It’s been a hell of a year for new ‘stuff’ with major launches from all the big brands – and some genuine surprises too.
On one side there were the technical aero marvels of the Specialized Venge ViAS and new Trek Madone; on another the sublime stripped-down supremacy of Bianchi’s Specialissima and Cannondale’s awesome duo of the new Evo and CAAD12.
On the gear side, SRAM’s exciting and unique eTap wireless groupset has to get a mention, along with the myriad new power meter solutions that came on the market. For my picks however, I've stuck with the stuff that I’ve been using, have kept using, and will keep on using.
SRAM Red 22
Red 22 has been around a while, and with eTap on the radar – not to mention Dura-Ace Di2 and Campagnolo EPS – it stands a chance of becoming the forgotten group. But I love the concept and the way Red goes about its business. It’s the lightest group available in standard form at 1747g; if you opt for the hydraulic rim brakes it adds 104g, but at 1851g complete that’s still lighter than either Record or Dura-Ace 9000.
I wouldn’t say Red is better than EPS or Di2; in fact those electronic groups have the edge in terms of maintenance-free use. But Red for me offers big advantages in itself. The slick shifts (aided by the unique Yaw front derailleur, which laughs in the face of crossed chanciness), light weight, and above all superb braking are compelling reasons for me to ride it, and keep riding it – at least until I can get my hands on eTap for a longer period of time.
Challenge Strada Bianca open tubular
I’ve had Strada Biancas – named for the white chalk and gravel roads that snake through the Chianti region of Tuscany – fitted to my Kinesis Decade Tripster for a year now. As I use that bike mostly up on the gravel and unmetalled military roads of Salisbury Plain, they've been the ideal choice.
Like all Challenge tyres they're handmade, and different to most clinchers. They're made just as you would an expensive tubular, but instead of sewing them to a base tape with an inner tube inside the clincher version has a light flexible aramid wire bonded to the tyres with the edges rolled to cover the aramid and create the bead. They're not the lightest, but with huge volume and a fantastically supple casing they make for a ride with hovercraft-like smoothness, backed with a gummy surface and decent tread adding limpet grip in corners.
Fizik R5B shoes
I’ve always liked Fizik's style with their shoes, but early shoes had an idiosyncratic fit that didn’t suit everyone. The R5B is the base-model in its road shoe line-up, but still features the brilliant BOA IP1 closure system – and looks classy as hell.
Those looks have worn well, the fit remains wonderful and adjustment is slick and easy. You can find stiffer, and lighter ‘race’ shoes at a much higher price, including the stunning-looking 2016 flagship Fizik R1s but you’d be hard-pushed to find a nicer shoe for fast endurance rides at anything close to this price.
Zipp 404 Firestrike Clincher Limited
The original 404 Firecrest heralded a revolution in wheel design: it was first to adopt a wider rim and a blunted aero shape. I for one was a big fan using them pretty much as everyday wheels. With rivals playing catchup, Zipp further developed the Firecrest shape and produced the new Firestrike in the hope of raising the bar even higher.
New internals in both hubs mean that the bearings are precision-set for pre-load, so unlike the older hub design I’ve had to make no adjustments to the full ceramic bearings. Braking performance also improves on the Firecrest's carbon-track benchmark. Across the full gamut of British seasons it's been nothing short of sensational: noise- and grab-free, and impressively consistent on crappy wet days. Windy-day performance is manageable, the rigidity makes high-speed cornering assured and fun and, speaking of speed, on the flat they hold onto it with incredible tenacity.
Gemini Iris light
The small dimensions of the Iris hide a triple-LED equipped lens that packs some serious punch – a claimed 200 lumens. On the full 100% power mode it’s almost too much, but thankfully the four modes offer varying brightness and flash or pulse. Battery life is excellent (on pulse mode it’ll run for more than 20 hours) so charge intervals aren’t that regular and the power switch shows battery level too.
Cannondale Cypher helmet
The newly updated Cypher helmet is a similar shape to the previous model, which I really liked for both the shape and fit (not to mention the modest price tag). On the new one however, Cannonade has improved the retention system and upgraded the straps; there's also more hardshell coverage of the EPS foam core to keep it better protected from accidental damage. For good measure, a neat clip-on aero shell is included, making this even better value than before.
Skratch Labs lime and matcha energy drink
Skratch Labs' latest fuel is a little different to your average overly sweet bottle powders. The lime flavour has citrus sharpness, while the matcha gives it a green tea mellowness. Its easy to swallow, great-tasting and works well. I’ve just finished off a kilo bag of it and will definitely be ordering more.
Fox Wilson Camden jacket
The Camden jacket is handmade in the UK and styled like a classic Harrington. The use of highly weather- and abrasion-resistant C-Change Schoeller fabric makes this a superb round town-riding jacket, and one that looks good off the bike too. Super-subtle reflective piping trim adds an element of on-road safety with the storm zips, magnetic-clasp hip pockets and long merino cuffs (with integrated thumb loops) adding up to a blend of true performance and stylish good looks. It doesn’t cost the earth, either.