2022 was a weird rebound year for the mountain bike industry. Availability suddenly eased up as Covid/logistic/whatever blockages started to slacken and warehouses everywhere started to fill up with back/over ordered stock. But at the same time economies tanked and living costs rocketed, so all that kit hasn’t shifted like people hoped. Not least because a lot of it is either outdated and/or far more expensive than it was before we suddenly started wearing face masks.
How that is all going to play out for some companies, brands and shops depends on how pessimistic you want to be, but it's fair to say 2023 could be a struggle for many. The good news is that some really good stuff has sneaked out during the last twelve months, or at least properly proved itself in that period to the point where I’m happy to recommend it. So here’s my top ten gear of the year list, starting small in price and then spiraling upwards to mega money numbers that reflects the current realities of the world.
Peaty’s Holeshot tubeless puncture plugger
There are a few really distinctive tire plug designs around including the pill-shaped Dynaplugs and the feathered flechettes of Stan’s Dart system, but Peaty’s have taken another, super simple but effective approach with their Holeshot tubeless puncture plugger. Rather than the standard ‘robot claw’ design, they’ve removed half of one side to create more of a hook. This uses standard tire plugs which are easier and cheaper to find and crucially it doesn’t pull them out again after you’ve pushed them into the tire. It also makes a smaller hole in the tire so it’s easier to repair afterwards and/or less likely to blow the plug out than a clumsier tool. It’s packaged in a neat alloy pill that keeps the plugs clean and sticky and comes in 12 colors.
If you ask an experienced rider the story of Specialized MTB tires, they’ll tell you that they were OK tires at a great price for ages, then something happened (I could go into detail but it would take while) and performance went down as pricing went up. The great news from 2022 is that they’ve now flipped the trend – in the UK at least – and they’re now our go-to choices for excellent rubber that rides really well.
It’s right across the board too, from the sub 600g world of S-Works XC tires like the Fast Trak, the ‘actually a reasonable weight/grip compromise, not just some marketing bull’ downcountry Ground Control model, to the super grippy aggro tire line up of Butcher, Cannibal and Hillbilly.
While some of the treads look familiar, they’re underpinned with new carcass constructions and in many cases fresh, extensively researched and tested rubber compounds. In other words, even if these tires cost £70 like their competition, I’d still be recommending them so the fact they start at £45 is literally a massive deal.
Maybe it’s because the UK is sub-zero as I write this and I haven’t got the heating on (because, well, who has in 2022/23?), but I’m getting really excited by fancy fleeces right now. Part of this is because you can now definitely write off most waterproofs as unsuitable for riding in. I’m saying this because while greener manufacturing is great for the planet, it’s been dreadful for the performance of DWR treatments on jackets. Gore-Tex has announced they’re not making the excellent Shake-Dry fabric anymore either, but that’s less of a big deal for mountain bikers as it’s too fragile to survive long on the singletrack anyway.
That makes fabrics that keep you comfortable by holding onto warm air as a barrier against incoming wet and wind even more valuable. Especially as they’re nicer to wear, wick sweat better and are a lot more versatile than a sweaty plastic anorak. There are an increasing amount of options too with 7mesh’s new WTV fabric already a big personal favorite alongside Polartec's Alpha and Power Grid weaves.
Topeak Mountain 2Stage Digital Pump
Nearly £100 for a bike pump sounds like the kind of stunt an energy company would try and pull. But Topeak's Mountain 2Stage Digital Pump isn’t just one hyper expensive pump, it’s a really excellent digital shock pump and a fast filling digital tire pump. Not only does that save you money compared to separates, it saves space in your bag/pack and saves you leaving one at home accidentally. Combining two very different pressure modes perhaps inevitably involves some compromises – mainly with the attachment to the valve. Overall, it’s a really good investment if you’re particular about your psi and it's been a key partner on all my test rides since it arrived.
Hope brakes and pedals
So this recommendation comes with an immediate caveat. When it comes to best value mountain bike brakes and pedals that work forever then the obvious answer is Shimano Deore. If you want something fancy though, then Lancashire metal machining masters, Hope, have finally stopped relying on fancy colors to upsell outdated brakes and made some absolute belters.
Brutal arm pump and numb feel has been swapped for serious stopping and tons of feel on the new Tech 4 E4 brakes with a range of pads to suit different conditions and the same awesome reliability and product support that preserved their cult status so long. If you’re more into saving grams than abusing gravity, then the new XC brakes are excellent too.
After a year of using their Union TR pedals, the fact they still feel totally fresh and consistent in terms of engagement and smooth spin and don’t even look that battered means I’m actually in the process of changing about 20 sets of cleats so I can run them all the time. The RC pedals I’ve just started testing are proving similarly impressive too so keep an eye out for that review soon.
RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate shock
RockShox’s 2022 fork launch might have stumbled with spiking issues we’ve still not got to the bottom of, but their new Super Deluxe Ultimate chaos control damper is a beauty. It takes a bit to get used to the way they’re now defining low speed compression in terms of stroke control (they’ve basically moved the effect from top stroke to mid stroke). That lets you dial in a wider range of characters though and overall control has been awesome on every bike we’ve used a Super Deluxe Ultimate on. It’s significantly cheaper and lighter than Fox’s Float X and Float X2 shocks as well as exotica from EXT and Push too making it a boutique vibe bargain.
Hunt Proven Carbon Race XC wheels
While a lot of ‘downcountry’ bike and tire releases this year have been as awkward as the first Weight Watchers meeting after Christmas, there are some good components around for losing weight without sacrificing control/stiffness. Wheels are always the best place to spend cash to really change a bike’s character too, so the fact Hunt finally released their Proven Race XC set was big news this year.
At just over 1500g, they’re certainly not the lightest option, but they’re light enough to give a real agility and acceleration boost compared to most ‘trail’ wheels. At 29mm wide internal with a damped but not dull feel and tough, lifetime warranty rims you don’t have to back off when things get tasty either. Add a price of just $1.099 / £899 without taking a gamble on company support and they’re a great choice for racing or just chasing your mates.
Fox 34 GRIP 2
I know Christmas is meant to be a time to be nice, but let’s be real here. Ever since it came out I’ve never ‘got’ the Fox 34. The damping was too stiff and the carcass was too flexy and it wasn’t even much lighter than the far better 36. As a result I would always pick a RockShox Pike instead given the choice, but that has been flipped on its head this year.
New Fox 34 (and it’s cheaper step brother the Marzocchi Z2) is far more forgiving in terms of pump up and go damping for most riders. It still delivers next level control and tuning if you know what to do with the dials though. It’s light enough to own it’s space as the ideal intermediate ‘mid/short travel’ lightweight trail fork between the 32 and 36. The chassis is a great blend of traction/comfort boosting compliance and brave line accuracy. The Performance Elite version is as good as the Factory for less cash too. Don’t buy the more clattery FIT4 damper though, unless you identify as a European marathon obsessive when you ride.
Santa Cruz Hightower
For a whole bunch of reasons 2022 has been a year of evolution rather than revolution with mountain bikes. Mostly because the basic construction, geometry and suspension ingredients of leading bikes got sorted in the last generation. That doesn’t mean subtle changes can’t make a big difference though. The Santa Cruz Hightower genuinely shocked and then (begrudgingly) blew me away with how it justified a serious leap in price and significant increase in weight. While a lot of people will focus on the new Glovebox internal storage which is very well done and very useful, that takes away from the real magic.
New pivots and placements plus the RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate shock sync with subtle geometry and frame construction changes. The result is a stunningly gripped and balanced yet still rewardingly responsive all-rounder that made me write borderline obscenities for our best mountain bike listings. It still manages to shine extra bright in a stacked field of brilliant ‘super trail’ bikes from brands like Trek, Canyon, Specialized, Scott, Evil, Orbea and others. Plus you get the best lifetime warranty back up in the business and a warm fuzzy feeling from knowing some of your buy price is literally dug back into trails, advocacy and good MTB things.
Speaking of people doing good MTB things, Trek have quietly led on all sorts of fantastic schemes for years. However, the big news from a bike point of view in ’22 was their quiet revolution leading Fuel EXe e-MTB. Lots of the best e-MTBs from companies like Whyte and Mondraker literally got a boost this year as Bosch introduced their Smart System and then Race motor options as well as bigger batteries. They’re still conventional, heavyweight contenders though.
In contrast, Trek were first to market with the new super light, super quiet TQ motor that’s so small and stealthy that it’s almost impossible tell you’re looking at an e-bike or the equally excellent new Trek Fuel EX. And while I’ve not ridden it yet, other reviewers I respect have been genuinely raving about it. While it’s certainly not the first lighter weight e-MTB, it certainly cements the relevance of that segment and with the menu of software updates we’ve had hinted at, it marks a next level shift in how you, your bike, it’s usage and the shop/brand will interact in the future. Genuinely EXeciting stuff...