Niner MCR 9 RDO bike review: Does full suspension make sense for gravel?

by James Huang


The Niner MCR 9 RDO is a distinct outlier in the world of gravel bikes, a full-suspension heavyweight bruiser in a field of pared-down welterweights. To be completely honest, I went into Field Test fully expecting not to like it for all the reasons you’d expect on paper: it’s too heavy, it’s too complicated, it crosses too far over into mountain bike territory. When all was said and done, though, my opinions of the “Magic Carpet Ride” were far more nuanced.

It’s still too heavy. It’s still too complicated. And it still arguably crosses too far over into mountain bike territory. But it’s also its own unique beast, with its own unique merits, too.


Story Highlights

  • What it is: A full-suspension gravel bike that’s built for speed and comfort, not for gnar.
  • Frame features: Carbon fiber construction, 50 mm of rear wheel travel, 40 mm of front wheel travel, three bottle mounts, dedicated frame bag and feed bag mounts, fully guided internal cable routing, PF30 press-fit bottom bracket, generous rear tire clearance.
  • Weight: 2.61 kg (5.75 lb, 56 cm frame and rear shock, claimed); 1.36 kg (3.00 lb, fork only, claimed); 11.45 kg (25.24 lb, 53 cm complete bike, actual weight)
  • Price: US$5,900 / AU$TBC / £TBC / €TBC
  • Highs: Superb rider comfort, tangible boost in tire traction, good pedaling efficiency.
  • Lows:Very heavy, weird handling, ungainly aesthetics, suspension maintenance.

Forging its own path

Niner clearly wasn’t afraid of rocking the boat when it first previewed the MCR 9 RDO at last year’s Sea Otter Classic. Although the idea of suspension had already been accepted in the gravel world to some extent, the MCR 9 RDO pushed existing boundaries well past accepted norms.

Out back, a multi-pivot rear suspension design — adapted from Niner’s mountain bike range — offers 50 mm of travel via a custom-made X-Fusion rear shock, while Fox’s “gravel-specific” AX telescoping fork delivers 40 mm up front. Both feature adjustable air springs, paired with adjustable oil dampers and manual lockouts for when you want to turn the suspension off completely.

In between sit carbon fiber front and rear triangles with all the usual features you’d expect: mounts for three bottles and a top tube feed bag, dedicated hard points for Niner’s new range of strapless frame bags, internal cable routing, and dropper seatpost compatibility. Down below is a PF30 press-fit bottom bracket shell, and the internal cable routing is designed to accommodate an optional dropper seatpost. That internal routing is also fully guided inside the frame — hallelujah.

The Niner MCR 9 RDO isn’t the prettiest bike out there, but there are good reasons for its awkward appearance.

As you’d expect from the rough-and-tumble persona that the dual-suspension format portrays, tire clearance on the MCR 9 RDO frame is comparatively generous, with Niner officially approving the MCR 9 RDO with tires up to 700×50 mm or 650×54 mm. Things are tighter up front, at least in terms of total outer diameter. That same 650×54 mm setup will work just fine, but to keep the tire from bottoming out on the crown, Fox recommends limiting 700c tires to 40 mm in width.

Details aside, the idea of full-suspension for gravel is certainly an intriguing one. Yet despite what appearances might suggest at first glance, Niner isn’t billing the MCR 9 RDO as some sort of hardcore gravel machine that’s been explicitly developed to attack challenging singletrack. Interestingly, Niner is actually quite averse to the idea that the MCR 9 RDO is just some toned-down cross-country mountain bike with drop bars.

“By adding our CVA full suspension to a dedicated gravel bike platform, we’re blending the confidence and control of a cross-country race bike with the efficiency, fit, and responsive handling of a gravel bike,” reads the company’s web site. “The result is a drop bar bike with superior comfort, power delivery, and pure, unadulterated fun.”

The Constantly Varying Arc rear suspension design on the MCR 9 RDO is an adaptation of the system that Niner uses on its mountain bike range.

According to Niner, the MCR’s suspension was designed more for ride comfort and to squelch higher-frequency chatter, rather than just to absorb bigger individual impacts. The spring rate is pretty linear at both ends, and it’s easy to use all of the available travel even in everyday riding. The damping is rather light, too, so both ends are free to compress and extend.

Basically, Niner says the suspension is there to make riders more comfortable and to help you go faster in general, not for shredding gnar.

Geometry-wise, the Niner is a curious juxtaposition. The front end occupies the stable end of the handling spectrum, with fairly average head tube angles, but short 44 mm fork offsets that combine for a lengthy 76 mm of trail when paired with our 40 mm-wide Continental Terra Speed control tires. Likewise, long wheelbases across the board closely mirror those of the BMC URS — one of the most progressive gravel bikes we rode at Field Test.

In contrast, the chainstays are very long at 440 mm, which is about 20 mm longer than the norm for other gravel bikes we tested at Field Test (and, notably 2 mm shorter than the Specialized Enduro 29 mountain bike, which also has 170 mm of rear-wheel travel and clears a much bigger tire). The bottom bracket is quite high, too, with just 62 mm of drop (a requirement to keep the cranks from smashing into the ground when the suspension is bottomed out). The effective seat tube angles are pretty conventional, but the distinctly slack actual angle (a function of where the rear shock is situated) means more variation depending on saddle height.

Unfortunately, Niner makes the MCR 9 RDO in just three sizes — small, medium, and large — perhaps a sign that while the company is bullish on the model in terms of overall performance, it was a little more financially conservative when it came to investing in molds.

Niner does offer the MCR 9 RDO in seven complete build kits, though, starting at US$4,700 with Shimano GRX 400 and Niner house-brand aluminum wheels, and topping out at US$8,200 with a SRAM Force AXS wireless groupset and Stan’s NoTubes Grail CB7 carbon hoops. All builds feature a mix of Niner house-brand and Easton finishing kit, along with Schwalbe tires throughout. For DIYers, there’s a frame-only option, too.

For Field Test, we tested the mid-range “4-Star” Shimano GRX 800 2x version, which retails for US$5,900. Actual weight for our small-sized sample was a hefty 11.45 kg (25.24 lb) when fitted with our Continental control tires, but without pedals or accessories.

Magic carpet ride, indeed

Naturally, the first question that comes to mind about the Niner MCR 9 RDO is, “how’s it ride?”

The casual observer might assume that the MCR 9 RDO is a gravel bike with a chip on its shoulder, designed for super gnarly trails, and for big hits and drops. In other words, a drop-bar bike that you can recklessly smash into things as you descend trails like a bag full of anvils.

In reality, though, the MCR 9 RDO is not actually that bike. Instead, it feels just like its name suggests.

The MCR 9 RDO is littered with hard points for stuff like bottle cages, feed bags, and purpose-built frame bags. It’s one trend that would certainly be good to see more widespread.

The suspension is extremely active, leveling the smallest rocks and bumps on the road or trail that you might encounter, and making it so that it’s truly like they’re not even there — at least as far as your hands and butt are concerned. That sort of thing obviously makes for an extremely supple and comfortable ride, but there’s a performance benefit to be had as well.

On chattery surfaces, the MCR 9 RDO’s suspension does a superb job of keeping your tires firmly planted on the ground, and instead of having to stand and float over the saddle on rough terrain, you can stay seated and continue to lay down the power.

Traction is improved as well, which is especially helpful when riding on unpaved surfaces with tires measuring just 40 mm across. Where some other bikes I rode at Field Test would skitter and slide through certain corners, the MCR 9 RDO confidently carved through them.

Likewise, the suspension makes easy work of short, rocky climbs. On one particular section of mild trail I rode repeatedly in Sedona, most of the test bikes forced me around a set of small stair-steps that ran down the middle. But on the MCR, I just charged right through without a second thought (but with a big, silly grin).

The Fox AX fork works well enough, but there’s no hiding the fact that it’s little more than an obsoleted cross-country mountain bike fork that’s been slightly modified for gravel.

There are also limits, such as washboarded dirt roads where the MCR’s suspension just can’t quite keep up, and just as Niner warns, the MCR 9 RDO is not a big-hit machine. With such a linear spring rate, it doesn’t take much to overwhelm the limited amount of travel. Bottom-out isn’t unduly harsh, though, and overall, the way the MCR handles rougher ground worlds better than a gravel bike with no suspension at all, or one with add-ons at the stem and seatpost.

Pedaling performance is pretty good, but careful setup is key. Too little air pressure will leave the rear end bobbing uncontrollably; too much makes the rear feel unnecessarily harsh. Get it right, though, and the back of the bike actually feels decently taut in most situations, whether spinning smoothly in the saddle or mashing more erratically up a steep and rocky pitch.

Likewise, it’s important to spend some time balancing the front and rear ends. There are a variety of tuning parameters on tap for the Fox AX fork, and the tech-savvy rider would be wise to use them. Where the rear suspension seems to rely almost entirely on pivot geometry to minimize unwanted movement (there’s seemingly no built-in platform valving, unlike the more advanced dampers on many modern full-suspension mountain bikes), the AX offers a wider range of adjustment on the compression damper, with varying degrees of lockout on the crown-mounted controls, as well as tuneable “blowoff” for when you have the front suspension turned off completely.

Overall, the tuning process can be rather cumbersome — especially for recovering roadies who aren’t accustomed to all the parameters — but is worthwhile nonetheless.

The X-Fusion shock is a custom unit made especially for Niner. It works pretty well, but the rebound adjuster knob is hard to access. We had issues setting up the remote lockout, too.

Whether or not you get the suspension tune right, there’s no escaping the MCR 9 RDO’s considerable weight. That smooth full-suspension ride may be fun and fast at relatively constant speeds or on rolling or flatter terrain, but it’s a literal anchor on longer or steeper climbs, and the effect was seemingly magnified if I didn’t take the time to dial in the suspension.

That heft is at least paired with a suitably stiff carbon fiber chassis, but mass is mass, and since most of the additional ballast is directly tied to the frame and fork, no amount of upgrading can substantially narrow the gap. Officially, Niner says a 56 cm MCR 9 RDO frame tips the scales at 2.61 kg (5.75 lb), including the rear shock. And according to Fox, the AX fork weighs 1.36 kg (3.00 lb). In total, the penalty relative to a good fully rigid carbon setup is more than 2 kg.

Unfortunately, there’s probably no good way for Niner to shed a considerable amount of weight. Although the MCR 9 RDO has limited travel front and rear, both the frame and fork still have to have the same overall layout and complexity as a bike with considerably more wheel movement. Some of the bits can be made shorter and/or a little lighter, but there’s still a lot of hardware that has to be in place no matter if there’s 20 mm of travel or 200 mm.

The added complexity brings with it a slew of questions about long-term durability and maintenance, too. There are eight cartridge bearings to consider in the rear end, and both the rear shock and front fork should be serviced annually, at minimum. None of that is impossible to do at home if you’re reasonably mechanically savvy, but it adds a lot of work (and ongoing expense) nonetheless.

Forged aluminum links are used top and bottom, both fitted with Enduro black oxide sealed cartridge bearings.

“This will be a personal decision, but I like my gravel bikes to be on the simpler side for reliability and low maintenance needs,” said fellow CyclingTips tech editor Dave Rome, who also tested this bike with me in Sedona. “This bike takes that wish and stamps all over it. Suspension forks need servicing, but so do frame pivots and rear shocks.”

If you need a little extra motivation to actually perform that maintenance, Dave is also keen to remind prospective buyers that the rear shock is a fully custom unit made for Niner by X-Fusion, which means sourcing a replacement down the road if needed might be easier said than done.

“Regarding the spec choice of fork and rear shock, the market simply doesn’t offer many alternatives at this time,” pointed out Niner marketing manager Zack Vestal. “This is an entirely new category, and as such, it doesn’t offer as much parts selection. Therefore, we worked with our suspension partners to tune and refine the available parts and we feel the proof is in the performance. The bike rides well with what it wears, and we have experienced zero failures or reliability issues of any kind with the X-Fusion shock.”

Even if you can live with the added mass and potential maintenance hassles of the bike’s added complexity, the MCR 9 RDO’s curious geometry is harder to overlook.

Niner is no stranger to gravel bikes at this point, and its RLT range is pretty well dialed when it comes to fit and handling (CyclingTips editor-in-chief Caley Fretz and I rode RLTs during our excursion to Idaho last year for Rebecca’s Private Idaho and were quite impressed with them, in fact). However, the MCR 9 RDO’s geometry is completely different.

The graphics package on the MCR 9 RDO is lovely.

The front end feels steep and nervous, the center of gravity seems tall, and the long rear end feels like a tail that you’re dragging behind you. Overall, the MCR 9 RDO unfortunately feels more like a 29er mountain bike from yesteryear — and I mean that quite literally. A dig through the internet archives reveals that the MCR 9 RDO’s steering geometry, bottom bracket drop, and chainstay length are virtually identical — almost to the millimeter — to what Niner was using on its 29er hardtails a decade ago.

Granted, a lot of modern gravel bikes share key aspects of their geometry with older mountain bikes, too (which is perhaps why there’s such an interest in repurposing old trail machines into ultra-capable drop-bar bikes). And indeed, at least on paper, the MCR 9 RDO should actually steer pretty normally with its very conventional 76 mm trail figure. If anything, the trail dimension says that this bike should feel more stable than nimble.

However, remember that the front of the MCR 9 RDO is fitted with a telescoping suspension fork, even the best of which are prone to dive under hard cornering and braking forces unless they’re tuned in such a way as to negatively impact bump performance. And while the MCR 9 RDO has a pretty normal trail figure, Niner has opted to achieve that numerical stability with a steeper head tube angle and less fork offset. This achieves the same end result as a slacker head tube angle and more fork offset, but ends up producing a shorter front center (the distance from the bottom bracket to the front hub).

When you combine that with the fact that your weight is cantilevered pretty far ahead of the steering axis (unless your hands are on the bar tops), that fork compression makes for an effective head tube angle that’s steeper yet, and a more unsettled-feeling front end.

Unfortunately for the MCR 9 RDO, that’s exactly the opposite of how you’d ideally want the thing to feel, given how much faster the suspension can allow you to go, but in fairness to Niner, the limited choices in gravel-friendly suspension forks likely forced the frame designer’s hand. That AX fork is based on an obsolete mountain bike suspension fork that was only offered with a 44 mm offset, and given the tiny niche market of gravel-specific front suspension, there’s no way Fox would have invested in a new mold.

“It’s not as playful as it could be,” Dave said. “Perhaps a tiny bit of length off the rear end, maybe a longer front centre and shorter stem, and a kick out of the head angle would all combine to make this is a truly unique, but totally sensible product.”

Niner has been using this slogan since day one, and I suspect it isn’t going away any time soon.

Naturally, Vestal offered up a counterpoint to our criticism.

“There are few if any suitable geometry comparisons because as stated, the MCR sits literally in a category of its own creation,” he said. “Our head tube angle at 71 degrees is right in line with most contemporary gravel bikes. On paper, our bottom bracket drop is less than average, but when set up correctly under load, it should sag to be very similar to most gravel bikes. In fact, most test riders comment on a low perceived bottom bracket height. Lastly, the wheelbase was made deliberately longer than average to achieve better stability at speed.

“Keep in mind as well that the bike suspension and geometry is designed with a typical gravel riding weight bias of about 70% rear and 30% front, because 90% of the time, a typical gravel rider is simply seated comfortably and pedaling along,” he continued. “But again and again, we find that the MCR 9 RDO is judged more like a mountain bike, with riders descending for longer intervals and adopting a 50-50 weight bias – rider standing, cranks horizontal, weight evenly distributed front to back.

“Just because it has suspension doesn’t mean it’s meant to ride beyond its means,” Vestal concluded. “Precisely because it has suspension, people tend to push it faster, on rougher terrain, than other gravel bikes. That’s for sure part of the fun of the MCR 9 RDO. But it’s not necessarily a suitable point of comparison. We hope that riders understand that the bike was made as a gravel bike, for pedaling long miles in the saddle. We feel that it performs well for its intended application.”

Be that as it may, the MCR 9 RDO still feels to us like a bit of a missed opportunity. While the suspension works far better for gravel than you might expect, that potential for high-speed performance on its intended terrain is hampered by the old-school front-end geometry. Had Niner paired this back end – length and all – with a more progressive front end geometry (like what’s found on the BMC URS, for example), it very well could have blown us away. But as is, it feels more like the rider’s weight is just too far forward on this bike overall, and it distinctly stifles the fun.

This last point may feel like needlessly twisting the knife, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on the MCR 9 RDO’s appearance. I’m no designer, mind you, but both Dave and I noted that the proportions of the front end just don’t seem right. As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but excellent suspension performance or not, the bike’s unusual aesthetics alone will likely keep a lot of potential buyers away.

Spec notes

The build kit on the MCR 9 RDO Four-Star is a bit of a mixed bag, but it all works well nonetheless.

As we’ve mentioned almost ad nauseam at this point, the Shimano GRX 800-series gravel-specific mechanical groupset is impeccable. Shifting performance is absolutely superb out back, and the clutch does an excellent job of keeping the drivetrain quiet. The hydraulic disc brakes are powerful yet controllable, and the ergonomics of the levers are fantastic.

Our test bike arrived with a Shimano GRX 800 2x mechanical groupset. As expected, it performed superbly.

Like the Cervelo Aspero we tested, Niner has opted for an Easton EA90 solid-forged aluminum crankset instead of completing the Shimano GRX package. Not surprisingly, then, it also works just as well, with good shifting performance and stayed quiet despite the PF30 press-fit bottom bracket shell. The 47/32-tooth chainrings don’t offer quiet as much range as what you would have gotten with GRX, but neither Dave nor I ever felt like the MCR 9 RDO needed more.

Riders who tend to pedal toes-out will likely take issue with the straight arms’ lack of heel clearance, though, and while front shifting performance is perfectly acceptable overall, it’s worth noting that the chain rubs on the front derailleur cage if you’re cross-chained in the big ring and hit a bump out back (which, in fairness, is more an issue with how Niner has positioned the front derailleur, not the Easton crank).

The Easton EA90 crankset performs well enough, and the 30 mm-diameter aluminum spindle fills the PF30 press-fit shell nicely. A Shimano crank would still shift better, though.

In terms of rolling stock, the Stan’s NoTubes Grail S1 aluminum wheels are fairly no-frills, but a solid line item in terms of weight, durability, and rear hub engagement speed. They’re also extremely easy to set up tubeless, which was particularly helpful since we were setting up test bikes in Sedona with our Continental control tires without the aid of an air compressor.

Worth noting, however, is the fact that the Fox AX fork requires a 15 mm thru-axle front hub, not the 12 mm one that’s now far more common for gravel bikes. That could potentially limit wheel choices down the road, but on the bright side, it also opens up a wealth of choices for older 29er mountain bike wheels that no longer work with modern “Boost” suspension forks.

Easton also provides the EA50 AX flared aluminum handlebar, while the carbon seatpost, aluminum stem, and saddle are all in-house Niner stuff. None of it is particularly special, but we didn’t have any complaints with any of it, either.

Only one real misstep, but it’s unfortunately a big one

As I said in the beginning of the review, I went into this test with a healthy amount of skepticism. However, I came out of it with a far more mixed opinion – and not just of this particular bike, but of the idea of “real” suspension for gravel riding in general.

Unquestionably, there are benefits to suspension for this type of bike, and they’re not solely limited to rider comfort, either. Just as in the mountain bike world, you can legitimately go faster on this bike than most other gravel bikes that don’t have the luxury of springs and dampers, given the right kind of surface. And while all of that extra hardware adds a lot of extra mass, riders who don’t have to contend with heaps of climbing (but still have to deal with bumpy unpaved roads and trails) would do well to give the MCR 9 RDO a second look.

Weight and odd appearance aside, the suspension on the Niner MCR 9 RDO actually works pretty well.

But unfortunately, the weird geometry is a major issue here. Niner is rightfully insistent that the MCR 9 RDO isn’t just a mountain bike with drop bars — although it obviously shares some key DNA with mountain bikes, the way it rides, fits, and generally behaves both on and off road is quite different. Yet in some ways, Niner perhaps should have actually embraced that connection more instead of trying to shun it.

If the MCR 9 RDO truly represents an “entirely new category” of gravel bike – one that lets riders go faster and in more comfort – wouldn’t it make sense to also adopt a more progressive front-end geometry that can better exploit what the concept has to offer?

Instead, the MCR 9 RDO ends up being too heavy and cumbersome to be fun to ride on smoother surfaces, with handling that’s a bit too unsettled to fully unleash off-road, either.

So yes, you can feel free to call me a bit of a convert when it comes to the idea of a suspension bike for gravel. But in the case of the Niner MCR 9 RDO, the problem is what you have to give up in return.

www.ninerbikes.com

Want more gravel? Be sure to check out the rest of the content from the 2020 CyclingTips Gravel Bike Field Test. Also, be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of the associated videos, either.

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