Project XC Race Rocket: Frame & Fork intro – Niner AIR9 RDO x Lauf Trail Racer

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

At the beginning of the year, I started strategizing for the 6 Hours of Warrior Creek, one of the southeast’s preeminent endurance mountain bike races that sells out in minutes every year. In years past, I’ve raced my full suspension JET9 or some other bike that was on review. This year, I wanted something fast that afforded the opportunity to test all manner of lightweight, race worthy components. As it turns, out, it also let me place a couple older items in a modern setting, which could be of great interest for anyone looking to convert to a 1×10 drivetrain without breaking the bank.

Starting with the backbone of the project, Niner provided the latest AIR9 RDO frame, and Lauf offered a color-matched Trail Racer 29″ suspension fork. Both are stiff, efficient and light weight, getting things off to a great start…

Niner AIR9 RDO frame actual weight

I requested the Niner because their geometry works for me. The fit of the AIR9 is similar to the JET9, which is my go-to bike for most rides. At 6’2″ high, I’m on the tall end of fitting the size Large (tested), but Niner’s XL bikes are simply huge. I’ve demo’d both and am far more comfortable on the large.

The frame weighed in at 1095g with water bottle cage bolts and the cable liner that’s preinstalled to ease setup (but adds no weight). Claimed weight for a Medium is 1,060g, so this seems about right.

Niner AIR9 RDO frame parts and accessories actual weight

Left to right, top row then bottom row: Seatpost binder (22g), headset (77g), derailleur hanger (17g), Maxle (76g), Frame plugs (for standard cable housing, plugs and Di2 – 9g, but you won’t use all of them), and the cable liner (0g).

So ridable weight would be about 1,296g. All of the parts shown are included with the frame, which retails for $1,999.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

The frame is all carbon, tip to tail. The headset cups rest in shaped carbon trays top and bottom.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

The BSB ‘cross bike and AIR9 RDO were two of the first to use Niner’s new Carbon Compaction Process, which uses a rigid EPS foam mandrel inside the tubes to wrap the carbon on during the layup process. This results in better compaction and a smooth interior. The benefit is a stronger frame that’s lighter and less prone to stress risers or weak spots.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

The AIR9’s boxy, oversized downtube and wide bottom bracket section makes for a very stiff platform. The bike is ready for standard mechanical drivetrains, Side Swing or Di2. Titanium guards protect the frame just in front of and behind the BB spindle.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

The shaping continues on the chainstays, flowing through the bent dropout section into the seatstays. The frame is designed with efficiency in mind, and some of the early AIR9 bikes I rode were (IMO) overly stiff and could be quite rough.

The rear brake hose runs externally along the bottom of the downtube, under the BB, then along the inside of the chainstay. The low profile brake mount is set up for a 160mm rotor minimum.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

Tire clearance is claimed at 29×2.4 max, leaving plenty of room for these Schwalbe Rocket Ron 2.25s.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

Niner’s little details have continually progressed. Frames come with anodized water bottle bolts that color match the pivot bolts and covers on their full suspension bikes, too. It’s a little thing, but one that really ties things together.

Lauf Trail Racer carbon leaf spring suspension fork actual weights for 29er

The Lauf Trail Racer 29er fork comes in at 971g (2.14lb) with uncut steerer. The thru axle bolt adds 45g.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

Built around a rigid full carbon fiber fork with glass fiber leaf springs, the Lauf adds just enough suspension to take the edge off without adding a bunch of weight. Compared to a Rockshox RS-1, the Lauf saves 674g (1.59lb) accounting for the axle. Unsprung parts have a claimed weight of just 260g, which is far less than most any other suspension fork. That and its lack of damping allows the Lauf to be very responsive. Two versions are available, regular (riders over 143lb) and light (riders under 154lb). Retail is $990 plus $20 shipping anywhere in the world with a five year warranty.

The idea is simple: “Absorb the ride”. And that’s precisely what it does, using sets of three carbon blades on the top and bottom of each side, letting the axle float undamped. Total travel is just 60mm, but normal riding seems to use only about half that. It’s progressive, getting stiffer as it runs through its travel, and the second half is reserved for massive hits or hucking off a three foot drop. I don’t think I’ve even come close to bottoming it out yet.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

The legs are extremely stiff, and they need to be. Because the unsprung “wings” on each side are free to move independently, but only up and down. The fork’s stiffness prevents any noticeable lateral or twisting flex. The axle is a standard 15mm thru axle and is tightened with an allen wrench from the non-drive side. It’s tasked with keeping the wings moving in parallel and seems to do a fine job. Even Lauf’s folks will admit there’ll be a little bit of uneven compression in hard cornering, but never enough to let the tire rub the legs or seriously affect handling.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

Tabs on the backside acts as a bump stop, with a small rubbery patch to prevent carbon-on-carbon smackdowns should you bottom it out.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

Brake setup is straightforward, though I did file the face of one of the mounts slightly to help the caliper line up without  shifting as the bolts were tightened. This isn’t the first fork I’ve had to do that to and shouldn’t be taken as a lack of quality, but do it to your fork at your own risk.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

Other than the axle threads and bumper pads, it’s all composite.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

After folks get over the looks, the first question is always “How does it work?” inevitably followed by “Isn’t it bouncy?”

Sure, it’s a little bouncy. There’s no damping. But because the travel is so minimal and your weight is pressing down on it, it never feels bouncy riding. It just soaks up the bumps and returns, keeping the wheel planted on the ground and relieving your wrists, elbows and sanity from getting jostled over every little thing.

The Warrior Creek trail in Wilkesboro, NC, has a bit of everything to test it: Roots, rock gardens, sustained climbs and wickedly fast and awesome berms that create impressive G forces. It didn’t get the nickname #wilkesbermo for nothing. The bigger, faster berms were interesting because I could feel the fork compressing into them, but it didn’t feel like any energy or speed was lost to suspension. And while I was certainly a bit beat up after six hours, I didn’t miss my regular suspension. And I definitely didn’t miss the weight of my regular suspension. The feathery front end made it so easy to whip the bike up and over things even long into the event. The only thing this fork does to drive the weight up is require a minimum 180mm rotor.

Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Trail Racer suspension fork project bike overview and review

I’ve also ridden it in Pisgah, hitting some high speed technical descents where I’d normally want a 120mm fork or more, and it did just fine. Even on a few hits that were bigger than expected or in rapid succession, the Lauf took the beating in stride and helped keep the bike in control. How? By preventing it from bouncing everywhere.

First impressions are really, really good. For the long term, we’ll be spreading it around to a few of our testers that traditionally ride fully rigid hardtails and paying close attention to durability.

Niner AIR9 RDO complete bike actual weight

A primary goal with this project bike was to see how light we could build it without using (too many) boutique products or those with questionable durability. I’ll be posting several installments focusing on drivetrain, brakes, wheels/tires and cockpit over the next few days, but will tease with this: 18.39lb (8.34kg) with pedals, ready to ride. A mountain bike this light is otherworldly. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, “It is so choice. if you have the means, I highly recommend riding one.”

Fortunately, this project build isn’t unobtainably expensive. I could easily go lighter, but there’d start to be performance tradeoffs. As is, the stiff, efficient Niner AIR9 RDO and Lauf Fork provide a rock solid base for building a screaming fast XC race bike that doesn’t sacrifice all manner of comfort for speed.

Stay tuned for the rest of the build…

NinerBikes.com

LaufForks.com

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26 Comments
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Jon MacKinnon
7 years ago

I managed to build a 29er based off a Chinese frame for around £1500 which weighs in at about 8.2kg. It used a few second hand parts (Niner forks, Thompson stem/seatpost) but most of it was bought brand new. It rides like a beast and everyone is always surprised at how little it weighs. Good to see I’m not the only one who aims for a lightweight build.

Fjork
Fjork
7 years ago

The fork is great until you start to get into any sort of consistent large bumps / ruts. It causes the bike to buck pretty hard and lose traction. I strongly advise against riding anything worse than larger gravel or double track. It shook me enough on a relatively smooth descent to cause my helmet to wiggle forward, and my helmet wasn’t loose at all. If it were any longer and I would have lost some teeth.

Dazed
Dazed
7 years ago

Twenty Nine Inches seem to love the forking thing. Good and honest review.

http://twentynineinches.com/2015/06/19/lauf-trailracer-fork-final-thoughts/

AFS
AFS
7 years ago

Lauf, Magura? No thanks. Tested, and I rather carry the extra grams.

Ted
Ted
7 years ago

interesting you say that at 6’2″ you fit the large better than the XL. Niner is a full size smaller than other brands.

steveo
steveo
7 years ago

magura rule, not sure about the lauf but i like the rigid front end just not at warp speed , the lauf must be an improvement in some circumstances

HoganOnEpo
HoganOnEpo
7 years ago

Magura=best brake out there that few know about. And hey, shimano and sram don’t make brakes for high end motorcycles 😉

muf
muf
7 years ago

@Jon MacKinnon – do you have a link to your build? Thanks 🙂

MissedThePoint
MissedThePoint
7 years ago

Magura = hope you like old school levers

MissedThePoint
MissedThePoint
7 years ago

Kind of interested in a ride report on the handlebars, mainly to confirm my suspicions that designed-in flexiness intended for comfort is detrimental to front end responsiveness and confidence levels. I feel that I rather have stiff and light bars that damp the buzz, which tends to land me on Easton’s doors.

Jon MacKinnon
7 years ago
Tommyrod
Tommyrod
7 years ago

@Ted – are you thinking os Santa Cruz? They run rather small in the top tube for a given size.

Niner is one of the few brands where I prefer a medium (over a large) at 5’10”, and I like to be stretched out, reach-wise.

By the numbers, they run long, if anything.

ideal for those of us who prefer more exposed seatpost (more flex) and to have our bars actually a bit below the saddle if possible.

The bottle ride
The bottle ride
7 years ago

I am just surprised at the strong feedback for the lauf fork- kind of cool that there is something else

Love lightweight builds for xc- it can be the right tool for the right trail

ScottO
ScottO
7 years ago

@Ted – I have both Niner Air9 and Santa Cruz Tallboy, and I confirm what @Tommyrod says

Bog
Bog
7 years ago

Most Niners run small compared to other brands. The Jet9 RDO is their only decently sized XL frames. Santa Cruz makes XXL frames that are quite big and run similar seat tube and reach lengths as the Jet9. The other Niner XL frames are simply too small for riders over 6’3″. A sub 18″ reach on a company’s biggest frame shows its old school design.

Tommyrod
Tommyrod
7 years ago

What you’re complaining about is a lack of XXL frames from Niner, not that their frames run small.

The XL in both the Niner and SC you referenced are almost identical in TT length, in the XL size.

My experience (and ScottO’s) is valid – the medium and large Niner is longer than the equivalent size SC – quite a bit so in the medium size, which I prefer due to shorter head tube and seat tube.

Tough being over 6’3″ in that way, for sure. At least you have a hope of dunking a basketball in your lifetime.

Bog
Bog
7 years ago

The sizes are just a label in case you guys haven’t figured that out. Comparing a Niner XL to a SC XXL is 100% valid and even backed up on The respective websites. Niner recommends the Air9 RDO for riders 6’3″ – 6’7″ which shows how out of touch they are. I’m 6’4″ with very normal proportions and the XL Niners are all too small except for the Jet9 RDO.

Me
Me
7 years ago

thats not light. Lauf deserves a more creative builder

claudiopertile
claudiopertile
7 years ago

What is the idea of that?? Is a heavy weight bike with a non suspension fork…… My bike weight 200g LESS and is a Large frame, with Marzocchi suspension and remote lockout…… Race FRM bike vs Niner no bike….. haha

MissedThePoint
MissedThePoint
7 years ago

The idea is that they don’t have to tap into their retirement fund paying for boutique stuff to complete the bike.

Trev
7 years ago

I have a lauf fork on my radon sin 10 sl ! What everyone has failed to mention is that the fork needs no maintenance ever ! So riding this fork long term saves you money ! I go through forks like you’d never believe ! I’ve had my lauf for a year and a half now and believe me I’ve tried to kill it , the lauf fork just simply takes it all in its stride ! As for the looks , people go crazy when they see it ! Only trouble with the fork is you look like a pro so everywhere I go i have to go like the clappers !!!! Otherwise your all the gear and no idea kinda guy !!!
On a serious note ! Well done Lauf team the most radical fork in the world !!!

CXisfun
CXisfun
7 years ago

Trev ! Ease up on the exclamation points there buddy, geez !!!

Large d
Large d
7 years ago

What size chainring?

ginsu
ginsu
7 years ago

It would be so easy for Lauf to fab up a lightweight damper for this fork. Don’t know why they don’t make it at least an upgrade option. Screw the weight, it’s only 300g lighter than a fully damped 32mm Magura Fork.

duder
7 years ago

Dear Lauf: I prefer real suspension on my MTB, but I would seriously consider this fork on my CX bike.

Eric E. Strava
Eric E. Strava
7 years ago

@Trev real suspension forks like oil !! If you rebuild them periodically they last much longer !!