First Ride: Trek’s long-travel Rail e-MTB
GALZIGNANO TERME, Italy (VN) — Sure, I’m a curmudgeon. I like old steel bikes and pedaling my way to the top to earn the descent. But I’m no strict purist.
So I don’t mind non-traditional lines, aesthetics off the beaten path, forks that look like robots, and even — gasp! — e-bikes. Sure, I’ll approach each of them with a dose of cynicism and eye-rolls that earn me knighthood in the Knights of Curmudgeonness. But I’m always willing to be proven wrong.
Trek asked me to come to Italy to be proven wrong. We’ve hit a bit of a lull in e-MTB development over the last year or so. Most of them end up being big bikes with big batteries, still in the retrofitting phase rather than the purpose-driven design phase.
So I was asked to believe that the long-travel Rail is different, that it’s a purpose-built mountain bike that uses an e-bike platform to enhance the ride while maintaining a ride quality that you can get excited about. And it’s lighter than other e-MTBs out there. And it’s more nimble, yet more stable.
Oh, and it’s a 29er, which sets it apart from Trek’s other e-MTB, the Powerfly hardtail, which is built around a 27.5-inch wheel platform.
That all seems like standard fare so far.
In person, the Rail is indeed a striking bicycle to behold. Trek’s Removable Integrated Battery (RIB) system stands out immediately. It’s sleekly integrated into the downtube, removes easily, and features a flip-up handle so you can easily carry your battery with you or toss it on the work bench for charging. You’ll never mistake this for a mountain bike sans battery and motor, but Trek does an admirable job of making this a good-looking bike you wouldn’t mind being seen on.
I didn’t have access to a scale, so I don’t know exactly how much my test bike weighed. Trek says the Bosch Performance Line CX motor is 2.9kg lighter than the previous version. When I picked up the bike, it felt…about as heavy as any other e-MTB I’ve ever picked up. Is it lighter? Perhaps, but the difference wasn’t immediately noticeable.
One of the biggest advantages of the e-MTB is the ability to add plenty of travel without having to sacrifice climbing performance, since — duh — you’ll be getting plenty of help on the climbs from the motor. So the Rail comes with 160mm of travel up front and 150mm out back. That’s a lot, more than I would normally want on a daily driver, yet it works here. The long travel comes in handy on rowdy descents, but doesn’t become a burden on climbs since you won’t have to work any harder than you would with less travel.
This theory is double-true when you consider the massive 29 x 2.6-inch tires. That’s a lot of heft to slog up the hill — if you don’t have a motor. The Bosch Performance Line CX motor is smaller and lighter (40% smaller and 2.9kg lighter, according to Trek), which should not only lighten the load, but also improve handling since you won’t be fighting as much inertia. It has a longer range (625 wH) and works in conjunction with an integrated speed sensor that’s tucked into the rear dropout. The rear rotor has an integrated magnet, so there’s nothing to damage or lose on the trail.
Geometry tweaks help the ride immensely too. Because the Bosch motor is much smaller, Trek was able to shorten the chainstays by 27mm, drop the bottom bracket by 19mm, and slacken the head tube angle by 1.5 degrees. That in theory should improve handling. There’s a new main pivot location for better pedaling efficiency, too.
Trek paid attention to details, and that perhaps sets the Rail apart from the rest of the crowd most notably. The integrated sensor addresses low hanging fruit, yet it’s fruit other companies could still stand to streamline, and soon. This is a sleek and smart integration that serves the rider.
So was the curmudgeon swayed?
The trails outside of Galzignano Terme, Italy aren’t nearly as technical as the loose, rocky, and steep trails back home on the front range of Colorado. But they’re fun in a different way: Lots of short, punchy climbs, and fast descents with a fair few small drops, switchbacks, and high-speed chunk.
In those conditions, the ride quality is indeed wonderful. Chalk that up to Trek’s Re: Aktiv Thru-Shaft shock, which becomes more active deeper in the travel to create something of a bottomless feel.
The big tires and e-bike weight of the Rail indicated to me that I’d need to do some more work to handle this bad boy, especially at high speeds. That was indeed the case — it’s still an e-bike, after all — but I can honestly say that I had to wrestle this bike far less than other e-MTBs I’ve tested this year. Perhaps that’s a function of the lower-weight motor, or maybe it’s the geometry tweaks Trek was able to make as a result of the smaller Bosch system. Most likely it’s a combination of both. It’s not like handling a regular old mountain bike, but the handling is quite impressive for an e-bike.
The bike’s weight came into play whenever the large group ride bottlenecked, particularly on technical climbs. It was then that it became necessary to get off and push the thing up the hill until riders got going again. Getting started from a dead stop is, of course, much easier with a motor assisting you, but it was also here that I got a fair bit of rear wheel burnout, even in the lowest assist mode. This bike is powerful, so you’ll need to remember that in various situations that might call for a more nuanced amount of assist.
Climbing on this bike is unsurprisingly easy and fun. It’s nice to not have to cash in all my chips to get to the top of the climb, and then be wasted for the descent. But there’s still a trade-off, as there is with any e-MTB: The added weight means it’s a different experience on the descents, too. I found myself having to pay closer attention to lines I would easily rail on a bike without a motor, and it’s far less easy to get this bike off the ground if you’re the type of rider who likes to air it out. That’s a bit of a bummer, but as I said, there’s less of a handling/weight penalty with the Rail than with other bikes in the category.
The only other complaint I have is the dropper post. Trek’s dropper posts in general have, in my experience, been fairly unreliable. My dropper post on this ride got stuck on several occasions and had a bit of squish at the fully extended position. This would probably be my first upgrade if I was to buy this bike.
The bottom line is, this old crank had a lot of fun on this bike. As e-MTBs go through growing pains over the next five to ten years, it’s clear Trek is well prepared to lead the way toward bikes that are truly light, functional, and fun. The Rail is all of those things now, but it hasn’t convinced me to run out and buy an e-bike for myself. I’m still more than content with my analog mountain bike, and earning my way to the top. For those that can’t, or don’t want to, the Rail is worth a look.