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There’s a Jesu album called ‘Every Day I Get Closer to the Light From Which I Came’, which, as a phrase, strikes me as particularly apt for the way I’m approaching my cycling these days.
When I was a kid, bike riding was a beacon – the only sport I was halfway good at, and the activity I loved doing the most. During primary school, riding for me was all about exploration and fun. As I grew older, I became much more focused on metrics-based forms of cycling – further, faster – which brought its own rewards, even if that sheer joy was at times a little lost to me.
In the last few years, I’ve found myself drifting away from road cycling – a trend you can see in my 2018 list – and things have only continued down the less-beaten path over the past 12 months. The more time I spend with gravel and dirt under my tyres, away from cars and people and everyday concerns, the closer I feel to the kid I used to be, infatuated with the feeling of finding a new track disappearing into the bush and wondering where it leads. Every day, I get closer to the light from which I came.
So when we come to the products I loved the most this year, I feel there’s a closer link with that mentality than there is with materialism. For the most part, these items aren’t things that wow me on a daily basis; they’re the things that I use regularly that disappear because they function so seamlessly, allowing me to tap into whatever I need from riding in that moment without distracting from it.
Ritchey WCS Evocurve handlebar
I didn’t think I was fussy about handlebars, until I kept finding things subtly wrong with them. Various short-reach/shallow-drop models from FSA, 3T, Parlee and Zipp have all had tenures on my personal bikes, before being moved on. There’s something about the Ritchey Evocurve that has made it a keeper, though.
Thick bars are my jam. I don’t want a taper down from the bar clamp; I prefer the bar to stay chunky all the way across the top. The Evocurve does that, but has a subtle egg shape to it – similar to the 3T Ergonova and FSA Energy, although less flattened. The bar also sweeps back toward the rider slightly, which I find gives me a more natural hand position when I’m not on the hoods. The drops have an ever-so-slight outward flare, and the angles of the curve give a clean transition to both the Shimano and SRAM levers I have on the two bikes I’m using these bars on.
Ritchey has a few different categories of handlebar. Those carrying the ‘Evo’ prefix seem to have the same magical shape on the tops, which means that while this recommendation is related to the road-leaning Evocurve bar, the 12-degree-flared Evomax (or the very similar Butano) will be a near-certain inclusion on my next gravel build, too.
POC Octal MIPS
It’s easy to forget how weird the POC Octal looked when it came out. When the Swedish brand entered the WorldTour in 2014 with Garmin-Sharp, the Octal’s rounded Lego-hair form didn’t look like much else on the market. There’s still a distinctive POC look, but recent offerings from Oakley and Giro have made it look less of an oddball.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the oddball, though, and when I first wore an Octal it was love, not because of how it felt but how it didn’t – it fit so seamlessly that I barely felt it on my head. There was also the helmet’s light weight and impressive ventilation, along with greater protection at the back of the head and on the temples. A MIPS version was added to the range soon after, which is my all-time favourite helmet.
I’ve ridden multiple other helmets over the past few years, but this is the one that I reach for most often, because for my head it’s easily the most comfortable (and, by a landslide margin, the most orange). Sadly, this glorious hunk of foam in its MIPS variant has been discontinued, with the Ventral Air now occupying a similar spot in POC’s line-up. Until I can find something that fits me as well, though, I’ll keep rocking my Octal.
Price: AU$349 / US$N/A / £300/ €360
Rapha Brevet Insulated vest
This vest isn’t new to me. In fact, it’s been one of my favourite garments for about four years now. But it’s still in Rapha’s range, and it didn’t make my Top 10 list last year, so here goes:
The Rapha Brevet Insulated vest is perfect. It comprises a Polartec Alpha lining and a DWR coating. I wear it for just about every ride for at least four months of the year. It’s light, and breathes well, and packs down small, and keeps you warm even when it’s wet. It can take the chill off the chest down to about zero degrees, depending on what you’re wearing it over, but is still comfortable to wear into the low teens. The cut is spot on. It lasts well, and doesn’t get stinky.
On mine, the plastic tabs at the end of the zippers snapped off after a few years, which is admittedly not ideal but also not a disaster. Regardless, I thoroughly intend to continue wearing this until the rest of it finally falls apart some time next decade. If you judge a product’s value by how much use you get out of it, this is one of the cheapest per-wear items in my cycling wardrobe and perhaps the only one I’d replace without a second thought.
Price: AU$230 / US$180 / £130 / €155
Road Runner Burrito handlebar bag
Last Christmas, this little handlebar bag landed under the tree, and I’ve been using it for most of my longer rides since. There’s not much to it – a couple of velcro straps, three panels of colourful Cordura, and a single zipped compartment – but the proportions are spot on for swallowing what used to live in my jersey pockets. Now I either don’t wear jerseys, or have my back free from baggage, both of which are minor revelations. TL;DR: I’m a bar-bag convert.
The Burrito – the smallest bar bag offered by LA-based Road Runner – is a good size for my phone, keys, snacks, a mini-pump and arm-warmers or a vest. On weekend or evening duties, it squeezes in a compact lock. It’s not flawless – it used to be a bit rattly when loaded until I fitted $1.50 of EVA foam to quieten it, and the cord lock, which straps around the head tube or steerer, has broken (although it works just fine without it). However, those are minor gripes in a product I’ve otherwise been very pleased with, so much so that I’m tempted to add the Burrito Supreme – double the size – to the collection for good measure. As a perennial tight-arse, it’s also worth pointing out that their US-made products represent very good value.
Price: AU$59.95 / US$40
Arundel Mandible bottle cages
I sort of fell in love with the Arundel Mandible bottle cage by accident, when I picked up a second-hand bike a few years back with a pair installed, but they’ve since become a firm favourite (they’re currently on three bikes in my garage).
I’ve never lost a bottle with them, they’re light, they’re easy to use, they’re brand-agnostic, they’ve got holes for low and high positions, and finally, just look at the things. Is there a prettier bottle cage on the market? There’s a beautiful symmetry to them in profile, a graceful curve to the wings that arc toward the centre, a sort of austere organic beauty to the glisten of the carbon, and a lack of ostentatious branding. Lovely.
Price: US$75 / AU$95 each
Silca Premio saddle roll
I was a long-time fan of my Arundel Dual saddlebag – cheap, discreet-looking, the right size for my gravel bike’s spares – until it went bouncing off on some heavily rutted roads a long way from home one day. I retraced my path a couple of days later, but couldn’t find it, which hopefully means that someone in need out the back of Yarra Glen is enjoying a rusty folding tool, a patched tube, an emergency gel that may or may not have popped already, and a crumpled fiver. Lucky.
Desperate to avoid a repeat of this crushing loss, I looked for something with a more secure fitting, and ended up with a Silca Premio.
It’s the most secure saddle bag I’ve ever used, held in place by a BOA dial that keeps things compact and rattle free. It takes a little practice to get everything in there in an orderly fashion, and the dimensions are probably just slightly tight for my needs – I think I’d go for the size up if I was buying one again – but I know for certain it’s going to be there when I need it and it looks pretty classy (even when it’s covered in tubeless goop and mud, which seems to be most of the time).
Price: AU$75 / US$48 / £37.15 / €43.42
Specialized Turbo Creo SL Expert Evo eBike
My introduction to the Specialized Creo was on my first day reporting on my first Tour de France, when we rode along with Deceuninck-QuickStep and the maillot jaune on their rest day ride. What struck me most wasn’t awe from being there, or a sense of scale of the event, or jetlag – although all of those things made appearances at one point or another – but how much fun those guys were having on this bike.
This first impression became more concrete when I got a loaner for a couple of weeks from Specialized Australia. Because of the ebike regulations in Australia, where power is limited to 250W with a cut-off speed of 25km/h, the local Creo isn’t actually all that great as a road bike; even though it’s a feathery ebike, it’s a heavy road bike to be pushing at cruising speed.
But as a gravel bike? My goodness.
People have a lot of feelings about sporty ebikes. I get it; I used to have those feelings too. But when you get a bike that’s as thoughtfully designed as this into terrain that it shines on, something clicks. There’s just enough subtle cush from the 20mm of Futureshock suspension that you’re not constantly jolted around, and the geometry – based on the Specialized Diverge – is intuitive both on-road and off (although, I found the bottom bracket drop made it a little pedal-strike prone when cornering at speed or in gnarlier terrain).
Here’s the other thing: it doesn’t feel like you’re cheating when you’re riding a Creo. You’re still working for it, just with expanded horizons in terms of how far you can go and how fresh you’ll feel when you come back – which if you’re time-poor and adventure-hungry like me, is a compelling equation. I can’t afford it, but if one of these magically landed in my garage for keeps, I would ride the hell out of it.
Price: AU$12,000 / US$9,000 / £7,499 / €8,499
TRP CX 8.4 Mini-V brakes
Let’s talk about the TRP CX8.4s first by addressing what they aren’t, rather than what they are. They’re not disc brakes (sad emoji). They’re also not cantis (love-heart-eyes emoji). They’re mini v-brakes, which means that they exist for a small and shrinking market of traditionally-minded cyclocross riders and those, like me, who picked up a decade-old CX frame for cheap and are trying to puzzle out the way to best build up a mixed-surface bike in a borderline post-rim-brake world.
First up, I tried the canti thing. I get the appeal, but also, nah. I don’t want finesse. I just don’t want to go sliding into intersections, into doors, into a coma.
TRP’s CX8.4s are a pretty high-end bit of kit from earlier this decade that continue to service a niche. Truth be told, I don’t really care about their titanium hardware or the anodising (red, in this case, which I wouldn’t have chosen, but I got them second-hand for $40 or something so I can deal with it). They function so wonderfully, though. They’re easy to set up, offer as much stopping power as I can ask of a rim brake, and have transformed a bike that I was starting to go off into something that works just fine, still shreds.
Plantronic Backbeat Fit 2100 earphones
Headphones or earphones are a tricky thing to get right on a bike. Some swear by bone-conduction; some swear by the sound of silence. Personally, I didn’t find the audio quality of the bone-conduction headphones I’ve used to be up to scratch, and I almost exclusively ride solo with a strong preference for listening to something while I’m doing it. So, I have been through a number of options – both wired and wireless – on the bike.
As an avid music listener, the Backbeat Fit 2100s work for me because they’ve got reasonable sound quality, across a range of genres – not audiophile-level, but decent. As a cyclist, they work for me because they don’t totally block out ambient noise – you always have an awareness of what’s happening around you, rather than rolling in a bubble.
Many sports-oriented earphones have a profile like Beats PowerBeats – an in-ear driver that seals the ear canal, with battery and control pods sitting proud of the head – which is fine in a gym but means you’re battling against near-constant wind-noise at speed on a bike, and needing to boost the volume to deafening levels to hear anything. These Plantronics are lower profile, so they’re not plagued by wind-noise, and aren’t a true in-ear earphone. The practical implications of this for a cyclist are that you can run the volume lower and still hear OK – both what’s in the earbuds, and what’s surrounding you.
I wish the battery life was a little longer – I get about five hours out of a charge, which means in my normal commuting routine I’m charging them every other day. That’s about the only downside, however, for a pair of earphones that lets me enjoy my two greatest passions – music and cycling – together.
Price: AU$159.99 / US$99.99 / £89.99 / €99.99
TrioBike Boxter e-cargo trike
I’ve written a column about this bike before – more from the perspective of the personal implications of being its owner – but as it’s my most substantial purchase of 2019 in all sorts of ways (cost, size, physical and emotional heft, etcetera), I’ll write about it again.
TrioBike’s Boxter is a Danish-designed cargo trike that we bought as a family in January, having tested options in the category from Christiania and Babboe, along with bakfiets and longtail cargo bikes from numerous other brands. The Boxter felt lighter and more intuitive to ride than the alternative trikes we trialled, but really came alive when we retrofitted a Bafang mid-drive motor, which has reduced the grunt-work of pushing its 30kg bulk plus up to 90kg of human cargo around our hilly suburb.
Enjoyment of a bike is so often judged in ways like how much it weighs, the speed you go or the distance you travel – and given we go short distances on it quite slowly, the Boxter is in those regards an abject failure. But I’ve learnt new metrics to judge its success by – the company I get to keep when riding it, and the number of smiles and memories it creates.
Price: As pictured, ~AU$6,299 (AU$4,299 / €2,930, trike only)