When Niner dropped off a shiny, white RLT 9 Steel at the Engearment compound, we were excited. This isn’t our first time on a Niner and we knew they were capable of making some pretty awesome bikes. But we weren’t sure how Niner’s experience in the mountain bike world would translate over to gravel bikes.
Once we swung a leg over the RLT9 Steel, however, our doubts disappeared in a pool of sweat. Right off the bat, we could tell this was a well-engineered bike, perfect for its assigned task – grinding on gravel roads.
The RLT 9 Steel combines Reynolds 853 tubing with Niner’s carbon fork. Our example is the 3-star build, which comes with SRAM Rival components with a smattering of house-brand bits, including Niner’s carbon seatpost and CX alloy rims. It lists for $2999. Ours weighed in just over 22 lbs. The stock tires were replaced with some file-tread Schwalbe Sammy Slick 35c tires.
Our first ride on the RLT 9 was something of a classic around here – Little Bear Rd. out of Idaho Springs, Colorado. Little Bear is part of a 30+ mile loop that includes 3500′ of climbing between 7,000′ and 10,000′ above sea level. Little Bear, itself, is 7.3 miles long and gains about 2,200′ – a 5.7% average grade. Most importantly, though, it’s dirt and gravel the whole way up. The rest of the ride is a combination of paved road (including a descent from the top of Squaw Pass) and multi-use path. It seemed like the perfect loop to try out an every-road bike like the RLT 9.
Gearing is just about perfect for the types of rides this bike was made for. With a 36T chainring up front and a 32T cog rear, the Niner has enough gearing to grind up just about anything. For comparison, a standard road bike gearset would bottom out at 39×27-28 and a compact 34×27-28. As you can see, you get a few extra gear inches, all else equal, with 36×32 gearing.
The Reynolds 853 tubing and Niner’s carbon fork do a nice job of soaking up some of the vibrations. Niner’s carbon seatpost, 27.2mm diameter, also contributes to a smooth ride. There things break down, however, is with the stock Niner CX wheels. They’re likely sturdy and durable, with eyeletted nipple holes, but they’re noodles. Noodly wheels don’t allow the frame and fork to behave how they were designed to behave. We have a set of carbon wheels with 40c Clement X’plor MSOs that we swapped over – the difference is night and day.
So far, we can’t say anything bad about the Niner RLT 9 Steel. But, if you do pick one up, we suggest planning a wheel upgrade sooner rather than later. Or, you can drop $6,000 on the 5-Star version with carbon rims and Ultegra Di2, if your budget so allows!