First Ride: Niner JET 9 RDO 4-Star XT
A classic approach to the 120-millimeter 29er, in good ways and bad.
-120-millimeters rear travel, 130 front
-Niner’s CVA linkage
-All that Niner swagger
-Smart cable management
-Thoughtful touches like threaded BB, UDH hanger
-Slack actual seat angle leads to inconsistent geo numbers
-Not supportive under body input or pedaling load
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29ers have changed drastically in the 15 years since Niner’s founding, thanks largely to Niner itself. And the category occupied by the new JET 9 RDO is no exception. The short-travel trail 29er has seen a boom in popularity lately, attracting unlikely brands like Evil, Transition and YT. Mainstays like Ibis, Pivot and Santa Cruz have modernized their flagship trail 29ers. Trek, Giant, Specialized, Norco, and plenty more have all come up with remarkable options in recent years. It is onto this intimidating playing field that Niner is stepping today, and our expectations are high.
The new carbon-only JET 9 RDO runs its 120mm of rear travel through Niner’s CVA suspension, and on every complete build, runs its 130mm of front travel through a Fox 34, featuring a Grip2 damper on all but the entry-level build. The frame uses full internally tubed cable routing, a threaded bottom bracket, SRAM UDH derailleur hanger and clearance for 2.6-inch tires despite the short 432mm chainstays
For the most part, the rest of the geometry ticks equally modern boxes. 469mm reach in a large, 1211mm wheelbase, and a 66-degree head angle, all in a low mode afforded by a flip chip that changes the angles by a half degree. Thing is, that low mode puts the claimed effective seat tube angle at a relatively slack 75.5 degrees. And on my first ride, I found it felt even slacker. A little bit of trigonometry revealed that, at an 820mm saddle height on my XL test bike, the JET 9’s 66-degree actual seat tube angle put the saddle significantly further off the back at 74.1 degrees. Even after I slammed the saddle forward, I was still sinking deep in its travel on the climbs when running the recommended 30 percent sag.
I was able to pedal with comfort and efficiency with the shock in the fully firm position, but something doesn’t sit right with a modern 120mm bike needing not just a little platform to climb well, but a lot. Without it, the tendency to sink into its travel on climbs put me past the optimal sag point on the climbs where the anti-squat numbers tend to be lower, and heavy pedaling forces compound the issue, causing noticeable pedal bob. If I ramped up the pressure, I could sit more in the optimal sag setting on climbs, but it would severely lessen the JET 9’s ability to react to bumps on the descents. I ended up sticking to 30 percent sag and relying on the lockout for efficient climbs.
Putting the frame in its high setting helped, but I liked how it descended in its low setting. It is almost too low, which I think means it’s perfect. I would only suffer the occasional pedal strike on poorly timed strokes on steep technical climbs. That wasn’t helped by how easily the JET 9 sank in its travel, but on the downhill, I didn’t want to give up on its low center of gravity. It successfully mitigates the slight timidness shared by most short-travel 29ers. Paired with the long but not-that-slack front end, it made for steering that was quick, but not sketchy. I had to stay on my toes when dropping rough, steep sections, but I never felt like the bike couldn’t handle them.
High-speed rough sections weren’t necessarily more forgiving on the JET 9 because of its tendency to sink into its travel on the climbs. It was no harsher than most modern 120mm 29ers, but with its relatively narrow optimal range of sag adjustment, I didn’t have the freedom to set it any deeper for more of a DH focus. And when I would set it a little higher to be supportive like the 120mm bikes I’ve been spoiled by lately, it would get bounced around. This bike preferred to weave through the chunk in high-speed flat sections and crawl down the slow steep ones, but it was good at doing both. During my test period, I’d grown particularly fond of a specific long canyon descent that alternated between knife-edge traverses and boulder-field ping-pong, and the precision of the JET 9 was well suited for it. Floating mid-travel at moderate speed allowed me to stay aloof and ready if I hit a soft spot or needed to do a sudden weave.
The five builds available in the JET 9 all land somewhere just slightly above average, price-wise when compared to boutique brands like Pivot and Santa Cruz, and you pay a higher premium compared to what we’ve seen lately from Ibis and Trek. Niner made good spec choices across the lineup, though it’s frustrating that they chose to put a 150mm dropper on both a large and XL, both of which could fit longer, more size-appropriate posts, but it will be your job to get one after buying the bike. Niner did take steps to make the bike appealing to a broad range of riders, offering small to XL and, in one build, reaching down to a pricepoint of $4,100 for a full-carbon, Fox-equipped bike.
The truth is, there are bikes out there that do a better job at handling the situations where the JET 9 fell short. But none of them are Niners. There’s no mistaking the new JET 9 for anything but. It’s got Niner’s distinct lines, the You Are What You Drink headset top cap, and the mantra, “Pedal damn it,” forever branded on the top tube. Proud lifelong Ninerds can still find things to love in the JET 9.
Find it at ninerbikes.com/jet-9-rdo