I had the new Niner RLT 9 Steel delivered and built immediately before my trip to Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Over the course of the next few weeks I rode it on the red rocks of northern Arizona, the sands around the Utah slot-canyons, gravel roads going high into the Dixie National Forest, the hardpack in the mountains around Durango, and even grinded up a nasty paved climb for good measure.
I rode the Niner with the stock 4-Star Ultegra mechanical build with the exception of the tires. Knowing I was likely to be riding through some sand, I swapped the stock Schwalbe 35s for the WTB Nano 40s to give a bigger footprint. Niner says the frame can handle up to 44 mm tires, and seeing the clearance with the 40s, this looks to be correct.
The 4 Star Ultegra build is solid, and I chose it because I believe it is the best stock build for ultra-endurance and bikepacking. The 36-32 gear on the Ultegra is the lowest of all the stock options, the Ultegra hydraulic brakes and 160 mm rotors provide amazing modulation and stopping power, and I honestly am not ready to recommend or trust the Di2 for multi-day adventures yet.
The compliance of the Reynolds 853 tubeset soaks up big hits and dampens chatter from washboard roads wonderfully. Though it floats across bumps like cumulus clouds across an azure desert sky, it never felt disconnected or dead. Additionally, anytime my legs upped the wattage, the frame replied yessir and lunged forward without a hint of flex. In the saddle and grinding or out of the saddle and dancing, the frame was rock-solid and didn’t waste any power. Steel is really a magical material for bike frames, and Niner has married the best qualities of the material into an impressive chassis.
The RLT 9 Steel is supplied with Niner’s full carbon “gravel-tuned” fork. I did notice a discernible stiffness difference between the front and rear of the bike with the tires inflated equally. The fork makes for a stiffer front end, but I soon learned to compensate for this and run a slightly lower pressure in the front than the rear (about 2-3 psi less). This gave the front the same buttery smooth ride as the rear and kept the front end planted. The stiff fork is an asset for heavily loaded bikepacking adventures, and I am in no way critical of the stiffness. Too stiff can be adjusted with tire pressure, too compliant cannot. The fork is the source of my only complaint with the bike. The tabs at the bottom are so wide that you have to back the QR nut nearly all the way off to get the wheel out. The lack of threads on the skewer after backing the nut off resulted in a lost nut on one occasion, and resulted in searches for dropped nuts and springs on several others.
For bikepacking adventures, the frame has several highlights. The frame geometry and the tubing diameters make for a large opening in the main triangle. A large Revelate Designs frame bag did fit in the 56 cm frame fine, but was a little bunched along the top-tube and there was extra space at the down-tube/seat-tube junction. I think this frame is a great candidate for a custom full-frame bag, and will provide lots of storage with one. The saddle’s cro-mo rails mean you don’t have to worry about hanging heavy seat bags from them. And if you like the option for a fender or the ability to carry gear in panniers or on racks, there are braze on mounts for that. Additionally, though the stock build options are all 1X or double chainrings, the frame is designed to fit a triple if you so desire for heavy hauls and bikepacking routes that take you up and up.
For ultra-long rides and races, the Niner features a comfort oriented geometry with longer chain-stays, a lower bottom bracket height, and a headtube angle that reflects a nod towards comfort and ease of control. These features upped the comfort, but were not so extreme as to make the handling sluggish or unpredictable. The saddle does a great job of eliminating perhaps the most common source of discomfort on long rides. The Niner also has 3 bottle mounts to let you carry extra hydration for races such as the Dirty Kanza that can feature long isolated sections without water stops.
Speaking of, it’s now less than two weeks before I’m racing on the gravel around Emporia, Kansas again. I’m looking forward to attacking those roads with the Niner. I’ll have a follow-up review discussing the bike’s characteristics and performance in long races such as Kanza. Until then, I’ll be out enjoying everything from pub rides to long training sessions on one of the most comfortable bikes I have ridden.