Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel Cyclocross Bike

Cyclocross bikes may be designed to race for 45 minutes to an hour in various conditions, but their beauty lies in their versatility. I’ve put in a lot of time on my cross bike over the years, and only a fraction of those hours were spent racing. Instead, my bike’s been on road, trail, dirt, gravel and frontage road rides. With the right gear range, which is now as simple as a cassette or a chainring swap, a cyclocross bike could very well be the only drop bar bike you’ll need.

Companies like Niner are banking on that and while they offer a few ‘cross bikes, the RLT9 Steel is their flagship steel rig. Made from oversized Reynolds 853, with a pressfit 30 bottom bracket and a sweet carbon fork, the RLT9 Steel is being marketed to the “adventure” crowd.

What better way to test a bike’s capabilities than to pull one right from the box, strap three day’s worth of camping gear on it and chase 20 people around the mountains, roads and singletrack in central California?

That’s exactly where my relationship with the RLT9 Steel began… In the San Jose airport.

My ride: Niner RLT9 Steel with everything I need for three days of self-supported camping.

While Robin was planning the Blackburn Ranger Ride, he reached out to Niner about supplying the rangers with bikes for their journeys, as well as a few media (that’s me).

My personal ride, size 56cm, was built with Ultegra and the hydro Shimano RS-685 levers.

Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel

As you can see, I opted for bikepacking bags in lieu of racks and panniers. I did so for a number of reasons. This way, the bike has virtually no bolts holding bags to the frame. No pieces to rattle off, no way for a bag to jettison off a rack and into the path of another rider and honestly, it just looks so good like this! Also, there are no mid-stay rack mounts, so you’ll have to clamp your rack to the stays if you wish to run a rack.

Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel

Since the Blackburn Outpost bags utilize compression sacks, I can cram all of my soft goods into the saddle and bar bag, while keeping my hard goods and hydration bladder in the frame pack (prototype). Because this bike uses brake / shifter systems, I had to be mindful about the width of the handlebar bag for shifting purposes. If this were to be my full-time touring rig, I would opt for a bar end shifter setup to avoid this problem.

Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel


Admittedly, my favorite detail on the Niner RLT9 Steel is the burly fork. It’s got it all. Fender mounts, great lines, a solid 45mm rake, when coupled with the 71.5º head tube angle on the 56cm model, offered just the right amount of trail for me to descend Gazos Creek Road wide open.

Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel

The stock Ultegra gear range was a little on the heavy side for my personal riding style while bikepacking. I.e. spin it to win it. There were times when I was out of the saddle, legs burning, really feeling the need for a 32t cassette or a 34t inner ring. If you decide to go with an RLT9 Steel for bikepacking, make some adjustments here if your trip will be hilly.

Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel

If you chose the Di2 build option, there’s a nifty port hole on the NDS head tube cluster.

Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel

Reynolds 853 is an exceptional tubeset, worthy of this bike. Because Niner went with a PF30 shell, they could mitre oversized tubes into that cluster giving the bike a good amount of stiffness.

Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel

Bottom bracket cluster.

Locked and Loaded on the Niner RLT9 Steel

… here’s the bike after our 3-day, 120 mile trip. Same, chill stance and third day hangover packing technique apparent. Hey, we all have those mornings.

All in all, the Niner RLT9 Steel is a worthy companion for ascending and descending dirt or tarmac, loaded with a minimal bikepacking setup. So, how does it handle it all unloaded? I truthfully haven’t ridden it unloaded yet! Time will tell. Expect a follow up to come within the next few weeks. Until then, head over to Niner to read up on the RLT9 Steel, its build options and check out some detailed photos in the Gallery.

  • Liam Griffin

    Does the frame have any upper seat stay rack mounts? I see the lower mounts, but no upper.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson


      • Liam Griffin

        Is it just me, or is that weird? I know that Salsa specs a few bikes that way, and then they recommend that you use their seat post collar with integrated rack mounts. For this bike’s geo though, integrated mounts in the stays would make more sense, no? That said, there were lots of pics in the Ranger gallery of people running a rack on the rear of this same frame, so there is obviously a solution…

        • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

          I agree that it’s weird. I expected some rack mounts on the bike for sure.

          • Poolboy 1.0

            We’ve been setting up the RLT (Aluminum, and 853) with mono-mount rear racks for about a year and 1/2 now. A set of SKS longboard fenders, and a Tubus Fly Evo rack seems to be the combo of choice for the “I’m going to ride this to work everyday during the week, and then maybe I’ll hit the groads on the weekend for a long ride/light bike packing trip”-type individual. These bikes have been absoluetly crushing it here in MPLS.

      • Concerned citizen

        YES IT DOES!!! There is a mount on the back side of the seat stay bridge that is perfect for clamping a rack stay to. Mono stays work great and you can turn almost any rack with two stays into a mono stay without any modification.

        • Matt O’Donnell

          ^ This. When I picked my bike back up from the Niner guys at the end of Sea Otter they pointed this out to me and told me they thought that’d be a better way for me to set up the rear rack. I’ll send you a picture when I swap over to this set up.

          • Liam Griffin

            I assumed that was a fender mount, but I guess it could be used for a rack. Still doesn’t make as much sense to me as the standard seat stay mounting points. Mono mounting might be possible, but I can’t see it being as stable since almost all racks are built with two stays.

        • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

          Ah clever. Didn’t think about that!

  • Erik B

    That slingshot tho

    • http://joewill.ca/ Joe

      Slingshot? Or one of those sticks John uses to prop bikes up?

      • Dobry

        Dual-use technology …

        Also, duel-use technology.

  • http://matt.irwincine.com/ Matt Irwin

    John, what did you think of the bar bag? I’m considering one of those for my braze-on-less ride and I dig the stem support strap. Bad idea with Enve bars?

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      With the shifter paddle interference, I didn’t really get to utilize the expansion of that bag. I do however like that the bracket sets the bag out from the bar, giving you room for your hands on the tops and away from cables.

    • Alex Hillis

      I have that bar bag and quite like it. I’ve been able to pack a good amount of stuff in the front as well. They say not to use it with carbon bars though (so that’s my excuse for getting a TI mountain bar).

  • zenbiking

    Digging the mesh pockets on the outside of the frame bag. Handy for keeping a flask or stuffing wrappers.

  • http://www.pedalroom.com/bike/fuji-track-10-2011-15436 Jaap

    damn that’s cool

  • Kerry Nordstrom

    The thru axle rear is a nice touch, though it would’ve been nice to see a front thru axle to match for the top end build.

  • Adam J

    John – what did you think of the shimano r685 mech shifting / hydro brake set up? I’m considering running that on a gravel grinder build but have not seen many reviews or detail on them.

    • Kevin

      FWIW, I have been running them for about two months on a Breadwinner and absolutely love them. The braking is exactly what you’d expect from Shimano hydraulics, and the mechanical shifting is on par with the other 11spd Shimano offerings. Shifting action isn’t quite as “light” to the touch as DA9000, and it can only do two sequential shifts per stroke in the rear, but if you run a wider range cassette on a gravel bike that works out about right anyway. Still curious to hear what John thinks though.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      They honestly feel really great. I don’t think I’d want Di2 on a bike like this…

  • Tommaso Gomez

    Great choice for stock wheels. Stan’s Grails are your best option if you want a versatile wheelset for road, gravel, and cross racing. You can run tubeless cross tires at low pressures for racing or 28C road tires with a tube at up to 110 psi, on the road.

  • mywynne

    Really nice to see the rack-less packing. Hopefully have some light bike camping in my future, and a mount-less frame…

  • evilgordon

    I have to ask… The slingshot?!

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Shooting beer cans and street signs.

      • Bayo30

        freaky boy!

  • tingle3003

    Hm, wondering where I can find that Blackburn Frame Bag….?
    I was looking around at their page: None. Searching on the net: None.

    • Tyler Howarth

      In the article – “…bladder in the frame pack (prototype).”

      • tingle3003

        Thanks! Sometime reading helps… -_-“

  • Daniel Stonehaven

    Hey John, how wide are your handlebars? Seems like they’d have to be at least a 46 to work with your shifters / bar bag. Thanks.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson


      • Brett

        Are these the Thomson KFC handlebars?

  • Max

    That head-tube… It sounds like a blast to ride, but I could never purchase a bike with a headtube that looks like that

  • http://davidhellmann.com/ davidhellmann

    Hey John,

    I’m in love with this bike. I plan to buy a cyclecross bike. I move to Austria / Salzburg and I want a cyclecross bike to ride a bit more and longer trips. I think I need a Bike thats more comfortable for ride a bit straigther position.

    The Focus Mares is my choice for now cause the price is really good. But I love steel and the Niner Bike is awesome. What you mean, is this bike the right choice for me?

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      I think it’s a great option.

  • Bayo30

    That bike looks awesome, and I think steel makes perfect sens for that kind of rides. Do you know if WTB Nano 700×40 can go on that bike? I use a kona Jake the snake as a gravel bike but nano 700×40 don’t fit at the rear… a pity !

    • Slc29er

      Bayo, I picked mine up Friday and had them put nano’s on it from the go. There is stil tons of room. More room in the rear than the fork actually, but they both have plenty. I am sure a 45c will fit fine, maybe more.

      • Bayo30

        well i’ve got the tyres, the only thing I miss is the bike… thanks for your message, I know who’s gonna be my next partner ;)

  • Bayo30

    Do you have strava trips for these 120 miles?

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      They’re linked in the Blackburn Rangers post I made before this one….

      • Sean Stam

        Hey John, do you recall what size frame bag you are using on your RLT? I was going to order the same frame bag for my RLT.


  • roomwell

    The more you post this bike, the more i’m sold.

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  • Tim Durack

    John, do you recall what size frame and bag this is?