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Boardman Air 9.9 review

30 Jun 2016
Verdict:

Boardman has changed its look and upped its game with the Air 9.9, but is it greater than the sum of its parts?

Price: 
£6,499

Like Chris Boardman’s carefully honed time-trial position, Boardman the brand has been tweaking and tuning its bikes for nearly a decade now. Having earned its place alongside the big players, though, Boardman has shed its long-established skin, with new owners, a new logo and this, an aero road bike aimed at the very top of the market. 

While Boardman has never been afraid of R&D, the brand claims to have seriously stepped things up in creating the 9.9. ‘We’re really excited about our wind-tunnel,’ says marketing manager Jamie Mitchell. ‘I never thought I’d be able to say that five years ago!’

Halfords’ purchase of Boardman Bikes has enabled the brand to seek out new development opportunities with extra financial backing. Boardman’s wind-tunnel has already stirred quite a bit of excitement, even though it has yet to be officially set in brick and mortar.

In the meantime, Boardman re-engineered the Air last year off the back of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and external wind-tunnel testing. This latest version uses the same carbon frame as before, with a few tweaks to the lay-up, but Boardman has redesigned the front fork. The previous version, with a cable jutting out of its left fork leg, risked looking embarrassingly outdated beside the latest batch of aero road bikes that do away with exposed cabling. Boardman has also specced this bike to the hilt with high-end componentry, being one of the first off-the-peg bikes to offer Sram Red eTap from launch.

Perhaps the best stamp of approval, though, is the use of the bike by the world-beating Brownlee brothers in the Olympic triathlon this summer. That would suggest an extremely fast, capable machine, but perhaps it’s worth peering beneath Boardman’s new skin for a closer look at what has changed for the better, or for the worse.

Marginal gains

On seeing the new Air 9.9 for the first time, I was amazed at how much slicker it looks than previous versions. The revised logo has been paired with a new paint scheme and the product looks both more mature and high-end as a result. Of all the bikes I’ve ridden recently, the Air seemed to take people aback the most, with many being overwhelmed by the aero curves and expensive sheen the bike seems to glow with. It’s not a reaction I would ever have imagined while riding a Boardman five years ago.

 

Despite all the top-end kit, however, I do think the Air 9.9 is overpriced. That’s not to suggest it’s not a well-specced bike, especially alongside similarly priced competitors. But I was struck by the basic arithmetic that buying all of the Air 9.9’s component parts at retail and then purchasing the frame would be far cheaper than buying this bike complete. 

Perhaps it’s just a marketing ploy aimed at making the brand seem more premium, but it also serves to illustrate the incredible value offered by the new Air 9.8 frameset (which, slightly confusingly, is what’s been used for the Air 9.9). On its own, this comes in at a price of £1,699 – half the cost of the framesets on the Cervélo S5 or Trek Madone that this bike competes with. 

Further down the range, that impressive frame price is met with a reasonable overall build cost, and represents very good value all round. At this tier, though, it would be cheaper to buy the frame and build it up yourself.

Costings aside, let’s move onto the positives. Compared with last year’s Air 9.8, the Air 9.9 is faster, lighter and generally sharper. Whether that sharpness, both in handling and power delivery, is due to tiny changes in lay-up is difficult to determine, but what is apparent is that the entire build works better as a system. 

The previous iteration was specced with Zipp 60 wheels, which I felt let down the bike as a whole. It was a heavy wheelset, and whether it was down to flex in the wheel or frame, the brake pads rubbed the rear rim with even the slightest of standing efforts. By contrast, the switch to Zipp’s extremely capable 404 Firecrest wheels means the new bike feels stiffer and delivers power more acutely to generate speed. They’re aerodynamic enough to make the most of the frame’s curves while being light and stiff under pressure. 

The finishing kit also complements the build in terms of performance. That said, I might have expected carbon at this price, and the Tektro BB-mounted rear brake is also a little basic for the level of build elsewhere. Ultimately, though, the alloy finishing kit is light enough and stiff enough to do the job, and works well with the bike as a whole. 

Personally I’d like to see the 44cm bars trimmed a little for a more wind-cheating profile when riding in an aero position, but the wider bar does a lot for sprinting and climbing power when out of the saddle. Despite a slightly hefty weight, the Air 9.9 proved to be a capable climber, and I clocked one of my fastest ever times up my steepest local incline on the bike.

Soft landing

For an aero bike, the Air 9.9 is strikingly comfortable. ‘At the seatstays, we have used a lower modulus T800 carbon, where we’re looking for comfort spots,’ says Mitchell. That’s palpable from the outset, with the frame buffering impacts from the road far more than I expected. At the same time, though, the slight extra flex at the rear sapped a little ultimate speed during flat-out sprints. 

At the front, stiffness has clearly been tuned up with the new fork, which has sharpened up the handling of the bike while also improving the aesthetics and aerodynamic performance.

The Air presented me with a compromise I found difficult to accept. While I liked its added comfort over rough roads, it’s plainly meant to be a fast bike, and for me it just didn’t feel as fast as competitors such as the Specialized Venge ViAS, Scott Foil or Trek Madone. Not by a big margin, but it wasn’t quite as good at holding speed above the 40kmh mark. That said, this frame comes in at a price point that easily undercuts those of its rivals, as do the complete builds further down the range.

The updates between last year’s model and this one have ultimately evolved Boardman’s aero charger from a good bike into a very good bike. Perhaps the Air 9.9 lags ever so slightly behind the giants of the aero road category, but in the years to come we fully expect to see Boardman bridging the gap and possibly even, like its founder, dropping the competition.

Model Boardman Air 9.9
Groupset SRAM Red eTap
Deviations TRP brakes
Wheels Zipp 404 Firecrest Carbon
Finishing kit Zipp Service Course bar and stem. Prologo Nero 2 saddle
Weight 8.14kg
Price £6,499
Contact boardmanbikes.com

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