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Gravel bike design is like the Wild West right now. Companies are trying anything and everything to create more comfortable and faster off-road machines. Simply tuning the ride through carbon layup now seems quaint. In frames and forks, we’ve seen compliance added through pivots built into chainstays, leaf springs and frame decouplers—not to mention compliance added in other components, including seat posts and stems. It was only a matter of time before full suspension found its way into the mix. It took Niner, which pushed the 29er concept in mountain biking early on, to lead the charge into this virgin territory with a “magic carpet ride” that could very well represent the future of gravel.
We need to make something clear right off the bat: The MCR 9 RDO is not a mountain bike with drop bars. Yes, it has full suspension, but the similarities end about there. The basic concept behind this bike is that you’re faster when your tires maintain constant contact with the ground, not when they’re getting bounced around constantly. The MCR aims to create the smoothest ride possible, a magic carpet ride of sorts—that’s where the MCR name comes from. And by doing so, riders should get less fatigued and be able to ride farther and faster.
With 50mm of travel from the rear shock and 40mm from the Fox fork, this bike has about half the travel of a traditional mountain bike. Instead of being prepared for absorbing the impacts of huge jumps, it’s tuned for the constant highfrequency vibrations inherent in gravel riding. In the rear, Niner’s Constantly Varying Arc (CVA) suspension system helps maintain a controlled ride through any terrain, with a suspension curve optimized for a seated rider pushing out the watts. And the MCR 9 RDO’s steep geometry is also firmly rooted in gravel bike territory, fully encouraging all-day seated pedaling.
With suspension to do the heavy lifting, the tires (up to 50c) get a reprieve from being run at super-low pressures to mitigate the worst effects of road chatter. Tires can be inflated higher to minimize on-road rolling resistance—meaning more speed during mixed-terrain days and races. As gravel turns back into tarmac, the rear shock can lock out with a remote trigger on the handlebars; the fork lockout is accessible while riding too. Including suspension, though, means there’s a sizeable weight penalty—a size 56cm totals more than 25 pounds.
Riding over washboard roads and flat gravel, the Niner really shines. It offers the plushest off-road ride we’ve experienced, to the point where you don’t feel any road bumps. The Fox 32 SC fork is quite good too, providing a responsive feel.
But weight is a glaring factor holding this bike back from being a gravel racing champion. With premiere and upstart gravel races alike featuring thousands of feet of climbing, the 25-plus pounds of weight simply holds back too much anyone accustomed to the pointy end of races.
It’s also important to remember the boundaries of this bike. Again, it’s no mountain bike. Experienced off-road descenders might be tempted to push the envelope because of the suspension, only to find that the tires and geometry can’t keep up.
But for those less concerned with racing who encounter a diverse array of off-road terrain beyond gravel on their local trails—including a bit of tame single track—the MCR is worth a look.
This is by no means the final version of what a suspension gravel bike can be, but it represents a promising start. Gravel suspension has arrived, now we eagerly wait to see just how far the technology can go.
$7,000 as tested; 25.73 lbs. / 11.7kg (56cm)
Shimano GRX 800 2x group, 11–34 cassette, Easton EA90 47X32T crankset; Niner RDO stem, Easton EA50 AX handlebars; Stan’s NoTubes Grail CB7 wheels; Schwalbe G-One Evo SS tires (40mm); X-Fusion Microlite shock; Fox 32 SC Float AX Performance Elite Evol Fit4 fork.