Modern XC racing is more technical than ever — with short, punchy climbs and technical, rock-strewn descents that would have once only been found on DH courses. For the smoothest courses, racers can opt for hardtails, but why choose a hardtail when you can get the Trek Supercaliber 9.8 and enjoy the best of both worlds?
2020 Trek Supercaliber 9.8 GX Features:
- OCLV Mountain Carbon frameset
- Fox Performance 32 Step-Cast 100mm fork
- IsoStrut integrated suspension with 60mm rear travel
- SRAM GX Eagle 1×12 drivetrain (10-50t cassette)
- Truvativ Stylo carbon crankset (32t chainring)
- Shimano Deore XT M8100 hydraulic disc brakes
- Bontrager Kovee Elite 30 Carbon wheelset
- Bontrager XR2 Team Issue 2.20″ tires
- Bontrager Montrose Elite saddle
- Bontrager Pro OCLV Carbon 31.6 seatpost
- Bontrager Kovee Pro Carbon 720mm bars
- Weight: 23.9 lbs (Large, actual)
- MSRP: $5899
A well-sorted build kit
Cross-country racing has evolved and so have the bikes. While many top racers are still holding onto their hardtails for certain races, there’s no doubt that even a little bit of suspension increases comfort, traction and, in turn, overall speed. But, just how much suspension is needed for the ideal race bike? Trek engineers and athletes have settled on just 60mm on the Supercaliber and it’s delivered using their unique IsoStrut platform.
This inline shock is a Fox exclusive and is actually a structural part of the rear frame itself — delivering that travel with unsurpassed lateral stiffness and control. The behavior of the shock can be further tuned by inserting or removing volume spacers (larger for a firmer ride, smaller for a smoother ride). I left it in the default spacer throughout my tests, but did remove the shock from the mounts to check things out a little. I settled in at 155 psi. for my 170 lb. weight and riding style and felt it to be a good balance between suspension travel and efficiency.
The 2020 Supercaliber 9.8 build kit is pretty close to the 2021 Supercaliber 9.8 GX kit, but sees a $400 price increase (upgrades include: Kovee Pro wheels and full GX drivetrain with the new 52T rear cassette). So, if you can still find the 2020 model and save a few bucks, get on it now.
With most bike reviews, I will swap a few components out to see how they impact the ride. I’m a sucker for wider bars, so I thought I’d give a set of Bontrager Line Pro Carbon 35 (750×15 deg) bars a try. Yes, they are wider, but that added height really did the bike a disservice. I felt like even though it was a little more comfortable, handling suffered as a result. After a couple of rides, I swapped the stock bars back and was as happy as could be with how the Supercaliber rides and responds with the narrower bars (kinda crazy, I know).
And, it’s a completely personal preference, but I don’t like the ESI Chunky foam grips and swapped them out for a few different Ergon grips (GE1 EVO Factory and GA3). That change alone was huge for me. If you like the ESI’s, more power to you, but don’t hesitate to cut those foam bits off for better comfort and ride feel.
I will add that the mixture of the SRAM GX Eagle shifter and Shimano XT brake levers was an odd pairing. The XT levers have a grip stopper built in that automatically spaces out the clamp and limits the placement of the shifter. I kept the shifter clamp inward of the brake clamp for best hand clearance, but it did make for a little extra reach to the shifters. I have zero complaints about how the XT brakes perform. They remain excellent stoppers with outstanding modulation, lever feel and power. Because of that, I’m grateful they were spec’d here, but just wished for a little more brake/shifter integration is all.
The full component spec really is stellar, with Bontrager OCLV Carbon bits galore. The 30mm wide Kovee Elite 30 wheels are particularly noteworthy. With a 30mm rim width, the Bontrager XR2 2.20 tires seem much wider and feature a more rounded profile that measures out to 2.27″. Running 20/21 psi. front/rear in a tubeless setup yielded the perfect balance of traction, comfort and speed. The exposed carbon seatpost length also adds a touch of shock absorption. Speaking of that, my backside has loved the Montrose Elite saddle and it easily allows me to slide fore/aft as needed throughout my rides.
Whiptastic fun on the trail
The day before I built up the Supercaliber, a friend posted a ride on Strava that had me intrigued. So, with only neighborhood laps under my belt, I set out to break this bike in on a new ride that I hadn’t fully stitched together before. In the end, that first ride was 17 miles and included 2100 ft of climbing with road climbs, chunky fire roads and lots of glorious singletrack. At the end of it, I knew my time with the Supercaliber was going to be memorable.
First off, let’s talk specifically about how the Trek Supercaliber 9.8 climbs and I’ll also add some thoughts on the lockout system. Over the years, I’ve tested many flavors of suspension lockouts. I’m always skeptical because they add complexity and are mostly unnecessary. And, over long distances on rough terrain, the smoother bike will always win. That being said, for specific purposes, a lockout can prove to be a huge advantage. In my testing, that advantage is really felt on standing sprints or short, technical climbs. This is critical for XC race bikes because that sprint to the finish could be the difference between first and fourth place. The lockout absolutely makes sense there. And, it’s also useful for those steep pitches where you might want to put the hammer down and pass someone. Outside of that, I’m all about leaving the suspension wide open.
To test the value of the lockout, I set out for a little head-to-head competition on one of my local climbs. This is a 2.2 mile ascent with 600 ft of climbing and a bazillion switchbacks. It’s one of those climbs that just encourages you to push your limits every time. So, on June 13, 2020, I rode this climb with the lockout engaged the whole time, then on July 11, 2020, I rode that same climb and strategically used the lockout only when I felt it would be beneficial. The results were pretty clear. Not only was I more comfortable on the ride and fresher at the top with the suspension mostly open, I also maximized the sections where a lockout provided the most benefit.
As you can see, my climb times with the Supercaliber (top 1-3 slots; now the top 4 after another 16:52 ride) are lightyears faster than those on other bikes. Without question, the Supercaliber is a wicked-fast climber whether you choose to lock it out completely or just use the lockout strategically. As efficient as the IsoStrut suspension is, I say leave it open most of the time.
Something that I love about the Supercaliber is how much it eats uphill switchbacks for breakfast. I can carry egregious amounts of momentum uphill, through any of the myriad of switchbacks on the local trails. Every time, it just rips around them like that’s what it was born to do.
Now, after a long climb, it’s time to descend. On smooth, buffed singletrack, the Supercaliber is a blast to descend on. I can whip this bike around anything like nobody’s business. But, when the descents got overly steep or technical over long periods, I sorely missed having a dropper post and the suspension also felt a little outgunned. At the end of extended descents (~1000 ft), my 45-yr-old body was feeling pretty beat up. If long, technical descents are your thing, but you still want XC efficiency the Trek Top Fuel would be a better choice.
Near the end of the test period, I swapped out the stock fork for the new RockShox SID SL Ultimate. It plugs right into the lockout system and made a noticeable difference in terms of comfort and performance. That fork is available aboard the Supercaliber 9.9 XX1 build for $9499.
Again, the Trek Supercaliber 9.8 isn’t built to slay your local downhill shuttle runs, so I’m perfectly okay with it being more go-kart than Ford Bronco. Where the Supercaliber shines is on ideal cross-country terrain — lots of quick ups and downs with some fast flats in between. As you look at World Cup circuits, they are made of successive 100-300 ft ascents/descents that are ridden for less than two hours. That’s the ideal terrain for this bike. If you love lung-searing ascents and fast, frantic descents, the Supercaliber will be an awesome dance partner.
My backyard test loops are perfect for XC bike testing. These trails are used by the local NICA teams for training and the Supercaliber just eats them up. Every ride turns into an epic battle to nab yet another Strava PR or outclimb a local e-Bike rider. (FYI… no e-Bike ever beat me, but I did have some serious competition on one particular ride.)
With only 60mm travel (55mm suspension with 5mm flex), you’d think it would be a harsh ride, but that’s absolutely not the case. Of course, I’d be lying to you if I said it felt like a Trek Remedy, however it’s a lot more supple than you might think. Case in point: it flies through rock gardens with surprising smoothness. I don’t know how to explain it, other than by using Muhammad Ali’s famous “floats like a butterfly; stings like a bee” saying. It really does float through rough terrain at speed and then hits the afterburners when you need it.
A few tweaks and niggles
As I’ve approached 300 miles aboard the Trek Supercaliber 9.8, I’ve got a few items that are worth mentioning. I’ll start with the IsoStrut suspension. This is about as proprietary as it gets and it requires skills to fix or even tweak. It has performed well overall at 115 psi. for my 170 lb. weight. But I have noticed a small “clunk” every once in awhile on washboard descents. I’ve tried to isolate it and I’ve also re-torqued everything to spec, but it just hasn’t gone away. It’s also worth noting that the IsoStrut suspension is essentially a single-pivot design, so you will notice a little bit of brake-induced lockout on fast, choppy descents. It’s not terrible, but noticeable.
I also must mention the the tradeoff between lockout and dropper post. I’d take a dropper over a lockout any day because of the confidence it adds on descents. The lockout is great and has a valuable purpose for pure XC racing, but a dropper would be icing on the cake. As luck would have it, Bontrager makes a new dropper/lockout system called the DropLock Remote.
After getting the DropLock Remote installed, I’ve seen instant improvements in descending times and overall confidence. If you want to maximize both lockout and descending prowess, it’s definitely a worthwhile upgrade on the Supercaliber.
Fit: At 5’11”, with a 30″ saddle height I’ve been comfortably riding the large Supercaliber. I can stretch out in the cockpit and standover was never an issue.
- Maintains momentum uphill like it has a motor
- Feels as responsive and laterally-stiff as a hardtail (but without the rough ride)
- So fast, you’ll feel like the Trek Factory Racing team is cheering you on
- Rewards fitness with superpowers
- The lockout is a strategic weapon (like a nitro boost)
- Can’t complain one bit about the parts spec
- Those Kovee Elite 30 wheels are wide and fast
- All the beauty of a hardtail, without the harsh ride
- Pinpoint handling and responsiveness
- Incredibly floats through rough terrain
- Can hold two water bottle cages inside the front triangle
- You’ll notice a bit of brake-jack on fast, choppy descents
- Wished for a dropper post out the gate
- Clamping area of the XT brake levers don’t play nicely with SRAM shifters
- Small suspension “clunk” that I can’t pinpoint (I’m taking it to the Trek dealer and will post an update)
The Bottom Line: Trek Supercaliber 9.8 GX
Wow, wow, wow. Without question, I’m blown away after every ride aboard the Supercaliber. From day one until now (almost 300 miles later), it is an absolute gas rocking the local trails on this bike. Out of the box, I can’t imagine a better pure XC racer. It is responsive, light, nimble and blazingly-fast. Certainly, as other bikes arrive, I’m going to try my hardest to beat the PR’s I’ve set on this bike, but that will be a tall order.
Buy Now: Available at TrekBikes.com (2021 model is $6299)
If you are an ultra-fit XC racer who aims to outgun the competition or unseat every Strava PR you currently have, the Trek Supercaliber 9.8 should be your weapon of choice. It is an incredible chassis for out-and-out lung-searing performance. Every rider input is met with instant response (pedaling, body movement or steering input). Simply put, I am blown away on every ride and it just never gets old to smoke every climb in sight.