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by James Huang
November 7, 2017
Photography by James Huang
As near the end of yet another lap around the sun, it’s once again time for CyclingTips editors to share with you some of their favorite gear from the past year. This is the stuff we use and buy ourselves – what we instinctively reach for when we’re not testing other products. You can call it a holiday gift guide if you like, and you can certainly feel free to consider these when putting together shopping lists for family and friends. But for us, it’s more personal. CyclingTips US technical editor James Huang kicks things off to start, with other members of our staff to follow.
I’m not a heavy sweater, but given the lack of hair on my shaved head, any perspiration that my body does produce up there invariably ends up running down the front of my face and on to the inside of my sunglass lenses.
Numerous solutions have been proposed over the years, but the one incorporated into the Bell Zephyr (which is now dubbed Z20 in the US) is the most elegant and effective I’ve encountered. A simple tabbed extension on the brow pad redirects accumulated sweat so that it drips harmlessly out in front of your face instead of straight down your forehead. Even during summertime rides in mid-day Colorado sun, I can go hours before a single drop finds its way on to a lens.
Sweetening the deal is the fact that the helmet itself is pretty fantastic on its own. While not particularly light at 267g for a small CPSC-approved sample, it’s very comfortable and extremely well-ventilated, plus it includes a (supposedly) brain-saving MIPS liner and neat dual-density foam construction. For the safety-conscious, it’s also offered in a you-can’t-miss-it high-visibility yellow hue.
If the Z20’s heady price tag is a bit much, Bell has wisely begun incorporating that clever browpad design into more mid-ranged models, too. It’s utterly brilliant.
Price: US$230 / AU$300 / £200 / €249
It didn’t take very long for the unusual-looking Specialized S-Works Power saddle to become my favorite on the road, its wide-and-flat shape, generously sized cutout, and oddly snubbed nose offering up a remarkably comfy perch. Its very firm and thin padding wasn’t always what I wanted when heading off-pavement, though, but Specialized has since supplemented the range with the cushier Power Pro Elaston model.
The Power Pro Elaston uses the same stiff carbon fiber shell as the S-Works version, but covers it in a cushy layer of foam padding infused with tiny beads. Specialized describes the sensation as “sitting on 1,000 miniature pillows.”
Hyperbole aside, this is one wickedly comfortable saddle (at least for me), combining everything I already loved about the S-Works Power but making it better suited for the mixed-terrain riding I prefer these days. The hollow titanium rails make me a bit less nervous than the molded carbon fiber ones on the S-Works one, too. Claimed weight is 231g, and as far as my butt is concerned, it’s worth every penny.
Price: US$225 / AU$TBC / £199 / €180
I was already a fan of Wahoo Fitness’s original ELEMNT GPS cycling computer thanks to its very user-friendly interface, intuitive operation, and handy paired smartphone app. But yes, it was a bit big and blocky, and I didn’t always want or need that generously sized LCD display.
The new ELEMNT Bolt takes all that is good with the standard ELEMNT and packages it into a much smaller and sleeker package. It’s still just as simple to use, and still extremely reliable, but now it’s a more fitting visual pairing with modern high-performance carbon fiber road bikes. It’s also lighter than the ELEMNT at 62g vs 99g, and even substantially cheaper, too.
Wahoo Fitness even claims that the ELEMNT Bolt is the first GPS cycling computer designed with aerodynamic efficiency in mind. That may be, but I’ve got much bigger concerns than how many watts it takes me to push a little electronic box through the air; what I care about far more is whether that little box always does what I want it to, when I want it to, and for me, the ELEMNT Bolt delivers.
Price: US$250 / AU$399 / £199 / €240
Travel has always been a core part of my job, but being on the road isn’t exactly conducive to saddle time, especially if I don’t have a bike with me. In previous years, I’d often brought a Ritchey Breakaway with me whenever it looked like I might have a chance to ride while I was away from home, but more recently, I’ve switched to the Orucase Airport Ninja.
What I love about the Airport Ninja is that it allows me to bring a regular road bike and almost always check it as any other piece of luggage. The standard Airport Ninja really does meet most requirements for volume and weight, so unless the airline has a specific clause for bikes — regardless of size or weight — there’s no reason to be sly at the counter, either. Built-in backpack straps also make for easy transport to and from the airport, and it’s sufficiently light and spacious that I can always stuff heaps of other stuff inside.
I’ve lost count of how many times the Airport Ninja has accompanied me on both domestic and international trips, and I have yet to be charged or suffer any damage upon arrival (cue the jinx police). The fact that it lets me bring test bikes helps me keep the review process on track, too.
The Airport Ninja does require quite a bit of disassembly, though, so it’s only ideally suited for riders with a decent level of mechanical acumen. Frame sizes larger than 54cm will also require a bigger size (which technically will be slightly oversized), and the case design isn’t particularly friendly to internal cable routing or hydraulic disc brakes.
Perfect the Airport Ninja is not, although the company has recently updated the design from what I’ve got with padded backpack straps, new backpack strap locations for easier portaging (especially through doorways), additional seam reinforcements, and a slightly revised shape to fit more bike sizes. Regardless, this one has already paid for itself many times over in saved fees, and more importantly, has netted me scores of extra riding days that otherwise would have left me sitting in a hotel room somewhere.
For that reason alone, I consider this thing priceless.
Price: US$399 / AU$TBC / £TBC / €TBC
If you read my “ten products” list from last year, you might recall this line:
“I’ve been an “Oakley guy” for most of my cycling history, all the way back to the first pair of M-Frames I bought over twenty years ago. After switching over to Smith Optics Pivlock Arena Max as my go-to glasses last year, in 2016 I was back to my old faithful.”
Well, guess what: I’ve flip-flopped again.
I continue adore Oakley’s Prizm lens for its unbeatable color contrast and clarity. However, Smith Optics’ new Attack Max has won me over with its airy frameless design, its expansive field-of-view, and darker ChromaPop Sun Red Mirror lens, which isn’t quite as vivid as Oakley’s Prizm, but is nevertheless better suited for the intense, high-altitude sunshine typical here in Colorado.
I also love that the lens can be swapped for a more suitable tint, which the comparable Oakley EVZero doesn’t allow. Both sides of the lens are treated with a hydrophobic coating, too (although when I’m wearing the Bell Zephyr helmet mentioned above, it’s mostly a moot issue).
Off-road, I still reach for my trusty Oakley Radar EV glasses with their awesome Prizm Trail lens; nothing else I’ve tried can beat it in that situation. But for the road, I’ve been grabbing the Attack Max this year more often than not.
Price: US$249 / AU$369 / £200 / €229
There’s cycling clothing that I love, cycling clothing that I merely like, and cycling clothing that I find utterly disappointing. Almost never does a piece of cycling apparel genuinely wow me, but Gore-Tex has done just that with its ShakeDry material. While I would wholeheartedly agree that jackets made of the stuff are both wildly expensive and almost useless in low light since they currently can only be made in black, I still find it to be magical stuff.
Truth be told, it doesn’t rain much in Colorado, so ShakeDry’s never-fading ability to slough off water is only useful to me if I get unexpectedly caught in a late-day summer storm. But the temperatures can vary wildly at time of year due to incoming fronts or even just major changes in elevation, and a ride that starts in searing heat can quickly transition to freezing cold after two hours of climbing.
For me, the draw of ShakeDry is its incredible breathability. Whereas I would previously often not even wear a jacket on the way up a climb for fear of getting wet from the inside out, I now just toss on the Gore Bike Wear ONE 1985 ShakeDry jacket at home, and just leave it zipped up. It’s so good at letting sweat vapor pass that I arrive at the summit bone-dry, and yet the protective material still keeps me warm on the way back down.
No other material I’ve tried works better.
Price: US$300 / AU$385 / £250 / €300
One might rightfully assume that a tech editor’s garage would be filled with all the latest-and-greatest gear, and to some extent, you wouldn’t be wrong. But my trusty Topeak JoeBlow Ace floor pump has been going strong for nearly a decade now, and although many others have come after it, it’s still my go-to option for everyday, workhorse duty.
The key feature for me is the ability to instantly switch between high-volume and high-pressure modes, simply by opening and closing one or both of the pump’s dual chambers. That means I can almost always seat stubborn tubeless tires without turning on my compressor, and yet I can also inflate skinny road tires to 100psi with barely any effort and fewer strokes than I would normally need with a single-barrel pump.
The sturdy construction has also withstood several moves, the tall form factor is easy on my back, the big base is extremely stable, and the big rubberized handle makes for a sure grip. The low-mounted gauge is a bit tricky to read, but that’s been rectified in Topeak’s new JoeBlow Twin Turbo model.
Maybe it’s time for an upgrade, but even if it comes, I doubt I’ll get rid of Old Faithful.
Price: Out of production
At this point, I think I’ve spent a good amount of time on every major clipless road pedal system available (and a few esoteric ones, too). But while I can occasionally see sufficient technical merit to temporarily draw my gaze, I always come back to Shimano’s SPD-SL family.
Although not as light and compact as Speedplay, I prefer the larger and more stable platform that Shimano provides. Likewise, Shimano pedals don’t have the fancy carbon fiber springs of Look or Time, but they also don’t have the out-of-plane rocking of the former, or the questionable durability (and serviceability) of the latter. Shimano SPD-SL cleats also last a long time, they’re easy to walk in, and at least for me, have just the right amount of float.
The carbon fiber-reinforced bodies of recent top-end versions don’t seem to have quite the longevity of older aluminum ones, but they’re still quite durable. The more expensive models also smoother-spinning bearings and lighter-weight spindles, but they’re all equally easy to service at home, and all of the axle assemblies seem similarly bulletproof.
In other words, they just work.
Price: varies by model
I have a strong fondness for bicycle bells — especially good ones. I started using one off-road years ago as I found that they were more effective than my voice at providing audible warnings to other trail users. But here in Boulder, there is also an extensive network of paved multi-user paths that I frequent on my way in and out of town, and I’ve since discovered that bells work well there, too.
The high-pitched tone pierces the din of everyday noise and casual conversations better than screaming “on your left!”, and the response I get from pedestrians and runners is far more positive, too. In fact, other trail or path users almost always voluntarily shift over a bit well in advance of my arrival, and it’s rare that I don’t get a “thank you” and a smile as I slowly roll by.
There are all sorts of bicycle bells on the market, of course, but the Spurcycle is the best I’ve found so far. It’s exceedingly well made (in the United States, no less), the nickel brass dome provides a super-sustained “ding” as loud or soft as the situation requires, it takes up little space on the bars, and the company backs its product for life.
Inexpensive the Spurcycle most definitely is not, but after getting hooked with a couple of review samples several years ago, I’ve since purchased at least half a dozen to outfit the rest of the fleet.
Price: US$49 / AU$75 / £50 / €55 (raw finish)
Fastener torque has become an increasingly important topic, as high-end parts continue to grow lighter and more sensitive to overtightening. Fully featured torque wrenches with adjustable settings are excellent to have, but for most applications, a single preset driver — typically with a 5Nm setting — will often do the job.
Park Tool certainly wasn’t the first to come to market with such a concept for the bike industry, but there are things about the PTD-5 that make it my go-to in the workshop. The internal mechanism is clutch-limited, meaning there’s no way to overtighten a bolt, and the beefy T-handle is pleasantly solid and easy to hold.
Perhaps my favorite of the PTD-5, however, is the built-in storage, which conveniently holds three alternative bits in the handle. The most common bits are all included, too: 3, 4, and 5mm hex, and T25 Torx.
Cheaper alternatives exist, such as the most common from TorqKey, and for many home users, they’ll work just fine. But for more frequent use, I prefer the stout construction and sturdier all-metal internals of this version. Rarely does a day go by in the shop that I don’t reach for this.
Price: US$45 / AU$63 / £40 / €50
Bontrager’s Flare R daytime LED rear flasher has been out for over two years now, and it’s been on exceedingly rare occasions that I’ve headed out on a road ride since then without having one strapped to my bike. I know full well that using a bright rear flasher isn’t akin to creating a magical force field around me, but I also see nothing wrong with stacking the deck in my favor as much as possible. If an annoyingly bright rear light keeps even one distracted driver from running me down, I’m all for it.
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The Flare R is one of the brightest and most conspicuous of the breed that I’ve encountered, and it’s why I’ve been such a devotee since its introduction. I’ve turned countless friends on to them as well, and my wife now never heads out without one, either. These days, I even run a Bontrager Ion 350 or 700 front LED flasher, too, in the hopes that it’ll ultimately prevent an inattentive driver from turning in front of me.
Bontrager has since improved the Flare R’s mounting strap and the little rubber hatch that covers the micro-USB charging port. It’s also supplemented the flagship Flare R with the smaller Flare R City, which is smaller and lighter, but also substantially less bright with roughly half the lumen rating and a quarter of the claimed visible range. I’ll grab that if my Flare R isn’t charged when I’m about to roll out, but the big dog is still my go-to.
Price: US$60 / AU$80 / £45 / €60
[Yes, this was actually 11 products, and yes, I had the Bontrager Flare R on my list last year, too. But given how much I use and love the thing, I felt the need to include it as a bonus item this year.]