Niner RLT 9 3-star Rival Hydro


Niner’s rough-or-smooth offering opens up a whole new world of riding. And your wallet, although only a little.

As I rattled off the rest of this country classic, and cursed a misspent youth, John Denver and the word eclectic, I realised quite how much fun this new category of bike might become, and how popular in our vast country.

The principle is so simple: drop bars (multiple hand positions, and great into a headwind) + knobbly tyres (narrow ones, so you can ride the tar without sounding like a swarm of bees, but wide enough for some off-road grip) + big, open gravel roads. Put your credit card in your pocket, carry some extra water, and ride somewhere new, overnight, and ride back a different way.

The 36/46 combo is fine for most exploring

The 36/46 combo is fine for most exploring

Now, you are going to tell me that a mountain bike can do this just fine, and I might have agreed with you until I actually swung a leg over the RLT (Road Less Travelled). Niner was one of the early adopters in the blossoming adventure-bike market, just as they were when 29ers were still that fading fad. So, already, I suspected I would like what I was about to ride. If they enjoyed it, chances were I would too.

My first ride – I had the bike for a fortnight, and rode it nine times, to the detriment of the other test rigs… – summed up the experience in one go. Leave the house, straight into some technical singletrack, along a river bank. Up over some wet wooden footbridges. Up further, a 15-minute singletrack climb, alongside a busy main road. A steep, monster gravel road ascent, followed by three kilometres of high-speed open, loose pipe track.

Turn around, back home the same way. All of it rideable, back home at pretty much the speed I would on a hardtail mountain bike… no scary moments (you do enter tricky bits with a bit more caution) and curses that I had only an hour and a half to play, between nappy duties.

The RLT I rode had a hydroformed aluminium frame – they do carbon fibre and steel versions too – and was fitted with their 3-Star build, SRAM’s Rival 22 groupset, with hydraulic disc brakes. The carbon rigid fork was surprisingly kind on hands and wrists, although we might want to fit a Lauff or similar for longer rides. Like the Munga, for instance. Don’t tell the missus.


The importer chucked on a set of Stan’s Grail wheels, shod with tubeless Schwalbe Racing Ralphs – perfect tyres for fast hardpack riding – which we ran at 3bar/3.5bar front and rear. We pinched the rear just once in nine rides, each increasingly brave, so maybe a slight pressure drop would have been even kinder to the upper body. Niner’s in-house bendy 27.2mm carbon seatpost did help, somewhat, with sitbone comfort. The alloy RLT is road-bike stiff; the payback for that is jarring.

The slack head angle (71.5 is tres relaxed for narrow drop bars) kept us honest in the slow stuff – singletrack descents require planning and care, but are great fun – but squealing with joy as the speed rose. Predictable, sure-footed. Scary in the loose stuff, at speed, but only because the bars are narrow – you adjust very quickly and stay on best behavior.


Climbing is a joy – the bike, even at this spec level, rides light, and you keep your road-bike position and mindset, so the heavy-ish gearing (36/46 on the front, 11-32 on the rear) was just about OK for the riding we did. For the fast-touring riding this bike begs for, we wouldn’t change a tooth, but if you want to ride more real off road, we have two suggestions: a smaller front ring, or (sensibly) ride your MTB, and keep this for the open road. The top-tube is fairly short, which is good for the twisty stuff, but bad if touching your toes on the front wheels scares you.

The braking did take a while to get used to. The small footprint of the 35mm tyres means that they lock up quite easily, even with the 160/140mm rotors we were riding. But, once you are used to them, the modulation and control is superb. We would spec the bike with 40mm tyres, at least, but that is probably because we liked finding gnarly shortcuts and footpaths almost as much as we liked the open road. As is, you are ready to roll all weekend. Because you will. A planned hour easily becomes two, or four, on this bike. Exploration is now possible, and fun, but with the ability to race home on the tar before curfew if you do get carried away.


Much of my thinking while riding the RLT was whether this is the ultimate Munga (and other long-distance MTB race) rig. We tend to spend most of our training time on the road bike, so why not replicate that position and enjoy the power and comfort of habit, while still being able to handle the handful of technical bits these ultra events include to keep things interesting.

I have an image of riding through the Karoo, in the moonlight, alone with my thoughts. I am definitely on an adventure bike… quite possibly an RLT. On the drops, into the pesky headwind. Happy.

Price R34 500