They always say nothing new on race day. It’s a good rule to follow, but when Niner asked me if I wanted to give the new AIR 9 RDO the ultimate test ride I took a gamble and broke a cardinal rule of racing. This wasn’t going to be a normal race anyways, so I can break a few rules. I packed up my gear, grabbed my passport, and headed to Italy to meet my new bike.
There are no questions about it, the Niner AIR 9 RDO is an phenomenal, super light XC and endurance race bike. It’s a 20 lb hardtail, how could it not be! What I didn’t know was that it was also spot on for my purpose as a really light, capable and comfortable bike for 500 miles of non-stop, self supported riding at the Italy Divide. It was the first edition of the race and my longest bike packing race and just like the bike, I didn’t really know what was in store for me.
It’s been a while since I spent that much time on a hard tail and I was a little nervous about getting beat up over the long haul of a race like Italy Divide, but this bike changed my mind about hard tails. The upper part of the frame is light and compliant to help me stay fresh and comfortable during four back to back 20 hour days in the saddle. The lower half of the frame is stiffer and features the wider Boost 148 dropout spacing and shorter chain stays to maintain better power transfer when putting down big wattage while climbing or sprinting. I wasn’t really sprinting in a race this long, but Italy has it’s fair share of super hilly terrain whether it’s a cobbled road leading to a castle in Firenze or single track footpath in the Apennines. I was grateful to have such a good climbing bike over there.
This was also the perfect opportunity to test out the new SRAM XX1 Eagle drivetrain since the terrain was so varied. I was able to ride the steepest climbs I have ever encountered, and loved having the top end gearing for the 100 mile flat section between Bologna and Lake Garda. The 1x set up also gave me peace of mind while slogging through the mud for hours, one less thing I could break. The heavy rain turned many of the trails to thick mud that was clogged in the drivetrain, but still didn’t affect shifting or performance with the Eagle.
The bike worked especially well for bike packing because the design is super sleek and clean and uses minimal material where possible making the AIR 9 RDO 10% lighter than the previous version. The narrow tubing allowed me to optimize the space inside the frame triangle by using a 1/2 frame bag and still allowing capacity for two water bottles. I like to carry heavier items like batteries, food, and tools in the center of the bike and not on my back. I used a large seat bag to carry lighter gear like a down coat, and rain gear. I chose Maxxis Tread Lite tires that would be fast rolling and could hold their own on single track, bike path, gravel road and farm fields. Even loaded down with an additional 20 lbs of gear the bike felt super responsive.
In my Camelbak I carried water, food, Adventure Medical Kit (http://www.adventuremedicalkits.com/medical-kits.html )and cell phone. I also tried out the new Garmin Etrex Touch 35. This GPS that takes AA batteries works well for bike packing when charging a device is out unreliable. The touch screen is much easier to operate on a bike than the previous handheld model with a toggle switch. It was easier to zoom in and out on the device while still riding. To light up the night I used Light and Motion’s Urban 800 on my helmet, Taz 1200 on my handlebar, and Solite 250 EX on my head. It was a bit of gamble because all of these required wall charging, so any time I stopped to warm up I would try my Italian and ask to plug my lights in. I never used them all at the same time so I always had a back up ready to go.
Italy Divide was the longest bike race I’ve done, so it was a super legit test ride for a new bike. Lighter, faster, and more comfortable than before, the Niner AIR 9 RDO is a versatile bike that can handle whatever you throw at it. I know I’ll be taking this hardtail on plenty more adventures in the future.