On a nondescript Tuesday morning a fortnight before the men’s triathlon at the Rio Olympics, 220 got a casual email from Boardman’s marketing manager: “We have an exact replica of the bike the Brownlees will be riding in Rio here… do you want to try it out?”
Needless to say we didn’t need asking twice, and by the end of the week we were cruising around north Somerset on a pristine Boardman Air 9.9 in GB colours.
Due to the stringent Olympic rules on branding and sponsorship, Boardman were unable to properly shout about the bike until the Games had ended, by which time Alistair and Jonny had picked up gold and silver, respectively, aboard theirs.
We actually did a lot of riding before the result so our verdict wouldn’t be subconsciously affected by the boys’ success, and post-Olympics we raced it at a local triathlon.
While the bike’s pedigree wasn’t immediately obvious to the casual observer due to the minimal design and more traditional shape at the front-end, it turned more than a few heads among those who knew their bikes, and everyone else when they knew the story behind the paint job.
The build is largely the same as the standard Boardman Air 9.9 except for the custom colours, but the Brownlees also opted for a Fizik Arione 00 saddle and bar tape. The saddle is fantastic – definitely an upgrade on the Prologo perch you get with the stock model.
While we were under the impression our model was an exact copy of the bike the Brownlees were riding around the Copacabana, it turned out they both, interestingly, opted for external front brake calipers rather than the integrated ones on ours. This was presumably a purely practical choice on their part, being as integrated brakes are a pain to make minor adjustments to (something that will most likely be needed if your bike is going in transit for any length of time). Not that we were complaining, as the integration looks fantastic from an aesthetic viewpoint.
Hidden front brakes and a rear brake located below the bottom bracket mean there’s minimum airflow disruption, and a four-bolt saddle clamp allows you to adjust the seatpost angle for an ultra-aggressive position. We did find the wheels were slightly more troublesome to align in the right position due to the hidden calipers, so just don’t ride off or rack in a race until you know it’s exactly spot on if the bike has been in transit.
The finished carbon frame is slim on the top tube, and it’s strange looking down and seeing so little actual frame circumference beneath you; however, this in no way makes the bike feel flimsy – to ride it feels similar to a Cervélo S3, with a fat down tube to balance out the geometry.
Boardman have stepped up their R+D process in 2016, and with extra investment from parent brand Halfords have acquired their own wind tunnel. The 9.9 was subject to extensive wind tunnel time and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) testing to create the fastest version yet. So how does it ride away from the tunnel?
The Sram eTap shifting is flawless, and to change between the big and small rings you simply tap on both shifters once (it was previously a double tap system, but the latest eTap has changed to one single tap for changing up or down). There’s a definitive electronic ‘click’ whenever you perform a shift, the only problem is getting used to how responsive it is compared to mechanical. The frame is nice and stiff, and the oversized forks make the bike feel strong and controllable at 40km/h plus.
Gearing on this model is a 52-36 chainset paired with an 11-25 cassette, which is the same as the stock Air 9.9 and gives a wide range of gears for climbs and fast sections.
Pairing with Zipp 404s is a nod to the bike’s pack-riding pedigree, as there’s much less need for the ultra wind-cheating 808s in draft-legal racing. This said, the 404s still cut through the air magnificently and, on a particularly windy weekend in the UK, were more beneficial for some extra stability and easier handling.
The tyres come courtesy of Continental in the form of their Competition Pro Ltd tubulars, which unfortunately aren’t available to the public – but purely for bragging purposes, we can reveal they’re even grippier and smoother than the mass-produced Competitions. If you happen to be very well connected in the bike world or bump into a Brownlee out riding, it might be worth asking them if you can ‘borrow’ their tyres...
The only thing we weren’t overly keen on were the Zipp Service Course 70 handlebars; over a 80km ride they didn’t feel massively comfortable. Although this wouldn’t have been a concern for the Brownlees over a 40km pack ride, it may be something to think about if you’re using the bike regularly for long rides and racing. We’d suggest an upgrade to Zipp’s Service Course SL range for a handlebar that matches the rest of the bike’s top-quality components.
At the time of writing Boardman are running a competition for their newsletter subscribers to win one of the limited edition frames, and we’re told they’ll be releasing some to buy soon. The whole bike won’t be available to purchase fully built, but you can buy the Air 9.9 specced with Sram eTap in the non-custom colours via Boardman’s website for £6,499,99. Is it worth it? If you have the cash, absolutely in our opinion: there are few better aero road bikes on the market and you won’t be disappointed.
Verdict: A very fast ride with top components for short-course tri. In any version, the Air 9.9 is a stunning bike 89%