Ten products I loved in 2019: Caley Fretz

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I find these lists surprisingly difficult to put together. Not because of some dearth of products I use on a regular basis, and love dearly, but because the products I use most often tend to fade into the background. I ended up scrolling through photos of myself on Instagram to help remember what I actually ride in.

The method does work. There’s a photo below that includes five of the ten products on this list in one closely-cropped shot. It’s no coincidence that the photo was taken on a trip that also included my longest ride of the year – when the going gets long, I pull out all my most reliable gear.

If you’ve read through the lists my colleagues have put together over the last few weeks, you know by now that they’re a pretty good reflection of each of us as bike riders, and as people. I’m not really sure what my 2019 list says about me, other than I hate things that break.

Pearl Izumi PRO bib shorts

When I have a big day on the bike, like the recent 200km, 5,000-vertical-meter day at the VeloClub Summit in Thailand, these are the shorts I pull out of my bag.

The fabric is perfect, soft and supportive. The chamois disappears. The straps are wide enough and long enough. Silicon leg grippers keep everything in place.

They’re the most comfortable shorts I currently own. Better than Rapha, better than Assos, better than Castelli. The Velocio Signature shorts I put in last year’s 10 Things story are a very close second, but cost a bit more. Nice work, Pearl Izumi.

Price: US$200 / AU$379.95

Tube sock and a toe strap

The Arundel saddle bag I’d used for years finally died early this year, which left me casting about, somewhat listless, in search of a replacement.

So I turned to my sock drawer.

For years, my dad rode with his repair kit rolled up into a tube sock, strapped under his saddle with a leather toe strap. I wrote a whole story about it for VeloNews years ago.

Isn’t a saddle bag just a fancy cloth container strapped to your saddle rails? It is. But it doesn’t need to be fancy. I snagged an old VeloClub sock, dug a leather strap out the spares box, and voilá: New saddle bag.

It mounts easily, can be made almost any size (because you can buy big socks, and socks are stretchy), and you can even pick sock color so it matches your bike. Old toe straps are pretty easy to source.

Price: Less than 5 bucks.

Strava’s heatmaps

I don’t do much Strava KOM hunting anymore, but Strava still has its uses. Among them, for a seeker of secret groads, is spotting new and interesting places to ride, both at home and when on the road.

My route discovery process goes something like this:

Step 1: Open Strava and create a new route.
Step 2: Click on the little Settings wheel on the left and turn on “Global Heatmap”
Step 3: Click around, looking for faint blue lines that connect darker lines together.
Step 4: Open up Google maps and see if you can get a street view image nearby, ideally at the start/finish of the faint blue line.
Step 5: Get on your bike and check out the segment you just found.

Sometimes, the trail is for hiking, or only suitable for mountain bikes. But sometimes you find a hidden gem, and a new way to connect places you didn’t know could be connected.

Side note: If you want your secret spots to remain secret (which I personally think is a bit selfish), don’t upload them to Strava …


Aluminum Trek Checkpoint ALR

Quite a few fancy carbon fiber gravel bikes have come through CyclingTips in the last year, including the carbon Checkpoint. Honestly, I can’t justify the extra cost over this dead simple, perfectly functional, impressively light and snappy aluminum Checkpoint ALR.

It will run a 700x45mm tire, or a 650bx50mm if you want to ignore Trek’s recommendation not to run 650b wheels, as I’ve often done. It has sliding dropouts so you can run it single speed or play with geometry. It has lots of mount points for water bottles, bags of things, a hatchet, whatever you want.

It doesn’t have an ISOspeed decoupler. It also doesn’t need one. That’s what massive tires are for.

When you put road tires on it, it feels a lot like a road bike. When you put 50mm tires on it, it makes easy mountain bike trails fun again.

Gravel bikes, like hardtail mountain bikes, don’t need to be fancy. In fact, they’re often better when they’re not. The next stop for this Checkpoint is to ditch the expensive eTap and add a cheap, mechanical 1x SRAM group.

Price: US$1,070 frameset, US$1,700 complete with Tiagra. The even cheaper AL version starts at $1,200 complete, with no sliding dropouts.

Low gears on my road bike

I was going to specifically call out my current 11-32 cassette here, but I might be on an 11-34 soon. Low is the way to go.

I remember when putting the 28-tooth cassette on, paired with a 39-tooth little ring up front, was a rare occurrence reserved for the hardest climbing days. What on earth was I thinking? Do you know how strong you have to be to spin a 39×28 properly on a 10% grade? I don’t, because I’ve never been that strong.

Every time I put a lower gear on my road bike, I wonder why I didn’t do so earlier. So if you climb a lot, or even a little, forget the ego and throw a 32 on there. It will work with most standard road rear derailleurs, promise. That includes the Dura-Ace Di2 derailleur shown here, which is technically rated to a 30t cog.

Price: US$70 / AU$100 for a Shimano Ultegra 11-32

Veloforte energy bars

A VeloClub member brought a pile of these to Boulder early this year, and they’ve quickly become a favorite in the Fretz household. They simply taste better than any energy bar I’ve ever tried.

The Classico uses a mix of nuts (lots of big almonds), citrus flavors (candied peel), and spices, and wraps it all up in an easily-eaten and crumble-free package. It’s my personal favorite, though my wife prefers the Forza, which is made with apricots, almonds, and fennel.

Veloforte bars are made in London, and the only place I’ve found to buy them locally is the Rapha shop here in Boulder. You can also order them online. They’re not cheap, but they’re so delicious!

Price: £6.99 / US$9 for a pack of three

A bike holiday to Belgium

I’ve covered a lot of bike races, so I often get asked which races are best for spectators. The answer is easy: the Classics.

The Tour de France is a spectacle and a logistical nightmare. The Giro d’Italia is beautiful and spread across an entire country. The classics, specifically the Flanders/Roubaix week, are the best place on earth to be a bike racing fan.

Arrive the Thursday or Friday before Flanders and leave the Monday after Roubaix. Sign up for both sportives – the Flanders sportive is fun, the Roubaix sportive mostly just hurts, but both are worth doing. Base yourself in Oudenaarde and watch Flanders by bike, skipping from climb to climb. Go to the start of Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, where there are fewer fans and you can walk right up to the buses. At Roubaix, pick two sectors in the middle of the race to set up and watch, and then book it to the velodrome.

Bring friends. Drink Belgian beer. Ride bikes. Have a blast.

Price: Worth every penny.

Giro Empire SLX shoes

I like shoes that feel like slippers, and these are the closest I’ve come.

Giro shoes have always fit my narrow feet well, and I like laces. But it’s the uppers that shine. They’re so malleable.

I’ve beat the heck out of these since getting them at the product launch last spring. The toes are thrashed; you can tell that I have toe overlap on a few of my bikes (mostly because I run my cleats really far back). They’ve done gravel rides, hiked around in the woods, and flown all over the world. They’re still going (relatively) strong. When they die, I’ll buy new ones.

Price: US$245 / AU$360

Mosaic RT1 S&S travel bike

My Mosaic travel bike was stolen last winter, and through the wonders of homeowner’s insurance, this is V2.0.

It hurt me deeply to lose the old bike, but it also opened up an opportunity to re-think what a travel bike should be. A lot had changed since I ordered the first one back in 2012.

The brief: I needed a bike that would pack and unpack quickly, fit inside an S&S bag, and work well on new roads and groads all over the world. It needed to be easy to work on, easily fixed in the middle of nowhere, and unlikely to break in the first place.

This ruled out disc brakes. Though I love them, they are not fun to travel with frequently. Hoses kink, rotors bend, and bleeding hydraulic lines in hotel rooms is frowned upon.

So how could I fit a 32mm tire, enough for light gravel, into a rim brake road bike? The most common rim brake fork used by custom builders these days, from Enve, barely fits a 28.

I ended up sourcing an unpainted Specialized Tarmac direct mount fork, and matched that to Cane Creek EEbrakes. That setup fits a 32 up front. Out back, I asked Aaron at Mosaic to put the brake mount as high as possible, and ran a normal mount EEbrake. Again, 32s slide in no problem.

The frame is Ti, based off of Mosaic’s RT1, with S&S couplers so it goes in a tiny bag and I don’t pay airline fees.

I went with mechanical shifting. If things break, I can fix them. In the photo above, the bike is built with a Campagnolo Potenza group that I borrowed. It will soon have mechanical Dura-Ace.

90% of the time, I ride on tarmac when I’m traveling. But I also get lost all the time, or misread the Strava heat maps, and end up on dirt. With this setup, that’s no problem.

Price: A lot.

Goodyear Connector 700×40 gravel tire

I can’t kill these tires. I’ve tried. They won’t die. Which is great, because I love them.

The pair of Connectors I have has floated between multiple bikes since I got them a year and a half ago. They’ve seen a couple thousand dirty, rock-strewn Colorado groad miles without a single flat. Not one.

I’m genuinely not sure how that’s possible. I ride them in lots of stupid places, and they don’t have super stiff, hard rubber or casings. In fact, they ride really well.

I’m a fan of the tread pattern, too. Tightly spaced center knobs give way to wider spaced side knobs, so loose-surface traction increases as you lean the bike over. Rolling resistance is relatively low; on par with Schwalbe’s excellent G-One in the same size. But cornering traction on the Connectors is better than on the G-Ones.

Best of all, they set up tubeless incredibly easily. Goodyear uses a clever super-soft rubber below the bead that helps hold in the air before the tire fully seats itself. I’ve managed to mount the Connectors on a handful of different wheelsets with just a floor pump.

If you’re looking for a 700x40ish gravel tire that can handle a wide variety of terrain, give these a shot.

Price: US$65 / AU$95

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