First impressions - First off, we had to double check we had the right bike and right spec. Fitted with Ultegra Di2 and deep section aerodynamic wheels, the AIR 9.6 is a lot of bike for less than £4,000. And it looks like something a lot more expensive too. With some assurances received, we set about adjusting the saddle and stem before heading for the quiet roads to make sure things really did stack up as well as the spec sheet suggested they should.
On the road - The AIR 9.6 has been substantially updated and revised for 2019, the design team looking in particular at the head, down and seat tubes areas of the frame to improve aerodynamic performance while also taking on board customer feedback in regards to the brakes - the front stopper has gone back to a conventional mount rather than the hidden version used on last year’s model. While this change may cause a few extra watts of drag, it certainly makes for an easier bike to set up and guarantees class-leading performance - an important aspect on a bike designed to go fast. And go fast it does. Drive pick-up is near instantaneous, the stiff rear triangle offering ample resistance to our efforts. While the front doesn’t feel quite as stiff as some of the other bikes no test, we’d say it’s well up to the task - perhaps others are trying to hard? This means that overall, the ride is a touch softer, passing on less vibration to the rider, which is given the depth of the wheels must be down to the excellent Vittoria Corsa tyres and a more forgiving carbon fibre layup of the frame.
Handling - While the ride feel is obviously still that of an aerodynamic bike, this is to say slightly more print to twisting forces and less compliant, the Boardman AIR’s 2019 frame stokes a great balance between stiffness and comfort. Low-speed handling is very capable, and as speed increases, the bike gets bumped around less by poor road surfaces which is very welcome. Combined with excellent stability in crosswinds, it definitely gets a thumbs-up from us and should win friends with anyone who lacks a little confidence too. Diving into corners, the whole front end loads up nicely, giving the feedback required to precisely judge grip levels available. The front brake works well once the carbon pads and rim have been given time to bed in. Coming off the back of riding other test bikes with disc brakes, there is a slight feeling of a lack of immediate stopping power, but that takes just a few corners to get used to and ultimately the rim brakes stop the bike just as well as disc brakes - in the dry, at least.
Framest - For 2019 the top of the range AIR still uses what Boardman calls C10 high-modulus carbon to give stiffness to the frame without adding weight. As mentioned already, the fork has been redesigned to use a conventional front brake, and the package of fork and frame have been revised to ensure that they compliment each other aerodynamically. Along with the direct-mount rear brake under the bottom bracket, the AIR 9.6 uses a Pressfit 30 bottom bracket. This isn’t our favourite solution as the can get noisy and seem to need more mechanic’s care than other options., but we had no complaints during the test. With the frame being designed for both wireless and mechanical groupsets, the gear cables/wires all run internally, with the rear brake cable also routed internally and interestingly, with a full length outer from shifter to brake, which means it should perform well all winter long.
Groupset - A full covering of Shimano Ultegra R8050 means the AIR 9.6 fits with the other bikes here and benefits from the same groupset excellence. The wiring runs under the stem to connect to the charging block and hidden battery. As mentioned, the updated frame uses a conventional R8000 front brake calliper rather than one hidden behind the fork crown as on last year's model, but on the rear it sticks with the hidden style under the bottom bracket, opting for the TRP/714R direct mount. This improves aerodynamics, but it does mean that the brakes are more susceptible to picking up muck and water from the road in less than perfect conditions.
Finishing Kit - Naturally, like all the others on test, the AIR 9.6 has a propriety seat post fitted, a carbon inline design that offers four saddle mounting points to give plenty of fore and aft adjustments to the Fizik Antares saddle. An own-brand Elite alloy bar and stem complete the cockpit and give a harmonious look to the bike. A short and shallow bar, we found it to be very comfortable.
Wheels - Where can you start with such excellent wheels? At this price range, they look too good to be true. Knight Composite TLA 50s normally retail for around £2000, so Boardman must have strong-armed someone important to be able to spec them on a bike with a list price of less than £4000. Somewhat old-school, narrow hubs make for an undoubted aero advantage, but most other brands have moved away from this style. None the less, to get a deep section, aero, carbon wheelset at this price is truly outstanding and makes the AIR 9.6 a standout machine in this sector of the market. Fitted to them are Vittoria’s Corsa G+, a great tyre in our experience that uses graphene to improve grip and durability, and reduce rolling resistance. An excellent partner for the wheels.
When it comes to specification the Boardman is head and shoulders above the rest. It's Ultegra equipped just like the others on test but it's the £2000 carbon wheels that really make it stand out in the value-for-money stakes, and it's hard to think of anything you'd want or need to upgrade if you bought this bike
BikesEtc Issue 49