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Gravel was the buzzword in the road bike world in 2014.
Races that were previously largely Midwest affairs, such as the Dirty Kanza and Almanzo 100, suddenly grabbed national attention, and mixed-surface races began popping up elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, manufacturers scrambled to create drop-bar bicycles optimized for long distances and rough roads.
Until just two years ago, gravel bikes weren't even a category. New and sudden niches like this make me skeptical: too often, they read like bike companies pumping up a trend in order to try and sell more bikes, regardless of whether people need them. So in May, I went to Kansas to see what the big deal was—and I rode away convinced.
Not only was the Kanza great fun—who knew that slamming along on gravel roads on skinny tires would be such a hoot?—but it was one of the best attended amateur races I've been to in years. The experience persuaded me to sign up for more gravel events and left me an advocate for this style of bike. By that, I mean drop-bar road bikes with clearance for bigger tires and, ideally, disc brakes. I'm still ambivalent about the "gravel bike" label, but I'll get to that in a bit.
The folks at Niner were clearly also convinced of the trend. The Rocky Mountain-based company, which was one of the earliest proponents of 29-inch wheels and has been mountain bike-centric since its inception in 2004, used the burgeoning gravel market as an excuse to build their first-ever road bike. The RLT9, or Road Less Traveled, falls in the company's charge since, strictly speaking, 29-inch wheels are the same size as the 700c hoops on road bikes.
I've been a fan of Niner's beautiful, carefully curated mountain bikes for years (we gave one a Gear of the Year award in 2013). And on the surface, at least, the RLT9 is as gorgeous as you'd expect. But would a company with no prior road bike experience be able to bridge the gap? After spending more than six months on the RLT9, I can say that the company has mostly, but not completely, succeeded.
The RLT9 is constructed of hydro-formed aluminum and comes equipped with Niner's own chunky, carbon fork. Surprisingly, both wheels are quick release, despite the increasing prevalence of thru axles in this realm, including on the BSB9, a carbon cross machine that the company launched this fall. And though it might seem odd that this MTB brand now has not one, but two drop-bar road bikes, the differences between them help explain what makes a gravel bike.
Photo: Aaron Gulley
Compared to the cross bike, the RLT9 has a taller, slightly slacker head tube (71.5 degrees on our size 56) and a longer wheelbase, which it gains in the chain stays. Those differences make the RLT9 slower steering and more stable on open roads, so it handles better when chugging along but isn't super twitchy like a hardtail mountain bike on singletrack.
We certainly found that to be the case. A few weeks after the Kanza, I did a 180-mile mixed-terrain race on the RLT9, and on one low-grade, washboard descent that lasted for seven miles, I was amazed how steady and rooted the bike felt. Yet it's deft and agile as well. After that descent in the race came a 16-mile, 4, 000-foot two-track climb on dirt, gravel, and sand, and the RLT9 bounded up it almost as easily as on a hardtail mountain bike. The only difference was difficulty with the skinny tires.
The biggest thing I learned about the bike during that race, however, was that it is a very stiff ride. The boxy, hexagonal top tube and stocky seat and chain stays don't allow for much compliance, even with the skinny 27.2mm seat post. Moreover, the carbon fork didn't take off as much edge as I'd expected. The sharp feel of the aluminum didn't bother me immediately—though it was noticeable compared to the cushy titanium frame I'd ridden a few weeks earlier—but by six or seven hours in, I was feeling it. Some of the component choices compound the stiffness, which I'll go into in a minute, but suffice it to say the RLT is definitely not as comfortable as I'd have liked, considering it's built for long days in the saddle.
The bike has most of the other niceties you'd expect: a tapered head tube (and the steering felt accordingly precise); PF30 bottom bracket; internal cable routings for the drivetrain (including Di2 compatibility); and braze-ons for fenders. And there's great tire clearance, with space for up to 1.75-inch (or 45mm) rubber depending on the brand. One major miss, however, is the lack of mounts for a third water bottle, which is almost compulsory in long gravel events like the Kanza.
Our tester came with a good workingman's setup, including a SRAM Rival drivetrain, Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes, Stan's Iron Cross wheels, and house-branded saddle, seat post, and handlebars. This was the company's 4-star build last year and went for a not-inexpensive $3, 000. For 2015, it's been downgraded to $2, 500 (with the Stan's wheels replaced by Niner house brand hoops), which feels more appropriate for the value being offered.
Photo: Aaron Gulley
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