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.
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.
You either like SRAM double-tap shifting, or you don't. I do not, so take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt: I would not purchase a gravel bike or any road bike I expected to ride on rough roads with SRAM shifters. On washboard, the vibration of my hands caused the bike to shift down a gear numerous times. Also, in rough conditions, I frequently didn't have the finesse needed to distinguish between up and down shifting and often found myself in the wrong gear because of it. Look: You can work around this and figure it out. But the fact is, with Shimano or Campagnolo shifting you don't have to worry about it, so why would you?
Testers loved the Avid BB7 brakes. Anyone who slags off disc brakes on road bikes surely hasn't tried them. The modulation and power is simply much better than rim brakes. And these aren't even premium models. The new crop of hydraulics, both SRAM and Shimano, are even better.
The biggest issue with this bike are its wheels, which are not light, are a little flexy, and couldn't be set up tubeless as shipped since the 35mm Schwalbe Sammy Slick tires aren't tubeless-ready. Niner needs to spec better, tubeless-ready rubber with this bike. Beyond tire woes, the aluminum wheels contributed to the rough-feeling ride. After the 180-mile gravel race, I switched to Stan's Carbon Valors with 38mm Specialized Trigger tubeless-ready tires, and the difference in overall comfort was massive. Of course, carbon wheels add at least $1,000 to the price tag, but even upgrading to fatter, tubeless tires would make a big difference.
If the wheels are the first thing I'd swap off this bike, the handlebars would be close behind. The diameter of the tubing is too large, and the drop too deep—I'd always choose a shallow-drop bar on a gravel bike for the extra control and comfort they afford. But more importantly, this bike needs carbon fiber bars for the vibration damping they would afford. As it was, the aluminum just amplified the bike's stiffness.
The Bottom Line
In spite of that criticism, almost every tester said they liked the RLT9. The fact is, it's a very good-looking bike that rides well at a reasonable value. It could use some different components and part changes, but then that's pretty much what we expected. Niner makes excellent, well-thought-out mountain bikes, but they haven't quite reached the same level of nuance on the road. That's probably just lack of experience.
But Niner will need to up their game quickly (and they seem to be doing so, based on new model year spec choices), as this segment is exploding for 2015. Pretty much every major manufacturer is unveiling a model that will compete directly against the RLT9 this year. Of the new RLT9 models, we'd probably lean toward the two-star build at $2,000. This gets you 11-speed Shimano 105 components, which are excellent, and SRAM mechanical disc brakes. At that price, you could afford to swap out the bars immediately, and then, when budget allowed, consider a second set of wheels. The 4-Star Ultegra build ($3,400) also presents a super value.
One thing that the RLT9 made clear to us was that drop-bar bikes with fatter tires are here to stay—and we're thrilled about that. We love the versatility of the RLT9. With a high-end set of wheels and 25mm tires, it was perfectly at home on local group rides, even the fast ones. Yet swap in those 38mm tires, and we could ride it on almost any dirt road and even some light singletrack. And with winter now coming on and the roads full of sand and grit, we're much happier with a stable, fatter-tired ride to keep us training outside longer.
That's the problem with the "gravel bike" designation, or even the "adventure roadie" description that seems to be edging it out—it doesn't encompass the bike's full utility. Unless you plan to race on the road at a very high level, this breed of bike is probably far more appropriate for you than what we now commonly refer to as simply road bikes (which are probably more aptly labeled as "race bikes"). Who doesn't want or need a bit more versatility? So we'd like to think that perhaps the RLT9—and the many bikes that are following it this year—aren't a new segment in the market after all. Maybe this is just the new road bike norm.