E-GRAVEL SHOOTOUT

Niner RLT e9 RDO versus Kona Libre EL

If ever there was a bike brand making inroads into the pedal-assist market that needn’t worry about having true off-road bona fides, it would be Niner. The Colorado company got its name from helping pioneer the world of 29-inch-wheeled mountain bikes long before they became the universal wheel choice by kicking the traditional 26-inch to the curb of history.     

Neither a stranger to building gravel bikes, this year Niner decided it was time to introduce a motor to the fledging drop-bar gravel bike category. Although touted as an e-gravel bike, the RLT e9 RDO is powered by a Class 3 motor, which would make it seem like Niner wanted to make this bike a little bit more than just a gravel bike. 

Niner went with a pretty classy Electric Moss Green color.

THE FRAME

Niner started with a carbon frame that looks like it received a shot of steroids. The frame has been bonded to an alloy mount for the Bosch motor. Everything from the rear stays to the carbon fork are bigger and beefier than the typical found on most road/gravel bikes. The frame’s curves and Electric Moss Green color truly make it visually stand out. 

“The frame is well-equipped with all the bikepacking mounts and water bottle/toolkit mounts needed for all-day adventuring.” 

The head tube angle is 71 degrees on the 53cm test bike we have, and that angle changes slightly through the different available frame sizes. The frame is well-equipped with all the bikepacking mounts and water bottle/toolkit mounts needed for all-day adventuring. Niner also made the hydro disc brakes post-mounted, meaning that as silly and cost-prohibitive as it would be, you could swap the drop handlebars for some mountain bike flat handlebars. There is routing for a dropper seatpost, as well as 148mm Boost spacing for the ability to change out the road cassette with a mountain bike cassette.

Classic Bosch Purion display gives you the basic information including mph, trip-meter, odometer and battery life.

THE PARTS

The RLT e9 RDO is only available in a single build, but fortunately as a Shimano-dedicated platform. The Shimano hydraulic GRX brakes use two-piece 180mm Center Lock Ice Tech rotors, which are designed to help shed heat more efficiently than the one-piece rotors. A Shimano GRX derailleur with an 11-42T cassette runs with a 170mm Praxis cranks with a Praxis Isis 42t front chainring.

Niner did a superb job integrating the new Bosch performance line speed motor.

The Stan’s NoTubes Arch D wheels are wrapped with big 700c x 50mm Schwalbe G One Speed Performance tires with a slick surface. Our size 53 came with the 44cm-wide Easton EA50 AX handlebar, and they have a 16-degree flare. 

THE MOTOR

The drive unit is the new Bosch Gen 4 speed motor with a tried-and-true Bosch Purion display and integrated 500-Wh battery. The power is tremendous in Turbo mode, giving you 85 N/m of torque and up to 340 percent of support or assist. As you go from Eco mode on up through Turbo mode, the power increments are nice and even. 

The 180mm Shimano Ice Tech rotors give you more than enough bite and stay cooler because of the cooling fins.

Riding the bike with the motor off is like riding a 39-pound bike, but the resistance from the motor is virtually undetectable. The Bosch Purion display is simple and durable, but for a $6000 bike, we would’ve expected to see
the newer, more data-inclusive Kiox display. That would be a nice upgrade, which is available from Bosch for
about $300.

Shimano’s flagship gravel group set makes for secure shifting and braking no matter how long the ride is.

WHO IT’S MADE FOR

Unlike most e-MTBs that universally rely on Class 1 motors (that cut off at 18 mph), some e-road and e-gravel bikes are taking advantage of the more road-friendly Class 3 motor standard (that cuts off at 28 mph). Niner is one of them, and it provides the ability to find an extra 8 mph to the dirt quicker. If you upgrade your display to a Kiox display, you can use it for legitimate training, as it has a cadence and power-meter reading. 

THE RIDE

Although “RLT” is an acronym for “Road Less Traveled,” we found the e9 RDO to have more of a road feel than gravel. While it can handle the gravel, it would do so better with some treaded tires. The Schwalbe G One tires are great for handling bumps and rough patches while riding straight on the road but lack grip on dirt corners. No sooner did we swap the slicks out for some treaded tires did we find newfound confidence in the bike’s off-road capabilities.

“This bike has a unique advantage being a Class 3, which gives the ability to ride on the street and get to the dirt quicker.”

The bike feels as sporty and aggressive as it looks, which can be a nice thing on the pavement, but the stiff, overbuilt frame was not the most comfortable for long gravel rides.

Used to riding with suspension and flat bars, the mountain bikers among us could never quite grasp the drop-bars-in-the-dirt theme. However, for those with a talent and liking for gravel bikes, the Niner met with accommodating smiles. Sure, they could feel all the bumps but appreciated the weight savings felt in the ride versus the majority of e-MTBs that can weigh up to 20 pounds more.

THE VERDICT

We like how Niner constructed the frame and fork proportionately to accommodate the added weight and torque of being an e-bike. For us, it’s not exactly the perfect gravel-specific bike. The frame is pretty rigid, meaning it’s not so comfortable when the trail gets bumpy. Even though you are riding on bigger tires, you can’t run the tire pressure too low or they will start to roll over on you through corners on the street. 

We like that the Class 3 motor lets us ride with our friends on fast-paced group road rides that regularly average 25–32 mph. Even with the knobby tires we threw on, the RLT still excelled as a commuter. The biggest advantage we found to the e9 is that it’s a 28-mph bike that still has a lot of power for when you really want or
need it. Not to mention, it looks really sharp, too.

SPECS

NINER RLT e9 RDO

Price: $5995

Weight: 39 lb.

Frame: Carbon

Motor: Bosch Gen 4-speed

Battery: 500 Wh

Controller: Bosch Purion

Top speed: 28 mph

Drive: Shimano GRX derailleur, SLX 11-42t cassette, 42t front chainring

Brakes: Shimano GRX, 180mm Shimano Ice Tech rotors

Wheels: Stans NoTubes Arch D 

Tires: Schwalbe G One 700c x 50mm

Fork: Niner carbon

Seatpost: Niner carbon, 440mm

Sizes: 50cm, 53cm (tested), 56cm, 59cm

www.ninerbikes.com

Honestly, we pity the poor product managers in the bike industry who have to wrestle with ever-changing consumer desires, as well as the equally fast pace and big leaps of new technology.  

As if devising new models for all the different segments of the once singularly defined “road bike” category wasn’t enough, now they have to deal with this thing called “e-bikes,” which have quickly manifested themselves as the next big thing rolling in the still-fresh
tire tracks of the last big thing—
gravel bikes.

As if chasing tire width, handling and frame compliance weren’t important-enough issues in designing a standard gravel bike, with the comeuppance of e-gravel, there’s now the need to ponder details like modes of pedal assist, overall weight and battery range. In short, it hasn’t got any easier.

With three models of their Libre gravel bikes well down the path, Kona is now rolling out the pedal-assisted Libre EL.  

THE FRAME

The Libre EL uses an aluminum frame with internally routed cables. The geometry is relaxed with a 71-degree head angle which helps bring added stability on descents. Up front Kona spec’d a flat-mount disc brake-friendly carbon fork, which is standard these days. Between the fork and the wide rear stays, it can comfortably fit up to a 50mm tire. 

The brown paint combined with the big yellow Kona tag on the downtube is more unique than most colors commonly found in the field of gravel bikes. Although lacking a flashier color might not make the Kona a real attention-grabber, the subdued look was one that caught on with many as being more gravel-friendly.

The Shimano e7000 motor isn’t the most up to date or powerful, but it gets the job done and helps keep the cost of the bike down.

THE MOTOR

As most of the traditional drop-bar market has become perfectly acquainted with the world of gravel bikes, the same can’t be said with the pedal-assist side of things. 

The quickest primer we can offer is this: there are two main classes of powerplants that the bike industry relies on—Class 1 that tops out at 20 mph of assist, and Class 3 that cuts off at 28 mph. While the former is standard for mountain bikes, the latter is finding increasing spec for drop-bar e-bikes.

As the e-gravel market grows (as does the price of newer motors), plenty of brands are finding good reason to spec mid-mount motors of old to allow for bikes at lower entry-level prices. That is the case with the Kona, which uses a three-year-old Shimano e7000 motor that has been followed by two newer and more powerful motors. But, as we have found, the Class 1 Shimano e7000 unit has proven to be reputable with low failure rates. 

Kona spec’d Shimano’s gravel-intended GRX drivetrain with an 11-42 cassette.

Honestly, the way this motor reacted in a gravel bike had us pretty impressed compared to some mountain bikes we’ve ridden with the same powerplant. The 504-Wh battery seemed to have great efficiency as long as you’re not in turbo the whole time. It was relatively quiet, especially in the aluminum frame compared to carbon. The motor has a smooth power delivery that Shimano’s motors are famous for. 

 THE PARTS

Kona opted for Shimano’s gravel-specific GRX parts here, which include the shifter/brake levers and a GRX derailleur shifting through the 11-42t 11-speed cassette. The 1x drivetrain continues with a direct-mount 38t front chainring. The left-side GRX lever controls the TranzX dropper seatpost, which uses an internally routed cable. Kona uses a 48cm-wide house-brand handlebar with a 16-degree flare. For brakes you’ll find GRX calipers with 160mm rotors front and rear. The wheels consist of tubeless-ready WTB HTZ rims laced to Formula hubsand mounted with 650x47mm WTB Venture tires. 

Kona went with 160mm rotors which never left us wanting more.

WHO IT’S MADE FOR

The Kona does have plenty of power and would be a great option for someone just getting into gravel riding. Even our experienced test riders really enjoyed their time on the bike, so it’s not limited to anyone in particular. However, it’s best that you remember that the Class 1 motor cuts off at 20 mph which will make it hard to stay up in a group road ride. 

THE RIDE

Sometimes we look at a new bike and it doesn’t exactly ooze inspiration at first glance. This was the case for the Libre EL until our first ride. We were surprised and left smiling after the first jaunt up some singletrack. There was plenty of climbing power with great traction owing to the 47mm tires. In fact, we put it in turbo right off the bat and did nearly 2000 feet of climbing and only dropped one of five bars of battery. Mind you, we aren’t turbo-dedicated riders, but were just letting the bike do the majority of the hard work to see what the battery would give us. 

“On the way back down that very trail, we literally almost forgot it was an e-bike. The sub-40-pound weight was definitely a value-added feature in the handling department.” 

Throughout all our test rides, probably the most glaring and consistent observation riders made was how balanced the Kona’s handling felt. Sure, like most bikes with mid-drive powerplants, the motor placement helps bring an evenness to the bike’s balance point, which was apparent whether cornering or going through stutter-bump sections. The sub-40-pound weight enabled stronger riders the ability to enjoy riding the bike with the motor off.

THE VERDICT

Price-wise, the $4699 Libre EL sits in a sweet spot with a pretty fair component build compared to many other e-gravel bikes. The Libre EL may not be a sleek standout like some of the e-gravelers on the market right now, but for us, the great handling and practicality could not be overlooked. 

Before riding the bike, the more power-hungry riders were concerned about the Class 1 not providing enough grunt, but in the end they had a blast on the bike. Of course, on rides over flatter terrain, it would be nice to have more top end. It’s not a deal-breaker, but definitely something to consider among the growing number of Class 3 bikes available right now. It’s nice to see that Kona offers a lifetime warranty on the frame, too (as long as you register the warranty within three months of purchase).

SPECS

Kona Libre el

Price: $4699 

Weight: 39.4 lb.

Frame: Aluminum 

Motor: Shimano e7000 

Battery: 504wh 

Controller: Shimano e7000 

Top speed: 20mph 

Drive: Shimano GRX derailleur/Deore

11s 11-42t/38t front chainring 

Brakes: Shimano RT66/160mm rotor

Wheels: Formula hubs/WTB HTZ
i25 rims 

Tires: WTB Ventures 650x47c 

Fork: Kona carbon

Seatpost: TransX Dropper

Sizes: 50mm, 52mm, 54mm, 56mm, 58mm

www.konaworld.com

BIKE COMPARISON 

THE NINER RLT VERSUS KONA COMPARO

Both gravel but hardly related

On the face of it, here were two e-gravel bikes that sought to serve the same customer. But, it didn’t take long for us to realize that despite them sharing the same category as pedal-assist dual-purpose bikes, the Niner and the Kona were less related than we first imagined.

“If you’re looking to join your Tuesday-night group road ride, the Kona absolutely will not cut it at 20 mph of assist.”

And those differences quickly brought to question, “Which one would we pick if we had to choose between the two?” If you’re just getting into bikes, you might assume that since they’re both gravel bikes, simply choosing between cost and aesthetic would be the deciding factor. Not so fast! 

THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB

With these two bikes it wasn’t just one big difference that separated them. For example, the Niner has more top speed, which maybe is a dominant difference. In this case you would be truly at a loss if you made the wrong decision for your riding purpose. So, speed is one factor, but as we discovered, top speed alone is not what’s most important, especially for off-road riding.

Kona definitely put more emphasis on the dirt performance of the Libre EL. Most notably, the dropper seatpost allows for tackling more technical downhill trails. The difference in stock tires is notable when considering the kind of riding you prefer. The Niner’s 50mm slick tires are fast on the road and have enough volume to help soak up dirt sections. Kona’s 47mm-wide WTB venture tires were exceptional in the dirt and slower on the pavement.

FEEL IS A BIG DEAL

Sometimes we judge a book by its cover a little too soon. Whether it’s the press release telling us some impressive info or just looking at something and saying it must be this, that or the other, when we first laid eyes on the Niner RLT e9 RDO, it was hard not to just be impressed by the bike’s fantastic look and finish. We initially had a feeling of, “Wow, this is going to be fun.” It honestly surprised us the first time we hit the dirt. It is quite stiff and aggressive for rougher fire roads and bumpy singletrack we were riding. 

On the other hand, we have a bit of a different setup with the Kona. An aluminum frame that puts you in less of an aggressive forward body position and tires that are more dirt-specific than the Niner’s Schwalbe G-One tires. We were consistently smashing fast downhill fire-road descents and some rougher singletrack with a much more secure feeling on the Kona. One test rider even took the Libre out and did a reconnaissance ride for his cross-country race, making it through all of the technical ups and downs comfortably. The traction that the WTB Venture tires provided proved beneficial for climbing up singletrack with uneven sections and rain ruts.

Even the flare on the Kona’s drop handlebars are kicked out 12 degrees from the Niner’s Easton EA50 handlebars. So, chalk up another slight advantage in the dirt for
the Kona. 

THE MAIN SQUEEZE

Kona is offering their e-gravel Libre EL at $4699, which is reasonable for the build and performance of the bike. At $6995, the Niner’s price tag adds another $1400, but let’s consider what we’re getting.

“Kona definitely put more emphasis on the dirt performance of the Libre EL.”

NINER

• Shimano Ice-Tech brake rotors, which have more bite and cool down quicker.

• A more updated Bosch Gen 4 speed motor with assist up to 28 mph

• Modern aero carbon frame with a brilliant finish

• Definitely more road/asphalt friendly

KONA

• Aluminum frame, which is less fragile and was slightly more compliant than carbon

• Shimano GRX derailleur and GRX shift/brake levers

• Better ergonomics for cornering in the dirt, as well as it’s just more comfortable in the dirt 

• Dropper seat post for sending it

• Regardless of Class 1 limitations, it still will get you out having a great time, and it’s not much heavier than the Niner

“With the Class 3 Niner, the added assist you get makes all the difference for anyone who wants to stay in the group road ride.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

Yes, the Niner is more road-friendly compared to the Kona. If you’re mainly a road rider that likes to just hit dirt occasionally, it would be the ideal choice. Maybe the most important factor to note is the Niner’s group-ride ability. If you’re looking to join your Tuesday-night group road ride, the Kona absolutely will not let you last, owing to the 20 mph of assist.  

“The traction that the Kona’s WTB Venture tires provided was beneficial for climbing up singletrack with uneven bits and rain ruts.” 

However, the Kona’s price tag is less harsh on the wallet, and overall the bike is the more gravel-oriented of the two, which is a big deal for anyone who came here thinking gravel in the first place.