As a big kid (in my 30s) I bought a Cannondale cyclocross bike with a little headshock offering a whole one inch of travel.
I love that bike. I still own it (for single speed cyclocross) and have raced it around the Hunuas, the Colville Connection and from St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs, my longest race ever at the time at 105 kilometres/just over six hours.
Just like disco, things come back around every twenty years to be cool again, and unbeknownst to me, I’ve been ahead of the curve in the current growth sector of gravel riding, which has now exploded, particularly in the USA.
Most us drive to the trailhead and go mountain biking; for me, gravel is more of a jump-on-from-home and ride, and keep riding past the roadend, and keep going—just like we did as kids on those old bikes with 26 x 1 3/8 tyres, which are actually about the same width as cyclocross tyres.
When I got the call-up to ride with the folks from Niner Bikes (who put all their eggs in the 29er basket some ten years ago) I secretly hoped it wasn’t going to be riding one of their mountain bikes, as we were on a section of the Alps to Ocean Trail from Ohau Lodge to Omarama. (I’d previously bike-packed this section so knew what I was in for.)
As it turned out they wanted me to ride a brand new Niner RDO RLT carbon gravel bike and then take it home for a month — Bonus!
The purists will ride a steel frame for that magical ride quality, while folks wanting a lighter bike will go aluminium. But if you have the money, and want a lighter, performance-orientated and more bling ride – hey, go for the carbon.
Mr Niner; James, was on a Niner RLT Steel frame with one gear, a really big one, so I knew it wouldn’t be a slow trip to the 900-metre high point some 11 kilometres away.
Seeing this bike for the first time had me frothing. Except it had a pannier rack on it, which I quickly removed. But it did show this bike has bike-packing ability. There were rack mounts out back and on the carbon fork, room for two bottles inside the frame, bolt-thru axles, a small-diameter seatpost (offering some flex) and slim bridgeless backstays for comfort, plus a fair amount of room for gravel sized tyres.
The main differences with this gravel bike over their Cyclocross bike are: Longer chainstays, a lower bottom bracket and a slacker head tube angle — all good things for offroad fun. Or loaded up stability on the road.
Luckily, It also had the latest from SRAM in single chainring trickery, with more gears on the back wheel than I needed; it felt like you could pedal up a mountain and then down the other side with the range of gears on offer. The hydraulic brakes were fantastic, saving my bacon on a descent when I forgot about the switchbacks.
James and I were both riding on Maxxis Ravager 700 x 40 tyres which fitted with room to spare in the frames, but gave enough comfort to bounce off all the rocks we encountered on the A2O trail, perfect for that gravel road section; offering confidence even in deep off-camber gravel corners.
The Bolt-thru axles front and back thankfully are spec’d as standard these days — no brake rub under hard cornering here.
Sure a bike is nothing without a bunch of parts, and mine worked great. But the carbon frame and fork, like with any bike, it is the heart of the matter. It smoothed out the bumps, tracked straight and true and turned heads whenever I saw other bikers.
I’m usually not the person who just hops on a bike and rides. I can, but I’m usually that guy with the multi-tool out of his pocket, always fiddling and tinkering.
This bike, I just rode it.
And loved it. Every part of it.
James and I talked about other bikes on the market that don’t do many things as well as this Niner: too racey, no tyre clearance, too heavy, dedicated tourer. This is the only bike I’ve recently ridden that doesn’t fall into a very narrow category of enjoyment.
The bike came home, and I continued the evaluation with a mix of urban commuting, local roads (sealed and unsealed) and a few mountain bike tracks, so it got a good mix of terrain. And it was brilliant.
Was there anything I didn’t like about it?
Giving it back.
For more info on the RLT 9 RDO check out Niner NZ