Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.
Bikes are an escape. Or they should be, anyway. When they’re not, when kitting up feels monotonous and pedalling the same loop becomes wearisome, something has to change.
For me, all it takes is grabbing a different bike. My riding is, if you’ll excuse the pun, cyclical. Different disciplines come in waves: a rolling tide of early summer road riding crashes into high-country trail riding as summer wanes, then mellows out into long days on mixed surfaces and fat slicks through autumn leaves.
In a year defined by curtailed movement and, to some extent, monotony, the ability to mix things up on the bike has been a welcome and necessary respite. Road one day, mountain bikes the next, a bit of gravel in between; I’ve always loved switching between disciplines throughout the year, but this particular year it felt essential to my mental health.
As a result, my favorite products of 2020 come from all over the cycling world. I’ve included a big suspension fork and a gorgeous road bike, gloves borrowed from skiing and an old drivetrain that’s still kicking. Some products that helped me get away from civilization, and others that were daily companions in hour-long getaways between Zoom calls.
Variety is the spice of life, right? I think bikes should be no different.
Specialized S-Works Power Mirror saddle
Frankly, the price of this saddle is absurd. $450! For a saddle! You’ve got to be kidding me.
Here’s the problem. It makes my butt so happy. If I could twerk, which I can’t, it would twerk in the streets in unbridled, uncontrollable happiness.
My opinion of this thing is split, a head full of rage and a bottom laughing giddily, caressed by a 3D-printed cloud.
This is the most comfortable saddle I’ve ever ridden. Bar none. No contest.
It’s squishy. Normally, I have not gotten on well with squishy foam saddles, but this one isn’t squishy foam. It’s a 3D-printed matrix of rubbery plastic that seems to spread your weight far more effectively and allowed the saddle’s designers to make key areas (like the channel down the middle) far softer than any foam. The whole thing is grippy too, providing a fantastic planted feeling.
I don’t actually get on all that well with the regular Power saddle, the one without the Mirror 3D printed magic. Which makes this saddle even more impressive. The shape isn’t perfect for me, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
If you like your saddle now, there is no reason to shell out $450 on this thing. Presumably, Specialized will trickle down the tech at some point and then you can buy one at a more reasonable price. But if you’re the type who just can’t get comfortable no matter how many saddles you try, give this one a shot. It’s different from almost anything else, in a good way.
It’s worth noting that the Fizik Adaptive line uses the same technology. I can’t personally vouch for the Fizik version, but those saddles start at $250, so might be the best place to start.
More information: Specialized.com
These got a mention in Shoddy Dave’s recent $200 winter kit challenge, but I like them so much I want to add them here, too.
These aren’t fancy-schmancy expensive gloves full of GoreTex and other trademarked super materials. They’re just pig leather and cloth and a cheap but effective insulating layer called Heatkeep. They’re the sort of glove sold at hardware stores, even gas stations. But they work better than many gloves four times the cost, and, thanks to the leather palms, they wear better too.
I originally picked these up for skiing, on the recommendation of our Nerd Alert pro mechanic Zach Edwards. I have the mitten version as well, which is absurdly warm but not so great for holding onto handlebars.
They’re warm down to about 15-20F, roughly -10C. They offer pretty good dexterity, have long knit cuffs to keep drafts off your wrists, and… they’re 30 bucks.
What’s not to like?
Evoc Boa handlebar bag
My love for this bar bag has nothing to do with the Boa dial that gives it its name, though those do work well, and everything to do with the roll-top closures on either end.
Those roll-top closures, which close like your standard-issue wet bag by rolling and then clipping with a good-sized plastic clip, allow the bag to shrink and expand with the size of the adventure you have before you.
Roll both sides up tight and it’s narrow enough to fit between hoods on a drop bar, about 35cm wide. That expands out to more than 50cm if you use just a single roll before closing. That full width is too wide for most road bars but will work fine with today’s ever-wider gravel drops or with a flat bar.
The outer material is waterproof and a plastic internal rib cage allows the bag to hold its shape even when empty. The bag is held on with a single Boa dial, allowing for super quick mounting and dismounting. The mounts push the bag away from the bar a few centimeters as well, making room for brake lines and shift housing.
$130 is a lot for a tube of waterproof material and a Boa dial. But it’s a cleverly thought out, functional, versatile, very light and durable handlebar bag that can pull every-day duty or be used to stash an impressive amount of gear for bikepacking. It hung on my bike for every day-long adventure all year.
Maap Team Thermal Bib Tights
These have begun to replace my usual thermal shorts + thermal leg warmers combination, largely because they offer an impressive temperature range and, without any elastic around my thighs, are more comfortable. The overall construction is excellent, the chamois is excellent, and the straps are comfortable, long and wide, so they don’t dig into your shoulders. These tights simply disappear, which is exactly what I want.
Build quality and chamois comfort should be expected for a set of bibs in this price range. We should demand no less.
So, with that baseline of quality covered, I’m most impressed by the material selection, which is just as difficult to get right.
The temperature range is wider than most winter tights I’ve used, comfortable from below freezing all the way up to the mid-50s F (13 C).
That’s vital here in Colorado, where winter temperatures often swing more than 30 degrees in a few hours, as the high-elevation sun warms things up. Just this weekend, I rolled out in the high-20s and came home with temperatures near 60. The Team Thermal bibs were comfortable the whole time. No other pair of bib tights I own could have handled that range.
More information: Maap.cc
I love hardtails. They’re like gravel bikes, but… better?
I was initially attracted to gravel bikes and gravel riding because they combined two things I loved: long, adventurous rides and off-road fun. For much of the past decade I owned a road bike and a trail bike, a behemoth of a thing with 150mm of travel and 2.5″ tires, weighing more than 30 pounds. Gravel bikes fit into the middle between road and trail nicely. And they still do. But so do hardtails.
As many gravel riders are discovering, suspension is good when going off-road. Big tires are good too. Perhaps, the gravel rider thinks, we should add a wide bar for added control? Oh, but the brake levers are in a weird place now. Let’s make the bar flat. What an idea! Maybe add a dropper post for even more confidence.
Voilà, we have re-invented the hardtail. We are geniuses.
Hardtails are so fun that I didn’t touch my gravel bike for months this summer. I just had no need to. I could do similar rides, but venture even further into technical singletrack.
The over-arching theory here is that all these versatile bikes are awesome, whether you call them gravel bikes or mountain bikes or whatever. It doesn’t matter what type of handlebars they have. Bikes that let you do lots of things in lots of places are superb. That includes high-end bikes like the Cannondale FSi shown here, or the much cheaper Specialized Chisel aluminum option I’ve just ordered.
I invite you to consider the hardtail to fit your off-road needs. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
More information: The Internet
I tested the Caledonia 5 earlier this year and loved it. It was the fancy version, with SRAM eTap, Zipp 303s wheels, and the 5 model’s internal routing and D-shaped seat post. It was superb – great looks, great ride, great handling, great tire clearance. Everything I look for in a modern road bike.
It was so good, in fact, that I subsequently recommended it to a friend, who picked up the regular version (not the fancier 5) with Shimano Ultegra for around $3,500. The only real difference between the two is in brake line routing, which is all internal on the 5, and the shape of the seatpost.
$3,500 for a bike this good, in the context of modern road bike prices, is a great deal. So good that I can’t honestly recommend the more expensive Caledonia 5. But I can absolutely recommend the regular Caledonia.
In fact, the regular model gets rid of the one feature I hated about the Caledonia I tested: the need to re-run hydraulic brake lines just to swap a stem, which is maddening.
I’m sure the regular Caledonia, without the D-shaped seat post and with brake lines that aren’t fully integrated, is very very slightly less comfortable and very very slightly slower than its faster sibling.
Who cares? It’s a fantastic bike. Cervelo nailed the geometry, they nailed the tire clearance (up to 34 pretty easily) and with a base price under $3k, with an intelligent spec list, it’s hard to complain about the price.
Price: Starts at US$2,900
More information: Cervelo.com
I added these to my list a few years ago, but they’re worth mentioning again, as I’m sure the portion of the CyclingTips audience riding tubeless has only grown since then.
With the exception of a pump or CO2, these are the most important piece of my flat/tool kit.
Basically, they’re little rubbery fibrous plugs with a metal tip. You stick them into holes in your tubeless tires that are too big for sealant alone. They work incredibly well; so well that I’ve ridden mountain bike tires with half a dozen plugs in them for months.
If you run tubeless, invest in some.
Price: US$30-$75 depending on model. $10 for re-fill packs of plugs.
More information: Dynaplug.com
POC Ventral Air Spin
The Ventral Air Spin is super light, very comfortable, has a good retention system, and technology to help prevent rotational concussions (similar to MIPS). It has big, cool vents, too. This helmet has been duking it out with a Giro Synthe as my go-to road helmet all year and, lately, it’s been winning.
A built-in NFC medical chip, which allows you to put a bunch of key medical info into a scannable chip inside the helmet, is a great touch, though not one I hope I’ll ever need.
The Synthe has been my favorite helmet for a few years now, but I think the Ventral Air is a bit cooler on hot days. It’s low-profile and I like that it extends further down the back of my head, like a mountain bike helmet.
More information: Pocsports.com
2021 Fox 36 Grip2 Factory
So this one falls a fair way outside the usual CT purview, but it’s a product I love so it’s going on the list. If you don’t ride these sort of bikes, skip ahead.
I picked up this fork for my Specialized Stumpjumper EVO. I’d love to say I was pining after the ability to adjust high-speed rebound, but I mostly swapped them out because it’s a better color. And it’s shiny. And it will help resale in a year or two.
I’m glad I did. This is an astonishingly good fork, particularly coming off the FIT4 damper I’d had on a previous bike. The plethora of setup options – high and low speed rebound, high and low speed compression, yada yada – mean you’re going to spend a few rides getting it dialed in, but once you do it’s brilliant. I ended up pretty close to all of Fox’s suggestions on the setup front anyway.
It’s more supple over small, chundery bumps and doesn’t fall into its travel quite as easily as its primary competitor, the RockShox Lyric (which is maybe even more supple – a tradeoff). The little bleed ports on the back of each leg, borrowed from the 40, help keep that early travel nice and smooth. And it’s stiff as heck, happily thrown into whatever you’re confident enough to throw it into.
Ten stars, would buy again.
More information: ridefox.com
SRAM mechanical drivetrains
Has SRAM forgotten about its mechanical road drivetrains? I hope not. Because this stuff is still my favorite.
These days, any SRAM-equipped test bike we get in (like the Caledonia above) comes with eTap. It’s great; I like the flappy-paddle shift layout, I like the little blips you can add, I like the noises it makes, I like how easy it is to build up.
But every time I get back on my personal bike I remember how wonderfully tactile the old Red22 stuff is. It’s the best shift click in cycling, barring perhaps Campagnolo Record mechanical, which is at a different price range entirely.
Red22 is super light. It’s simple. It’s quieter than eTap. It’s still going strong after half a decade of abuse. When I grab my road bike for the first time in a while I don’t have to wonder whether I remembered to charge all the batteries. My shifting will never, ever stop working halfway through a ride unless I’ve been an absolute knucklehead (which is possible).
Long live the derailleur cable.