Hannah's going to miss the NS RAG+

Review: NS RAG+

Brand: NS Bikes
Model: RAG+
From: Hotlines
Price: £1649.99
Tested By: Hannah
Test Duration: 4 months

Intro

NS Bikes is probably best known for its dirt jump bikes: tough constructions designed for the kind of abuse that learning to fly through the air while throwing shapes and wearing unfeasibly low slung jeans will throw at a bike. The Polish company also produces a range of mountain bikes – with Singletrack tester Andi recently thoroughly enjoying thrashing the NS Eccentric Cromo. To this, NS decided to add the RAG+, believing that their experience of building robust creations for dirt jump bikes would help them create a gravel bike made for more than just the finest aggregates: the ‘Road And Gravel +’.

As I found myself without a gravel bike but with an entry to the 200km Dirty Reiver in Kielder Forest, just as the the NS RAG+ was launched with its fun promotional video, it seemed like a good opportunity to see just how much of a hammering this bike really could take.

RAG+ with 27.5 set up

Cobbles are no match for the RAG+, especially in 27.5 guise

The Bike

The RAG+ is made with an NS Bikes 6061 T6 custom formed alloy frame and butted tubes. The fork is an NS Gravel+ carbon fork with 15mm dropouts and NS thru axle. The bike ships with 700C wheels equipped with Panaracer Gravel King SK 700x40c tyres, but the frame is also designed with the clearance to fit 27.5in/650b wheels with tyres as big as 2.2in. Rear hub spacing is 142×12, and the bike comes built with own brand NS  hubs, finished in a beautiful rainbow anodising which is so lovely they even fit rubber bands to the hubs to keep them polished and shiny. Rims are Alex Draw 2.1P Asymmetrical, 32h, tubeless ready, laced with double butted spokes and 14mm nipples.

Mmm, shiny

 

Motivational decals

 

 

NS have gone with a 1x set up, which rapidly seems to become the default for off-road bikes now. SRAM S350 cranks are married to an X-SYNC 42t chainring, and a SRAM PG-1130 11 speed 11-42t cassette at the rear with SRAM Apex derailleur. Brakes are SRAM Apex hydraulic discs with 160mm rotors both ends. Overall, it’s a good solid package of components – especially for the £1650 retail price – and the overall look of the bike is very attractive.

42t front ring was perfect…

…especially when paired to the 11-42t cassette

No flare, but comfortable bars nonetheless

The Zipp Service Course bars are ergo shaped, with no flare. I’ve got used to seeing and using flared drops on gravel bikes, so was interested to see how a return to a more traditional shape would influence the handling characteristics. Elsewhere, an NS branded saddle tops a Kalloy seatpost.

How would the canvas covered saddle stand up to abuse?

The Ride

I eyed up that saddle – an Octane One Rocket with NS bikes branding – with some suspicion, thinking that the canvas finish looked like it might collect grit and moisture, giving me a perfect platform for sanding of my shorts. However, an eagerness to get out and ride (not to mention the creeping sensation that perhaps some training for the Dirty Reiver might be a good idea) had me out and pedalling without swapping the saddle out – and I’m glad I didn’t. It’s been a revelation. It’s very firm, but teamed up with some thicker than I’d usually choose bib shorts, I rode my way round the Reiver without a single painful undercarriage moment. As someone who has previously finished shorter rides feeling as if I’ve just given birth, this was an absolute revelation.

The RAG+ is the kind of bike that wills you into riding everything

I don’t like to ride in an aggressive position, even on my road bike, as it doesn’t suit my hips or tender undercarriage. I was a little disappointed to see that the RAG+ came shipped with the fork steerer cut with little adjustment room on offer. After a first ride I flipped the stem and put as many spacers as I could under it. This moved things up a touch, but really only a touch. For a medium bike, I’d have expected a bit more headroom – I find it hard to imagine who would want to go down any further than a spacer or two [As a counter to this, Tech Ed Tom prefers to run his bars as low as possible, and ofter finds himself looking for a more aggressive stem to fit to test bikes]. Regardless, it is a far easier job to trim some excess steerer than it is to find a new fork… Fiddling done however, the ride position wasn’t causing me any particular discomfort, although even on the tops there was still no real sit up and take in the scenery while eating an ice cream option.

The RAG+ encouraged an aggressive riding style

I found the lowness of my ride position held me back a bit on steep descents too. Where I live we’re blessed/cursed with steep sided valleys, and I found that on the most precipitous downs I was struggling to get my weight where I needed it while still reaching the bars and brakes and keeping it all under control. To be fair, this was probably pushing the limits of what many people would consider gravel biking, but one of the great things about the RAG+ was that it invited you, nay, willed you to take it out of your (and maybe its) comfort zone.

As at home in the woods as it was on easier terrain

It is robust, and if your nerve holds you then it will take you through the kind of rough stuff that would normally be described as mountain bike territory. That strength comes at a bit of a weight penalty, and at 9.9kg this bike isn’t the lightest, but if that’s what you want, there are plenty of other options available. Weight could also be quickly and easily lost through targeted upgrading of parts as they wear out if you are happy to lighten your wallet at the same time. In it’s stock build, though, the RAG+ is a drop barred bike you can treat as a mountain bike, but will liven up your local trails and add in a spot of mild peril and/or excitement. It will whizz you along roads and smoother trails with less effort and more speed than an MTB and then let you hammer down packhorse trails or get a bit rowdy in the woods before zipping back along the towpath for tea and high-5s.

Long term notes

Soon after getting this bike I taped the rims and set the bike up tubeless. Yes, you’ll have to invest in tape and valves, but the Gravel Kings popped into place without any trouble, and there they have stayed. I’ve topped up the air from time to time, keeping them at around 40psi, but I’ve not had a single flat – and that includes getting round the puncture fest that was the Dirty Reiver. I’d not recommend the Gravel Kings for very muddy conditions, but for everything else they’ve been spot on. You can get up a decent speed on the road, and they have a lovely supple feeling that provides the cushioning and grip I’m looking for on the trail. Finally, they’re really easy to get on and off the rims, so if you are unlucky enough to get a puncture your thumbs aren’t going to get too much of a workout.

Good clearance with 700cc/40c Panaracer Gravel Kings

As well as being easy to tape and set up tubeless, the stock wheels have performed exceptionally. I put them on the jig at the end of the test – after four months of all I can throw at them – and they are still true. The hubs are still smooth running and shiny on the outside – and have been admired many times by riders out on the trails. Indeed, the whole bike seems to attract attention, despite its fairly subtle decals and detailing.

The SRAM brakes have been effective and functioned well throughout the test – no fiddling or adjusting has been necessary, save for when I swapped over to 27.5in wheels. It is worth noting that the stock bolts are Torx and a little awkward to reach. Another little tool based quirk to note: you need two different sized Allen keys in use at the same time to remove or tighten the rear wheel. The bolt through system uses a little locking screw on one side which you need to turn at the same time as the axle – so you’re going to need a second multi-tool for trailside fixes, and don’t drop that screw into the long grass. This seems unnecessarily fiddly given the multitude of perfectly functional options out there that only need a single Allen key, but once I was prepared, caused no problems.

Flat mount SRAM Apex brakes. Performed flawlessly. A little awkward to adjust.

Gearing has been just right for everything I’ve ridden, and I’d have no qualms about having a one by set up such as this on a future gravel bike. I’ve got up and over steep ups and downs, plus everything in between, but haven’t felt under geared on the road. The SRAM double tap shifting quickly becomes intuitive and is easy to live with.

The long and not so winding road

I wasn’t sure that the bars were going to be right for me – I’ve got used to riding with my hands in a flared position. However, I completed the whole of the Dirty Reiver without any hand pain, numbness, or tingling, and I do find these bars really comfortable. They’re slightly flattened on top, which gives a good platform for rolling along. Combined with the SRAM hoods, there are then plenty of different options for positioning your hands on the bike, so you can move around and prevent and pressure spots. I actually really liked these bars and they just felt like they fitted my hands. The only time I missed a flare  was when I set up the bike with 27.5in wheels. More on that shortly.

Wheel options

Since it’s possible to set the bike up with 27.5in wheels and an advertised maximum tyre width of 2.2in, I thought I’d better give it a go. Here, mountain bike owners may be particularly glad of the mountain bike sized 15mm thru-axles, making swapping wheels a touch easier than those gravel bikes using a 12mm axle. There’s definitely plenty of clearance, especially up front. I fitted Vee Rails in a 27.5 x 1.95 size, however I had room up front for something as large as a 2.35 Vee Crown F, and at the back the 2.30 Maxxis Minion SS was only just too big to give adequate clearance. For me, the 27.5in experience didn’t really add much to the bike, but I put this down to the quality of the ride with the Gravel Kings, plus the lack of flared bars. To me, the relatively narrow bars with the wider tyres just made things feel a bit twitchy. This meant that the loss in rolling speed on smoother terrain wasn’t compensated for by improved handling on the rougher stuff. Personally, to get the most out of a 27.5in set up I think you’re going to want to swap the bars out for something wider, to give you more control.

RAG+ with 27.5 set up

Still loads of clearance with a 27.5in/1.95in Vee Rail fitted

But then, I’d almost be tempted to ask, why bother? Maybe if it’s your only bike and you’re looking to ride it through the slop of winter, investment in those wheels, tyres and bars would be worth it. But really, the RAG+ is so much fun in its out the box format that I’d be tempted to just keep playing out and having fun rather than spend time in the workshop.

RAG+ with 27.5 set up

And the rear

While I did head out for a big Dirty Reiver 12 hour gravel challenge day out, and the bike performed perfectly, most of my time was spent messing about on the local trails on which I’d usually take a mountain bike, and this is where I think this bike is most at home. It does have two sets of bottle cage bosses, but I did find it was quite a tight squeeze getting them both in, and there’s not a ton of space on the bars for a bar bag. While I’m sure it would do you for the occasional luggage laden adventure, what this bike really delivers on is robust and rufty-tufty fun.

I’ve be consistently surprised at what I can ride up and down on this bike, and I reckon those dirt jump roots have served this bike well. While the RAG+ is tough enough to handle mistakes, the handling is nimble enough that you needn’t try and batter on through. It will happily skip along rough tracks, weaving in and out of rocks in search of the smoothest lines.

The RAG+ was made for summer blasts

Three Things That Could Be Improved

  • Leaving a longer steerer tube to give a slightly more upright position for those that want it.
  • If you’re looking to make use of the 27.5in set up, I’d suggest upgrading to flared bars.
  • Just to be really picky, and only because I have to find a third thing, I’m going to say some of the stickers on the rims aren’t as neat as the rest of the detailing on this bike.

Three Things What We Loved

  • The urban, street smart styling, oh so subtly done.
  • Those hubs! So pretty, and attached to such brilliant tough wheels.
  • Fearlessly hammering down packhorse trails knowing your legs are going to cave in long before any part of the bike does.

Overall

A real mountain biker’s gravel bike – take it out and thrash it round some trails, and surprise yourself at what you can do with drop bars and no suspension. A great out of the box specification and some stylish finishing touches makes the NS Rag+ well worth considering if you like your gravel with a side-serving of gnarr.

Hannah’s going to miss the NS RAG+

Specifications

Frame // NS Bikes 6061 T6 custom formed and butted tubes, 142×12 dropouts
Fork // NS Gravel+ carbon fork, 15mm dropouts, NS thru axle
Hubs // NS Rotary 15 disc (sealed bearing), NS Rotary Cassette 142 (sealed bearings)
Rims // Alex Draw 2.1P Asymmetrical, 32h, tubless ready
Tyres // Panaracer Gravel King SK 70x40c, brown side-walls
Chainset // SRAM S350 1x X-SYNC™ 42t, 170/175mm Cranks
Front Mech // n/a
Rear Mech // SRAM Apex, 1x11spd
Shifters // Brand & Model
Cassette // SRAM PG-1130 11 speed 11-42t
Brakes // SRAM Apex hydraulic disc, 160mm rear & front
Stem // NS Bikes RAG+, 90/110 mm
Bars // Zipp Service Course 70-Ergo with Velo superlight bartape
Seatpost // Kalloy 30.9
Saddle // Octane One Rocket w/hollow cromoly rails
Size Tested // M
Sizes available // S/M/L/XL
Weight / 9.99kg / 22.02lbs

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