i9, from Asheville, North Carolina, makes blazing-fast, beautiful wheels.
That sound. “I’m behind you, I’m going to pass you, you are powerless to stop me.” That’s the sound of i9 hubs. It’s a precise, mechanical buzz. If I’m on the trail ahead of you, use the sound to gauge how fast I’m pulling away. Like a baby in a restaurant–if it’s yours, the noise is fine. If it’s someone else’s, it’s maddening.
Let’s start with a basic fact; the best place to spend money upgrading your bike is on wheels. Better wheels save rotational weight, add stiffness and, most importantly, quicken the speed of engagement.
I’ve known about, and coveted, i9 hubs for years, but this was my first chance to ride them for any length of time. The quality of design and construction on i9s is, by itself, enough to want them. But function is really what makes them worth the price tag.
The i9 Torch 24 spoke Trail wheelset for 29-inch wheels weighs in at 1520 grams (3.35 pounds), so… very light. Without going too far down a physics wormhole, reducing rotational/un-sprung weight (wheels and fork) is more beneficial than removing sprung (carried by the suspension) weight. Light wheels spin up faster with less energy, accelerate quicker and require less wattage to maintain a fast, steady cadence.
Before we get into how fantastic these ride, let's dig into the Torch's three main components: hubs, rims and spokes.
The crown jewel. If you don’t know, hub efficiency is the amount of rotation it takes a hub to stop spinning freely before engaging the wheel into the driving power your legs are pushing to the pedals. Efficiency is measured either by engagement points (more is better), or degrees of rotation (less is better).
i9s have 120 engagement points, or 3 degrees of possible rotation before they engage. Compared to a non high-end hub (and even other high-end hubs), this is tremendous. They achieve this with dual sets of phased three-pawl drive units fitted into a 60-tooth hub body.
Dual sets of phased drive pawls. An engineering marvel. i9 photo.
They’re lightening quick, and i9 says they’ve never had a mechanism failure even after testing it to 700 ft/lbs of torque (about that of a Ford Power Stroke turbo diesel engine). So... strong.
None of your pedal stroke is wasted. All your power immediately goes to the rear wheel. This is incredibly empowering out on the trail. Without those few degrees of play found in lesser hubs, ratcheting over tough technical terrain becomes much easier, and you accelerate at exactly the moment you choose to stomp the pedals–no turbo lag.
The stiff rims sport an impressive inner width and a deep profile.
The i9 torch 24-spoke 29'er Trail rims are aluminum, have 28mm outer/23.4mm inner width, and use a deep cross-section to save weight and add stiffness. Of course, they all come tubeless ready with a well-engineered lip to grab your tire.
I don’t weigh that much, so I’m good.
The website says there’s a 200 pound rider weight limit for these rims. If you do weigh more, go with the 32 spoke setup–or the wider Enduro rims.
i9 spokes are one piece, 7075-T6 machined aluminum, straight-pull (not j-bend) oversized (vs. steel), strong, stiff and light as heck. The spokes thread directly into the hub, eliminating the nipple and reducing rotational mass at the rim.
Straight spokes threading right into the hub with no bend.
i9 uses sixteen spokes on the drive side and eight on the non-drive to reduce overall weight while maintaining stiffness and durability. Because there are more spokes on the drive side, they taper those spokes from 2.9 to 2.7mm vs 2.9mm on the non-drive.
Who thinks of all this?
Regardless, straight-pull, fat spokes look badass. They also are less prone to failure, because most stress failures happen at the j-bend on traditional spokes.
One last bonus; You can unscrew the threaded end of the spoke with a Torx 8 if there's a sheer-break from the hub.
I slipped the tires on, added some Stan's tubeless spooge, and my tires seated easily. I switched from an XD (Sram 11 speed) freehub body (the splined housing that holds the cassette to the wheel) to a 10-speed freehub body.
After you get the cassette off the wheel, pulling the axle end caps and freehub body should be doable by hand.
Your wheels will come withl all endcap flavors.
But because my wheels were pretty new, it took gorilla strength and some serious yanking and twisting with pliers to get those caps off. I felt a little silly. My apologies to Jon at i9 for the frantic phone call about them being stuck–he actually stayed on the phone as I was grunting and pulling away and even sent a couple new caps because I thought I might mess them up by pulling so hard on them (I didn’t, of course). The freehub body came off and swapped out just like it was supposed to.
When you buy these wheels it’ll be set up for your bike, but you can easily switch driver bodies or axle types. So don’t worry about that.
You can tell they're there even without seeing them. But they sure do look sharp.
All that and a bag of chips! Instant upgrade. I swapped these wheels onto a good bike with decent OEM wheels from a solid company–so not going from worst to first–and they still made a huge difference.
They look fly, no doubt about it. Gunnar Waldman photo.
It’s like your feet and mental intent are immediately more connected to your cycling. You feel like accelerating… boom, you’re going faster. Negotiating a long technical rock garden? You don’t suffer the pedal strikes of outrageous fortune, because ratcheting is so precise. Take back a few degrees and kick over that boulder. You keep consistent power to the wheels and suspension with small, precise movements. Like a boxer, you're jabbing, dancing and punching with your legs, immediately seeing the results of your labor.
You keep consistent power to the wheels and suspension with small, precise movements. Like a boxer, you're jabbing, dancing and punching with your legs, immediately seeing the results of your labor.
Over the course of a long ride, immediate power transfer saves huge amounts of energy. Charging into technical terrain, you reset and ratchet without any slop or loss of power. If passing someone, you pick the EXACT right moment, and off you go. As we know, any small delay and possibility is diminished.
The weight savings is very nice, too. I’ve ridden light wheels from ENVE and DT Swiss, and i9 has done a lot of engineering to keep weight down while retaining stiffness. Their large, leading machining capabilities give them a competitive advantage.
THE BOTTOM LINE
One of i9's precision machining... um... machines. This one manufactures drive rings and pawls and is called the "Wire Electronic Discharge Machine." i9 photo.
And that sound. You always feel like you’ve got an extra card to play. I can intimidate people by following them for awhile until they give up and let me pass. To paraphrase–it’s like the smell of Napalm in the morning. It sounds like victory.
A few final notes: i9 is made in the USA in Asheville, North Carolina. I had the opportunity to talk to them a bit, they are great guys, all riders. And were kind enough to stay on the phone with me through my hissy-fit end-cap freakout. You can buy wheels in all sizes, including boost, fatbike and road.