Ten products I loved in 2019: James Huang
There’s a saying about time passing that goes through my head on repeat. “Life is like a roll of toilet paper; the paper comes out at the same speed, but the core keeps spinning faster and faster” … or something to that effect.
I’m now well into my mid-40s, and that cardboard tube is starting to feel like it’s rotating a little too quickly for my liking.
And so it might come as no surprise that my favorite products increasingly tend to be ones that help me make the most of my fleeting day — ones that I don’t have to mess around with, ones with convenience features I never realized how much I needed, and ones that just plain work without having to dig through the annals of the internet to figure out how to operate the damned thing.
Basically, I’m becoming a grumpy old man. Now get off my lawn.
RockyMounts Backstage Swing Away car rack
I’ve been smitten with hitch-mounted, tray-style car racks ever since trying my first one — a first-generation Thule T2 — way back in 2006. The bikes were simpler to load and unload, the fuel efficiency was better than a roof rack, I never had to remove the front wheel, and it was just easier to live with all around.
But that said, even with a tilt-down feature, hitch racks still make it a little trickier to access the back of your vehicle than I sometimes want.
The RockyMounts Backstage Swing hitch rack, however, incorporates a swing-away feature that moves the bikes completely out of the way, giving you the same level of access to the cargo area as if you didn’t have a rack at all. RockyMounts isn’t the first, or only, company to offer such a thing, but it’s the only one I know that integrates the feature directly into the rack itself, instead of as a separate add-on. As a result, it’s heaps lighter and more compact, yet still as stable as a hitch rack that doesn’t offer the same level of convenience.
The rack itself is pretty good, too: easy to use, compatible with everything from 25mm-wide road tires to 4in-wide fat bike ones deflated to 3psi, extremely stable, and with an ingeniously simple cable lock system that’s both more secure and longer than anything similar I’ve used to date.
Not that reviews posted on the manufacturer web site are ever the ultimate measure of a product’s worth, but I still find it telling that the Backstage Swing has a nearly perfect rating from 54 buyers. My dog certainly approves.
Price: US$650 / AU$800 / £NA / €NA
7Mesh TK1 tights
I started road riding on Long Island in New York, then lived in Michigan for almost 14 years before eventually settling down in Boulder, Colorado. Needless to say, I’ve done a lot of cold rides in tights during that time, but none have impressed me as much as 7Mesh’s TK1.
One of the things 7Mesh’s designers pride themselves on is the cleverness of their garment patterns, and this TK1 is a prime example of their utter mastery of the art. The TK1 is made using far fewer panels than most winter tights, but because of how the pieces are cut and sewn — and thanks to a few particularly clever stitch lines — the fit of the TK1 is unlike any other tight I’ve worn.
Most winterweight tights feel restrictive and confining, but the TK1’s pre-curved legs and minimal seams make it feel like you’re still in bare legs in summertime. The conscious omission of ankle zippers makes them a little trickier to get on and off, but it’s an easy compromise to make given how good they feel when you’re pedaling.
To be clear, I wouldn’t consider the TK1 to be a proper deep-winter tight. The fleecy interior feels undeniably warm and cozy, and 7Mesh also treats the exterior with a DWR coating to provide some water-shedding capability, but there aren’t any windproof panels to help out when it’s truly frigid outside. That said, no other tights I’ve worn feel this good while keeping me this toasty.
Price: US$200 / AU$NA / £150 (including VAT) / €175 (including VAT)
WTB Riddler 37 gravel tires
Wait, a gravel tire I like more than the Schwalbe G-One Allround? Surely I’ve hit my head, no?
I still love the G-One for general mixed-surface riding, for all the same reasons I included on my list last year: they’re reasonably light, roll quite well, and provide good traction in a decently wide range of conditions. But as I find myself straying further off the tarmac with every successive drop-bar ride, I also find myself continually pushing the boundaries of how much those G-Ones can handle.
The WTB Riddler features a similar center tread, populated with a densely packed array of tiny, low-profile knobs. But whereas the G-One maintains that tread all the way around to the sidewalls, the Riddler features slightly taller shoulder knobs that provide more security through loose corners. The resultant profile is therefore more squared-off than the G-One, and less apt to slide through dusty corners.
Tubeless setup is a little tricky given the porous nature of the relatively supple casing. But once it’s sealed tight — and provided you use the right sealant — what you get is a pleasantly cushy ride that rolls and grips well without being too heavy.
For everyday use, and as a do-it-all single choice for mixed-terrain riding, the G-One is still my go-to. But on days where I know I’m going to be spending most of my time on dirt, the Riddler lets me go nearly as fast on the straights, but have a lot more fun through the corners.
Price: US$60 / AU$TBC / £45 / €52
Niterider Pro 4200 Enduro Remote headlight
When I first started riding mountain bikes, I spent more time on trails in the dark than I did during daylight hours. I was working as a bike mechanic at the time, and most of us weren’t able to get out until the shop shut down for the day.
Candlepower was always the key to being able to ride fast, but back then, the best I could muster was a dual 20-watt halogen setup. I still do a fair bit of trail riding at night, but these days, I never find myself wishing for more lumens thanks to the Niterider Pro 4200 Enduro Remote.
As the name suggests, this sucker puts out a whopping 4,200 lumens, distributed across two LED lamps: one a spot, the other a flood. In the low setting, it’s more than enough light for long climbs from the trailhead. But in the high setting with both lamps blazing, I can legitimately ride as fast as I do during the day, and the convenient bar-mounted remote means I’m always in the right lighting mode for the conditions at hand. Even in sub-freezing temperatures (a lot of my night rides are in wintertime on the fat bike), the giant 11,600mAh battery still provides almost 90 minutes of run time on the high setting, too.
In essence, what that Niterider Pro 4200 Enduro Remote does for me is almost totally eliminate any excuse I might have to not ride outside after the sun has set. It’s a proper beast, and I love it so.
Price: US$570 / AU$800 / £400 / €440
Milkit Booster air can
Home mechanics often turn to air compressors when trying to install stubborn tubeless tires, but sometimes even those don’t do the job, especially if you run a smaller pancake-style unit to save space in your garage (like I do). These days, I now find myself reaching for portable air canisters like the Milkit Booster instead, and I couldn’t be happier.
The idea behind the Booster, and similar canisters, is simple. Whereas compressors can put out a medium amount of air indefinitely, the Booster delivers a big volume of air extremely quickly, which is the key to getting tubeless tires seated. Fat bike tires excepted, I’ve yet to encounter a rim-and-tire combination that even the smaller 0.6L Booster can’t seat on the first shot (there’s a bigger one-liter version, too).
The canister has to be charged to 160psi prior to use, but a good high-pressure floor pump makes easy work of the task. It takes up just a tiny amount of room on the workshop shelf, it’s quiet and portable, and is relatively inexpensive to purchase.
I’ll still hold on to my compressor for tasks like drying off parts and installing mountain bike grips, but when it comes to tubeless, the canister is the way to go.
Price: US$50 / AU$TBC / £43 / €50
Retül Fütbed custom insoles
I’ll be honest; I’ve got fairly weird-shaped feet. They’re quite wide, but also very flat, with low insteps and narrow heels. Basically, I have duck flippers. That said, I’m still surprisingly comfortable in most cycling shoes provided they’re not too narrow, and as long as I’ve got the right insoles installed.
To that end, the best ones I’ve used to date are the custom molded ones that Retül debuted last year. Developed in cooperation with MasterFit — one of the biggest names in custom footbeds in the ski world — the Fütbeds offer a much firmer foundation than what you usually find in cycling insoles, which then provides much better support, even in shoes that don’t build a lot of arch shaping directly into the plate. They can also be remolded as needed, so you’re not stuck with an old fit if your feet change over time.
They’re quite pricey at US$149, but even with near-daily use in multiple pairs of cycling shoes over nearly 18 months, they’re showing few signs of wear. When they do eventually die, chances are very good that I’ll just go and buy another set.
Price: US$150 / AU$TBC / £116 / €120-150
Vintage Knipex Mini Bolt Cutters
While my colleague, Dave Rome, seems to prefer having a tool for every single possible job, my tendencies veer more toward tools that can serve multiple purposes. After all, these days most of my spare cash goes toward kid-related stuff, not the workshop.
Far and away my most prized tool is a pair of Knipex miniature bolt cutters, which I use to cut nearly anything: cables, brake housing, derailleur housing, spokes, and even bolts and chain links on rare occasion. They cut cleanly with minimal effort, and still haven’t needed to be sharpened after who-knows-how-many years.
Exactly how old these are is truly a mystery, though.
You see, these were a going-away present from a shop I started working at in 1993, while in college. There were three workbenches set up there: one with green-painted tools (the “FNG” bench), the middle blue one, and the red bench, which was traditionally used by the service manager. These Knipex cutters always lived at the red bench, and while I admired them nearly from day one, it was only after several years that they were “mine”. When I eventually left the shop after five years or so, they were given to me as a going-away present (partially because no one else cared about them nearly as much as I did).
To this day, they still bear a smear of red paint.
Knipex still makes these — they’re item number 71 01 200, in case you’re wondering — and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone. A big part of why this particular set is special is that they weren’t made in Germany like modern examples, but rather “W-Germany”, making them nearly 30 years old, at minimum. I’m sure the new ones are just as good; maybe even better. But none will ever hold a place in my heart like these.
Ultrasonic parts cleaner
One of my other prized workshop possessions was inspired by another bike shop that I worked in during graduate school. One of the services we offered there was a full drivetrain clean, with each component enjoying a soothing bath in an industrial ultrasonic cleaner. The first time I used it, I was amazed at how everything that came out of it looked practically new — except for the bits that were left in there for way too long or at way too high a temperature, that is (those parts were fried).
More than a decade went by after I left that shop before I finally got an ultrasonic parts cleaner of my own, a model that was specifically recommended to me by Jason Smith, who, at the time, was running Friction Facts out of his basement here in Boulder.
The one I bought isn’t nearly as capacious as what I used back then, nor does it have the three separate tanks for iteratively cleaning and rinsing I once used. But this little guy is still big enough to hold full-sized chainrings, and provided I remember to change the Simple Green solvent at suitable intervals, everything comes out as sparkly-clean as I could hope.
I don’t use this ultrasonic cleaner as much as the one I used at the shop but it still brings a smile to my face every time I use it. My garage will never be without one again.
Price: US$230 / AU$340 / £180 / €TBC
Pearl Izumi BLVD Merino Vest
I’ve always loved vests — or gilets, depending on where you call home. They’re warm — but not too warm — usable across a wide range of temperatures, and easy to layer. I also love Merino wool, because it’s warm, cozy, and odor-resistant. And so the fact that Pearl Izumi’s BLVD combines the two made it an easy favorite for me this year.
Pearl Izumi announced a push into more casual clothing with its so-called BikeStyle line, and I’ll freely admit to being pretty skeptical about it. I’ve practically lived in this thing over the past few months any time the temperatures have been cool-to-cold (which, here in Boulder, can be almost any day of the year), and if this piece is any indication of what else is to come from Pearl Izumi’s BikeStyle line, I’m happy to eat some crow here.
Pearl Izumi uses a slightly stretchy Merino/nylon blend for the entire body of the BLVD, and then adds a layer of 50% Merino/38% polyester/12% nylon recycled “scrap” on the front and rear, which is then sandwiched and held in place with quilted wind-resistant ripstop polyester. Bike-specific features are limited to a single zippered rear pocket and some strategically placed reflective accents, and that’s about it. The hem is slightly dropped out back, but the overall cut isn’t extreme, while two front zippered front pockets add some day-to-day utility.
What results is a pleasantly body-hugging fit, the perfect amount of extra warmth, and versatile aesthetics that work just as well off the bike as on. To date, I’ve used it for sub-freezing nighttime fat bike rides, low-key cruises around town, and just as a piece of casual everyday wear, and been thoroughly satisfied with it throughout.
Go ahead and try to get it off of me — I dare you.
Price: US$190 / AU$NA / £140 / €190
Recycled Tyvek envelopes
In case you’ve never heard of it, Tyvek is what FedEx and a variety of other freight companies use for durable envelopes. It feels plasticky — and technically is plastic — but in reality, it’s a fabric-like sheet made of high-density polyethylene fibers. Those companies use it because it’s incredibly flexible, remarkably durable, and provides a surprising amount of protection from the elements.
Which is also why it’s so handy when riding in inclement weather.
Back in the day, riders used to stuff sheets of newspaper down their jerseys to keep chilling wind at bay on fast alpine descents, but newsprint is messy, and hardly durable (not to mention kind of hard to find these days). In contrast, Tyvek is totally impervious to wind, practically waterproof, and DuPont (the manufacturer of Tyvek) even claims the stuff is decently breathable, too.
Full-sized FedEx envelopes are almost perfectly sized for most torsos, and since the material is so thin, you can insert smaller pieces in between your socks and cycling shoes for times when a bootie is too hot, but an uncovered shoe is too cold. The stuff is also easy to fold and pack, meaning you can trim the stuff as needed and keep it in your seat pack or jersey pocket until it’s needed.
And best of all? It’s basically free.