It was around this time last year that I first laid eyes on the Niner RLT 9 at Interbike. Needless to say, it was a pretty big deal at the show, but for whatever reason, the official rollout was lengthy, and the RLT didn’t start hitting the shelves in mass effect until just a few months ago.
Similarly, albeit better timed, the BSB 9 RDO was launched just shortly ahead of the ‘cross season. And though I’ve been riding both bikes over the entirety of the summer, these ‘cross bikes have seen little to no actual ‘cross race action. But given the time of year, it simply wasn’t possible. However, don’t think that the irony is lost on me that we’re comparing ‘cross bikes without actually racing any ‘cross races.
Regardless, knowing that both bikes are drool-worthy rigs, I felt it prudent to pit them head-to-head for anyone torn between the two before the season starts. With that said, let’s get into the basics.
Based on geometry sheets alone, the BSB is the more obvious ‘cross frame of the two. It has a higher bottom bracket (BB Drop is 68.0mm vs. 70.0mm) and a steeper head tube angle (71.5 degrees vs. 71.0 degrees). And while the seat tube angles remain the same between the two (73.5 degrees in a size 53cm), the disparity in the lengths of the wheelbase and chainstays is immediately apparent. In fact, not accounting for the obvious differences between the frames, this is really what drives home the tighter and lighter design philosophy of the BSB. At 1010mm, the BSB’s wheelbase is 15mm shorter. And at the chainstays, the BSB’s shorter 425mm length accounts for a 10mm difference between the two. End result? The BSB feels tighter, more nimble, and a little more explosive. Conversely, the RLT feels more planted and stable, slightly more relaxed, and generally, more comfortable.
Then there’re the more obvious accouterments, with carbon being the first amongst them. I’ll spare you the essay on Niner’s carbon construction process, but let’s just say that it accounts for a sub-1000g frame that’s far more suited to racing. Carbon also lends itself to forming tube shapes that are better suited for shouldering than with the RLT, though both are perfectly acceptable.
Outside of materials, Niner’s intentions are subtly more apparent, namely in terms of wire routing and the forks. The BSB is setup for internal routing and is electronic-ready for seatpost battery mounts. The hydraulic lines are run externally along the frame, however, but this has no real consequence on performance through shoddy conditions. And in terms of the fork, Niner equipped the RLT with a standard QR compared to the BSB’s 15mm thru-axle. Both bikes, however, share 135mm rear spacing.
Now, with the basics out of the way, let’s get into how the damn things ride.
Let’s start off with the RLT 9. I found that the more relaxed geometry of the RLT lends itself more to long hauls and beat up paths than it does for your typical roads. This isn’t to say that it lacks punch, but it’s certainly not as reactive as the BSB. One could make the argument that part of this is attributable to weight, of which the RLT is around one-pound heavier than the BSB, but I would put it more to a purpose-driven geometry. After all, there’s no getting around it that the RLT 9 is an adventure bike — the rear rack mounts are a dead giveaway.
Using this definition, let’s explore how the RLT resides within a similar space. Compared to a bike like, say, the Salsa Warbird, the RLT is actually a bit more stretched out and planted. For this reason, the RLT is equally awesome at driving hard over the flats and descending. In fact, if it weren’t for the BSB’s thru-axle, the RLT would easily dominate this latter characteristic.
Reason being is that it handles itself well across washboard for a rigid dropbar bike, while also remaining nimble enough for mellow singletrack. In a word, the bike is stable. And in two words, it’s stable and capable.
Now, the BSB performs dutifully at the aforementioned. However, while it’s quite at home over the rough stuff, it lacks the same level of general comfort that the RLT provides. And even more noticeably, because of the higher bottom bracket and shorter wheelbase, it lacks the same level of reassuring stability. This is easily adjusted for, though, especially given that the BSB’s short chainstays, thru-axle, and shorter wheelbase provide a really snappy, on-the-fly handling characteristic. And if I were to speculate as to how this would translate in a true ‘cross scenario, it would assuredly make for a more desirable race bike.
With this in mind, let’s compare the BSB to some others in its class. Compared to a bike like the Ridley X-Night, it has a noticeably longer wheelbase, less bottom bracket drop, and chainstays of an identical length. So, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t fit into the mold of a “true” Belgian ‘cross fit, but given that Belgian ‘cross bikes don’t have thru-axles or Niner’s dirt pedigree, many will find this to be a good thing — I certainly did.
I found that Niner’s geometry choices, namely easing up on the high & tight positioning, created a sense of increased confidence and stability that didn’t infringe on the frame’s sprinting and climbing capabilities. Instead, the BSB really feels like the total package, and unlike many newcomers to the hydraulic brake game; the BSB’s stopping game is on point. By this, I mean that there’s no odd sensation of torsional stress or lurch heading into corners. It’s just perfect.
Drawbacks arise only in how you interpret these bikes’ usages. If you were to approach the RLT solely as a ‘cross bike, you’d be a little bummed. You see, on a ‘cross course, what could be interpreted as lethargy would be interpreted as stability and comfort over gravel. The inverse is primarily true for the BSB. However, given that this is a review, let’s get nit picky.
While the RLT’s geometry leaves you feeling planted on rough terrain, its aluminum construction, frankly, just isn’t as forgiving as carbon. In other words, even with carbon wheels and a carbon cockpit, the ride experience can be a bit jarring. This unforgiving characteristic isn’t a tightly held secret. On a road bike, the rigidity is welcomed, and on a mountain bike, it’s balanced out with proper suspension. On a fully-rigid dropbar, though, it can be pretty rugged at times.
Now for the BSB — I was surprised by the overall weight. Out of the box, it hovered around 17.6lb with Ultegra Di2 and a Niner-branded carbon cockpit and wheels. And after changing out the tires for my Challenge Grifos (two flats on the first ride with the included Schwalbes), and the saddle for a Brooks Cambium C15, the weight tipped into the mid-18s. So, for having a sub-1000g frame with a nearly full-carbon build, I’m still struggling a bit to see where the fat is coming from. There’s certainly weight to shave, but once again, it all depends on what you’re using it for — rumor has it that the Clif Bar team builds are in the low 15-pound range. Either way, it’s still lighter out of the box than almost all comparable builds from other manufacturers, Ridley included.
Big question time: which bike is for you? Well, if you’re more inclined to ramble, commute, and bike-pack, all while doing the occasional ‘cross race, the RLT 9 is for you. There isn’t much that this bike can’t do, and with clearance for 2.1 tires, plus rack and fender mounts, there aren’t many places that it can’t go.
If you’re in need of a purebred ‘cross racer, the BSB 9 RDO is the no-brainer choice for you. But if you’re looking for a one-bike quiver, in my opinion, the BSB is also worth the extra money — it really does have all of the bells and whistles that you could ask for in a contemporary bike, plus some impeccable finishing touches. With another set of wheels, this bike will move seamlessly between road, mountain, gravel, and ‘cross.
Overall, I can unreservedly say that the BSB 9 RDO gets my vote.