Hit the road...or the trail, or some gravel.
For the ultra-competitive, stiffness-to-weight ratio obsessed road set, carbon frames definitely have their place. But when we're out on county road chip-seal and have a hankering to take any dirt road we come across, it's really hard to beat the springy, lively ride of a bicycle frame constructed from lightweight steel tubing. Don't get us wrong, this bike is still plenty competitive for gravel racing and fondos, however, Niner's Road Less Traveled ethos certainly gets us stoked for some non-competitive epic backroad all-day efforts and maybe even some bikepacking. If that sounds like your idea of a good time on two wheels have a look at the 2018 RLT 9 Steel 4-Star Ultegra Complete Bike. The frame is built from compliant and durable Reynolds 853 steel tubing while Shimano's new Ultegra R8000 takes care of drivetrain and braking duties. With just the right amount of carbon bits, steel's excellent ride is enhanced and grams are shed. We're fairly certain after throwing a leg over this steed and logging a few rides, your other bikes will jealously eye you every time you reach for this one in the garage.
The frame's geometry blends the numbers from Niner's mountain frames and that of its barrier hopping, mud bogging 'cross-specific BSB frameset. For better performance outside the tape, the RLT 9 features longer chainstays, a lower bottom bracket, and a slacker head tube angle. This provides a lower center of gravity that yields more confident cornering and improved stability, both of which you can never have too much of while bombing down rut strewed, chunky gravel descents at speed. The longer wheelbase also affords improved tire clearance that lets you run rubber up to 1.75in (just over 44mm). This helps the bike float over washboards while still agile enough for quick line changes on mellow trails. This RLT is so versatile, you'll find yourself navigating the urban jungle on it as your commuter bike too.
Niner gets it and is one of few brands that still constructs frames from steel. The ride is simply superb but the RLT 9 4-Star build does choose some carbon components to drop some weight without detracting from that magic carpet ride. The Carbon RDO fork and 27.2mm carbon seatpost help soak up the hits and smooth out road vibrations. Don't get confused thinking it's a lightweight spindly road fork as it has disc flat mounts, an MTB approved 15mm thru-axle anchoring the hub in the dropouts and rack mounts that are happy to carry its fair share of packing duties or trips and commutes. Niner has constructed rigid carbon trail forks for years so we're not worried in the least about durability.
Shimano somehow manages to exceed our expectations every time it upgrades a group and the new Ultegra R8000 is no exception. It simply executes shifts and brakes so well, we often forget that this isn't its top-tier group. We're assuming you aren't chasing grams since you are considering this steel frame, so we probably don't have to tell you that materials that drop weight are the main difference between Ultegra and Dura Ace. The Easton EA50 AX is an excellent handlebar choice as its heavily flared drops add stability while going fast over the rough at speed. Stans Grail wheels are always up for the challenge providing flawless tubeless setup and performance and the 20.3mm internal width plumps up gravel tires perfectly.
- Niner's adventure machine for gravel and touring
- RLT geometry is built for comfort over long miles
- Reynolds 853 is lightweight, rides great, and supremely durable
- Stans Grail wheels roll fast and smooth with tubeless dependability
- Hydraulic disc brakes deliver powerful stopping and modulation
- Carbon fiber fork and seatpost absorb road vibrations
- Ultegra shifting is telepathic and consistent