easily thrown about. Undoubtedly the light weight of the Trek helps, now forget all the stuff you have read about the Session being as light as your XC bike, it’s true that Trek have had a Session down to low 30s with some serious modification but out of the box the Session dips just below 39lbs on our Ultimate Scales, this is impressive, in fact it is very impressive for a stock bike wearing some chunky finishing kit in the shape of its wheels, cockpit bits and bobs and beastly saddle but it is hardly the made of tinfoil, blow away in the wind weight that every forum this side of Wisconsin would have you believe. So the lively feel helped through the corners, especially when the going got tight, it was easy to throw around. Likewise when things are less tight and more berm like, as Ali alludes to the suspension copes very well when loaded up, on Descent-Worlds secret test track there is one berm in particular where the bike gets slammed hard right into a flat/marginally uphill straight before turning left down the hill again, momentum is key to getting this section right. This corner in particular stuck out in particular as one where the Session excelled, literally jumping out of the corner and being about the only point on the track where I was actually feeling faster than my fellow riders on that day, I am pretty confident that comes down more to the bike than myself! Into corners the ABP seems to do what it says on the tin as the braking performance of the Trek was impressive, the debate on this bike seems to continue to rage amongst those that have never ridden one but one thing that we do seem to get agreement on is that it is, in some shape or form, a single pivot however it certainly doesn’t brake like one, so it would seem the best of both Worlds pivot position round the axle works there. Out of corners, pedalling seems good, it didn’t blow me away but then having spent the large part of the summer on a 5″ trail bike no DH bike is ever likely to, it did however feel on a par with my Sunday. As for geometry and sizing Trek really seem to have got that one right, but then these days you could argue you have to be doing something seriously wrong not to be in the ballpark of good geometry for a downhill bike, there is so much stuff out there that has it bang on that there is almost a blueprint of how to get it right these days, happily Trek have followed that blueprint very well.
So does it live up to the hype? Well the hype according to the forums probably not, since some of the stuff I have read around the place would seem to suggest this thing was so good that it could not only get you to the bottom of your race track faster than you ever have before but that it could also take you for an orbit round Mars and back before your mates finish their runs. But the realistic hype? Most definitely, Trek have made a real stamp of authority with the Session 88 that they are serious again about the gravity side of the sport, the Session is a very capable bike that is up there in what is becoming a rapidly growing group of very very good downhill bikes and unlike many of its rivals you can walk into a Trek dealer tomorrow and be on the trail with your new Session within an hour without worrying about lengthy and costly custom builds. With a great bike, possibly the industry’s best after sales service and above all an extremely competitive price, Trek deserve to be punting plenty of Sessions out the door this year.
Trek Session 88 £3800