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Back in 2004, Niner asked mountain bike riders to join the "big" revolution—leave 26-inch wheels to the beach cruisers and step up to 29-inch wheels. The rapid success of that movement turned Niner from a niche brand appealing to a few tall mountain bikers to one of the driving forces in the movement. It didn’t hurt that Niner truly understood what makes big wheels work and made great bikes.
Flash forward 12 years and the exploding gravel scene has massively increased Niner’s rider base yet again—29-inch wheels happen to share the same dimensions as 700c wheels. Niner’s Road Less Traveled line, the RLT, has already carved out a great reputation for very capable, durable, versatile gravel, dirt and bikepacking characteristics in alloy and steel. Where Niner felt it had a gap was in pure gravel performance. As more and more racers are hanging up the crit bike and racing on gravel, Niner felt the need to ramp up the RLT’s performance, and it did it by dipping into its carbon experience with RDO mountain bikes.
What does increased performance mean to Niner on gravel? Obviously, carbon as a material—shaving weight while still delivering massive stiffness with plenty of inthe- saddle compliance—is a big part of it. The rest is rather subtle, especially when looking at the 56cm as an example. The head tube isn’t slammed, the reach isn’t hamstring-stretching long; in fact. it’s very slightly taller and shorter than an alloy or steel RLT. Is it steeper and twitchier? Nope, it still has a 71.5cm head tube. The biggest difference to the tape measure is the rear end.
The RLT 9 RDO’s chain stays are a full centimeter shorter than the alloy and steel RLTs, which shortens the entire wheelbase, yet Niner has dropped the bottom bracket a full centimeter to 65mm. The goal seems to have been: shorten the bike up to improve reactivity in the saddle, yet retain plenty of stability with the low bottom bracket and allow for a fairly relaxed rider position. "We built the thing in carbon and we want to make sure the ride characteristics match the material," says Brad Cole, Niner’s marketing manager. Of course, there are other tweaks still aimed at in-the-saddle performance. The bike runs dual throughaxles and Niner is very proud of the fact that the RLT 9 RDO passes the same brutal testing standards as its carbon mountain bikes. The bike uses flat-mount disc brakes and can accept up to 40mm tires, but ships with 35mm tires.
The new thinking Niner invested in the bike goes beyond performance in gravel to performance in the workstand. A new internal guide systems debuts on the RLT 9 RDO. With both mechanical and electronic systems, simply thread the cable in the right hole and it pops out in the desired location. No fishing necessary. While performance was the name of the game, Niner has not left those wanting to spend a few nights bikepacking out of the equation. The RDO carbon fork has rack, fender and mid mounts. The rear end can accept both fenders and racks too, making it an easy bike to load up for a long trip in the saddle.
Niner categorizes each bike in its lines by stars and we tested what it calls its Five Star build: a full Ultegra Di2 build with ENVE SES AR Disc carbon clinchers, Easton’s EC70 AX bars, Niner RDO stem, Niner saddle and Schwalbe G-One tires. Only 50 of the Five Star builds will be made and each will be $8,800. Our Five Star Niner RLT 9 RDO weighed 18.9 pounds.
The Niner’s position belies its true abilities. It feels quite relaxed as you settle into the saddle and tap out the first few Ks of your ride. This is Niner’s performance gravel rig? Hit the gas and you’ll know:
"Yeah, the Niner RLT 9 RDO is a ripper." The shorter rear end and crisp power transfer translate to a very lively feel at the pedals, as lively as the best in the gravel category. There are certainly riders that will feel like the position is not quite as aggressive as the bike’s sensations under power, but for those riders we’d recommend tweaking stack and reach with a long, –17-degree stem, because the bike’s reactivity is that good.
What the position does supply, especially with the low bottom bracket, is stability—and not just surfing thick Kansas gravel. It sits into corners exceptionally well, providing enormous confidence and a very telepathic relationship with the contact patch. On the limit, the bike’s edge is wide and forgiving, inviting riders to explore it in depth and improve riding skills without biting back.
WEIGHT: 18.9lbs 58cm without pedals or cages
BUILD: Shimano Ultegra Di2 with RS805 hydraulic braking, ENVE SES 4.5 AR wheels, Schwalbe G-One 35mm tires, Niner RDO stem and seat post, Easton EC70AX bars, Niner saddle with Ti rails.