In a year that has been horrific for many people, their lives and their livelihoods, one of the few positives is that riding bikes has thrown many a physical and mental lifeline.
Local trails have been flooded with MTBs that haven’t seen dirt since the 1990s. Bike paths - not pub gardens - are where families spent weekend afternoons, and panic-bought food and furlough frustration have been sweated out on brand new bikes bought with holiday money that couldn’t be spent. In more forward-thinking countries, whole cities became bike-based utopias and if you’re involved in selling bikes and haven’t had your best year in living memory then what the hell have you been doing?
Even for those of us who were already well on board with riding bikes, 2020 has given riding new significance. In the UK we were lucky with our lockdown and were still allowed to ride for a ‘suggested’ hour (which for me was enough to get in some decent roads or trails). It was often solo, safe and contemplative riding though, not the usual competitive, combative fight among friends I normally love.
So in a year when every meter ridden and every breath taken on a bike seemed more valuable than ever, what have been the products that have really stood out for me across road, dirt and gravel?
If I’d been writing this in summer or lived in a country with a more civilized climate, then Spatz maybe wouldn’t have made this list. However, I live less than an hour's ride from ex-pro racer and Spatz founder/designer Tom Barras, and I frequent similarly sodden roads and bridleways that he and his bunch of National, World and Olympic champions do. Thanks to Tom, I’m writing this with none of the throbbing, aching misery of multiple chilblains, cracked or raw pink athlete's/trench foot rot and corpse cold Raynaud's syndrome fingers that I’d just come to accept for 6 months of my riding year.
Sure, neoprene overshoes have been done before, as had gloves with flip out mitten covers and 3D-woven base layers. And yes, knee-length rubbery boots make winter riding look even more masochistic than it already is, but there’s a reason why I’ve worn Spatz on almost every road ride since September for the past 3 years. It’s because Tom has gone the extra mile with materials, detailing and manufacturing to deliver truly outstanding weather-beating kit that still gives you all the feedback and mobility you need to ride a bike hard. The range is expanding all the time too (but only with exhaustive ride research and only where it’s needed) and while that comes at a cost it’s one that I was happy to pay for my first set of Spatz and that nobody I’ve recommended them to has ever questioned after the first ride.
Ok, so ‘smartphones’ is a massively generic heading, but I ended up with it because I couldn’t narrow down which ‘essential’ app or feature on my iPhone that should be listed in my top ten, and I’m sure the same would apply if I had an Android phone.
At the start of the year I dug deep for the posh iPhone 11 Pro to get a lens and image sensor that produces point and shoot results that my pro photographer pals have been stunned by. It means that after two decades of wondering what went wrong, the product shots I take are actually useable. And I can crop my feet and other accidental inclusions out of the image in seconds too. I can even add camo to cover up details on pre-embargo teasers.
I can see when it makes sense to go riding and shooting with my weather app, arrange work or ride meet ups (when COVID has allowed) with WhatsApp. We even organized a socially-distanced weekly time trial challenge for our riding group on Strava to keep us motivated during the peak of lockdown. I can give my wife a thumbs up when she’s on Zwift and make sure tea is ready when she finishes a virtual lap of the town we actually live in. No really, when I’m not filling the kitchen/shower room/dining room with filthy bikes and kit or ignoring her in favor of Eurosport, I’m really quite the catch.
In less virtuous moments she can see through my lies about when I’ll be back to help clean up via a tracking app but at least I know if I crash and burn she’ll know where to come and find me once Bake Off is finished. I can lose hours in the Ordnance Survey mapping app, get hypnotized by Instagram, tune my shocks with Shockwiz, download detailed shifting information via SRAM Web AXS and make sure I NEVER go for a ride with our tech editor Aaron after seeing his latest W/KG and FTP stats. I can even wrap my phone up with the same D30 protection as my knees, because to be honest I’d be pretty screwed if either of them got busted.
Love the phrase or hate it, “Downcountry” bikes are a hot category in mountain biking right now and I couldn’t be happier. Light enough to charge up climbs or even race, direct enough to explode from corner to corner on twisting singletrack and efficient enough to skim over miles and hours of prime trails. Hench and aggressive handling enough to play hard on serious descents, rip turns and save your skin when you overstep your skill. There are loads of killer bikes in this aggro XC/Trail arsenal too. Santa Cruz Tallboy, Transition Spur, Scott Spark, Whyte S120C, Cotic FlareMax, Mondraker F-Podium DC, NS Synonym, Specialized Epic Evo and more like the Merida 96 8000 added every month.
And fronting up the best of them is the new RockShox SID. A brilliant match of trail-sized 35mm leg structure, minimal size, full control Charger Race Day damper and sensitive but corner supportive DebonAir spring. Cut and ready to fit, the flagship Ultimate version only weighs 1,508g which is lighter than most race forks and 160g lighter than Fox’s nearest equivalent the noticeably flexier 34SC. Yet it’s genuinely controlled enough to be plied as hard into trouble as most trail forks and will hang with many enduro forks as long as things don’t get too massive.
If you’re sticking to more traditional XC terrain then its SID SL sibling is nearly 200g lighter and there’s also a stripped-back SID Luxe shock for a super-light collar and cuffs control.
Like seemingly everyone in the UK this year I finally got a new van. A proper big one that can carry my now all adult-sized family in comfort rather than making them feel they were being smuggled by a particularly cruel people trafficker. As is often the case though - and I’m thinking of work deadlines in particular here - the more space you have, the harder it can be to get things sorted. In this case, I had so much space in the back that I was never happy with how I’d propped bikes up or bungeed them in place. Wheels that used to wedge against doors now wobbled about causing trouble and free-range bikes flopped and fell over now they had the space.
Luckily I’d already seen and used Bikestow racks in the backs of two vans of mates who were renowned for finding the ‘really nice things’ before anyone else. One of them also told me the full product story of makeshift idea of dad and uncle, turned into beautifully made High School exam project by son and then made into a business in the garage by however many family members could be grabbed at any time. That stopped me thinking about bodging my own to save some cash rather than supporting a genuine, homegrown family business so I got on the site, clicked on the colour I wanted (the laminated ones are heavier but tougher in terms of damp resistance) and bought one.
And I have to say it’s absolutely, van-life-changingly brilliant. It’ll take any bike from road bike to 29 x 2.6in tyred E-bike and hold it securely with a very simple but cunning alloy guillotine design. It folds completely flat if you’re not carrying bikes, but pops up and secures with magnets instantly and they do 2 and 3 bike versions as well as the 4 bike one I got, and there are even kids' bike adaptors on the way. Because it looks like Swedish designer furniture it’ll be just as happy in your workshop, workplace, garage, bedroom or wherever else you feel appropriate to rack your rides.
Thanks to massive demand in the year everybody bought a van with a government loan, Bikestow now has its own industrial unit and when son George gets back from college this Christmas he’ll be teaching mom Julie how to work the new CNC router. Which is a good job, because a couple of days after I bought mine, I went round to Steve Peat’s, he saw it, bought one himself, put it on Instagram and they suddenly had none left at all. Don’t let that put you off though, because the brilliant Bikestow is one of the best bike-related life improvement devices I’ve ever used and well worth waiting for.
5. Specialized Status and Aethos
Delivering bikes you’d already designed and got into production was a hard enough job this year. Bringing a new model to market and making a brilliant job of it was really damn hard. Making a brilliant new bike that also flies in the face of convention and carrying it off to universal “I’m not sending this test bike back” acclaim must have been almost impossible. Massive credit to Specialized for not just doing it once, but doing it twice, at totally different ends of the ride spectrum.
We first saw artists' impressions of the new Status when it was a conventional 29er and Specialized were fishing for early feedback. We thought it looked a bit high though, so suggested that using a 27.5in mullet back end might be a relatively easy and fashionably fun fix. We don’t know whether that was already in the plan or we actually had some influence but when the Status was sneaked out in a slightly odd, stealth launch via rad ambassadors on social media we were stoked to see it was a mullet bike.
It was also alloy and remarkably affordable considering it had a proper park/play-ready spec. The geometry was totally sorted for goofing about with gravity and the shock kinematic is brilliant whether you’re using the stock long stroke Fox air shock or a coil. It even pedals well enough that it’s still fun on the trail and bearable on climbs despite weighing 15kg.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Aethos. Specialized’s new ultra-light road bike that ignores the default drag-reducing aero profiles and dropped stays in favour of round tubes and a double diamond layout. And everyone I’ve asked who’s ridden it says it’s absolutely wonderful for all the reasons that more theoretically efficient bikes are dull and sterile. Which makes me a bit jealous really because I haven’t ridden it. Yet. I think the fact I want to ride it so much means it should still make my Gear of the Year list.
As an aside, it’s very interesting to see that one of the most brand savvy companies also produces bikes where you have to look really hard to find a model name or just a feint ’S’ on the head tube. Oh and massive props to Specialized for also somehow launching the equally excellent but slightly more conventional Stumpjumper Evo, Epic Evo, Epic, Tarmac SL7, Diverge and Chisel to as well as the new Stumpjumper.
6. GoPro Hero 9 Black
Not all my words go onto Bike Perfect and Cyclingnews in a vaguely considered order. Some of them spill out of my mouth onto YouTube together with moving pictures. And this year’s new GoPro - the Hero 9 - has made that a lot easier. A lot of things like the basic layout are the same and it’s still very friendly in the way it plays with other devices. It’s as ridiculously tough as ever too, which is lucky when I turned a fumbled catch from an accidental drop into a dropkick at a wall. Unlike the 8 you can swap the lens if you do break it as well. The larger size means a larger battery and 35% more run time. You still get the pop-up tabs on the bottom of the camera so it doesn’t need a separate, forgettable case and you can whip the battery out when it’s still mounted.
If you want a tech point of view you should really talk to somebody else, but I can tell you it copes with a basic grade operator really well. The HyperSmooth 3.0 image stabilising software is incredible so now you can use it on a chest cam on a hardtail without viewers getting motion sickness. You can run it wide enough to fit all the bars in and get some trail context which you couldn’t with the 7 or the 8. You can shoot in 5k if you can cope with the file size or even shoot 20MP stills. There are lots of arty settings like time-lapse and even Hindsight where it pre-records the 30 seconds before you even think you need to press the shutter. The audio is better too, coping pretty well with wind noise, although I've still cut a piece of foam out of the supplied softbox and taped it over the mic to make it useable on road descents.
And as narcissistic as this sounds, the best bit is that it’s now got a screen on the front so you can see what the camera sees. That means I can do a piece-to-camera vlog and actually point at the thing I’m talking about accurately rather than looking like a senile weatherman. Oh and considering that this tiny box can put your personal video online with remarkable ease and deceptively professional quality, it’s not even that expensive. Especially as GoPro always seems to have a deal on or a bundle to tempt you in.
As chat-up lines go “What road/gravel wheels should I get?” is pretty niche, but it gets me swiping right on a conversation every time. There have never been more really good options either, and I’m not just saying that to let people down gently. I’ve ridden eight different sets in the past two months and they’ve all been, at worst, totally acceptable and, at best, they’ve felt awesome for one reason or another. That positive bracket certainly wraps around bargain benchmarks Hunt, the evergreen ride quality of DT Swiss and the new Fulcrums, Deda Elementi, green foam-filled Spank Vibrocore 24s, the affordable alloy Mavic Allroad SLs I rode for the first time last night and even the ultralight Monitor set built by local independent outfit Just Riding Along.
If I had to pick one set though it would have to be the new 303 Firecrest from Zipp. With an all new 25mm internal width hookless rim which shares secret-sauce construction cues and a new angular logo with their Zero Moto MTB Enduro wheels and all new, all weather hubs the Firecrests are phenomenal. Effortlessly responsive, beautifully balanced yet eerily smooth and tough as a Russian tank even when loaded bikepacking across actual tank playgrounds. Weight and profiling mean they work superbly on road and off and after extensive testing Zipp has totally embraced the advantages of low-pressure high-volume tyres. They even go so far as giving them an entirely false (they’ll easily handle much more) structural pressure maximum of 70psi to persuade triple-figure 23mm tire die-hards into trying the fat and floated Kool Aid. They’re also the cheapest Firecrests Zipp has ever made, so while the new 303S are great wheels for under £1,000, you really should get the Firecrests if you can.
Whether you’re talking about MTB, road or gravel I bloody love SRAM AXS and electric wireless is undoubtedly the future of transmission systems for those fancy enough to be able to afford it. If you’re not rich though, you’ll still have to pull cables with levers to shuffle between gears. And if you’re doing that on a mountain bike you might as well cut to the chase, save a ton of money and get Shimano Deore.
No there’s nothing new in Deore, it’s just an evolved, economical trickle-down of Shimano’s pricier 12-speed groupsets. And yes you can only shift up one gear up at a time and the cranks are heavy (just get an SLX chainset which is fractionally more expensive but a lot lighter if you’re really bothered).
But in terms of feel at the shifter, totally reliable shifting and even an adjustable, switchable clutch and now a full 12-speed range, Deore delivers everything you could want. It does it for less money than SRAM’s NX equivalent and it doesn’t feel as basic compared to top-end Shimano. It looks smart too and while the brakes are a bit limp, they’re relentlessly reliable which hasn’t always been a Shimano strong point recently. Oh and if you’re a road rider the exact same applies to Shimano 105. But that’s not really news to anyone who’s ridden it.
As someone who’s been testing bikes for over 20 years, I am painfully aware of just how important tires are to the overall performance and ride of a road bike. In fact I’ve often had to say that some complete bike test verdicts could easily have been changed dramatically and rankings reversed with different tires fitted to the bikes in question.
Things have got really interesting recently too, with the whole tubeless, higher volume, wider rim revolution. It’s been really interesting to work through as well, because the science - and there’s plenty of it now - that says smoother, fatter, lower pressure tyres are faster, flies in the face of actual on-road feel. That’s because the rattle and clatter of a thin, hard tire is what you generally perceive as ‘fast’ while a road hugging glide just feels lazy. I’ve sat on my local timed drag at specific wattages testing tires back to back to agree wholeheartedly with what Scandinavian roller testers and other boffins have been saying all along. Lower pressure, higher volume tires on the right rim are faster in the same ‘feel slower but go faster’ way that 29er tires do on MTBs.
Which inevitably prompts the question “Which of these new breed of tires is the best?” And the answer from everyone I know who’s ridden them is Continental’s GP 5000 TL.
An evolution of the all-conquering GP 4000, the 5000 TL is the first tubeless road tire from the German brand but it also contains some other interesting tech. The Black Chili rubber compound with laser-cut tread is as weirdly fast-rolling but as all-conditions grippy as ever. Puncture protection and wear life are good for a tire that matches ultra-light, ultra-fragile race only rubber on roller tests too.
Conti has even added a damping effect to the carcass too, which to be honest is almost their undoing. While most ‘magical’ new features come across like the ‘tire emperor's new clothes’, on the road the GP5000s have a palpably comfortable and quietened feel. That’s awesome on rougher roads or even light gravel if you go for the big 32mm (they blow up nearer 33.5mm on a wide rim).
The trouble is they feel slow on the road compared to other contenders like the new Specialized Turbo RapidAir which can accelerate with positively alarming speed. Get them side by side though or just watch the speed on a windless test track as you hold the control wattage and the vibration-free velocity of the latest GPs proves that it’s your brain playing tricks, not the German scientists in Korbach. The only glitch is that we wish they’d clear the tyre for use with hookless tubeless rims as they’re currently not officially compatible with wheels like the awesome Zipp 303 Firecrest.
I work through a ton of multi-tools over the course of a year, which is great as I’m something of a fetishist for smart design that makes trailside life easier. And let’s be clear here I’m talking genuine, tested in the dark, numb fingered misery of actual, winter trailside use. Not unpeeled and appraised in a warm office with a coffee and cake to ease you through any slight glitches.
To be honest though, most tools I see are just rebranded “meh”, normally with something quite important missing or useless extras added just to bulk up the headline number and price tag. Others are updated with the current fashion addition - it’s some sort of tubeless tyre insert prong and rubber plug holder at the moment - squeezed into an existing format. And that’s fine because it’s progressing what you can expect to be able to sort with just one tool.
Topeak has really excelled itself this year though. First it got me all zen in moments of mechanical distress with the calming effect of their premium workshop-level Topeak Ratchet Rocket Lite DX+.
However cunning the various handle interpretations are, that is just a set of drivers, not a proper multi-tool. Enter the Ninja series of mini tools that hide in flip-top boxes secured onto the back of bottle cages (or direct onto frame mounts if you get the Pivot cycles version.
Utter mini tool joy arrived last month in the form of the Mini PT30 though. This condensed block of genius punches through the compact tool market like a depleted uranium round through tank armour. The ultra comprehensive range of top quality stainless steel conventional tools not only includes the new ‘must have’ tubeless tyre weaponry but even adds a short locking blade to trim the plugs. It’s the split link popper and link holder built into the tiny detachable chain tool that pushes me over the edge into adoration though, and yes, you can use them with cold hands, though you do have to be careful with that little chain hook. In fact, the only thing it lacks is a bottle opener to celebrate just how good this tiny but still properly useful tool is.