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This year’s been a swirl. Sometimes – oftentimes – it’s felt like a bathtub draining, spiralling, threatening to suck me down the plughole.
For a third of this year in my hometown of Melbourne we were restricted to a 5km radius and an hour of exercise a day. I’d feel like I was drowning for 23 hours, and then those 60 minutes were a ragged gasp I’d inhale before being submerged again.
For a few years I’ve known that bikes are an important pillar to my mental health; this year I felt it in my bones. And cycling – along with my family, my friends and the support from my colleagues to push my work to whatever limits I could find – was like a life-raft in 2020’s turbulent waters.
With my wings clipped, I didn’t ride as much as I did last year or the year before that. So when I’m thinking about the products that have meant the most to me in this strange, stressful year, I’m remembering the things that improved my experience, granted me transcendence, allowed escape when escape seemed impossible.
Shimano PD-M520 pedals
These pedals look just like a bunch of Shimano PD-M520s around the world. They’re a bit rusty, have a spiderweb of silver scratches on the ends, and have been worn smooth like a piece of sea-glass on the spindle. They keep going. I can’t imagine they’ll ever stop.
I have three bikes running SPD pedals at the moment – two pairs of the M520s and one pair of M540s. The M540s are the newest and are on my fancier bike, but I can’t feel any difference. Although all my SPDs are low-end, they are functionally just about perfect and completely bulletproof and I don’t really understand why you would spend more.
We’re conditioned to believe that cheap things are built to fall apart. I like that these budget pedals are more than a decade old, have lived on bikes in both Norway and Australia, have been threaded onto a half-dozen bikes of mine, and played a small but necessary role in hundreds of adventures, big and small.
Price: Very little, especially if you get them on a used bike as I always have.
More info: Shimano.com
Specialized Diverge Comp Carbon
Just before restrictions hit, I bought my first new bike in a couple of years. I wanted a gravel bike that could handle the rougher terrain within my bubble, and that would make riding fun. I knew I liked the way the previous Specialized Diverge rode, so when I saw that the latest model had resolved most of the niggling issues I had with it, I took the plunge. It was a bit of a gamble – I picked it up sight unseen, unridden, a couple of days before it was even officially released.
The gamble paid off. The new Diverge is smooth but spicy, quick but comfortable. It forgives poor technique, but can also absolutely rip.
It’s not perfect – I wish it was a bit lighter, for instance, and I didn’t much like the handlebar – but for a lot of the riding that I’ve been doing this year it’s been spot on.
More info: Specialized.com
Ritchey WCS Butano bars
More than any other component, I’m picky about handlebars. After half a dozen failed experiments, I ended up with the Ritchey EvoCurve handlebar on both my Ritchey Road Logic and my CAADX Shred Sled. That meant that when I’d had enough of the handlebar that came on the Diverge, I had a pretty good idea where to begin.
Like the road-going EvoCurve, the Butano has a thick, subtly backswept top section, a short reach and shallow drop, and a gentle curve that pairs comfortably with either SRAM or Shimano levers. The Butano, however, also has a 12 degree flare in the drops that helps give a little bit of extra control in rougher terrain.
Similar to road tyres, gravel bars are going through a renaissance, taking them ever wider. The Butanos aren’t super-progressive like some bars out there, but for me, they’re very comfortable. If or when I make the leap to an even wider, more comically flared bar in years to come, I’m sure I’ll look to Ritchey for those as well.
More info: RitcheyLogic.com
Brian Phillips – Impossible Owls
This isn’t in any way a bike thing, but I write about bikes and at least half of that equation – probably more, seeing as the bikes are often incidental – is ‘writing’.
That’s why this book of essays by the incomparable Brian Phillips gets the nod, because it inspires me to be better at my job.
Phillips writes very long-form essays for publications including Grantland, the New Yorker and Slate, and Impossible Owls is a compilation of some of his best. Ostensibly, he’s a sports and culture writer, but that doesn’t really do it justice. ‘Out in the Great Alone’, a 60 page feature he wrote covering the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, tells the story of an event, but really is about the people, the landscape and the yawning emptiness. ‘Sea of Crises’ is about sumo wrestling, but it’s also about a personal breakdown and a failed coup. But my favourite story here is ‘The Little Gray Wolf Will Come’, which is the most beautiful, crushing story you’ll ever read about the unreleased masterpiece of a Russian animator with a cult following.
You can find most of these essays online in various forms, but if you like beautiful words put expertly together, I really don’t think you’ll regret buying the book.
Price: US$16 or whatever your local bookstore and/or Jeff Bezos wants for it.
More info: Macmillan.com
Selle SMP Drakon saddle
Over the years I’ve spent endless hours coming up with stupid nicknames for saddle sores (‘bum plums’) and genital numbness (‘fruit tingles’), but really, I needn’t have bothered. I’ve got an SMP Drakon on my road bike, and unlike any other saddle I’ve used, it gives me neither plums nor tingles. All that wordplay, wasted.
I tried an SMP Dynamic first, which is the same shape with a bit less padding, and didn’t get along with it. I’m glad I persisted with the brand and put in the time dialling the position when I got the Drakon, because it manages to do what no other saddle has done for me – it disappears.
I don’t know what the Drakon weighs and I’m not taking it off to check because it was a pain to get the position sorted, but I suspect it’s probably not all that flattering on the scales. It’s also a weird-looking, ultra-Euro bit of leather, nylon and stainless steel with a funny little ribbon hanging off the back of it, which the superficial side of me finds a little grating.
The pragmatic side of me doesn’t care, because when I’m riding it, it’s invisible.
More info: sellesmp.com
SRAM Force 1x groupset
I’ve been proudly on Team Two-By for as long as I’ve been riding gravel, and until this year I had never considered that I’d change my mind. After all, front derailleurs are pretty great these days, and for the hilly terrain near my house I found (find?) a 1x groupset a compromise, either in range or in the jumps between gears. So when it came time to spec a Ritchey Outback Breakaway, I surprised myself by opting for SRAM’s venerable Force 1x groupset.
I like SRAM’s mechanical gearing a lot – the crisp tactility of the shifts, the flap-free brake levers. But despite my staunch pro-front-derailleur stance, there’s something to be said for the simplicity of a single gear cable on a travel-gravel bike, which helped guide my choice of 1x in this case.
I had been able to see the appeal of a 1x groupset for CX racing, and for ease of maintenance on big adventures, but my riding generally blurs the lines between road and gravel and a single chainring never cut it for that. But what I use the Outback for at the moment doesn’t really fall into any of those scenarios. It’s more meditative, and a single chainring and 11 gears is a hassle-free complement, with excellent lever ergonomics and my favourite drop-bar hydraulic brake feel.
Is it perfect? Yes, and no. I sometimes find that the gaps between gears are too big, but on that particular bike I don’t care. I just slow down a little bit and stretch the meditation out a little longer. Life in 2020 is pretty goddamn complicated, but when I ride that bike – thanks in part to the Force 1x groupset – it feels more manageable.
Price: Varies, but in the vicinity of AU$2,000
More info: Sram.com
Le Creuset cast iron casserole dish
One of the upsides of all the time spent at home this year was that I became a better cook. The key cooking implement I used was a Le Creuset casserole dish which was the vessel for experiments in lamb shanks, beef cheeks, brisket and roast chicken.
I wouldn’t for a second suggest you need to spend hundreds on legacy cookware – we certainly didn’t (it was a very generous birthday gift that my wife received a few years back). But we have one, and it’s great, and very red. You should totally go and buy an off-brand rip-off for 10% of the price.
More info: LeCreuset.com
Topeak JoeBlow Ace DX floor pump
The last great floor pump I loved met a tragic end and was the subject of a sad story. I still have that silver Giyo in the garage, and because I’m oversentimental when it comes to possessions, I probably always will. But for absolute function, the Topeak JoeBlow Ace DX that replaced it is by far the best floor pump I’ve ever used.
The details on this pump are superbly thought through. The head is fully-metal and bulletproof, adapting automatically between presta and schrader valves. The whole thing is long enough that if you’re tallish, like I am, you don’t get a sore back from bending over. There are two barrels and a selector on the handle so you can switch between them, giving you maximum volume at low pressures and thus allowing you to seat many tubeless tyres, while also allowing you to inflate up to 260PSI (not that there’s ever any reason to get that far into triple digits these days).
It’s a big, beefy and durable pump that’s not cheap but seems like great value. I’m sure it’ll have a story worth telling when it conks out some time in the 2030s.
More info: Topeak.com
Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite TLR tyres
My roadie is an unusual machine in 2020 because it’s a steel road bike with rim brakes, and clearance for 32mm tyres. That’s a luscious combination of things, though.
Being able to run chubby tyres in that bike makes it both more comfortable and more capable, and this year I’ve been using Bontrager’s R3 Hard-Case Lite TLR road tyres. The tyres are tubeless-ready but my rims aren’t, so I’m running them with tubes inside like an absolute heathen. I haven’t had any flats, though, so I can’t truthfully say it bothers me as much as it maybe should.
Most of the time this year I rode gravel bikes, but the road bike got a solid workout for a month or two in the spring. The R3 tyres felt quick and supple enough, were nicely grippy and handled the gravel roads and light singletrack I threw at them without complaint. I don’t know how they stack up against the competition, but I like them very much.
More info: Bontrager.com
Christian Lee Hutson – Beginners
It was a long dark winter, getting darker with each day, and I spent my hour riding through the wet singletrack of the bush near my house. The mud would fly in arcs up onto my shins and in a strip up my back; the cold would bite at the back of my throat. The Christian Lee Hutson album, Beginners, was released in the US summer – and it’d make a great record for long warm nights and golden haze and the smell of fresh-cut lawns. But that isn’t the context it came to me in, so I have the association of it soundtracking a bleak winter.
Hutson’s an American singer-songwriter who’s collaborated with Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Phoebe Bridgers (who produced Beginners, and has had a stellar 2020 of her own). In a way, Beginners is a small album, kind of inconsequential, almost easy listening. But when you sit with it – or ride with it – for an entire season, it has a way of getting under your skin. The third track, Lose This Number, is a perfectly written four minutes of graceful strings, Elliott Smith-esque fingerpicking, warm tones and gentle yearning. The second verse, in its spare, devastating storytelling, bottles the feeling I try to capture in my most personal writing.
In its best moments, Beginners needles its way into your soul, sitting there with a light touch and a heavy weight.
Price: Varies, depending on whether you’re a vinyl, CD, or streaming kind of person. Side note: you should totally see artists live when live music’s allowed, buy merch and support the creative arts.
More info: ChristianLeeHutson.com
- The Wonder Years
- Phoebe Bridgers
- Bright Eyes
- Emma Ruth Rundle
- Pianos Become the Teeth
- Tim Hecker
- Bell Witch
- Taylor Swift