With suspension technology changing faster than the choice for president, we have become accustomed to waking up in the morning to see what version of what suspension platform is ruling the world that day. Though not as intriguing, we sometimes forget that the simple characteristics of a tried and true hardtail are still as relevant as the days folks first started shredding Repack.
Niner sent us their flagship feather-weight Air 9 RDO (Race Day Optimized for those not in the know), stacked with some of their house components, XTR drivetrain, and RockShox’s RS-1 carbon inverted fork. The RDO definitely puts the purpose of this bike into perspective when it comes to “Race Day Optimized”. Check out what made me grin… and what made me cringe riding this race machine…
Starting with the frame, it uses Niner’s Carbon Compaction System which is to say it’s built with EPS mandrel technology. The CCS procedure reduced the frame’s weight by a whopping 100 grams from the previous generation, while also improving strength and flexibility in key areas.
The Air 9 RDO was littered with many of their light and subtlety labeled house branded items including their RDO carbon bar and seatpost and an alloy stem. The fit & finish on all items were top notch and appears to be of the same quality as aftermarket items in the same category. While light, there was no lack of stiffness in the bars… or the girthy 31.6 seatpost.
Niner’s Carbon XC wheelset using NoTubes’s BST technology keeps things light and wide. The wheels have 30 x 30mm external dimensions and a hearty 24mm inner width that gives the Maxxis Ikons (2.35 front & 2.20 rear) plenty of room to stretch out. I was really digging the lateral stiffness and acceleration of the wheels – until I didn’t float like said dragonfly going into a short gully with a root on the far side that whacked the rear hard enough to pinch the rear tire against the wheel, cutting the tire. Not even the sealent in the tires could save the day. Luckily I still had a 26 inch tube in my pack that got me to the end of the day’s ride. (yes… it’s been a while since I’ve had to use a tube).
Regardless of the damage to the tire, the carbon wheel was left unscathed. Not even a scratch. If you still think today’s “quality” carbon wheels are fragile compared to aluminium, think again. I had a spare tire laying around to use until I patched the damaged one, which is why the rear tire has a yellow Maxxis hot patch as opposed to the original white one.
When you take a really light frame and put really light components on it, you get a pretty light bike. In this case, you get a really, REALLY light bike. While my seasoned body prefers squish out back, the lack of weight took my mind off of it… most times. Though this 21 lb featherweight was shockingly light, that luxury isn’t free when you consider the $8k price tag. But let’s face it, like road bikes, there is a demand for loaded bikes that are designed to go as fast as possible. While many may gawk at that price, some appreciate owning the best of the best. Like saying I can’t afford a Ferrari, but I can afford the Ferrari of bikes. It all about what you want, and after spending some time on Air 9 RDO… I WANT!
One pleasing part of this bike was letting the 100mm RockShox RS-1 eat up… Every. Little. Bump. While I still feel DVO’s Diamond I reviewed is one of the best off-the-shelf forks I’ve ridden, the small bump compliance of the RS-1 was pretty amazing. While I admit it may not be quite as laterally & torsionally stiff as a conventional uni-crown fork, it wasn’t noticeable enough on this kind of bike to really worry about. Despite being heavier than any of the SID lineup, this fork was chosen for its performance and I couldn’t agree more with their choice to spec the RS-1 on their flagship race machine. After all, it’s not always about weight.
The bike was outfitted with Shimano’s 2 x 11 XTR drivetrain and brakes. Shimano components shift like butter… especially the front derailleur… which I hated. Not knocking it for you 2x devotees out there, but I went from running a triple (stayed in the middle ring 99% of the time), straight to 1×9, 10, 11… I haven’t had a front derailleur on a mountain bike since 9 speed so it turned out to be sort of distracting to me having to bounce between the big and little chainring so often. I spent way to much time trying to remember which ring I was in and found myself mashing up-hill in the big, or spinning out going down too often. While I won’t make like SRAM and say the front derailleur is dead (yet), I have become far too programmed to 1X to be able to coexist with a 2x system. That said, un-biasly, the XTR drivetrain functioned flawlessly. Also, for 2017 the bikes will be shipped with 1x drivetrains.
Drivetrain aside, having what felt like a toy under me that accelerated like it was on fire not only made accelerating more vivacious, only a hardtail this light and stiff can make you grin like I did when explosively tossing it around tight ascending turns, that would normally made me grimace. The frame was stiff in the right places and the RS-1 was amazing performance wise. The handling of the bike was a bit on the twitchy side… but in a good way. While the seat and steerer tube angles were a degree steeper than what I consider the golden standard, (71/73 vs 72/74 on the Air 9), I took to heart how quickly I could react at the last second when at speed. Traction was the only limiting factor (let’s leave pilot error out of it), in those situations, and the Maxxis Ikons do not fall short of that for a race tire. I could have done with a little less bite out back as that 31.6 seatpost may look cool, but it isn’t forgiving enough for a hardtail (or my badonkadonk) in my opinion over a long period of time. Important to note – the 2017 model seems to have read my mind and switches from 31.6 to 27.2mm.
While the area I ride in is rocky, rooty, and full of things that make you want a dropper, (as well as me having become accustomed to squish and plus tires), this bike would slay the trails in the right area. Getting on a hardtail was pretty exhilarating… nostalgic even, but getting on one of this caliber makes you want to kit up and give your friends dirty looks as you line up for your Sunday social ride.
Note: The new 2017 Air 9 RDO was released while I had the 2016 and they made some changes that pretty much answered my qualms with the bike by going to a 27.2 seatpost and 1X on the new models.