LONG TERM REVIEW
Trek Rail 9.8 XT
Riding the Rail
I've been riding the Trek Rail 9.8 XT on and off for about a year, and in that time it's been used for everything from trail riding to shuttle retrievals, and even errands. I've explored trail networks, lent it to others for fun or (trail)work, and used it to let others have their first e-bike experience. For all of these things, it has been excellent. My contention remains that e-biking is nowhere near the same thing as regular biking; it's fun, but not in a replacement sort of way, kind of like how drinking beer doesn't replace my love of drink wine. Or scotch. They're not for everyone, but if you're in the market for an e-bike, the Trek Rail is an excellent platform.
In a year's time, I haven't had a single bad ride on the Rail. Whether I was dragging my ass out in bad weather and using the promise of assisted climbing to buy a little motivation, or heading out for a long recon mission with a pack full of snacks and beer, it always delivered smooth power and steady climbing, and fun, predictable descending. There is nothing funky about the fit or kinematics, just good functional trail biking all around. As a large company with a vast dealer network, it makes sense that Trek would keep it between the mayo and the mustard with a universal platform like the Rail, but that didn't dull my enjoyment of it one bit.
Trek Rail 9.8 XT Spec
The 9.8 XT is nowhere near the top of the Rail range, but it's spec'd generously for performance. The chassis is a Trek OCLV carbon frame, featuring 150mm of travel, ABP, a Mino Link so you can fine tune the geo to your liking, the somewhat controversial Knock Block, Boost rear wheel spacing, and silent internal cable routing. Up front is a 160mm RockShox Lyrik (changed to a Zeb for 2021) and it rolls on Bontrager's excellent Line Comp 30 carbon wheels, and Bontrager SE5 29 x 2.6 Team Issue rubber. The drivetrain is Shimano XT throughout, and braking is Shimano SLX 4-pot with 203mm rotors front and back. Like I said - solid stuff all around. We'll come back to that shortly.
My XL-sized Rail is the largest size Trek makes, topping out at a reach of 499mm and a wheelbase of 1277mm, but the chain stays are the same size throughout at 448mm - more suitable for some sizes than others. I'm used to bikes with reach approaching 500 now, but even so, the Rail doesn't feel 'long' - the word that always pops into my head is balanced. It's easy to find the center and smooth it around corners, and I never feel out of shape on it. I can jump off of it for a month, and then jump right back on again and feel great before the first blind riser.
Aided by a 64.5º head tube angle, the Rail loves low- and mid-angle descents, happily snaking through twists and tight spots, and like any e-bike with a nicely lowered center of gravity, it's a joy to corner. Only in the very steepest and roughest terrain did I feel a bit limited, and even then it was more of a matter of wrapping my head around a return to piloting a 50-lb bike down nasty sections - when I asked the Rail to do it, it always delivered traction and stability, though I sometimes would have liked a bit more braking hookup out of the tires. Though the seat tube is listed at an effective angle of 75 degrees, I slammed the saddle forward and was happy there, though a longer-legged rider may find it still somewhat slack. One beauty about e-bikes, though, is that one can afford to be slightly less fussy about exact climbing position - I often find I like my saddle height to be 1/2-3/4 of an inch below where I would run it on a regular bike, giving me a bit more room to move around during technical climbs.
As an aside, I don't know when we're going to start seeing climbing trails aimed at e-bikes, with steep and extremely technical pitches and crux moves, but I can't wait. To me, this is a big part of what will define e-biking fun in the future - and it'll also help delineate certain trail users and avoid conflicts.
The Bontrager SE5s are excellent rubber that outperform their middle of the road knob size with plenty of straight ahead braking traction and cornering bite. To be clear about my comment above in steep and nasty terrain, I'm only talking about a slight shortfall in steep, soft, and greasy or mixed terrain - a set of conditions that are a challenge for any setup short of sticky rubber, inserts, and driving-age PSI. The combination of longevity (especially important with e-bikes because you rack up mileage faster and pedal to the trails more in my experience) and durometer is excellent, and I find the SE5s to be predictable to corner, roll with decent speed, and bite in loose, dry, and soft conditions. For winter on the shore I'd take a bigger knob up front, but for late Spring through early fall up front, and year round on the rear, it's a good bet.
The RockShox Lyrik has been solid, but on a bike of this size, there's no question the added stiffness of the Zeb would be welcomed (and was a good change for the 2021 spec). But I found it to be a good complement to the SuperDeluxe Ultimate out back, which has 3 positions, but I left it open 100% of the time on dirt, and used the pedal position or lockout on pavement only.
Shout out to Shimano's SLX brakes. This should be no surprise to NSMB readers, as we've had a number of test bikes with these brakes and they've been impressive every time. Having spent time on XTR and XT I have to say there is no perceptible difference in power or modulation. If I was buying brakes - and could find them in stock - SLX would be my first pick for the money.
I've been happy enough with the Shimano XT drivetrain, but one adjustment one must make with all e-bikes is that the shifting will not live up to the expectations we've been given with modern 11- and 12-speed drivetrains. There's too much torque in an e-bike system to allow multiple shifts in one push, so you hit one at a time, wait for the chain to thunk into place, and then go again. And if you get a stick in the spokes or are unsure about whether everything is in place, do not try to ride it out. Stop, check, and proceed once clear - otherwise you'll be springing for a new derailleur and chain in no time (take it from me).
Bosch Performance CX
The Bosch motor on the Trek Rail is a beauty. It's smooth, quiet, and its 250 watt/85 Nm motor has four distinct assistance levels from Eco all the way to Turbo. After spending a lot of time in Turbo in the first few months, and despite always having plenty of battery left, even after 2.5-3 hours of riding, I started using the Tour or E-Mtb settings except when climbing really steep pitches, because I preferred pushing a bit harder. On a few rides where preserving battery life was important, riding in the two lower setting - Eco or Tour - was plenty of cheat-mode for grinding up steep fire roads or singletrack climbs with switchbacks. 2,000 meters of climbing would still leave me with about 40% of battery power left. On most days, I quit long before the Rail's 625mAh battery. We're starting to see some bikes with even larger battery packs these days, but the one on the Trek seems to strike a good balance between weight and range.
The 2021 Trek Rails come with Bosch's new Kiox controller that has a colour screen, an anti-theft function, and works with an app on your phone. I can't comment on it since mine is the older version, but it was easy to read, provides distance and expected range, and was reasonably easy to switch between modes on the fly. The function that neither Shimano nor Bosch have done a good job with compared to Specialized is a walk function that's easy to access and use. In case you're wondering why the hell you would need that with an e-bike, believe me, you do if you intend to hike-a-bike up a really steep, slippery slope, for example. Not a problem on a regular basis, but I sure appreciated it on the Kenevo I rode.
The e-13 cranks were doing their crank thing until they got bent. So, they were fine until they weren't. The Bontrager Arvada saddle is a total ass-hatchet. That's not just my butt talking, several other people made the same remark after borrowing the bike. The other Bontrager cockpit parts performed just fine - the carbon bar has a good shape, the grips were pretty nice on gloved or bare hands, and even the Elite dropper post - which I expected to fail (based on past NSMB experience with it) - worked consistently the whole time. There shouldn't be much to complain about on a bike that costs north of 11k CAD, and the cranks probably deserved to get bent the way e-mules get tested by our gang of miscreants, but that's about it as far as issues; everything else worked flawlessly.
An argument for an e-bike in the house
I'm of the opinion that for some households, an e-bike (any e-bike) is able to replace a car for a variety of purposes, so there's an economic argument to be made for owning one depending on how you approach it. In a mountain biking family, if that e-bike is a mountain bike, the possibilities expand even more. Most recently, my move away from North Vancouver to Sechelt (on BC's Sunshine Coast) has given me the chance to use the Rail to explore a new-to-me trail network, allowing me to find some favourites more quickly than I otherwise would have. But I've also used it to run errands like fetching beer and batteries, retrieve shuttle vehicles, and do favours like deliver keys to a locked out driver.
It has not made me want to sell my other bikes. It has not changed my love for riding regular mountain bikes even a bit. If anything, experiencing another dimension of riding (as I'm currently doing with a cross-country race bike - but that's a tale for another day) is enhancing my appreciation for riding all kinds of bikes in all kinds of terrain. E-biking is great, but it's different - and definitely not better than - regular mountain biking.
Do I sound defensive? I hope not, because I don't feel I need to be. And yet I do find myself riding apologetically when I'm on the Rail (or any e-bike). I've gotten the stink eye from dudes, ladies, and teenagers, but I kill 'em with kindness and then treat it as a personal challenge to try to get them to not look down their nose at that thing. Any time I end up in a conversation of more than fifteen seconds, I'm usually successful in that attempt. Probably because I
Shuttle retrieval on the nasty FSR in Pemby. Even up Seymour it wasn't much longer than the drive (24 mins).
Trek has a vast array of bikes in the Rail lineup. I count 8 trim levels, most of which have as many as four coulourways available. They range in price from the Rail 5 at $7,349 CAD to the 9.9 XO1 AXS which costs an incredible $17,299. The Rail 9.8 XT tested here retails for $11,799.