Niner RLT 9 RDO with Fox AX gravel fork for The Hairy 100

Dented a rim at mile 35 and kept on rolling

For a 100-mile gravel race with 4,006ft (1,221m) of punchy climbs, mixed terrain and relentless headwinds, the ‘perfect’ setup wasn’t actually a thing. Nonetheless, I picked a Niner RLT RDO 9 with the Fox AX gravel suspension fork, Easton’s new AX group — including the Cinch power meter – plus WTB Nano 40mm tires for The Hairy Hundred in the Midwestern United State of Missouri.

My horse for the course

  • The course: The Hairy Hundred, a100miles (160km) with 4,006 ft (1,221m) of elevation gain; 30 percent paved road, 40 percent ‘real’ gravel and 30 percent crushed-limestone gravel (walking-path style)
  • The horse: Niner RLT RDO 9 (56cm) with Fox AX 40mm fork, Shimano Ultegra hydraulics, Easton AX wheels, WTB Nano 40mm, Easton EC90 SLX crankset (50/34), CINCH Power Meter, Easton EC70 AX handlebar
  • Equipment goal: With fitness yet to come, the primary objective was to build a race-worthy rig that could provide enough comfort to stay fresh. Secondary objective: sanity, of course

What's the perfect rig for 100 miles of gravel and headwinds? Something like this, but with more storage
What's the perfect rig for 100 miles of gravel and headwinds? Something like this, but with more storage

The Niner RLT RDO proved a fantastic bike for the road less traveled. It’s compliant enough in the back to not necessitate a super compliant post or overly large tires. However, I had both.

The bike has plenty of stiffness. Even through decreasing-radius corners where ‘coming in hot’ was an understatement, the frame was stiff enough to enable a confident drift. And for those punchy climbs that seemed to go on forever, it was a pleasure to get out of the saddle and grind it out.

I do wish it had a third bottle mount on the frame — of course there are two on the stock fork, but I had replaced it with the Fox AX so lost out on two bottle mounts.

The Easton EC70 AX bar was an unexpected blessing. Never has a swept aesthetic spoken my love language in the past, but that was before having ridden one. Shame on my judgment, because I could have been riding so much more comfortably and heroically in the past.

The Easton EC70 AX bars are super comfortable for long days in the saddle
The Easton EC70 AX bars are super comfortable for long days in the saddle

Having used traditional-shaped bars exclusively, the hoods have always been the predominant hand position. But the accessibility of the drops due to the superior ergonomics of the AX bar meant I spent nearly 30 percent of my day in the bottoms. Given the headwinds and a few tricky descents, it was welcomed to be comfortable and confident in the lower positions.

The trick to staying the course on a long day like this is measuring the output

The Hairy 100 race crowd reacted in two ways to the new Fox AX fork: “Man, I wish I had that right about now,” or “You’re carrying more weight than you need,” comments were pretty common.

But that sums up the approach from Fox, leaving the new AX fork as an “open project”. They aren’t saying you need it, but if there’s enough interest it will move forward and the future will obviously be something more purpose built.

Revisiting the primary goal of staying fresh and preventing the ‘I don’t ever want to do this again’ state of mind, the Fox AX was awesome. The most obvious benefit is impact relief, big or small. It’s a suspension fork from a company that knows suspension.

Legendary three-position adjustment on the Fox AX 40mm fork was worthy of the 'Fox Tail' logo
Legendary three-position adjustment on the Fox AX 40mm fork was worthy of the 'Fox Tail' logo

But I hadn’t anticipated the most predominant benefit of the AX. On more than one occasion the advantage was keeping the tire in contact with the ground in those ‘oh sh*t’ moments of heavy braking. As riders went slipping past me, unable to brake through washboard surfaces, the suspension was validated from a new perspective.

Sure, argue that their skills weren’t up to par. But isn’t that the point of suspension? Isn’t that how we use it on every mountain bike ride ever? It amplifies our skills and supports our weaknesses. If your local terrain ever throws you off your line or causes panic in braking situations, I strongly encourage trying the AX.

Maintaining momentum

The trick to staying the course on a long day like this is measuring the output. Some folks just have a feel for their effort. But given that it’s been about five years since my last century ticket was punched, the Cinch Power Meter from Easton/RaceFace came in handy.

The night before it got a full charge, and that was verified with the CINCH smartphone app. Using the app again the morning of the event, the unit was calibrated within seconds.

From there it worked flawlessly, despite being fully submerged in a creek crossing. Twice. Just to verify the integrity of the seal, the next day I removed the end cap and everything was completely dry.

The Easton AX wheels also did their job, despite a major error on my part. I did destroy the front rim, but it could have been much worse.

Despite significant damage to the front rim in a river crossing, the Easton AX wheels kept rolling for another 60 miles
Despite significant damage to the front rim in a river crossing, the Easton AX wheels kept rolling for another 60 miles

Instead of hearing “don’t go left at the first creek crossing” from the race organizers I heard “go left”. Classic mix up. With the added super-hero descending skills from the Fox fork, ambitions may have been running a bit high. I slammed in to a 15cm underwater pothole that bent the rim and damaged the tire at the bead.

Most alloy wheels I’ve ridden would have buckled, and I can only imagine what would have resulted if it were carbon. But now I know why Easton opted for a slightly overbuilt rim — because for the intended use, they aren’t overbuilt, they’re perfect.

This happened at mile 35 and I couldn’t have been more stoked to stick a tube in and continue riding. The rim was dented and severely knocked out of round, but it held the tire and never felt compromised. The hop kept things interesting and forced me to stay alert for the next 65 miles.

Adding to that, the fork had an impact in saving the situation as well. I’m not sure a rigid carbon fork would have survived what happened. The fork was in open mode, and it did bottom out.

The consistent center tread made for quick rolling on the WTB Nanos and the outer tread is confidence inspiring for sure
The consistent center tread made for quick rolling on the WTB Nanos and the outer tread is confidence inspiring for sure

Lessons learned

For this particular course I could have probably done without the fork. But I did finish pretty fresh and with a smile on my face, so there’s something to be said about that. 

Here are my other takeaways from my equipment choices for the Hairy 100 that I’ll surely do again:

  • Swept bars are awesome. I’m looking for a permanent set
  • Gearing is a great way to save yourself. The 34/32 combo allowed the ‘spin to win’ mentality… or ‘spin to finish’, rather
  • 40mm is a lot of rubber — perhaps too much. I could have gone 37 or even 35 given the 24mm internal width of the Easton AX
  • Self-supported 100-mile rides mean your bike will not look as sexy as it does on a 30-mile ride. Accept it… I failed, and ended up hungry and dehydrated

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