The Cold Hard Facts:
Well depending on how you look at it, the fact that the Gary Fisher brand is no more is either good news or bad news. While it could be argued that all this really means is a change in the stickers adorning the downtube of said bikes (since GF was really just a label of Trek), there is always a degree of sadness that accompanies the changing of long-standing tradition.
For the average consumer though, the update will be far less impactual, in fact it should make bike purchase decisions even easier as there will be one less brand identify to take into consideration.
Enter the 2011 Trek Rumblefish II, which retains its ties to the Gary Fisher moniker despite full Trek adornment in the form of being part of the “Gary Fisher Collection” (small sticker on the actual frame confirms this).
We took delivery of a slightly used demo unit just as weather in NY couldn’t possibly be worse. Snow, ice, darkness: think of it as a winter wonder land meets some post apocalyptic wasteland And that’s perhaps the best time to get the MBT test crew situated with a 29er. While we aren’t anti-29er by any means, the vertically challenged, tight trail craving east coasters are pretty darn satisfied with 26-inch wheels during the summer months. However when the terrain turns wide open, chopped out with frozen ripples, and crunches audibly with each footfall, the charms of the larger hoops aren’t lost upon us.
A Trek Rumblefish II can be purchased identical to ours for $3,799 and would come equipped as follows: Suspension duties are handled by a Fox F120 RCL fork in the front (4.7”) and a Fox RP23 DRCV shock in the back (4.3”). Trek’s Bontrager brand gets the call for the majority of odds and ends including rims (Rhythm Disc), tires (Team Issue), bars (RL Lowrider), and hubs (FCC).
Shimano gets the nod for the remaining components: XT crankset, Dyna-Sys shifters, chain rings, and cassette, XT front derailleur/ XTR Shadow rear. Finally braking is all Avid with the Elixir R hydraulic discs front and rear.
All told our medium (17.5 inch) bike weighed in at a hair below 30 pounds (29.7).
Things are a bit different for a group of riders used to smaller wheels and longer travel to make up their ground clearance and it took a little adapting before we felt comfortable getting the bigger-hooped Rumblefish feeling natural. Trek does go the extra mile by providing plastic sag setting adapters (and a shock pump) that snap onto the fork leg to take the guesswork out of the equation. We ran the recommended 20% initially before switching to a slightly softer 25% in the front to keep the chassis better balanced. Not only did this yield additional plushness to compensate for the colder conditions, it took a bit of the “tall-feeling” out of the front end.
Mounting up on the Rumblefish II can be a bit intimidating unless you swing a leg over the points closest to the seatpost. The down tube is radically sloped but the top tube (due in part to the shock mounts) isn’t quite so angled. Reach to the bars is equal parts 29er and traditional cross-country with a fairly long reach to the bars. We did appreciate the rise of the Bontrager Lowrider bar, however, as it took any potential torture out of being forced to stretch for a flat bar.
Blasting off on the Rumblefish II isn’t about elbow yanking acceleration so much as it’s an exercise is smooth forward motion that gradually builds into a nice head of steam. Once the larger wheels get rolling, momentum becomes critical and fortunately larger circular reach results in being able to maintain a steady cadence over successive chop. There is little doubt that the Fisher influence lives on through this particular model as the steering feels sharper and more “connected” than any 29er we’ve ridden prior.
While we were pretty instantly satisfied with the Fox fork’s performance, the shock seemed to get the lion’s share of the attention from onlookers. We mentioned in the specs that the Rumblefish gets the Fox DRCV treatment and for those who aren’t up on their acronyms, that’s Dual Rate Control Valve. The DRCV is fancy talk for a secondary air chamber that is opened when the shock plunger reaches the mid-stroke of the primary air chamber. Not to worry if that doesn’t help any: in simple terms it means the Fox RP23 benefits from added air volume without having to rely on an awkward reservoir or larger canister.
On the trail the affects aren’t quite as clearly felt. It seemed to our testers thought that bottoming the shock out was more difficult than on a traditional (single chamber) shock of similar travel. We would loved to have had the chance to test out its anti-bottoming characteristics on moderate jumps/ drops but were forced to abandon such hopes due to the slippery test conditions. At least we can report that the transition from one air chamber to the next is flawless and smooth enough on the trails as to go unnoticed.
Perhaps the biggest handling mentionable comes from Trek R&D itself in the form of the ABP (Active Braking Point). This design has proven worthy multiple times in the past few years and its performance here certainly adds to the legacy. The shock remains active even when the rear wheel is completely locked and actually sliding across the terrain rather than rolling over it.
And speaking of, braking on the Rumblefish II is steady and well modulated with no real surprises to report. Again we didn’t have an opportunity to give the brakes a good aggressive descending test in the poor conditions but we did find the Avid Elixers quite confidence inspiring in bringing the bike to a metered stop on even the slipperiest of ice.
Finally we must make mention of the 30-gear Shimano drivetrain. If you suspect the prospect of having 3x10 options might be a bit overwhelming, rest assured we felt the same way. However, the funny thing about most 29ers we’ve ridden is that you learn pretty early on where you feel most comfortable in your gearing choices. We would love to tell you we had the legs and lungs to spend our test time in the big ring but in actuality the upper reaches of the granny and meat of the second ring were really where we felt we could make the most of the package (especially given the limited traction available).
Even this posse of self-admitted 26er aficionados came away from the Rumblefish II review with a newfound respect for the capabilities of the 29er concept. Now before you get ready to fire off the hate mail, make no mistake, we agree wholeheartedly that the bigger wheel has a place in the sport. Larger riders (including our own resident ranter, CG) swear by them and we’ve heard excellent things about their performance in rocky conditions such as those of the Midwestern US. Not to mention we know brands like Niner have legions of devotees! All we can say with certainty is that until now the coil-tight switchbacks of the east coast haven’t been very favorable to the 29-inch wheel in our prior testing.
That said, a strong argument could be made to the fact that the Rumblefish II is quite possibly the most un-29er like of any 29er we’ve ridden (if that makes sense at all). The origins of Fisher’s Genesis geometry concept are definitely alive in the Rumblefish, which has us suspecting many of the earlier flaws associated with going bigger wheels are controllable with careful frame manipulation. Trek’s ABP technology and Fox’s DRCV innovation simply add to the charm. Will the Rumblefish II be your next all-in-one all mountain ripper? Possibly but more likely it would be a viable option for those riders on the fence about entering the 29er game but reluctant to give up many of the traits of the tried and true 26er.