10 products I loved in 2022: James Huang
What a year it's been.
What a year it's been.
2022 has certainly had its shares of ups and downs, but bikes have once again provided me with a reassuring constant. Feeling a little burned out? Go for a ride. Feeling antsy? Go for a ride. Need to blow off some steam? You get the point. To be clear, I don’t believe that riding actually fixes anything, but it at least can provide a moment of clarity to help you sort things out.
To that end, gear still serves the same role for me as it always has.
Without question, the shiny and new stuff is fun – it’s shiny and new, after all. But it’s once the novelty wears off that you learn something’s true worth. If you’re a competitive rider, that could mean wheels that consistently help you go faster once the placebo effect has worn off. Or maybe you care more about tire longevity to get you through a season without flatting. Perhaps you’re a hardcore bikepacker and yearning for some new bags with a bit more capacity?
You get my point: every cyclist’s wants and needs are different.
For me, I want that feeling of speed when on the road, but capability when on trails. It’s clothing that keeps me comfortable. It’s stuff that lets me ride longer without feeling like I’ve gone ten rounds. Parts that are high performance, but not so cutting-edge that they need constant attention. Stuff that I just don’t have to think about since my mind these days is so full of other clutter.
Aside from that, there’s no real rhyme or reason to my list this year. Some of it’s new; some of it not so much. But it’s all stuff that’s either already kept me happy for years or very likely will, and that’s just fine with me.
I remember building up a new mountain bike with Shimano Deore XT components more than twenty years ago and thinking to myself that it was all I’d ever need: light enough, excellent performance, reasonably affordable, looks great. As it turns out, those characteristics are still important to me, and Shimano has continued to stand by them for its workhorse premium mountain bike group.
While I do still love Shimano’s now-discontinued single-sided PD-A600 pedals for mixed-terrain rides that are mostly on tarmac, the dual-sided XT pedals are a no-brainer for more off-road jaunts. They’re stable underfoot (at least with stiff-soled shoes), the bearings are outstanding, the release and engagement are positive and consistent, cleats last forever, they’re quiet, and they have just enough float for my needs. They may be a bit heavier than XTR and have a taller stack height, but they’re also a fraction of the cost and so close in performance that most people wouldn’t notice the difference.
Best of all, they’re practically indestructible, and incredibly easy to service if and when they actually need some fresh grease.
If you can think of any real downsides, leave them in the comments because I certainly haven’t come up with any.
Price: US$125 / AU$200 / £100 / €TBC
More information: bike.shimano.com
I sadly don’t own a BMC URS, but I’ve been fortunate to ride at least four different samples for extended periods of time over the years and it still impresses me every time. Although it may be an aging platform – I’d expect a replacement within a year – the geometry was so forward-thinking when it was introduced in 2019 that it’s still on the cutting edge even today.
I ultimately consider myself a mountain biker at heart despite spending an inordinate amount of time behind drop bars, and the URS’s progressive geometry sure appeals to that side of me. The long reach and generous trail dimensions let me push the front tire on technical terrain, while the seemingly minimal 10 mm of rear suspension travel takes the edge off without sapping pedaling power.
Clearance could be a bit more generous (and I’m guessing it will be), but assuming you’re not pushing the limits of the 700×45 mm tires too much, the URS is the veritable rally-car-in-bike-form that I enjoy so much. It’s fast just about everywhere, while still being decently light, good-looking, and versatile.
Lots of brands have since followed suit with this sort of handling philosophy since the debut of the URS, but the BMC is still the one that stands out in my head, and it’s truly been that rare groundbreaker that genuinely moves the needle.
More information: bmc-switzerland.com
I absolutely love fabric technology – so much so that even though I already included a Polartec Alpha garment in my 2020 list, I’m now featuring the fabric itself this time around.
The more I use Polartec Alpha, the more amazed I am by how warm it is. It’s remarkably good at trapping air – the key to good insulation performance – and since the lofted design is more air than fabric when you’re wearing it, it hardly weighs anything. Even better, it’s impressively breathable, it retains very little moisture, and rarely feels wet even on days I’m grossly overdressed.
The compressibility isn’t amazing and the seemingly delicate construction does warrant a bit of extra TLC to be safe, but years of experience with Polartec Alpha has nevertheless proven it to be very durable in terms of day-to-day wear and washings. And clothing brands, take note: Polartec offers Alpha in 100% and 50% recycled versions these days, too.
Polartec Alpha wasn’t all that common in the cycling world just a couple of years ago, but there are a lot more options now. That Velocio 3-in-1 jacket I covered in 2020 is still one of my favorites for truly frigid road rides, but one of my favorites for more variable conditions has been Ornot’s Trail Magic Jacket, which features a zip-out Alpha vest and Polartec NeoShell outer (with a hood!). It’s fantastic.
More information: www.polartec.com
I am generally not one to chase every marginal gain in the name of speed, particularly aerodynamic gains that come at the expense of more visceral performance traits. In other words, while I love the idea of going faster (without having to put in more work), I’m not always as willing to give up other things to get there.
Case in point? Aero helmets. Although they’re one of the most cost-effective ways to more efficiently slice through the air, they’re also often hot and tangibly heavy. That’s not the case with the Giro Eclipse Spherical, though. It’s supposedly the most aerodynamic road helmet the company has produced to date, but what I enjoy more is that it’s just a great helmet, period. The excellent ventilation is suitable for all but the absolute hottest of days and steepest of climbs, it’s reasonably light at well under 300 g for a CPSC-approved medium size, it incorporates the latest safety tech, it’s super comfy, the sweat management is superb, and it even looks good.
And although it’s hardly a bargain, it’s still less expensive than much of the competition.
Price: US$250 / AU$430 / £240 / €260
More information: www.giro.com
Gravel tires are just as region- and location-specific as mountain bike ones, and while Steamboat Springs, Colorado may tout itself as the haven for “champagne gravel”, the stuff I have here in Boulder may as well be described as sparkling wine – different in name only. A lot of our “gravel” roads are more akin to hardpacked dirt, and while the surface can sometimes be brutally washboarded, they’re generally well-maintained and can often be smoother and faster than the tarmac that runs nearby.
For mixed-terrain rides that stick to paved and unpaved roads, the Schwalbe G-One RS has become my tire of choice.
The casing is unusually pliable, rivaling many of the nicer road tires I’ve used in terms of suppleness, ride quality, and road feel. The micro-sawtooth center tread rolls fast and quiet, and provides a surprising amount of drive and braking traction. And when you toss the G-One RS into a corner, the modest shoulder tread has just enough knob to lend confidence on the loose dust and sand that commonly sits on top of that lovely hardpack.
It’s not the longest-lasting tire by any stretch, and riders with more generous helpings of roadside detritus, thorns, and goatheads will want to make sure their sealant is up to snuff. But holy crap, are these things fun (and fast!) to ride.
Price: US$88 / AU$107 / £75 / €73
More information: www.schwalbetires.com
Look, I get it: suspension seatposts are dorky. But good ones are also highly effective, and as far as gravel options go, the Cane Creek eeSilk+ is my hands-down favorite.
The scant 30 mm of travel doesn’t sound like much, but you only realize how much comfort it provides when you switch back to a rigid post. The benefit isn’t just comfort, either; I find I’m able to stay seated and continue to apply power more consistently than I I would otherwise, so although it’s additional weight compared to a non-suspended post, I’m still going faster than I would without one.
The movement is also pleasantly muted (assuming you have it tuned correctly), the pivots have never creaked on me or developed any play, and although it’s not the most elegant thing visually, it’s impressively light and decently priced. I could sometimes do without the change in saddle setback (and the adjustment in my saddle position) that goes along with the eeSilk+’s parallelogram linkage geometry, but in all honesty, it’s a small price to pay for what it gives in return. I dig it.
Price: US$320 / AU$631 / £330 / €400 (for the fancy carbon fiber version; the aluminum one is a fair bit less expensive)
More information: www.canecreek.com
I’ll be the first to admit that the whole longer-lower-slacker trend currently dominating mountain bike development isn’t the best for everyone. However, it does make a lot of sense for where I like to ride. The downhills tend to be steep and chunky, and the corners aren’t super tight so the speeds are often pretty high. But the dearth of big features prioritizes good frame geometry over the amount of suspension travel, so calming down the handling and pushing the front wheel further out is a good way of keeping the rubber side down.
To that end, I’ve been a big fan of angle-adjusting headsets from Works Components. Although they’re hardly the only brand to offer such a thing (I believe Cane Creek deserves the honor for that innovation), the UK company offers a staggering array of sizes and fitments – not to mention colors – and I’ve been consistently impressed by the four I’ve purchased to date. The bearings have held up well, they run quietly, and they also install without any issues.
The pricing is totally fair, too, so safe to say there will almost certainly be a fifth in my future.
Price: £55 (pricing for other regions varies by exchange rates)
More information: www.workscomponents.co.uk
Along with that longer-lower-slacker trend I mentioned above, rear hubs have been steadily moving toward faster freehub engagement. Although there are some legitimate concerns with how that can affect rear suspension performance, faster freehub engagement has been a perfect pairing with my love of technical climbs.
But do you know what I can do without? THE NOISE.
Those progressively finer ratchet teeth usually come with a concurrent increase in buzziness, and while I’ve mostly been willing to deal with that compromise, what I love even more than a quick rear hub is silence, which is why I’ve been smitten with the latest M-Pulse hubs from Stan’s NoTubes.
M-Pulse was developed in cooperation with Canadian brand Project321. It uses a traditional pawl layout, but with magnets that pull the engagement bits together instead of steel coil or leaf springs that push. Magnets are always fun and neat, of course, but the real benefit here lies in the unique force curve of magnetic attraction: it’s strongest when the parts are closest together, but drops off dramatically with distance.
So what does that mean in practice? Despite the speedy 1.66° engagement that the fine teeth and offset pawl setup provides, these suckers are quiet – not totally quiet, mind you, but more of a background hum than a screaming swarm of hornets.
Bonus points for the Enduro cartridge bearings with adjustable preload, low weight, and Project321’s proven reliability record.
Price: Varies with wheel model
More information: www.notubes.com
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an affinity toward things that were elegantly compact. Why use more material or take up more volume than absolutely necessary? When it comes to CO2 inflator heads, the Specialized SWAT Mini CO2 head is the smallest I’ve found while giving up nothing to similar widgets that serve the same purpose.
Surely there are downsides, no? Well, the Mini CO2 head takes up so little room in my saddle pack that it can almost get lost in there, and screwing it on enough to pierce the CO2 cartridge can sometimes require some decent finger strength.
There’s also the small issue that while some online retailers still seem to have these in stock, Specialized appears to have discontinued the Mini CO2 head (at least in certain markets). That doesn’t make me love it any less, though. Instead, it just means I covet it even more (and Dave Rome apparently feels the same way given he made a fancy 3D-printed mount for his).
Price: US$12 / AU$15 / £10 / €TBC (if you can find it)
More information: www.specialized.com
There are lots of choices for tubeless repair kits, but there’s only one Dynaplug. As much as I love bacon strips, there’s simply nothing else that’s as easy to use or works as well. Among Dynaplug’s broad array of kits, the Air is arguably the fastest to deploy, or at least the most comprehensive option since the plug and inflator functions are bundled into a single device.
To use the Dynaplug Air, you merely fully twist the head on to the CO2 cartridge, remove the protective cap, jab the plug into the hole, unscrew the cartridge slightly to add pressure, and then pull out the tool (leaving the plug behind). It literally took me longer to type that sentence than it does to actually use the thing.
As pretty as the anodized aluminum construction is (there are color options!), the Dynaplug Air is unfortunately kind of ugly cost-wise. But when it comes to tubeless tires and punctures, time is of the essence. If you consider the old adage, “time is money”, well, maybe this thing isn’t as expensive as it seems after all.
Price: US$75 / AU$110 / £60 / €75
More information: www.dynaplug.com