Road Test: Niner MCR 9 RDO

Feb 25th, 2020

This review originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

As a touring cyclist, you hope for a bike that disappears beneath you, allowing you to focus solely on the experience. Niner’s new MCR 9 RDO is the first tunable full-suspension gravel bike, giving riders 40mm of suspension in the front and 50mm in the rear for confidence, comfort, and control on off-road excursions and roads of questionable quality. It’s the Magic Carpet Ride (hence the acronym) for gravel cyclists and bikepackers. 

I first rode the MCR on gravel roads and green and blue mountain bike trails in Vermont and Colorado. Then I loaded it up, swapped out the 700c wheels for 650b, and rode the length of the country of Jordan, a 13-day, 450-mile tour with over 60,000 feet of climbing and grades up to 24 percent both up and down. The surface included everything from miniature baby-head rocks in sand to broken pavement, chunky gravel, and blacktop so new it was still steaming. I was carrying personal and repair gear, up to four liters of water, and some food.

I can’t think of a bike I would have rather been riding on this tour. 

I’ve heard many gravel riders ask, “Do I need suspension?” If you’re sticking to paved roads or dirt so smooth that it seems paved, you don’t. But if you’re an adventure rider game to embark on a tour with minimal info, or a rider who can’t pass up an opportunity to turn off on a side road or trail, you should consider it. By adding full suspension to a dedicated gravel platform, Niner gives riders the control of a cross-country race mountain bike with the efficiency, fit, and responsive handling of a road bike to make gravel riding more fun.

In front, Niner uses a Fox Step-Cast 32 AX fork with 40mm of travel. The rear X-Fusion shock is tucked behind the heavily shaped seat tube and surrounded above and below by linkages in Niner’s Constantly Varying Arc (CVA) suspension layout, a version of which the brand uses on its full-suspension mountain bikes. 

Designing such short suspension travel is an evolving science, and Niner did a good job with their first foray tuning suspension that absorbs vibration and small bumps. With only 50mm on tap, Niner opted for a more linear suspension curve with the notion that a seated rider should be able to take advantage of all the travel. 

Without bags, I put more pressure in the shock and fork than Niner recommended and still had the smooth and stable ride I wanted. However, when loaded up with 13 days’ worth of gear, I wasn’t able to get that smooth, never-bouncy suspension feel dialed in as precisely. 

Niner’s Zach Vestal confirmed that the company’s pressure guidelines were biased toward riders using all the travel, and that in a “loaded touring application or smoother than typical road surfaces, our suggested setup might feel too soft.”

My rider weight, which in this case included my weight plus frame, seat, and handlebar bags of gear, fluctuated by up to nine pounds a day, depending on how much water I was carrying. I set the shock and fork to my weight plus a guestimate of how much my gear weighed, and then I added a whole lot more pressure at different intervals throughout the trip. I got it to where it felt good on technical terrain, but I kept the rear locked out for climbs and sections where I was hammering on flats. Suspension made stretches of trail that would have been heinous or unrideable on a rigid bike manageable, if sometimes spicy. 

The X-Fusion shock isn’t as precisely tunable as those from other brands, and homing in on the perfect setup with such minimal travel is as much an art as a science. The bike’s suspension enhanced my riding experience, but instead of leaving it open all the time, I used the handlebar-mounted lockout and the twist knob on the top of the right fork leg to give me more or less shock absorption depending on the surface. Open, the Fox AX gave me what I expected from a suspension fork — no-bounce vibration absorption and small-bump compliance, and once I got the rebound dialed in via a knob at the bottom of the left fork leg, I left it open except when I was on pavement. The rear shock was harder to dial in, and I opened and closed the lockout lever many times throughout the day.

I tested the MCR spec’d with Niner’s 4-star Shimano GRX 800 2x build, and I was impressed with the components. The biggest difference was in the textured hood covers, which feature exaggerated knobs and made moving my hands around on the bars stable and secure. Angled lever blades felt natural with the bike’s flared bars, and the whole setup made swapping between hoods and drops seamless even on steep, technical descents. 

For the Jordan trip, I swapped the 700c Stans NoTubes Grail S1 wheels for 650b NEXT carbon wheels with Project 321 hubs and 47mm WTB tires. I also swapped the Ultegra 11–34T cassette for a GRX 11–40T rear cassette to give me a better chance of pedaling up Jordan’s viciously steep grades. It rode perfectly unless I cross-chained, in which case the drivetrain locked. So I tried not to cross-chain. Shimano’s claimed range maxes out at 34T, but adding a few links to the chain would’ve likely solved the issue.

Other touches on the carbon frame include an integrated rear fender to protect the rear shock, full-sleeve internal cable guides, a port for a dropper post if you decide to add one, and 11 fixed mounting points to hold framebags, bottles, and more. There is clearance for whatever rim and tire combo you want to ride, up to 700c x 50mm or 650b x 2.0in.

As Niner gets more riders on this bike, they’ll refine their suspension pressure charts, making it even better than it is. Hopefully, they will also design alternate mounts for the rear shock lockout. With the ultralight handlebar bag I prefer, which wraps and clips around the bar, I couldn’t reach the rear lockout lever. A bag with a frame would have solved the problem, but I had to angle the lever awkwardly to make it work. 

Despite its imperfections (I rode the first MCR available in the U.S.), I had an exceptional experience on this bike. It let me ride more of the Jordan Trail at a more efficient pace possible than I would have on any other bike, and helped me keep a smile on my face on the most grueling days. 

“Fun is the glorious side effect of this bike,” said George Parry, the Niner designer who led the project. “When mountain biking first started, it was just guys out in regular shorts, ripping fire roads. Now cross-country riding is super serious, with everyone kitted out in Lycra. People find a way to split off when it gets too serious. For me, that’s what this bike is about — exploring, and doing it with comfort and efficiency.”

If you’re looking for a gravel race bike, this probably isn’t it. But if you want a bike that gives you something a hardtail mountain bike or full-suspension XC bike can’t — more hand positions, touring bike geometry, braze-ons galore, higher speeds on pavement — the answer is a hard yes.  

Niner MCR 9 RDO

Price: $5,900
Sizes available: 53cm, 56cm, 59cm
Size tested: 53cm
Weight: 25.3 lbs. (without pedals)

Test Bike Measurements

Stack: 575mm
Reach: 382mm
Head tube length: 133mm
Head tube angle: 71.0°
Seat tube length: 490mm
Seat tube angle: 73.8°
Top tube: 545mm
Chainstays: 440mm (actual) 
Bottom bracket drop:
Fork Offset: 44mm
Trail: 76mm
Wheelbase: 1041mm
Standover height: 764mm


Frame: Niner RDO carbon fiber, CVA suspension, internal cable routing, integrated fender, bottle, and bag mounts
Fork: Fox 32 Step-Cast Float AX Performance Elite, 40mm travel
Shock: X-Fusion Microlite RL, 50mm travel
Handlebar: Easton EA50 AX
Stem: Niner RDO 
Brake/shift levers:
Shimano GRX800
Rear Derailer: Shimano GRX800
Front Derailer: Shimano Ultegra
Brakes: Shimano GRX rear, Shimano SLX front, hydraulic disc
Rotors: Shimano, 160mm
Crankset: Easton EA90, 47/32T 
Cassette: Shimano Ultegra 11spd, 11–34T
Chain: Shimano HG601
Bottom bracket: Easton PF30
Seatpost: Niner Carbon
Saddle: Niner, titanium rails 
Headset: Niner integrated
Hubs: Stans NoTubes Neo, 100 x 15mm front, 142 x 12mm rear, thru-axles
Rims: Stans NoTubes Grail S1, 32h, tubeless ready
Tires: Schwalbe G-One Evo SS 700c x 40mm, tubeless ready

Gear Inches




































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