How often have we seen fads come and go in the cycling industry? I can recite hundreds if not thousands that have suckered most people into buying a subtly morphed something of what they already have.
As the title depicts, gravel bikes are obviously one of these apparent fads that some purists will tell us all are "just a MTB! why do you need a bike specific for gravel?!"
Well to some degree, yes, But the same could be argued for Enduro Vs Trail, Road vs commuter and so on and so forth. The fact is, a few subtle differences between them all make them more apt or specific for the job at hand. So the justification and name term is warranted I feel.
Having recently somewhat stolen a demo bike from Sarah at Niner NZ to try this apparent fad, we managed to get our grubby mits on the 2 star Niner RLT 9 (Road Less Traveled) RDO carbon gravel bike. With a pretty rad little build spec to it and an almost similarity to some of my late 90's MTB's, the 1 by 11 gearing, hydraulic disc brakes and half decent wheel-set meant we were probably going to enjoy it.
I must admit, I hate road bikes... like, despise them. Completely impractical (for any main northland NZ road anyway) and normally a half strength latte, Sunday stravasshole's pride n joy that can't even cross a pebble without puncturing. Each to their own I guess? ok, so I own one, but it has never seen the light of day and rarely is detached from the indoor trainer. I guess this self proclaimed classification of impracticality and demographic fueled my pessimism the most about a gravel bike given, side by side, you cant really tell the difference.
Arriving into the stable boxed up, I soon put it together and decided I'd head out in the dark on one of my normal mid-winter, night time gravel grinders in my local forest. lights charged, some more apt clothing with a little more snugness, a pump and spare tube (it was bound to puncture! how the hell can these piddly 40c tyres handle gravel?!) I set off to try my luck at drop bar riding in a forest. (Oh, forgot the PLB, I was sure to wind up crashed somewhere likely part dying from being bucked off this thing right?)
At the top of the first hill, I stopped, not because I needed to, just because I always do there. Bizarre! I just climbed this hill at twice the pace and half the effort, in a bigger gear and on a road oriented bike. yeah, whatever, lets keep going, that was luck. powering through the forrest in a fashion that could only be described as light speed, I approached a notorious piece of gravel road that is often washed, downhill and filled with some very course gravel.
This is where I had to really grin an bare it, not from a capapbillity point of view but more from a mental aspect. A good friend who is absolutely crazy about this genre had given me a few tips before I left with the most important being. "when it gets rowdy, ya gotta get down on the drop bars and really get stuck in" Errmmaaagherd! What now Steve? ok, Well lets get this out of the way then and give it a go. sure enough, I experimented between on the drops (as the cool kids say) and up on the flat part of the horns. And he was dead right.
So far, I've managed a PR climbing (for obvious reasons here, lighter, less drag, higher gears), the impossible of descending a skinny wheeled bike on coarse gravel without dying and managing to get by without the use of a dropper post.
So all of the above is great, but what does it really mean? Well for one, its a more apt bike than one would think. my preconceptions of this bike was quickly being dispelled and I was, dare I say it, enjoying myself. The definite distinction between a road and gravel bike was making itself apparent by proving geometry is king. Try fr yourself, go try ride a road bike on something slippery....
So the good?
- The RLT is much like a late 90's XC bike as far as geometry goes that has the ability to stop easily with it's WHOPPING 140mm rotors and 2 pot calipers
- It's insanely efficient! Smooth, well geared and much more comfortable then any road bike I've ever ridden
- It looks pretty awesome, even for a drop bar'd bike
- It descends better then one would ever think...
- Training K's just got made all the more fun
Despite the haters, Gravel biking is not a fad. It's a real thing and they are genuinely different bikes. So sure, you could have a similar result buying an aluminium or carbon hard tail XC bike. But would you really? The bike has better clearances, better positions and placed gear bag mounts and is actually designed to pedal the places they intend.
Well, not a whole bunch really. I did miss the ability to get the saddle out of the way by means of a drop post but was I really going to hucking this off a 4 foot drop? yeah, nah.....
I did also find my wrists were not used to riding the drop bar angles, but thats something that would naturally repair itself right?
So will I buy one of these? The $6k NZD, RDO variant, likely not.... Given I am not looking for a Race Day Optimized bike, I think I would prefer the au natural, steel variant but the point is, would I, a die hard, Specific MTB, half arsed Enduro rider buy a gravel bike in general, the answer is YES, yes I would. I found my self in winter training mode wanting to ride a little further, up that cadence a little and stretch my boundaries of comfort just the touch more that I feel made a fair difference to my winter program.
As always, massive thanks to sarah and James and Niner Bikes NZ. They always go above and beyond to really make sure their customers are happy.
Keen on one yourself? get in touch. We can swing you a rather sweet deal on this bike or another brand new one....