I found 2023 has been an eye-opening year with a lot of big releases from brands that will have a significant rippling effect on the future of bikes and how we ride. From drivetrains, e-MTB motors, GPS devices, and alternative materials and manufacturing. There has been a wealth of bikes, components, and ideas that have made me reassess a lot of what I thought about MTB and gravel from a reviewing point of view too. While a lot of this year's releases have had me excited about riding, a lot of what the cycling industry has achieved this year has shown what's possible in bike tech and given an exciting hint at what's to come.
Although there have been some significant product releases that have pushed the tech needle, last year hasn't been all good news. The industry is in turmoil with brands and retailers in shakey positions and a racing scene in flux, and with that comes a lot of questions regarding what the future has in store. No matter what happens though, it won't change the fact that riding bikes is still a lot of fun and I can't wait to hit the trails in 2024.
Keep reading for a quick list of the gear that has made a mark on my riding in 2023.
1. Vitus Venon Evo GR
There isn't really any other way to put it, Vitus completely knocked it out of the park with its Venon Evo. It manages to dance along the fine line of road bike and gravel bike without compromising either, something that plenty of more 'illustrious' brands have failed to achieve. The aerodynamic front end helps it slip through the air, whilst the compliant rear keeps you comfortable for many a mile. I genuinely struggle to find a single fault, it looks good, feels good, and even has mudguard mounts. And the best bit, it's reasonably priced too.
I reviewed the most affordable Vitus Venon Evo GR Rival model and despite covering almost 5000km, the bike still feels tight and sharp. It took on every ride I threw at it from local epics to the Struggle Borderlands, I even managed to snatch an FKT (fastest known time) on the Lomond Trussochs Loop. It has become a bit of a test mule for any gravel kit that has come across my desk too, seeing a few wheel and tire changes recently that have only further demonstrated how capable and versatile the Venon Evo is. It's the default drop bar bike I reach for which has resulted in my road bike only seeing the light of day twice this year.
I have never been all that convinced of brand's claims of genre-bending gravel bikes that are equally good on and offroad, feeling that simply swapping some wheels and tires was a fallacy. Bikes like the Venon Evo are making me reconsider what's possible though.
2. Zerode Katipu with Pinion gearbox
I have always thought derailleurs are dumb. Sure they are light and efficient, but when you're hurtling down a mountain millimeters from rocks and stumps while getting covered in dirt it just doesn't make sense to have such delicate componentry exposed to the elements.
Gearboxes are the obvious answer, although until earlier this year, I hadn't had the opportunity to try one out. I was lucky enough to get to review Zerode's Katipu and it cemented the fact that MTBing really needs to move on from dangling stuff off the back of our bikes. The Pinion gearbox and Gates Carbon belt drive were exceptional, offering smooth shifting and fuss-free maintenance during a very wet and wild March. There are a few quirks with the system, most notably the fact you can't shift under power and that you have to use a gripshift shifter (for now). However, in the grand scheme of things, these are minor details I got used to.
The advantages far outweigh the negatives though. Shifting without pedaling is an obvious major advantage, as is the zero maintenance of the belt drive system. On the trail, the Katipo is incredible with the unsprung rear end tenatiously gripping the ground without feeling stuck when you need to lift the wheels. Having the gearbox mounted between the feet further helps with rapid direction changes pivoting around its center mass. On fast trails, it's ghostly quiet as it charges across chunder with composure and control.
If I was going to buy an enduro mountain bike right now, I would buy a Zerode Katipo.
3. GoreTex Shakedry
Admittedly I'm late to the party here in regards to the wonders of GoreTex's soon-to-be mythical waterproof Shakedry material. With the looming bans on PFC and PFA at the end of 2024 I bit the bullet and invested in my own before Shakedry is resigned to the past forever.
I have read enough reviews to know Shakedry works, but I didn't realize just how good it would be. The way the material can keep every drop of water out whilst still regulating temperature is mind-blowing. Even on training rides in conditions not dissimilar to the inside of a dishwasher, it kept me completely dry underneath from both water and sweat. Sure it's not perfect, the binbag-looking material is so delicate you can't wear a backpack, nevermind crash, and it has absolutely zero stretch so fit may be problematic for some riders. If you can get past these factors though, there is nothing on the market yet that even comes close in performance.
I chose to spend my hard-earned cash on the 7Mesh Oro as it is probably the lightest waterproof jacket on the market. 7Mesh has completely stripped the Oro back to basics resulting in a jacket that weighs just 99g (medium) and packs down insanely small. The lack of material stretch makes tailoring problematic but I found the size medium fits me perfectly.
7Mesh is almost out of stock of the Oro and most other brands will be following suit in the next couple of months as their stock reserves dwindle. If you want a Shakedry jacket don't hang around cause once they are gone, they are gone.
4. Stooge MK4
The Stooge MK4 is a weird bike, pedaling up the trails provokes double takes, confused looks, and ignites plenty of conversations with other riders. There is a lot to take in, although it's generally the wildly forward-sweeping steel fork and lack of suspension that's the main talking point here. Don't let its absence of dampers and unconventional looks fool you though, the Stooge is a staggeringly capable bike.
I originally bought it on a bit of a whim, intrigued by the Stooge's oddity I expected it would take me on bimbling evening rides across local hills, bikepacking trips, and a bit of klunker style descending to get the heart going. What I didn't expect was to be dropping into EDR-level trails in the Tweed Valley and hustling down enduro bikes.
From the first tentative drop in I was blown away by how capable the Stooge is. The forgiving fork and chunky 3in front tire certainly help but it just shows how much importance geometry has on the performance of a bike. The Stooge's low 60mm bottom bracket and longer 445mm chainstays help position the rider low and centered on the bike. The forks rake isn't just a style queue, the huge 80mm offset/rake means the head angle is considerably slacker than the 66 degrees on the geo charts whilst also giving relatively low trail numbers to speed up the handling without sacrificing stability. So while it might look a bit agricultural and old-fashioned, all those numbers add up. The Stooge still demands to be ridden properly though, stiff arms and legs get punished and without any suspension-aided traction control you have to concentrate on finding all the grip yourself. It's a rewarding experience and has helped finesse some usually ignored skills, plus the looks of disbelief you get when you pop out the bottom of a trail are equally satisfying too.
My Stooge MK4 is built up with a solid workhorse selection of components that really reminds me that you don't need the latest and greatest components to go fast. There's no fancy carbon or titanium, instead, it's got wide 820mm Renthal Motobars, an 8sp drivetrain with Sunrace M96 thumbie shifter, and a big framebag for plenty of snacks. That said I do have some upgrades in the works including some wider wheels and a clutched derailleur being top of the list.
Stooge is now onto the MK6 edition, along with a bunch of other wacky rigid MTB's and dirt tourers, for more details head over to Stoogecycles.co.uk.
5. Canyon 3in1 multi-tool
Canyon Fix 3-in-1 multi-tool has quickly become my go-to best multi-tool and a must-have part of my toolkit whenever I am out on the bike. The neat design not only houses an easy-to-use ratchet tool featuring 2 / T6, 2.5 / 4, 3 / 5, and T25 / 6 bits, but also adds a Dynaplug tubeless repair tool and a CO2 inflator in the handle. The tool wraps up in its own tiny tool roll which can be easily stashed anywhere.
Having a ratcheted tool makes a huge difference when fixing bikes, considerably speeding up trailside tinkering and repairs, especially in tight or fiddly spaces. It might not have the most comprehensive array of tools when compared to something like Crankbrother F11 or Lezyne RAP II 25 but it's also considerably smaller and lighter making it easier to supplement with other tools that you might need. For most MTB's rides though I carry this as my sole multi-tool along with a separate chain tool, some extra plugs, and a pump.
It is on the expensive side, but I genuinely think it's worth it. The Canyon Fix 3in1 retails for $59.99 / £54.95 / €59.95 and is available from Canyon.com.
6. Hayes Dominion T4 brakes
Hayes Dominion T4's are one of the best-feeling brakes I have ever used, the ultralight lever feel offers perfect modulation that manages speed impeccably. When sending it down technical and treacherous trails it feels like there is a direct line of communication from the brain to the caliper, allowing me to feather the power perfectly and avoid any sudden lock-ups. The power delivery is super smooth thanks to the Stable Rate Link and smooth sealed cartridge bearings assuring a linear and predictable lever pull.
The T4 also features a load of properly premium hardware to keep weight as low as possible. You get carbon levers made by Reynolds, a composite top cap, and inside loads of the internals have been switched out for titanium fixtures Don't worry if you can't justify the cost of all the posh materials, the standard Dominion A4's are still some of the best MTB brakes and perform exactly the same but for a little less cash and a little more weight.
7. Velocio Utility bibs
I have long been a fan of Velocio's riding kit, particularly the bib shorts, so no surprise I also love the Utility Bib. These gravel bib shorts have been keeping my butt happy on all my big rides of 2023.
The ultralight material feels great and I have covered more than enough miles to know I find Velocio's proprietary Signature chamois is very comfortable for big days out. The big selling point for me though is the addition of the pockets as I refuse to wear bib shorts that don't feature the convenience of cargo pockets.
Velocio has fitted the Utility bibs with some of the best cargo pockets I have used. They might not have quite the vast capacity of 7Mesh's RK2, instead, they are almost invisible until you slip something in and are the perfect size to securely hold a phone, snacks, and other slimline gravel riding nik-naks. There is also a rear pocket should you need more space to stash things.