Niner RLT 9 RDO with Campagnolo Ekar (First Look)

It has taken a while with my desired specifications and the parts shortages, but the Niner RLT 9 RDO is finally built up.

Having originally introduced the RLT (Road Less Travelled) in 2013 at the very beginning of the emergence of the adventure and gravel bike genre, this latest iteration of the RLT from the Coloradan brand is bang up-to-date with its features and standards that it offers.  

Predominantly famous for their mountain bikes, Niner hasn’t had a particularly large presence in the UK but since the brand has experienced a rejuvenation after briefly going bust, it has landed a UK distributor in the form of Zyro-Fisher and they are more easily available.

The RLT 9 RDO is the carbon gravel frame from the brand and this is a frameset that focuses on versatility but is equally comfortable on long gravel epics and races. This generation of the RLT is offered in three materials – aluminium, steel and carbon. I have opted for the halo carbon frame offering. The aluminium would be a sound budget option and the steel frame is an interesting proposition and a material that many brands have shied away from. Carbon frames are significantly lighter than metal and generally more comfortable, as they have better vibration-damping properties, which is why it was my pick. It also doesn’t fatigue as long as you don’t impact it and most types of damage can be repaired on a carbon frame if you damage it structurally. I’m 5’11 and fit comfortably on a 56cm frame.

It is chock-full of mounting points for bottle cages, racks and bags, Niner quoting 26 mounts in total. Niner have created specific bags that fit into the front triangle and on the top tube. I’ve purchased the bags and they fit logically and look clean on the frame. Extra points to the brand for omitting an under-the-down-tube mount as these always get clogged with mud.

The frame can take up to a mammoth 700x50mm tyre or a 2-inch 650b tyre. The RLT 9 RDO makes a compelling case as a one-bike-for-everything if you were to have a couple of wheelsets for different purposes.   

As is standard for most frames, the RLT 9 RDO routes its cables internally. What is impressive and your mechanic will thank you for it is that the internal routing is fully guided. You simply feed a cable through its designated hole and it will pop out of a hatch underneath the BB where you then route the final section. There is a little bit of ‘fishing’ required with the hydraulic hose from the hatch to its exit point, but nothing a magnet and internal cable routing kit couldn’t solve. I’m running the frame with a 1x groupset but the frame allows you to use a 2x system, should you wish, and there is also routing for a dropper seatpost and a Dynamo light. The frame uses full housing for the gears (more on that later) so once you’ve routed the cables in the initial build, it will be easy to change inner cables every so often to refresh the system as you won’t need to ‘fish’ any cables in the frame. 

The frame uses a standard 1 1/8 to 1.5 headset which is compatible with lots of different options and a PF30 bottom bracket. The PF30 BB is primarily used as it is compatible with Niner’s BioCentric system, should you wish to run the bike as a singlespeed, but I wouldn’t imagine many riders taking up this option. PF30 isn’t my favourite standard and I’d have preferred a threaded but it’s certainly far from the worst of the pressfit standards.

The colourways that Niner offer for this frame are seriously cool. There are two options for the carbon frame – ‘baja blue / sand’ which is this particular colourway and ‘olive green / orange’ which also looks rad, although until I see the frame in person, I’m not sure if the orange graphics clash with the green / black of the rest of the frame. There are nods to adventure on the paintwork with topographical lines on parts of the top tube, seat tube and fork. It’s also a cool touch how Niner include a graphic on the underside of the down tube, which inform you of the important specs of the frame if you are not mechanically knowledgeable.

The Build

Rather than buy a bike off-the-shelf from Niner, I chose to buy a frameset as I wanted to spec the the frame with a Campagnolo Ekar groupset. The builds that Niner offer are with a plethora of options from Shimano and SRAM. I have previously used a SRAM Rival 1 groupset on a previous bike which was very good but it didn’t quite have the range I’m after and remains 11-speed. Now that 12 and 13-speed options exist, this makes sense if you are running 1x. I didn’t fancy ponying up for SRAM eTap AXS as it has its quirks – it is very expensive, which I don’t see the need for on a gravel bike that is going to be caked with mud off-road. I’m rather uncomfortable with the rear mech costing almost £600 as it’s a part that can very easily get knocked! There are also the usual irritating SRAM quirks such as the DUB cranks and bottom bracket system, the XD / XDr driver body system and whilst I love the lever shape of the mechanical hoods, the eTap AXS hoods feel rather bulky and bulbous to me. Shimano also has its pluses and minuses. I believe Shimano GRX is a half-baked system in that it is only 11-speed and doesn’t go far enough in furthering itself from the road groupsets. I also, controversially, don’t rate Shimano’s current generation hydraulic disc brakes.

The Campagnolo Ekar groupset is a real rival to Shimano and SRAM in that it is 13-speed which is excellent as you get a wide range of gears and less prominent jumps between them as there is another gear to share the load. I really like the idea that the first cluster of gears have 1 tooth jumps, so you can really fine tune your gear when you’re on the flat or descending, whereas with my previous SRAM 1x, there were some parts of the cassette ratio where you were looking for a gear in between the teeth that were offered.

The cassette is offered in 9-36, 9-42 or 10-44. I’ve opted for the 10-44 option as I will be using this bike for bikepacking, so favour the easier gear and I’m unsure on Campagnolo’s use of a 9t cog in terms of wear. The cassette itself looks aesthetically pleasing and Campagnolo have introduced a new N3W freehub, which is a shortened version of its existing freehub that is backwards-compatible with 9,10,11 and 12 speed systems. This is a real breath of fresh air, as many brands are guilty of introducing new standards for the sake of it, forcing consumers to upgrade. At this point in time, there are not many wheelsets on the market with an N3W option but there will be more in time.

The chainset is a thing of beauty with its carbon allure and attention to detail with its removable rubber crank boots, to stop the ends of the crank arms from scuffing. I’ve gone for a 40t variant, but Campagnolo offer the chainset in 38, 40, 42 or 44 narrow-wide tooth options. The crank axle still connect via a Hirth joint with the bottom bracket bearings pressed onto the axle itself rather than the frame. This is known as the Ultra-Torque system, which Campagnolo have used for many years. Ekar, however, is slightly different in that it uses a ‘ProTech’ bottom bracket, where the bearings and cups have an additional seal to withstand the abuse of gravel riding.

The shifters will be familiar to anyone familiar with Campagnolo’s other offerings and the shape of the lever is particularly sculpted. The levers are aluminium rather than carbon but have some slight texturing to the bottom of the lever to help with grip. The noticeable change with these shifters is the new ‘Lever 3’ design of the shift paddle, which has grown in size and offer you two locations to downshift from, as you can now access it from the drops of the handlebars. I won’t be surprised if this new design migrates to Campagnolo’s road groupsets.

Ekar’s brakes remain the same as previous Campagnolo’s offerings, only they are re-branded as Ekar, the rotors are steel, there is an improved pad compound, and the system no longer uses Magura’s Royal Blood as brake fluid (although you can still use this) and use a new red mineral oil from the brand. The performance of the brakes is the best out of the Big Three. They offer confidence-inspiring modulation and don’t rub as easily as Shimano or SRAM’s offerings (the former being the biggest culprit, where if you do so much as look at the brake, it will start to rub!) as the pads use a magnetic piston to retract, which is a genius solution. 

My first impressions are that Campagnolo have pulled a blinder with their first foray into gravel. The quality of the Ekar parts looks very impressive and set-up was fairly straightforward. Things to watch out for if you’re building an Ekar-equipped bike include the B-gap adjustment of the rear mech, which is particularly sensitive as it is on 12-speed systems, so you’ll want to take care here to ensure good quality shifting. I found the brakes quite difficult to bleed compared to Shimano and SRAM, despite following Campagnolo’s tutorials. After a couple of sub-par bleeds, a mechanic that has plenty of experience with Campagnolo recommended bleeding it in the vein of a SRAM system (pushing / pulling between the two syringes) and this helped no-end in achieving a confidence-inspiring result. 

A final obstacle with Ekar is that Campagnolo simply don’t believe in full housing for the gears if your frame implores this technique and you want to use the included ‘Maximum Smoothness’ cables. I’d recommend using the Maximum Smoothness cables as there is less friction in the system and a 13-speed system is always going to be more sensitive to perfect set-up compared to an 11 or 12-speed system. You can’t buy a length of full outer housing online so you will either need to visit a Campagnolo dealer and ask nicely for them to cut you off the required length from a reel or buy a 25 metre reel. This is a mad but very Italian move from the groupset manufacturer. 

I can’t wait to test this groupset in real world conditions and I’ll report on my findings in due course.

The wheels are currently Fulcrum Rapid Red 5’s which are a bombproof but unremarkable aluminium wheelset with a (wide for an Italian brand) 23mm internal rim diameter. I had ordered some Campagnolo Shamal’s but they are yet to arrive so bought the Fulcrum’s at the last minute to get the bike built up for now. When the Shamal’s eventually arrive, they will become the Summer wheels and the Fulcrum’s can be used for the Winter slop.

Onto the finishing kit, the handlebars are Easton EC70 AX’s which have a 16 degree flare to them, which isn’t too dramatic compared to other options, and are carbon fibre so should be really comfortable as they’ll take away some of the sting from surface vibrations. The stem is a generic aluminium one for now from my parts bin – I’ll upgrade it to something nicer once I’ve got the position dialled.

The bar tape is the new Silca Nastro Cuscino which is super thick and seems like it will be supremely comfortable and hard-wearing but my god, it was one of the hardest bar tapes I’ve ever had to wrap. Silca don’t give you enough in the pack and it is very difficult to negotiate the tape around the shifters. On the one hand, you have to figure-of-eight it but because it’s quite chunky, it doesn’t look right so be prepared to spend a while if you want to have a good job.

I’ve also used Silca for the bottle cages with their titanium Sicuros which are pure bike porn and offer a super-solid grip of the bottle from a couple of tests. These look set to be a lifetime item.

The seatpost is a Specialized COBL GOBL-R which is carbon fibre and has a cobra-like kink at the top where it uses a ‘Zertz vibration damper’ at the head of the post, to boost compliance. I’ve carried this post over from a previous bike and have always got on with it and the saddle that is fitted to it is a Fabric Scoop.

So as you can see, this is one very luxurious steed and I’ll be sure to report back on my thoughts on the bike once I’ve got some miles on it and can comment on the durability. I’ve completed one brief hour-long ride on it so far and my initial impressions are very positive but it is far too early to be definitive. I’m aiming to get a couple more shorter rides on it and next week, I will likely be throwing it straight in the deep end as I’m bikepacking the King Alfred’s Way, a 350km circular off-road route.