Bike Review: Niner’s 2020 RLT

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References to literature in sports are few and far between. When one comes along, I’m obliged as a licensed English major to grab on and enjoy it.

For instance, whenever the Baltimore Ravens do well, as they are this year, I consider it a small, purple victory for poetry and the Ravens’ unusual namesake, Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe.

In a sports world flocked with screaming eagles and hawks and falcons and snarling cardinals, a raven alone broods—thanks to Poe.

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“Life is a cruel, dark sport. Also, the run/pass option will simply kill once Baltimore finally lands a mobile quarterback.”  —Edgar Allan Poe*
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“Listen to the skinny poet.”  —LaMar Jackson*

Cycling’s closest literary parallel may just be Niner’s RLT. The “Road Less Traveled” is Niner’s cheery nod to another broody American poet, Robert Frost.

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This Frost. (Photo, irishtimes.com)
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Not that Frost. (Photo, journalstar.com)

Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” in 1915 as a joke for a friend. Frost’s pal was an indecisive fellow—a poet who often tied himself in knots over small choices, then mourned the loss of whatever he decided against. (See also: Every American bike shopper.)

You’re familiar with this poem’s rough plot; a walking narrator stops at a fork in the road and ponders the two paths in front of him. But there’s a good chance you don’t recall Frost’s admission in the second stanza that both roads are “really about the same”.

We’re talking about a left or a right, here. But Frost inflates the simple choice of direction into something laughably monumental. “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence.” (As in: You remember that time back in ’15 when I hung a left? Holy hell, those were the days!)

Then come the three closing lines we’re still talking about 105 years hence. The lines you know. The lines we name bikes after:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Frost slaps his knee—some difference!—and we shudder, moved.

We’re individualists by nature. Even given a binary choice, we like to believe the herd goes one way, and the individualists another. Never mind that if every rugged individualist makes the same choice, individualism disintegrates. This is just the way we are.

It’s OK that we usually miss Frost’s joke; his friend didn’t get it. Neither did Robin Williams’ character in “The Dead Poets Society”. And I’d argue that cycling is better off for having both Frost’s true intent and our misinterpretation of it in easy reach.

Frost would have us get over ourselves, ditch the second-guessing, and just rip the path we choose.

Essentially: Pedal, damn it.

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Meanwhile, our misinterpretation calls us beautifully toward more and more rugged routes—promising more self-discovery and richer experiences if only we commit ourselves to choosing the Road Less Traveled.

We believe this mindset will do more than make a difference. It’ll make all the difference. And for a crap ton of unpaved cyclists (this happy herd of individualists), it bloody well has.

We are, as Niner likes to say, #committedtodirt.

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(Photo, @ninerbikes)

Niner’s redesigned RLT is, for me, an excellent cross of these two Frosty attitudes: It’s “Quit over-thinking it!” melded with “This shit matters!” in a single imaginative, even poetic machine.

With the details on this bike painstakingly nailed, the rider need not over-think anything.

The RLT’s strength is its versatility. My test rig, courtesy of Method Cycles, was a two-star RLT 9 RDO, featuring a sweet “Race-Day Optimized” carbon frame with aluminum Grail hoops, a 10-speed Shimano GRX-400 drivetrain and Easton flared handlebars. But Niner offers RLT builds in an assortment of flavors including aluminum, steel, SRAM groupsets and even mountain bike handlebars to suit your particular roll.

Each build pelts you with 26 braze-ons—so your race machine will also speak fluent bikepacking and commuting.

For heavy sweaters like myself, the 2020 RLT can now mount a quartet of life-sustaining water bottles. Where-oh-where were those third and fourth bottles at DK 2019?

If you think flappy bag straps are lame on a bike stuffed with internal cables, well, Niner hears you. They’ll soon offer RLT-custom bolt-on frame bags to keep you and your rig looking tidy. (I have to say, frame bags are luscious for those long rides that start cold but don’t stay that way.)

Now let’s talk tires. Several of my pals run mismatched widths. They go fatter up front, because their forks can party, but are forced to stay narrow in back because their chainstays can’t.

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Fat up front, skinny in back: like a mullet in reverse. (Photo, timeout.com)

The new RLT puts an end to this nonsense with ludicrous clearance front and rear. The 2020 RLT swallows up to 700x50c or 650bx2.0 tires. My test bike’s 40c Schwalbe G-Ones looked downright skinny in there. (Take it from me and my plus-sized derriere: Looking skinny in your 40s is no small feat.)

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What’ll it be? Left, right or B road?

Feeling chippy on a bike I did not own, I snapped the picture above, then pointed the RLT down this saucy little B-road-less-traveled still soft with snowmelt. The mud gods would’ve swiftly punished this foolishness and bound up a lesser machine in a few yards. I, however, was granted a hall pass. I made my misguided mosey down this beautiful stick of butter and eventually turned around in the muck without so much as unclipping. Then I pedaled my way back out, merrily slinging more mud than an invertebrate Congressman.

On any other bike I’ve ever ridden, I’d have spent the next dozen minutes in that ditch scraping off sludge with my trusty paint stick. But this isn’t any other bike. And on the RLT, I didn’t so much as step on the ground.

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We’re talking wide-open clearance, OK? (Photo, indianoceanimagery.com)

Still, this bike’s biggest asset might just be its Shimano GRX groupset. Even on the lower two-star build with 10-speed components, this was the best shifting I’ve had in my limited life experience.

I shifted under load; I shifted in mud; I shifted with troublesome intent. The RLT just did it—most often noiselessly to boot. Shifting remained smooth with the rear clutch engaged. The levers felt great, even wearing thick gloves when I tend to fumble. The hoods thickened awkwardly up top, I thought—until I rested my palms on them and realized this is the way all hoods were meant to be.

If you’re starting to question my consistent positivity, maybe you’re right. There’s a reason the New York Times doesn’t hire grizzly bears as food critics. (The fries tasted amazing! So did the fryer oil! So did the cook!) I tend toward loving it all.

So I looked around for more discerning perspectives on the GRX system. And I found more raves.

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But you don’t have to take my word for it! (“Reading Rainbow,” 1983-2006)

Matt Gersib thoroughly reviewed GRX based on exponentially more miles (and knowledge) over at Riding Gravel. (Spoiler alert: He dug it.)

And GRX featured prominently at the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships in December. I’ll share some of what racers there said.

“One of the things I love about GRX is the shape of the shifter,” said men’s winner Gage Hecht of Donnelly Cycling. (We reviewed Donnelly’s gravel machine back in October.) “I really like how it sits in your hand. It seems extremely natural to me and allows me to descend confidently with only a finger on the brake lever.”

Elite Men. 2019 Cyclocross National Championships, Lakewood, WA. © D. Mable / Cyclocross Magazine
Hecht absorbs his win at nationals. (Photo, cxmagazine.com)

He might have needed more than one finger on the brakes during one descent at nationals that famously did not go so well. He flew past a boundary and got caught up in the tape. Getting back on course, he inadvertently clotheslined a top competitor, Kerry Werner, with that tangled tape. Werner got up and still finished fourth.

“Two major things have me preferring GRX for cyclocross and gravel,” Werner said. “The ergonomics of the hoods are a bit bigger and the braking has a more positive feel and the clutch is stronger and stiffer, leading to more consistently precise shifting and no dropped chains.”

Werner’s teammate, Rebecca Fahringer, took second at this year’s nationals on (you guessed it) GRX. “The number one thing I have noticed about the GRX groupset is the super-smooth braking power,” she said. “The higher pivot point allows for a ton of brake modulation.”

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Fahringer (@gofahr) is one of two humans to beat Katie Compton at nationals in the last 16 YEARS. I got to interview her right before her World Cup race at Jingle Cross this year. Her generosity and energy made me a big fan straight away. (Photo, onestopmap.com)

Put all its pieces together, and the RLT becomes something more than a fast gravel bike. I won’t call the bike poetry, because what the hell would that mean? But it is a beautifully made instrument that can work, if you will it, on multiple levels. Point it down your chosen path, push it hard, and you’ll discover: It can tell a joke and redefine your life at the same time.

Watching people miss his poem’s humor, Frost admitted, “I’m never more serious than when I’m joking.” We may not always understand poetry, but cyclists get that.

I’m reminded of something Fahringer said in a VeloNews podcast this fall. She was describing an important race on her calendar that went sideways in snot-slick wet clay. Her tires, she said, could get no traction, “And your brakes don’t do anything except make you look like Bambi on ice.”

Her goals were serious, but reality had other plans. “Here I am, hoping to podium or win a C1 in front of my friends and family, and I’m barely cracking the top 10, spending so much time on the ground.”

She realized, “This is just going to be one of those races where I’m just going to be smiling the whole time. … You just have to laugh,” she said, “because if not, you’re just going to get frustrated and crash even harder.”

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Fahringer can take a joke. (Photo, @gofahr)

That’s when it pays to be on a bike that isn’t merely fast, but is also laughably fun to ride. A bike that can get, and take, a joke. For me, that’s the RLT.

As racers, our triumphs and follies begin the same. We say, “Hold my beer.” We toe the line and give it hell. As for choosing roads, well, the race director already took care of that.

The RLT is, for my money, the most satisfying machine to date for simply letting it rip. I’m convinced it’s the giving it hell that matters—the fire and the ice. Whether the result winds up wicked or just wickedly funny, we’ll know when we get there. And getting there, by any road, will make all the difference.

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Outside Lincoln, the roads are rough and the graffiti is kind…

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