Review: Niner RLT 9 Gravel Road Bike

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Introduced last September, the Niner RLT 9 is the first non mountain bike from the heretofore 29er specific brand. Technically, they call it an “all-road mountain bike”, which, after riding it, isn’t far from the truth.

Built on a hydroformed alloy frame, the bike gets gravel road geometry with a slackish head angle and slightly longer chainstays. Think Salsa Warbird, not Ridley X-Bow, and you get the idea. While they’ve introduced a few new build kits and paint schemes, we tested the original model built with SRAM Force 22, a full Niner cockpit and Stan’s Iron Cross wheels.

Despite their mountain bike heritage, Niner managed to get a road going version very right on their first try. That doesn’t mean it can’t rip the singletrack, too…

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Up front, the size 59 (tested) has a rather tall, smoothly tapered head tube that flows beautifully into their own carbon “gravel” fork. Other than the seat tube, the head tube is about the only round part of the frame.

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Sharp shapes on the top- and downtubes are subtly curved to soften the lines, yet keep the bike very, very stiff. Seatstays are slightly flat, but beefy.

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Chainstays aren’t oversized, but are also shaped to amplify frame stiffness. Rear brake mounts are nicely placed inside the rear triangle without requiring any odd bends or extended shaping of the seatstay. Fender and rack mounts are present without being eyesores.

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Shift cables run inside the downtube then pop out under the bottom bracket shell. Rear brake hose runs externally the whole way. The frame comes with Di2 ports and can be run either electronically or mechanically with no changes. It’s spec’d for a PFBB30 bottom bracket, which also lets them use their BioCentric EBB to convert the frame to single speed.

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Tire clearance is ample, with claimed clearance for a 29×1.75 (approximately 700×42). Shown here are the Schwalbe Sammy Slick 700×35 with plenty of breathing room.

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Niner’s carbon forks are fairly well regarded, and the new gravel version lives up to the hype. It’s stiff and good looking and handled the rough stuff just fine. If anything, it might could use a bit more fore/aft compliance. It’s built for 140mm rotors, but the bike came with 160mm front installed. Small rubber plugs hide the fender mounts above the axle, but they fall out a bit too easily. Sorry Niner, it’ll be a few shy when it comes home.

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

The cockpit is all Niner. Stem and handlebar are alloy, seatpost is carbon and the saddle gets Cr-Mo rails. It’s all perfectly functional, but an alloy bar off road is a buzz kill in that it absolutely does not kill the buzz. This would be the second part I’d swap out immediately. As for the post, an upgrade to Niner’s RDO flex carbon seatpost would be a smart move, too…it works wonderfully, and the benefits will be even more appreciated on a stiff alloy frame like this. YAWYD steerer cap included, decorated here with a Red Oak cap. Mmmmmmm, Red Oak.

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

The complete bike (no pedals) came in at 19.36lbs (8.78kg) for a size 59.

RIDE REVIEW

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Overall, the RLT 9 is very good, but I do have a few spec concerns to get out of the way first: If the handlebar was the second thing I’d swap out, the first is the wheels. Or the tires. Or both. Here’s why: The included Schwalbe Sammy Slick tires are not tubeless ready and have a printed minimum 50psi rating. Stan’s Iron Cross have a max air pressure rating of 45psi. Sure enough, as soon as the gauge hit 46, the tire blew off the rim and sprayed my office with sealant (they were sent set up tubeless, but most likely they’ll have tubes on the shop floor). I spoke with Stan’s about the issue and here’s the deal. No, it’s not the bead hook that can’t handle the higher pressures. It’s the combination of a non-tubeless tire’s bead not being designed to pop into the hook and hold tight. That’s why the tire blew off anyway, and it was more a coincidence that it happened immediately over 45psi. In reality, the 45psi max rating on the rims is because they’re using the old Alpine rim extrusion, which was originally designed as an ultralight 26″ mountain bike rim for racers running pressures in the mid 20psi range or lower. At 45psi, there’s a chance the rim can start to deform, letting the sidewalls bend outward or even split down the middle under abuse.

I tried running the tires at 40psi, but on the road and smoother gravel paths, it just felt too squishy under my 190lb person (before adding kit, water bottles, etc.). And knowing how easily the tires blew off the rim before, I simply never felt confident pushing it through the corners. So, the solution is as simple as swapping to proper tubeless tires, or switching wheels:

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

We have White Industries’ new CLD disc hubs in for review, which they sent laced to Zipp 303 rims. Hells yeah. That let me comfortably run 50-60psi, which seemed to be the right balance between comfort, performance and pinch flat prevention. If it were my personal bike, I’d run a tubeless set up on shallow rims (carbon or alloy).

The second spec change I’d make is the cockpit, swapping to a carbon handlebar like the Thomson KFC (which, to Niner’s credit, is spec’d on their top end build) and moving to a flex seatpost.

Niner RLT 9 gravel grinder road bike review and actual weights

Why the changes? Besides the tire/rim concerns, to add a bit of comfort to the bike in ways that don’t detract from (and probably improve) it’s performance. The combination would take the edge off the aluminum frame’s inelastic ride. After all, it’s a solid frame that’s among the stiffest bikes I’ve ridden. The Zipp’s further amplified the rigid feeling when rocking the bike back and forth during sprints, but it’s the ridiculously stiff shaped alloy frame and stout carbon fork that really let you know this thing’s made to go fast. That also means bump feedback can be a bit harsh on the behind, hence the desire for tubeless and flex post. Fortunately, there’s clearance for wider tires to further mitigate chatter. The upside is I get the feeling it’ll hold up to whatever nonsense you decide to ride, be it rutted forest service roads, mountain bike trails or just good ol’ fashioned pavement.

Our size 59 had a 72º head angle. Smaller sizes get half a degree slacker per frame size as they go down, likely to improve front wheel/toe clearance. At low speeds, this provided quick handling (good for ‘cross). At cruising speed, it held a straight line with hands off the bar (good for crushing roads). The combination also worked pretty well on singletrack, weaving between trees and around switchbacks almost as well as a rigid hardtail.

The RLT 9 isn’t some timid line extension from a mountain bike brand. It’s a very good bike in its own right that works so well for such a wide variety of surfaces you may find yourself using your regular road bike less and less. I know I certainly have.

Retail for the complete RLT 9 4-Star build is $2,999 as tested. A mostly Shimano 105 build is $1,999 and the top level Ultegra Di2 bike is $5,499. Framesets, which include the carbon fork, are $1,049.

NinerBikes.com

Comments

mrdnc - 06/04/14 - 9:12am

I don’t know a thing about riding gravel, but I can definitely agree Red Oak is one tasty beer.

J Train - 06/04/14 - 9:31am

Good review, BR. Thanks for the opinions and critiques.

Eddy - 06/04/14 - 10:27am

Nice review TB. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is between a gravel bike and a CX bike is but running 40 PSI on gravel still seems a bit low. I like the addition of 303s with a tubeless tire. Seems like the right choice to me.

Andrew - 06/04/14 - 10:31am

Quite possibly the only cyclocross bike I would buy and use as a commuter/do it all machine Beautiful bike indeed.

David - 06/04/14 - 11:41am

I’ve been beating up my RLT9 for a few hundred miles now and this review is really dead on. My 4-star build, size 50, + heavy pedals and cages came in under 19 lbs. I am smaller and lighter and running tubes so I don’t have much issue with the wheel/tire combo out of the box. The rear triangle is stiff – I’ll agree the stiffest I have ridden. But on pavement that pays off. The fork could use a little more play, but I’ve ridden some other forks (on other bikes) that were more compliant and total garbage with heavy braking applied – this is a trade off I’ll take all day. An upgraded post and bars would handle a lot of that, but I’ll probably just get used to it… maybe I’ll just add fatter tires. I don’t have any other complaints at this point. The geometry is great (for me) and the longer top tube/shorter stem combo makes high speed descents and single track a lot more enjoyable. It is a really versatile bike and I imagine its one that I’ll hang onto.

Will - 06/04/14 - 12:28pm

If they had made this out of steel, I might be interested.

chadquest - 06/04/14 - 1:17pm

If the bottom bracket wasn’t so stupidly euro CX high, if it had clearance for frame bags and water bottles, and if the frame itself wasn’t an ass beater it might be worth calling a “gravel bike”. This is really just a pure CX bike that fits bigger tires, nothing else besides tire clearance does anything for gravel.

I guess this bike is more designed for short couple hour rides then the long 10-34 hour rides most of our gravel scene does.

Flip - 06/04/14 - 1:24pm

@chadquest – Who entitled you to speak for the entire “gravel scene,” whatever the hell that is?

Gregorio - 06/04/14 - 2:09pm

Tyler, great write up and spot on opinions of the RLT. I am looking to upgrade my wheelset but was under the impression that Zipp 303′s were not tubless compatible. Did you set up with Stan’s tape and sealant and has this been working well?

pfs - 06/04/14 - 2:25pm

@chadquest – Why wouldnt this fit frame bags? I’ve seen them with frame bags and it seemed to work just fine.

Chris - 06/04/14 - 2:53pm

“The combination would take the edge off the aluminum frame’s inelastic ride.”

Actually the sentence should read “…take the edge off the oversized tubing frame’s inelastic ride.” The notion that aluminum is stiffer than steel is WRONG. That’s not my opinion, it’s an absolute fact of science. The reason this and many other alloy frames are so stiff has nothing to do with aluminum and everything to do with the diameter of the tubing. If you made the bike out of steel tubes drawn to those diameters it would be even more uncomfortable. People who think alloy bikes are harsh riding probably haven’t been riding long enough to remember the Vitus 979 frame that Sean Kelly won dozens of major races on (including Paris-Roubaix) or the Alan cyclocross frames that won more major ‘cross races than any frame before or since. Both bikes were often criticized for not being stiff enough. Those bikes relied on aluminum tubes that were about the same diameter as steel tubes but with much thicker walls – pretty much the opposite approach of Klein, Cannondale, etc. who rely on super thin but highly oversized tubes. Also if aluminum is stiffer than steel please explain why track sprinters often use steel bars instead of alloy bars.

Tyler Benedict - 06/04/14 - 3:29pm

Gregorio – I ran tubes in the 303′s, didn’t want to mess with setting up a non-tubeless ready rim with tape and sealant in this case. I’ve seen it (and done it) on several other brands (Mavics, Boyds, etc.), and it would be the right way to go for a proper gravel bike. If I end up trying it here, I’ll report back on the hub/wheelset review.

Chris – agreed, and Cannondale’s CAAD10 road bike is a perfect example of aluminum with some compliance built in. That’s just not the case here, but proper tire selection and set up combined with a flex carbon post can do wonders. I’ve ridden Niner’s RDO post and Ritchey’s WCS Trail posts and love both. And Cane Creek still makes the Thudbuster if you really wanna go big.

Chadquest – more and more pure cyclocross RACE bikes are moving to a lower BB, but for bikes like this that are meant to ride anywhere (and bunny hop log obstacles), the higher BB is worth it. I never felt like it was hurting handling or putting me “on top of” the bike.

-s - 06/04/14 - 4:44pm

Glad, I’m not the only one who had a tire blow off the rim on the RLT 9.

professor - 06/04/14 - 4:53pm

Will, couldn’t agree more.

K11 - 06/04/14 - 4:57pm

the only reason inner made this thing is because they needed something to build, because they locked themselves out of any other wheel size.

(well, niner riders will want it because its a “niner damn it.” to be part of the new gravel grinder category, or pose it next to their newest niner mtb.)- well i guess, well played niner.

OverIt - 06/04/14 - 11:55pm

I love mine for it’s riding qualities, but I’ll never buy another Niner again…. First day I road it, the paint round the fork crown race chipped due to insufficient clearance to the HT. I emailed 9er and got the reply 3 weeks later, that “a head tube facing will fix it” um yeah, it shouldn’t need it in the first place… plus it will ruin the painting of the head tube and leave a sharp edge, or if it’s chamfered a silver line… oh never mind the chipped paint on the fork, no solution offered from 9er on that. My dealer and local 9er rep haven’t bothered to get in touch either, after several weeks…. all bad customer service AFIAK.

OverIt - 06/05/14 - 12:13am

Well… aint that bound to happen, literally get an email from dealer soon after my 1st post.. Lets see what happens. My apology forthcoming perhaps.. :)

Gary - 06/05/14 - 2:15am

I don’t understand why you would make a metal frame with a press-fit BB. Would anyone care to enlighten me?

pfs - 06/05/14 - 10:33am

@gary – There are tons of great reasons, here are the big ones. Compatibility with all the new cranks, 30MM and 24MM spindles. Ability to use an EBB for SS.

David - 06/05/14 - 8:42pm

@OverIt – if you run into issues call Niner and talk to Ralph – he usually answers the phone in Rider Support. He is a good guy and always eager to help. I don’t work there, he wouldn’t know me from a stump, but I’ve talk to him a few times and always with good results.

Ajax - 06/05/14 - 10:18pm

Gravel bike? What?! How is this not a CX bike?

Brian - 06/06/14 - 8:43am

Anyone have any specific comments as to how it rides on the paved roads? I’m looking at an RLT as a do all/extra-mileage bike and want to use it for gravel, casual road rides, commuting and trainer riding…

Thoughts?

TG - 06/07/14 - 8:37am

Rides very well — definitely a more relaxed geometry than your typical road bike. I use mine as a do all bike and for winter rides when the road conditions aren’t great, and it is great. I’d definitely say it’s hard to beat this bike.

Ben - 06/08/14 - 5:21pm

Raced one of these at the Dirty Kanza Half Pint, same size and build as TB just 25 pounds lighter. Bike rides fantastically and was comfortable for the 8 hours in the saddle. I had no problems with tires blowing off the rims, but that may have more to do with switching to Kenda Tires, Happy Medium 700×40 front (tubed) and Small Block 700×32 tubeless rear. Both were at 50psi, though in the end I wish I had run 45, it would have taken the edge off some of the rougher sections a bit more. The one complaint I have is with the Avid mechanical disc brakes. The Ti bolts for the front brake bent during installation and the rear brake slipped during the race casing the rotor to rub. Get rid of those issues and the bike is perfect for gravel racing.

David - 06/09/14 - 12:51am

@Brian, I agree with TG that it is a great road ride. My first few rides were all road and I find that it climbs like crazy (stiff), has a great geometry for long rides, and isn’t buzzy thanks to the bigger tires/lower pressures. I don’t have any complaints on the road at all.

I did a longer dirt road ride today – zero flat ground, all up and back down – the road was pretty rough with lots of varying surface. Sand, big loose rocks, lots of washboard. Yup – still really stiff on the way up. I’m looking forward to my incoming Kendas (Ben and I are on the same wavelength). Really stiff on the way down too, but not as bad as I was worried it might be. The fork is really rigid but handled great on the rough ground under heavy braking.

dan - 06/09/14 - 3:29pm

What is the Frame/fork weight of this bike?

Keith - 06/09/14 - 11:52pm

New owner of an RLT. Carbon bar, RDO seat post. Road wheels are Industry Nine UL CX Disc wheels, tubeless Hutchison Sector 28c – gravel wheels are Black Flag, Specialized tubeless Tracer 33c. Build weight with road wheels and Ultegra pedals 19.3lbs.

I’m in heaven.

LOVE the carbon dampening throughout – Cadillac on the chipseal. The discs are great for the mountain descents in my area and my favorite touring route. The dirt wheels are indestructible – haven’t trued them for over a year despite many miles commute, trail, road.

I got this bike for road use mostly, with the options for loaded touring and commute and hitting the gravel rides, which out here in Idaho we have quite a few gorgeous gravel roads and Forest Service roads.

This bike does not disappoint. Climbs like it’s on a rail. Stable, no hands riding. Nimble enough for high speed descent and rocky single track rock-swerves. Other bike may do certain things better, but few would do all things so well.

No regrets. Love this bike. 2014′s sleeper.

OverIt - 06/10/14 - 6:21pm

@Brian.

have to agree with the others. I bought this specifically for use as a ‘racier’ commuter. And the geometry seems spot on. Stable, not too harsh, and still handles nimbly enough to feel like my ‘road racing’ bike. (Which is what I wanted). I’m running 1×10 with tha SRAM x9 type II rear mech, 28c tyres, on light weight 29er wheels. The higher front end than my racing bike and longer rear end means it handles very well while wearing a backback, and i may even throw fenders on for when winter really kicks in. I cant fault the bike in it handling and comfort.

joel - 06/11/14 - 1:23pm

Just curious Bike Rumor. What does the decal on the seat tube say the correct size front derailleur clamp should be?

Mine had an incorrect decal (31.8 vs 34.9) .

Absolutely no response from Niner… crappy CS in my book.

Tyler Benedict - 06/11/14 - 5:33pm

Joel – I think you’re confusing the seat collar diameter with the front derailleur clamp mount. The RLT runs a 27.2 post, held in place by a 31.8 collar. They spec a 34.9 front derailleur clamp.

Pat Mattson - 07/02/14 - 11:22am

I bought my bike last April to ride the Dirty Kanza 200. However, I changed jobs and moved to Yellowstone National Park so the ride was out. Since I have been here the bike has been a road/MTB/touring machine. I just finished a 3 day bike packing with a B.O.B checking out the Montana/Idaho section of the Great Divide Race and I think it’s a great bike for the Race as well as well as any adventure race out there. I kept the Sammy’s on and ran them about 40/45 and have no issues for 1000 miles. At 6’2 and 210 and I have found that the BB7′s are not quite what I need. I have had to adjust and readjust a lot. But, not a deal breaker.
So, for those guys that ride everything and anything this is the Swiss Army Knife of the lot. Now if I can get the darn corkscrew mounted and not have a new pokey thing to gouge me that would be nice.

john - 07/04/14 - 2:47am

hi guys-

i’m an old roadie. looking to get back on a road bike. this bike intrigues me. i will not ride on anything except well-paved roads. i like the relaxed geometry. i’d like to put road rims/tires on it. nothing too skinny, but thinner than what i think the bike may be meant for. as i said i am an older guy and looking to get back into road riding on a safe, comfy, nimble bike. i remember in the 80′s in europe when guys were buying enduro motorcycles and putting street wheels/tires and using them as aggressive urban rides.

i guess my question is; can i set this frame/bike up as a strictly road bike? or, should i look elsewhere? thanks for any help/advice/opinions.

ps wish it was steel…

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