The products mentioned in this article are selected or reviewed independently by our journalists. When you buy through links on our site we may earn an affiliate commission, but this never influences our opinion.

Sam Challis’s Gear of the Year 2021

Sam has gone off the beaten track this year. Not too far, though

Sam Challis author bio

This type of article tends to necessitate a degree of reflection I wouldn’t ordinarily take the time to fully explore, and this year it has clarified some distinct shifts in my riding behaviour.


I didn’t recognise that any changes were being made at the time and they come as something of a surprise given the relative monotony since the pandemic began.

Comparing now to this time last year though, what, where and how I ride has developed considerably.

I’m a road rider at heart, but I’ve taken to gravel riding more and more this year as a way to reinvigorate the time I get to spend in the saddle. It adds variety and spontaneity in a way that the road simply can no longer match, given the limited time/distance my personal life allows me to cover at any one time.

As such, my list for our 2021 Gear of the Year series reflects that. It is dominated by gravel products, where once road would have ruled the roost.

I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten too lost in the woods though. Scratch the surface of my picks and you’ll see their roadie influence. The carbon soles, the deep rims and the Lycra is all still there, just with a little extra versatility sprinkled on top.

I’ve heard it said that versatility permits variety, and as that’s the spice of life I’m pretty happy with where that leaves me in 2021. Roll on the new year.

Shimano RX8 shoes

Shimano RX8 shoes in silver
Light and stiff, but hardy and comfy: the Shimano RX8 shoes are my go-to pair for gravel.
Sam Challis / Immediate Media
  • £219.99 / €229.99 / $260 / AU$377

When the RX8s were released, it was initially a struggle for me to see where they would fit in between Shimano’s road and mountain bike shoes.

Shimano says it looked to combine elements of each, to get a versatile best of both worlds.

In theory, that seemed fair enough because the entire gravel genre is an in-betweeny mash-up of riding styles and technologies, but I was still sceptical about their validity in practice.

I’ve used the RX8s more than ever this year, and in the time I’ve had them I’ve gone from viewing them as potentially not really necessary to indispensable.

Most importantly, they fit my feet brilliantly and stay comfy no matter how long I’m riding for. I know that’s subjective, but I think the secure heel hold and wide toe box should suit plenty of other riders too.

If I had to nitpick, I’d suggest the tread at the forefoot, while it supports a solid connection with the pedal body, is a little narrow.

Overall though, I think Shimano has really nailed an appropriate balance of features. At 582g for a pair of size 43s, they are top-end road-shoe light, but the robust upper and sole tread pattern make them way more suited to off-road riding.

Giro Aether Spherical helmet

Giro Aether helmet black
The Giro Aether Spherical is light, airy and looks good too.
Sam Challis / Immediate Media
  • £289.99 / €300.00 / $350.00 / AU$445

The Aether was the first helmet on the market to introduce the Spherical version of MIPS’ safety mechanism.

Fortunately, I can’t comment with any first-hand experience on whether the new design is any more effective than a conventional MIPS system, but I do know it has scored well in independent safety testing.

More superficially, it just seems like a sophisticated way to build in extra protection, and despite the Aether being the first to do it, I still think it’s the best application of the concept.

Away from the Aether’s core function, it scores highly for me in other attributes too. It’s pretty light at around 250g for a size medium and keeps my head, even under a serious amount of curly locks, cool on hot days.

Its compact shape is elegant and stylish too, which for someone who cares a lot about looking good – to cover up for not being that fast – is a very important factor.

This year, the Aether has invariably been the one helmet I default to wearing when I’m not professionally obliged to wear another, which I think speaks for how highly I rate it.

Rapha Core Cargo bib shorts

  • £95 / €115 / $130 / AU$165

I’m a fan of the bib-short bottom, T-shirt top look while gravel riding (which definitely has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve got moderately muscular legs but a bit of a beer belly), so I often notice the lack of storage space without the rear pockets of a regular jersey to use.

For most rides, on-bike storage doesn’t appeal to me. I despise bar bags (they look ungainly and there is not a design in the world that doesn’t rattle) and I often find top tube bags scuff my knees when I’m out of the saddle.

So this year more than ever, I’ve taken to using cargo bib shorts. Their extra pockets get me back the storage space lost by ditching the jersey and make the ride essentials I pack easier to access to boot.

Rapha’s Core Cargo bib shorts are a great example of the genre. They are essentially the brand’s Core bib shorts with some mesh pockets on the thighs and back, and are all the better for it.

The Core shorts don’t use any fancy fabrics or technologies, but just do the simple things well. They are comfy, robust, practical and look pretty classy too. That they are comparatively cheap is the icing on the cake.

Squirt chain lube

Squirt chain lube bottle
Squirt’s ‘slack wax’ chain lube seems long-lasting and keeps my chain clean, while also being easy to apply.
Sam Challis / Immediate Media
  •  £12.99 / €13 / $12 / AU$20 (120ml)

Squirt is a ‘slack wax’ lube that I’ve used for a couple of years. Essentially, it’s a diluted, runnier form of the hot-melt waxes considered as the gold standard in terms of drivetrain efficiency and wear.

Slack waxes are said to provide many of the same benefits, although not quite to the same degree.

I’m lazy, so I’ll take it not being as good as immersion waxing because it is just so damn easy to apply. I have found, though, that you need to make sure it penetrates the chain properly by giving each link a little bend and rub. It sounds like a pain to do, but I actually find it oddly therapeutic.

I’ll admit to having done precisely zero quantitative testing to support my opinion, but in my experience I like it because it lasts a long time – that is, my drivetrain seems to run smoothly and quietly for a good while post-application – yet doesn’t pick up crud, so my chain, sprockets and chainring (singular, I like 1x) tend to stay pretty clean.

You don’t need to fully strip it off every time either: as it solidifies into wax on the chain, a stern brushing with a cassette brush clears most debris off, so then you just wash your bike and reapply.

DT Swiss GRC 1400 Spline 42 wheels

DT Swiss GRC wheel in bike
DT Swiss’ GRC 1400 Spline 42 wheels are just what I’m looking for: tough enough for off-road but fast enough on-road too.
Sam Challis / Immediate Media
  • £1,864.98 / €1,958 / $2,438

Aero is everything and everywhere, so it’s no surprise that it is being taken seriously in gravel now too.

DT Swiss was one of the first to consider it for gravel in fact, releasing these GRC wheels back in 2019.

I liked the wheels initially and that fondness has only grown the more I have used them. That’s perhaps surprising because I think what was their original USP – aerodynamic efficiency for gravel – isn’t their most successful attribute.

Off-road, with realistic tyre sizes at realistic speeds, I simply can’t see how the wheels offer a meaningful aerodynamic advantage in most gravel applications, and DT Swiss’ own test data essentially confirms that.

However, other facets of their design more than make up for that. They are wide enough to nicely support big tyres at low pressures, and thanks in part to their deeper-than-usual rim feel, stiff enough to give a punchy response to surges of effort.

What’s more, they are light enough to pass as excellent road wheels and work superbly on tarmac, with hookless-compatible 30mm slicks, where I think their deeper rim may actually provide some aerodynamic benefit.


It is unusual to find a wheelset that works so well in several guises, which is where I think the GRCs’ true brilliance lies.