Some bikes can be counted on to wear their hearts very clearly on their sleeves. In the case of the Niner, it’s the sort of muscle-wrapped heart that’s been relentlessly trained to pump the absolute maximum blood flow possible through hard-working shaved legs with arteries like bulging drain pipes.
If you’re one of those self-proclaimed cardiovascular freaks, you’ll be appropriately super-pumped to hear that the Niner doesn’t disappoint when it comes to a trail workout either.
You're guaranteed to destroy your mates on the uphills…
Clear pedal feedback of the twin-linkage CVA suspension means you can nurse the traction of the almost slick Maxxis Ikon treads even in the sketchiest conditions. As soon as they find proper purchase, the super light 1525g Niner carbon wheelset feels more like a 26in set-up when you drop your elbows and drop the hammer.
If there’s any hint of competitiveness in your blood the acceleration of the 10.87kg bike will rapidly become addictive and you’ll use it to rip the legs off fellow riders whenever you get the chance. The tall bottom bracket removes worries about pedal clearance on rocky or rutted trails and the steep steering and seat angles put you in a perfect position for climbing traction and uphill turns.
Control the rear shock without having to take your hand off the grip
The Fox Factory rear shock is controlled through a twin-lever handlebar remote that gives open, medium and locked options without your hand leaving the grip. There’s a hydraulic plunger on the other side of the bar to totally lock the RockShox RS-1 fork too, if you’re really going for it on a climb or sprint.
In normal circumstances though, we found that the RKT was so obscenely quick that we weren’t even out of breath, let alone flat out, destroying riders we’re normally battling bar-to-bar with. The longer and more technical the climb, the bigger the gaps you’re likely to open and, inevitably, the more downright evil the looks you’ll get off your mates will be when they eventually arrive.
All that time spent smugly waiting for your trailing riding buddies to wheeze into view will give you room to fully appreciate this exotic thoroughbred. In terms of development DNA, it’s the son of the ruthlessly race honed, hard moulded (rather than inflatable-bag pressurised) RDO carbon construction offspring of the already ‘number on the bars, murder on the mind’ focused Jet 9.
This third generation XC psychopath is a significantly different chassis though, with a big top tube bulge behind the short head tube. The flat tapered top tube also goes straight across to the rearward curved seat tube rather than curving down to join it at the linkage pivot like the Jet frames.
Steep steering angles are perfect for technical climbs
As well as the fastidious economy of carbon, the eye-wateringly expensive frame price also gets you a titanium chain guard, Enduro Max black oxide bearings for a long and happy pivot life, and lightweight alloy bolts for the over-and-under down tube bottle mounts. Unusually for a race bike, it’ll take 2.4in rear tyres and even the 2.2in Maxxis here blow up to be plump and stable on the wide (24mm internal/30mm external) Stan’s profile rims.
While the rear subframe certainly looks similar to the Jet 9 RDO, it uses a 148mm Boost width rear hub spacing for genuinely impressive swingarm stiffness that carries through the linkages to the mainframe. It also reduces travel of Niner’s proprietary CVA suspension system down to 90mm.
Perfectly poised climber
CVA is an interesting design too. While the distinctive ‘jawbone’ forged alloy linkage hanging under the PressFit 30 bottom bracket ‘should’ extend the shock under power, the upper link ‘should’ compress it. The single piece asymmetric rear subframe means they can’t actually spread apart though, so the suspension is effectively neutralised and stays reasonably active but bob free, however hard you’re putting the power down.
It also means it feels very similar in single, double or triple ring set-ups. Add a tall bottom bracket for pedal clearance, steep 71 degree head angle and 74.5 degree seat angle, and rider position and steering feel are perfectly poised for technical climbing. The 710mm Niner bar would normally mean you’re not likely to clatter trees on tight and twisty single track either. It comes with Niner’s signature YAWYD fork top cap which lets you crimp your favourite beer bottle cap onto it for a neatly individualised ride.
The Niner's skittish characteristics mean descents can be a hair-raising experience
Niner’s accessory collection also extends beyond the RDO carbon seat post, saddle, stem and grips and into stainless steel bottles and pint ‘glasses’, dog collars and an extensive range of riding and casual gear for dedicated ‘Ninerds’. The full bike build kits – from RockShox Reba fork and SRAM GX1 2 star to RockShox RS-1 fork and XTR 5 Star standard – are generally well thought out in terms of flattering the Niner’s climbing credentials too.
Where the RKT literally comes back down to earth with a bump though is on technical descents. The poor tracking accuracy and dive-prone character of the Rock Shox RS-1 fork certainly doesn’t help, but as you can get this spec with the excellent Fox 32 Factory FIT4 fork – for a hefty chunk less – we’re not going to dwell on that.
Whatever the fork, the super steep head angle, tall ride height and obviously short-travel suspension still make for a very nervous and precarious feel on descents. That meant the riders that it had humiliated on the climbs were all over it on downhills and even flat, fast corners need treating with caution.
In common with other bikes we’ve used the same vaguely indented, limp remote lever on, selecting the middle compression damping mode is really hard, which is irritating as it’s the mode that suits the bike best. The remote control hardware on the shock also contacts the base of down tube mounted bottles in some cages, so we ended up with bottles in our pockets. These drawbacks may not amount to deal breakers if you’re a diehard climbing/racing fanatic, but are still practical irritants on what is an aesthetically flawless frame.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.