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Niner MCR 9 RDO full suspension gravel bike review

23 Feb 2021
Verdict:

Great bike in many ways but you'd need to own another too if you want to do a bit of everything

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
Comfort • Superb off-road capability
Against 
Heavy • Overkill • Lots to maintain • Lacks versatility

‘Isn’t that just a mountain bike with drop bars?’ I was asked this frequently while testing the MCR, and it’s a query Niner must be sick of answering too. Just for clarity, no, this is not a mountain bike with drop bars.

For starters the MCR (which stands for Magic Carpet Ride) has only half the suspension travel of even the raciest full-sus XC mountain bikes, but more importantly its geometry is that of a dedicated gravel slayer, which is nowhere near that of a modern MTB either.

That’s an important distinction, because the way most of us ride gravel bikes – predominantly in a seated position for long periods – requires a geometry sympathetic to that.

So it may be a paid-up member of the gravel fraternity, but the MCR is still a pioneering bike, and its uniqueness lies in its suspension.

Of course, this isn’t the first gravel bike with suspension – in fact there are two other bikes tested in this issue that have front and rear suspension – but none have it in quite the same way as the Niner MCR.

Vertical compliance through flex isn’t the same thing as having ‘true suspension’. Flex in a tube can only achieve so much, acting predominantly just to soften impacts.

There’s no real control over the movement either in compression or rebound. A linkage and shock system, such as is used on the MCR, is an entirely different proposition.

 

Internal damping circuits in the shock (or fork) control both compression and rebound phases of movement and can be individually tuned to rider weight and riding preferences.

But the biggest difference is a shock has ‘negative travel’ too. Simply put, this means when set up correctly the shock sits slightly ‘in’ its stroke so there is always a force acting to extend the shaft, in effect pushing the tyres into hollows as well as compressing over bumps.

The idea is that your tyres will stay in contact with the ground more, leading to improved control.

Right there is the point of ‘true suspension’. Far from being just about comfort, it delivers more control, giving more confidence to ride faster and more smoothly over rough terrain.

Buy the Niner MCR 9 RDO now

Ups and downs

What Niner has done is laudable, not least for trying something new. But it wasn’t all plain sailing with the MCR out on the trails.

I’ll start at the back. Niner has used its own CVA (constantly varying arc) linkage system, adapted from its highly regarded mountain bike range, in combination with an X-Fusion Microlite rear shock with remote lockout (a neat lever on the bars that switches between open and locked setting).

Niner says the MCR is tuned to be especially sensitive to high-frequency, low-amplitude bumps – as found on gravel or dirt roads – with a linear spring curve to create less end-stroke.

That basically means the shock is designed to be very active and will move through its range evenly and not ramp up near the end of its stroke. For me, though, with settings correct for my bodyweight, the bike felt quite wallowy under pedal-induced forces, especially on faster, flatter sections of trail.

Quickening the rebound helped, as did increasing air pressure in the shock, but that had a knock-on effect.

Small bump sensitivity was lost if the air pressure was increased enough to prevent the shock feeling too squishy. Granted, I’m probably fussier than most, coming from a mountain bike-racing background, but the X-Fusion shock just doesn’t feel sophisticated enough to get the best out of the MCR.

Buy the Niner MCR 9 RDO now

It could really do with independent high and low-speed compression tuning, but I accept that Niner is at the mercy of third-party components here.

 

Sadly it’s a similar story up front. I found it impossible to tune out the very linear spring curve in the Fox Float AX fork, and despite my best efforts I just couldn’t achieve a setup that worked for me all the time.

The fork had a tendency to blow through its travel far too quickly, especially with the extra leverage created by having more bodyweight over the front when riding with my hands on the hoods.

That all sounds quite negative, so let me just say there were times on the MCR when it was just pure, rip-roaring fun.

Being able to stay off the brakes for longer on technical trails, death-gripping the bars on a rough descent and powering over sections of rocks at full tilt had me grinning and tingling with adrenaline, where a rigid gravel bike would have felt like a wild horse.

That counts for something, but in truth the opportunities for those moments are few and far between on my regular rides.

Chunky monkey

Finally, there is the weight. There’s no polite way of saying it: the MCR needs to go on a diet. This 4-Star model weighs nearly 12kg, which is just too heavy for it to be ignored.

I found the weight really tugged me back on anything vaguely uphill, and while it helps to keep the bike well-planted on the rough stuff, the Niner’s extra bulk does limit its versatility.

 

And that’s how I would sum up this bike: it has limited versatility. It’s great at a few things but that misses the fundamental point. A good gravel bike should possess the ability to perform in many different ways and over varied terrain on a single ride. And that, for me, was unfortunately lacking in the MCR.

Buy the Niner MCR 9 RDO here

All that said, I can see a lot of potential for future generations of this bike. With a bit more refinement and wider availability of third-party components to develop the tuning, I’ll be as keen to test future versions as I was to test this first edition.

Spec

Frame Niner MCR 9 RDO 4-Star
Groupset Shimano GRX RX810 1x edition
Brakes Shimano GRX RX810 1x edition, Shimano SLX7100 front brake calliper
Chainset Easton EA90
Cassette Shimano GRX RX810 1x edition
Bars Easton EA50AX
Stem Niner RDO
Seatpost KS LEV SI dropper
Saddle Niner Custom Ti
Wheels Stans Grail S1, Panaracer Gravel King SK+ 43mm tyres
Weight 11.86kg
Contact zyrofisher.co.uk

All reviews are fully independent and no payments have been made by companies featured in reviews

Price: 
£5,750