Out Of The Box: Niner AIR 9- by Grannygear

In the beginning there were some guys in Colorado and likely other places that had this silly idea that bigger wheels on mountain bikes made sense.  Yeah, right.  Who would buy those?  Then some co-visionaires began putting some money and muscle into that dream, guys like Gary Fisher for instance, and things began to get rolling.  Along comes Niner bikes.  Steve and Chris were bold enough to actually begin a brand new bike company that was 100% devoted to 29″ wheeled mountain bikes.  What chutzpa?  Da’ noive of those guys!

Fast forward to today and Niner Bikes is still here, still growing, and still all 29″ers.  So on test is the newest version of the Air 9 alloy hard tail in the XL/22″ size.  Yeah, I know the buzz is all about carbon these days, but carbon frames, at least proven ones, are still pretty high priced and are likely to stay that way.  If steel is the common man’s trail/XC hard tail of choice, then aluminum is the common man’s racing material of choice.  Aluminum is light, cheap(ish), easily formed into complex tube shapes, and stiff enough to give you great power transfer and direct steering, something any XC racer (or hard charging XC rider) likes to have.

For this new year, Niner moved away from Scandium, an aluminum alloy as well, and back to a 6000 seres based aluminum tube set.  The impetus to this seems to be more than just a new marketing scheme as 6000 series aluminum, as I understand it, is much more willing to be hydroformed into new shapes than Scandium which is pretty thin and brittle…so I have been told.  And the new Niner AIR 9 is all about hydroforming.  Now I am no engineer, but as I have the power of the internet at my command, here is a Wikipedia section on the technique.

“Hydroforming is a cost-effective way of shaping ductile metals such as aluminum, brass, low alloy steels, stainless steel into lightweight, structurally stiff and strong pieces. One of the largest applications of hydroforming is the automotive industry, which makes use of the complex shapes possible by hydroforming to produce stronger, lighter, and more rigid unibody structures for vehicles. This technique is particularly popular with the high-end sports car industry and is also frequently employed in the shaping of aluminium tubes for bicycle frames. Hydroforming is a specialized type of die forming that uses a high pressure hydraulic fluid to press room temperature working material into a die. To hydroform aluminum into a vehicle’s frame rail, a hollow tube of aluminum is placed inside a negative mold that has the shape of the desired result. High pressure hydraulic pumps then inject fluid at very high pressure inside the aluminum which causes it to expand until it matches the mold. The hydroformed aluminum is then removed from the mold. Hydroforming allows complex shapes with concavities to be formed, which would be difficult or impossible with standard solid die stamping. Hydroformed parts can often be made with a higher stiffness-to-weight ratio and at a lower per unit cost than traditional stamped or stamped and welded parts. Virtually all metals capable of cold forming can be hydroformed, including aluminum, brass, carbon and stainless steel, copper, and high strength alloys.

So you take a boring old round tube of aluminum and pop it out like a beer can into all these nifty shapes and weld it into a bike frame.  Just marketing bilge, right?  Hardly.  A shaped tube like this is what is making aluminum viable for 2013 29er riders. Some of the new manufacturing techniques for aluminum that I have been talking about to one engineer of a large bike company tends to make me think that in the next few years aluminum will see a high tech resurgence and will hardly fade away to the realm of cheap MallyWart bikes.

All that said, here is what Niner says about the revised AIR 9 on their website:

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AIR 9 
The Air 9 is our fast, light, geared-only alloy racing hard tail. Featuring the same award winning hard-tail geometry as the rest of the Air 9 family – the Air 9 is the right choice for anyone looking for a performance alloy frame.

 HYDROFORMED TUBING

Because of the larger welding area created by the new tapered head tube, this updated version of our alloy hard tail integrates hydroformed tubing throughout. More than a cosmetic feature, hydroforming allows us to shape tubes, control wall thickness and optimize strength and stiffness in key areas. This customization creates perfectly tuned frames with precise ride characteristics – in other words, ideal ride feel. You will find hydroforming in the toptube, downtube, headtube, chainstays and seatstays.

 Bottom line? A lighter, stiffer frame with better ride feel and improved steering results in better power transfer and an overall efficiency improvement. In other words, the updated Air 9 will win more races.

As well, this new hydroformed AIR 9 is lighter than the Scandium frame it replaces.  The model below this, the EMD 9, is made from the same materials and uses the same technology, but not to the extent the AIR 9 does.  The AIR 9 reaches further into the hydroformed bag of tricks and gives you hydroformed rear stays.  As well, the AIR 9 has a PF 30 bottom bracket and an integrated Campy style headset (included).  This combines to make the AIR 9 lighter than the EMD by just under 1/2 a pound.

Pulling the AIR 9 out of the box I was struck by how good looking it was and out on the trail it has garnered more than a few comments to that effect.  It is just a good looking bike, both in line, shape and classy graphics.  We have the Arctic White color scheme and compared to many bikes that scream the graphics at you like some NASCAR inspired creation, this one speaks in a low, soft tone.  ”Wanna’ go fast, big boy?  I bet you do.”

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The parts spec was pretty close to the stock XT kit but this one has a tapered/15QR Manitou Tower Pro at 100mm and that makes me smile.  Apparently Niner has partnered with Manitou for the Demo fleet this year.  I like these forks and I know what they are supposed to feel like too.  Goody!  I also have the RDO seat post that is designed to be compliant, and in an oversize 31.6 seat post size, I sure hope it is.  As I said, the XT group gives me a triple chain ring, something that is not too common in the SRAM world I usually swim in with test bikes and XT brakes are there too.  No Shadow Plus rear derailleur though.  Pity.  Carbon Flat Top bars and a 100mm RDO stem will keep me stretched out a bit.  I am kind of a tweener in the Niner sizing, much like Salsa’s bikes.  The XL is a 22″ frame which is tall for me but the 25.4″ top tube is only slightly long for me.  I waffled a bit on LG vs. XL and I could have ridden a LG with a 100mm stem and been only slightly compressed.  However I wanted JeffJ to be able to get on this particular bike and he needs all that an XL will offer.

I also requested a WTB saddle as I typically do not get along with Fizik.  So this bike has a WTB Volt saddle on there with Ti rails.  Nice.  It looks a bit racier than the more endurance oriented Pure V I covet, but still better to my liking than the WTB Silverado.  The only odd thing to my mind was the tire spec.  It came with 2.35 Schwalbe Nobby Nics, which looking at the rear chain stays, barely fit in there.  Mud would have been bad.  But it is hard to spec a tire for all peoples for all terrain, so you have to begin somewhere.  We shall see as it seems like a Racing Ralph might have been more in line with the bike’s intent although the Nic has a broader appeal.

The wheels require some mention as they are a custom wheel for Niner Bikes by Sun Ringle that blends the normal J bend spoke hub with the rim of a nicer Sun Ringle’ wheel.  I was told that wheel weights are in the 1800g range.  A Stan’s BST based rim design makes tubeless a snap and the AIR 9 came that way out of the box.

On the scale I found the XL 9 to be 25lbs 6oz/11.8kg (no pedals) .  Not bad for the build price of around 4 grand.  Oh, the frame retails for $849.00 and weighs 1480g (3.26lbs) for a medium anodized frame per Niner’s fact sheet.  We have the AIR 9 on trail, both myself (granny gear) and JeffJ, and we have some strong impressions already for this beautiful hard tail 29er.  Is it a common man’s carbon killer or a easy going XC/trail bike?  We will let you know soon enough.

Note: Niner Bikes sent the Air 9 over to Twenty Nine Inches at no charge. We are not being paid nor bribed for this review and we strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.