Like most people, my 2021 was a year of ebbing and flowing as life slowly transitioned between restrictions and something resembling normality. It was much the same for my riding as well. The year started strong with some epic snowy winter missions before the weather very quickly turned and kicked summer off. In Scotland, we were very much still under a lockdown for the first half of 2021 and, with all the best trails located across a county border, it meant I had no option but to continue riding the local trails. That didn't stop me from clocking up almost 1,500km of mountain bike miles in six months as I continued to explore the surrounding hills and enjoy lockdown favorites.
By June, summer was in full swing, lockdown had finally lifted and, with an imminent and highly anticipated week of bikepacking Rapha's Pennine Rally, I took a tumble and broke my ankle. The cruel nature of the incident was that it was neither a spectacular crash while negotiating a technical section of mountain bike trail, nor was it a high-speed off on a radical gravel bike descent. No, I slowly rolled into a curb on a Tuesday after-work social road bike ride and twisted it badly. So badly in fact that the ligament fractured the bone. I wasn't side-lined for long and was actually back riding after just a couple of weeks, albeit casual bimbling around on the gravel bike to go eat pizza and ice-creams. It felt positive to be back riding so soon but the fall-out would last far longer than expected.
I wasn't able to fit my foot into my favorite gravel SPD shoes for five weeks and it was two months before I felt that I could do any sort of spirited or vigorous riding. Mountain biking was well off the cards for even longer, as the thought of having to dab during a misjudged corner and the damage it could cause was not worth the risk. Even now if I am being truly honest with myself I can still feel that my ankle isn't quite right. Luckily it's still improving and in 2022 it will be a distant memory.
It has been a pretty significant year for mountain biking though and while I might not have had the summer of singletrack freedom that I had been waiting for since early 2020, there was still a lot to get excited about. Stock might still be at a premium but brands have been hard at work developing and releasing new tech.
It was a big year for cross-country mountain bikes with the Tokyo Olympics racing and downcountry trends. We saw loads of brands really push the envelope as they released go-faster mile-munchers ready for Tokyo. The Olympic-based attention on XC only fuelled the fire and, whether you like it or not, it looks like downcountry is here to stay, too - something I couldn't be happier about.
Another positive trend we saw come from 2021 was the resurrection of alloy with big brands embracing the material to make top-spec bikes that are far more affordable to the everyday person, which can only be a good thing. Lastly, SRAM had a stellar year of product releases, whether it was helping bring the cost of wireless drivetrains down with SRAM GX AXS, releasing an entirely new gravel eco-system and potentially transforming mountain bike suspension forever with RockShox's Flight Attendant system.
Here are a few products I used this year that stood out to me.
Best bike: BMC Fourstroke LT
In my mind, downcountry bikes are at the forefront of just how capable modern mountain bike design is. Okay, so these days trail bikes are easily capable of tackling full-on enduro courses if you are good at picking your line and holding on, but there are sacrifices that need to be made for that to happen. The 130mm of rear travel gets a bunch of extra volume spacers and PSI to stop it from becoming pounded into submission, and to cope with the speeds that are possible with the trail bike geometry, thicker, grippier and heavier tires are needed. If you are running over 2kgs of tires, why not also beef up some other components for a little extra peace of mind? Before you know it your trail bike has turned into a mini DH bike that weighs over 14kg.
Downcountry bikes are still, for all intents and purposes, XC bikes and while they are becoming staggeringly capable on the descents, they haven't yet forgotten that climbing is equally as important. BMC's Fourstroke LT is a superb example of this. Fast and efficient on the flats yet superbly confident on the descents. The descending isn't the sort of wild ride capability that you see from a lot of XC bikes, where you find yourself hanging on while all sorts of chaos happens below.
This is a proper descender, the type that gets better the harder you push. It does have its limits but the Fourstroke LT has the confidence and surefootedness to allow you to find that edge and ride on it. The fact that at 11.3kg it's still light enough to climb to the top lap after lap and has plenty of pace to tick over serious mileage is almost as impressive.
Best GPS: Garmin 130 Plus
Garmin brought out the 130 Plus a few years ago and, since I got one in to test, I have used a number of other options, too. For mountain biking, the 130 Plus is still top of the pile. It's small, simple and records every metric I could ever need, too. The MTB metrics are a unique feature to Garmin, ClimbPro is well implemented even on the small black and white screen and the supporting app and ease of syncing make life easy post-ride. The navigation is just a bread-crumb trail which is a bit restrictive for use on longer gravel or road rides that are further afield, but for mountain biking where you are generally riding in a small area it's not an issue, especially with apps like TrailForks providing far superior supplemental trail mapping.
Best helmet: Oakley DRT 5
Oakley's DRT 5 is an enduro helmet that has some unique features which have made it stand out. Other than having a great fit and deep protective coverage what really stands out to me is the sunglasses storage. If there was any brand keen to dial in eyewear compatibility in a helmet it's Oakley. Cross-country mountain bike helmets are usually able to store sunglasses in the front vents but adding a peak makes it more complicated. In some helmets, you can jam the arms in the rear vents but it always gives me the fear that they will fall out in the cafe or on a climb and I either don't notice or they get damaged.
Oakley solves this with two neatly sprung hooks on the top of the helmet which securely hold the sunglasses arms - no matter the size. While I wouldn't really recommend riding too hard with them stored on top, its definitely secure enough that you can still ride gentle singletrack without worry. Even better is that once you grab them, the hooks close almost flush with the profile of the helmet. There is a lot more to like about the DRT 5 but for me, the neat solution to sunglasses storage is a great feature.
The Oakley DRT 5 isn't a new helmet, in fact, it has been around for a few years so we have seen it discounted in a number of MTB helmet sales. That means you can usually get this excellent helmet with a nice discount!
Best shoes: Specialized 2FO Rime flat pedal shoe
There is a good reason why Specialized shoes have featured on both Guy's and my Gear of the Year for 2021. Guy's 2FO Roost shoe pick and my chosen Rime shoe features Specialized's superb SlipNot ST sole, which not only grips with tenacity but is also extremely well-damped which adds a whole new level of comfort and control when riding rough trails. When combined with Specialized's Body Geometry learnings in the insole and upper, you have the recipe for a great shoe that can be ridden all day.
What really stood out for me is the versatility of the Rime. Specialized designed the Rime shoes specifically for backcountry riding and, while they obviously ride well, they are also as equally surefooted on the dirt as they are on the pedal. That means they have been the go-to for off-the-beaten-track bike adventures but also evening trail corner sessions, too. Not only that but I have hiked up mountains in them without a bike and even used them for the odd pub visit, even the rather bold aesthetic has grown on me a little.
Read our Specialized Rime Flat shoe review.
Best tool: Silca T-Ratchet + Ti-Torque
There are a number of ratchet-equipped multi-tools on the market and many of them offer a feeling of luxury and convenience, especially when tackling those particularly hard-to-reach bottle cage bolts.
While Topeak's option is certainly cheaper and offers additional tools like a chain breaker option, Silca's T-Ratchet + Ti-Torque has a couple of features that put it another level above. Take the Torque tool for example, which allows you to tighten carbon components with confidence. It measures between 2-8Nm which should cover most general needs from handlebars to seatposts. The second is the modular design of the handle which can be configured in different ways using extenders to ensure no bolt is unreachable.
From the gnarled textures to how it all magnetically clicks together, it feels luxurious to use. It's got the price match, too, and it's definitely a tool that favors being stored in a pack rather than a pocket, but the sheer efficiency and confidence in use make quick trailside repairs a far simpler process.