Niner AIR 9: Mid Term- by Grannygear

niner air 9The first ride I did on the Niner AIR 9 was a semi-local single track ride that climbs steeply and consistently up to a 9k’ summit taking around 8 miles or so to get there.  After I get them Out of the Box (see here), I normally ‘break-in’ bikes a bit beforehand to weed out any little issues first, but I just ran out of time.  So, the first dirt the AIR 9 sampled was an immediate granny ring climb on a somewhat stuttery (braking bumps) well used trail.  Three things happened right away…first of all the impression of a stiff pedaling bike struck me, followed closely by the impression of a stiff riding bike.  Yeah, it is certainly getting my low back’s attention.  The third thing was that the free hub seemed to be slipping when I was on it hard in a low gear, feeling very much like a thread on freewheel does when it is first installed.  This lasted for most of the ride, but only when I was really ‘on it’ in the lowest gear.   It made me wonder if it was going to detonate on me.  However, it turned out to be a situation where the Sun Ringle hub was not assembled to the proper torque spec at the factory where the free hub body threads onto the hub shell.  It settled in and by the next ride it was fine and has not moved since.

Continuing up the trail, the AIR 9 never missed a beat and was giving me a good return for my pedaling investment, but even with the vaunted RDO seat post, which is supposed to be very compliant, the seated ride was very firm.  I stopped and dropped the 2.35 Nobby Nics to 25-ish PSI and that helped some.  Standing and pedaling was pretty amazing, even with those bigger tires, as the response is pretty immediate and rewarding.  This is a stiff pedaling bike.  Oh yes.  The balance was very good front to rear and switchbacks could be crawled around uphill, rocks threaded between, etc.  Picking a line was easy and the stretched out position with the 100mm stem was rangy, but seemed fitting for the bike’s racy bloodline.

On the flip side, the return was a bit of a beat-down in anything that was rough or rutted.  I actually was having to go slower just to keep the bikes rear end planted on the ground, especially when I was braking hard entering into fast and rough corners with the well worn trail surface.  Besides that, the AIR 9 was running down the trail like a ninja warrior and the handling was just spot on fun for swooping and diving.  I felt immediately in sync with the bike and the stiff chassis and the so far very decent wheels were keeping things headed exactly where I pointed them.  Very sweet.

niner air 9The Manitou Tower Pro fork is such a nice piece of work.  Those guys are really getting this fork good and the move to the heavier springs on all 29″er forks was  a smart one.  The Shimano XT brakes had great power and feel, but the rear caliper set up a howler monkey call by the bottom 1/3 of the trail that had me cringing every time I pulled the lever.  Better than a trail bell, I guess.

The end result was very mixed emotions.  I loved the handling.  It was accurate at slow speeds and carved like a jet fighter.  It only began to feel a bit nervous on the fastest, roughest sections of trail and even then it was not red warning lights, just a bit of caution to pay attention.  I loved the pedaling response.  It was like pressing against a bridge abutment and the bike just jumped forward.  There was no flex at all at the bottom bracket that I could feel or see.  But the ride was just too harsh to be very enjoyable.  In fact, it was enough to actually decrease performance as I could not keep the bike hooked up/wheels down in the worst sections.


So I got to thinking.  Yeah, just looking at this frame’s tube shapes gave me a clue that it would not be a wispy smooth ride, but this was a bit much.  I wondered about the tires?  When I dropped from 30psi to 25psi I did not get the result I expected.  Sure it got better, but not a lot.  Also I was not so crazy about the way the edge knobs on the Nobby Nics were treating the hardback/sand/rubble of the local trails, even though they had done well in the dusty forest duff of the first ride, but back home they were not so great and they felt slow too.  OK…a call to Schwalbe did suggest that this was an aggressive tire with a tough casing, so perhaps it was partly to blame.  Off went the Nobby Nics and on went a new 2.3 Specialized Purgatory Control in front and a 2.1 Specialized Ground Control in back.  Although the revised Purgatory is a bit new for 2013, they were both tires I was very familiar with so I was back to a known parameter here.

Oh my….what a difference.  Truly a transformation, what was before a jackhammer of a bike was now just a very firm ride and well within acceptable levels for a racy hard tail.  The back tire was staying planted even at 30psi (F/R) and the new 2.3 front Purg was just outstanding in our summer conditions.  They rolled faster too.  So now the AIR 9 was coming into its own.  Lets go ride some more, shall we?

Some thoughts:

  • The triple chain ring XT crank:  What is that big ring for anyway?  I am so used to doubles these days, but I will say that the way Shimano has the three rings spaced is quite nice and the steps between gears is very well thought out, something that can be hard to achieve on a 2×10 and still get a wide gear spread.  It works well.
  • The triple chain ring XT crank:  What is that small ring for anyway?  Man, since I have hit home I have not dropped into the granny ring once on this bike.  It has such a high energy transfer that I am middle ringing stuff just cuz it feels so good.
  • I was flat out amazed at how much difference the tires made.
  • The Sun Ringle wheels, a custom set just for Niner, seem to be a very decent compromise in stiffness, rim width, weight, etc and while they may not be pure racing wheels (1800-ish grams), they seem solid and stiff handling.  There have been no more issues with the creeping free hub.  They also accepted the Specialized tires tubeless with nothing more than a floor pump, owing to the Stan’s BST technology built into the rim extrusion.
  • The Manitou fork rocks.  No complaints.
  • The noise in the rear brake went away and never came back so maybe it is a thermal issue and it takes a long down hill run to get it there, or perhaps some contamination/glazing of the pads.  Not sure.
  • Dialed handling.  On the fast double tracks and creek bed single tracks the AIR9 is a treat.  Just toss the bike over and let the chassis keep you on that line, although sometimes you can feel it skipping a bit in rougher turns, hang on and pedal and it just goes.  Could it be a bit much for truly rough trails?  Sure, could be.  Depends on the rider and skill set.
  • The RDO post in that 31.9mm size is a bit less than I expected as far as compliance.  Now don’t’ get me wrong here.  Some oversize posts are completely merciless and this is not that way at all, but it is not quite as plush as I thought it might be.  One thing is that this 22″ frame is a bit tall for me so I have less extension than I would normally have.  To see if this was the issue, I raised it up two inches and then performed a highly scientific test…I leaned on it and watched, bouncing a bit.  It looks like most of the deflection is in the top part of the post and not throughout the shaft like I would have expected, at least that was my impression.  So raising it gained me little, so it seemed.  Still, for a 31.6 post it is smoother than most and looks great.
  • The new WTB Volt saddle is quite good, more to my liking than the flatter Silverado but not as full figured as the Pure V.  Very nice.
I rode the AIR 9 for several more rides than handed it off to JeffJ to test out.  If there is a bike I have been on lately that seems made for a big or powerful rider, it sure has to be this one and the XL fits him well.  Here is an email I got from him after he had a couple of rides on the AIR 9.  I may have to steal this thing back at night.


Man, the AIR9 carves twisties like a flaming Ginsu at a butter convention. Those tires roll like crazy too.

A few other first impressions:

The saddle is fine.

I’ll need to change those grips out; feels like I’m hanging onto 1/2″ copper water pipe. I have some lock-ons I can put on there. (JeffJ has bear paws for hands – Ed)

The handlebar is OK. My wrists didn’t hurt or anything, but the angle still felt a little weird after riding the 20/20 :~) (Note:  Answer 20/20 bar reviewed here – Ed)

The carbon seat post = full of win. Took some of the edge off the rocks when climbing.

I think I will move the shifters inward a tad to see if that helps my digital-ergonomics.

The ABS on the fork was good a few clicks in, but I liked it better opened up. Very nice fork overall. Very good descending, even better cruising and climbing. Reacted to the washboard very well too.

The bike is a tick nervous at the highest speed in rough or sandy bits of trail, but liked to boost a little upward when called upon to do so :~)

Brakes take a little period of adjustment, but overall, I like them.

If I get my fitness up a bit more, this thing might get me a PR from the SC to the towers.

Other than that. . . . ‘meh’ ;~)



niner air 9


We will be back with a wrap-up on the AIR 9 and final thoughts and impressions soon….that is, when I find JeffJ and the AIR9.  He has to sleep sometime.

Note: Niner bikes sent the AIR9 for test/review at no charge to Twenty Nine Inches. We are not being bribed nor paid for these reviews and we will strive to give you our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.