Riding the Ramble on a Niner RLT 9 Steel

Three days, 200 miles and many mountains

Bikepacking isn’t the easiest cycling niche to get started with. Sorting out the right bike, gear and route can be daunting, even for experienced cyclists. If you’ve been curious about bikepacking, or are a seasoned expert looking for a new adventure, New Belgium's Ramble Rides are a great way to give bikepacking a go in a partially supported and very welcoming environment.

The course: Rocky Mountain high

The Steamboat Ramble is the queen event in the New Belgium Ramble Ride series. The ride starts in the Front Range town of Fort Collins and winds through the Rocky Mountains to Steamboat, Colorado.

Climbing is plentiful and oxygen is scarce, with no fewer than eight summits that rise above 10,000 feet / 3,050 meters. Over the course of three days, riders pedal approximately 200 miles with 19,000 feet of elevation gain. 

The route is predominately gravel, with some stretches of pavement and a few choice miles of singletrack. Given the terrain and the fact this is a non-competitive event, I wanted a bike that would be comfortable, stable and efficient.

The horse: Niner RLT 9 Steel

Niner's RLT 9 Steel is a comfortable bikepacking companion
Niner's RLT 9 Steel is a comfortable bikepacking companion

Niner’s RLT 9 Steel was the horse for this course. I chose it for its lively steel ride, generous tire clearance and the fact it sports all the braze-ons I needed to carry food, water, tools, and all my camping gear.

My bike was equipped with a Shimano Ultegra kit along with Niner’s own carbon wheels and cockpit components. Because I would be riding with an additional 16lbs of gear, I opted to swap the stock 700x35mm Schwalbe G One tires for something a bit larger and more durable.

The Specialized Sawtooth tires are durable, fast-rolling and have much more traction than you would expect
The Specialized Sawtooth tires are durable, fast-rolling and have much more traction than you would expect

Last summer, I tested the Specialized Sequoia. One of the standout components on this adventure bike was Specialized’s own Sawtooth tires. With a weight of 615g, they’re a bit portly for gravel racing, but this tubeless-ready 700x42mm tire is quite durable. They also have an astounding amount of grip.

What to pack and where to put it

Having warm meals ready to go is just one of the perks of the Ramble
Having warm meals ready to go is just one of the perks of the Ramble

The Ramble is a supported bikepacking event. While this may sound like an oxymoron to some, it’s a great way to ease into bikepacking. Breakfasts and dinners are catered at camp and there are water and lunch stops along the route.

There are also mid-ride pit stops with beer and hammocks
There are also mid-ride pit stops with beer and hammocks

Riders are allowed to bring a drop bag, roughly the size of a carry-on, to carry casual clothing and other items they want for camp. This certainly helps to lighten the load.

I attempted to stay true to the spirit of the event however by carrying all the equipment I would need if I had to spend a night in the woods. 

Blackburn's line of Outpost bags hauled my gear from start to finish. There are lighter options out there from custom bag makers, but Blackburn’s line of Outpost bags are durable and come with attainable price tags.

I carried my sleeping bag, pad and tent poles in the handlebar roll.

The Outpost top tube bag is handy for carrying mid-ride essentials
The Outpost top tube bag is handy for carrying mid-ride essentials

The Outpost Top Tube Bag held my phone, camera, wallet, and lip balm.

The Outpost frame bag is a good place to store food, water and other items you need to access while riding
The Outpost frame bag is a good place to store food, water and other items you need to access while riding

I tucked snacks, a rain shell, sunscreen, pump, multi-tool and a water purifier into the Outpost Frame Bag.

Mounts on the carbon fork legs are handy for carrying cargo or water
Mounts on the carbon fork legs are handy for carrying cargo or water

Some riders opted to put a water bladder inside their frame bags. The Niner RDO carbon fork has mounts for cargo carriers/water bottle cages on the fork legs, so I carried my water upfront. I used a cage mounted under the down tube to store a Specialized Keg loaded with two tubes and a patch-kit.

The third bottle mount underneath the RLT's down tube is a good place to stow a repair kit
The third bottle mount underneath the RLT's down tube is a good place to stow a repair kit

Bringing up the rear was the Outpost Seat Pack stuffed with my tent, rainfly and mess kit.

The Outpost saddle bag carried my tent and a few other items I would only need at camp
The Outpost saddle bag carried my tent and a few other items I would only need at camp

Ramble recap

The ferrous-framed RLT 9 Steel was up to the challenge of grinding away on long mountain climbs and the long wheelbase and low bottom bracket are well suited to swooping down loose gravel descents.

In terms of components, the Specialized Sawtooth tires proved their worth. The zig-zag pattern provided plenty of grip. I was even able to navigate a 10-mile singletrack descent into the town of Steamboat Springs with ease.

One item that didn’t pass muster was the stock gearing. The 46/36t Ultegra chainring combo with an 11-32t cassette made the climbs harder than they needed to be.

The 46/36t chainring combo isn't suited to loaded touring in the mountains
The 46/36t chainring combo isn't suited to loaded touring in the mountains

It would have been less of an issue if the bike hadn’t been laden with gear. Even still, the RLT 9 Steel is designed for gravel and loaded touring. The gearing is a misstep on Niner’s part, one that I hope to see remedied in the future. A sub-compact crankset with a 48/32t or even a 40/20t would be much better suited to a bike such as this.

Even for experienced cyclists, the Steamboat Ramble is a challenging event. Thankfully, there are plenty of other riders to encourage you along the way.

“Come as strangers and leave as friends” is event director Peter Disco’s motto. His words rang true. The Ramble is a rolling three-day celebration of bicycle touring through some of Colorado’s most scenic back roads.

While not an official Ramble event, there was an opportunity for some BB gun biathlon antics
While not an official Ramble event, there was an opportunity for some BB gun biathlon antics

Approximately 90 cyclists of all ability levels took part in the Steamboat Ramble. Riders used everything from full suspension mountain bikes to disc road bikes, there was even one woman on a fat bike with clip on aero bars who set a blistering pace.

My Ramble recommendation is to show up on a bike with low-gearing, durable tires that are at least 38mm-wide tires, and a good attitude.

Visit newbelgiumramble.com to learn more about this outstanding event.

Josh has been riding and racing mountain bikes since 1998. Being stubborn, endurance racing was a natural fit. Josh bankrolled his two-wheeled addiction by wrenching at various bike shops across the US for 10 years and even tried his hand at frame building. These days Josh spends most of his time riding the trails around his home in Fort Collins, Colorado.
  • Discipline: Mountain, cyclocross, road
  • Preferred Terrain: Anywhere with rock- and root-infested technical singletrack. He also enjoys unnecessarily long gravel races.
  • Current Bikes: Trek Remedy 29 9.9, Yeti ASRc, Specialized CruX, Spot singlespeed, Trek District 9
  • Dream Bike: Evil The Following, a custom Moots 27.5+ for bikepacking adventures
  • Beer of Choice: PBR
  • Location: Fort Collins, CO, USA

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