First Ride: Niner RKT9, a dedicated trail racer
MSRP: $4500 to $9500
Rumors of the demise of XC have been greatly exaggerated. It is, in fact, alive and well in most corners of the world where everyday riders seek out climbing miles, race courses, and just a bit of afternoon fun. For those not looking for trail or enduro (what I like to call TrEnd) bikes with a gravity bent, Niner has answered the XC call with its new RKT9, pronounced Rocket 9.
It’s every bit as capable as those TrEnd bikes are of ripping descents, though yes, you’ll actually have to pick a line and ride this bike differently than you would a bike with 140mm or 160mm of travel. But that’s what the Rocket’s all about: picking lines, crushing climbs, and taking on racecourses with razor’s-edge handling.
From all outward appearances, the RKT9 looks much like Niner’s other XC offering, the Jet, but as the Jet has moved more toward that TrEnd category, it left behind a gaping void in Niner’s XC category. That’s where the RKT9 slots comfortably, with 90mm of travel and a sub-5-pound frame — that’s a half pound lighter than the current Jet. 90mm isn’t a lot of travel, but it’s just enough for XC racing, and with Niner’s promise of plenty of torsional stiffness on par with that of the Jet, the spec seems XC ready.
To that end, the geometry is race-inspired, which generally means it’s aggressive and more body-forward than a TrEnd bike is. The chainstays come in at 440mm, about 15mm shorter than the Jet, and the front end has a 10-15mm shorter head tube than the Jet, depending on frame size. That all translates into some pretty snappy handling, which comes in handy when you’re navigating steep rock gardens. It’s not slack like a TrEnd bike, either, with a 70-degree head tube angle working in conjunction with a 100mm fork. That means you’ll have to do a bit more of that quick steering on descents, but climbing should be a breeze.
Staying true to its 29er philosophy, the RKT9 of course has big wheels. Niner has jumped on the Boost train, with 148mm rear spacing to help stiffen up the rear end for quick, accurate handling.
The frame is Di2 compatible.
To see if Niner is onto something with its new offering, we took it to the trails outside Lyons, Colorado. After one ride, the RKT9 is certainly promising for XC racers and riders, though there are a few quirks.
Suspension of disbelief
Historically, the problem with full suspension has been bob, particularly when heading uphill. Niner’s generally impressive CVA frame suspension design isn’t earth-shattering, yet paired with Fox’s 32 Factory Fit4 up front and Float Factory rear shock, the RKT9 climbs exceptionally well. Whether the RKT9’s climbing prowess has more to do with Niner’s CVA or with Fox’s very impressive new suspension lineup — or more likely a combination of both — is up for debate, but when pushing up long, technical climbs that require lots of power transfer, that debate becomes moot. It works, and that’s what matters. Bob wasn’t noticeable in most scenarios, and the frame is plenty stiff laterally for standing up, sprinting, and making those tough, demoralize-the-competition passes on the race course.
But let’s get this out of the way now, because it is, as always, the story with Niner’s bikes: the bottom bracket creaks. Yeah, yeah, I know, all those pressed-in bearings on any bike creak, right? Not generally out of the box, and not as consistently as has been the case with Niner bikes. Perhaps it’s a tolerance issue with the bottom bracket shell; Niner really needs to investigate this and find a solution, because there are few things more frustrating or maddening than a consistently creaky bottom bracket. Perhaps they could take a cue from Santa Cruz and go back to thread-in, outboard bearing bottom brackets. We would support that wholeheartedly.
A handle on speed
One of the first things you’ll notice about the RKT9 on the trail is its nimble handling, which is especially worthy of note considering the bad rap 29ers often get in the handling department. The RKT9 is quick and playful — remember those 440mm chainstays and Boost 148 rear spacing? — and leaning this bike over in corners is surprisingly easy, partly as a result of the impressive standover clearance. You’ll still need to tap those brakes in tight switchbacks to avoid oversteering, but Niner has dialed their geometry well enough that oversteering isn’t nearly the detriment it has been in the past. The 70mm head tube and 46mm offset seem to address the oversteer issue well, and Niner consciously designed the front end this way even as other companies move toward slacker head tube angles. It feels right, and it feels quick.
Let’s get this on record, though: XC riders should ride dropper posts and the RKT9 should come with one. It’s not standard practice in the industry right now, but it should be. There’s no reason not to have one on an XC bike, since XC riders descend steep stuff, too, and with a steeper head angle to contend with, a more rearward body position can only help matters. Yes, it adds weight, but the benefits outweigh the ounces. To Niner’s credit, the RKT9 is dropper post compatible, with a 30.9 seat tube. Kudos to them for recognizing where XC riding should be headed.
Hucksters and descenders
The descent on the RKT9 was a bit on the jarring side. Remember this is a short-travel XC racer, not a TrEnd bike, so be prepared to feel the trail fighting back a bit. It would be nice to have a bit more travel — say, 100 or 110mm — but the geometry is so dialed with the 90mm that it would be shame to compromise it. A few more millimeters up front probably wouldn’t hurt, though. The RKT9 isn’t a bike that wants to huck and boost, and more suspension probably wouldn’t improve that, but again, that’s not what the bike is made for. It’s a zippy XC sled, and riding it with that expectation makes the ride seem all the more fun.
Keep in mind this assessment is based off of one ride, but generally, the RKT9 seems tailored toward long XC races. With a bit of tweaking of some small details — especially that bottom bracket creak and the addition of a dropper post — Niner might have one of the best XC full-suspension race bikes out there.