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Tom Marvin’s Gear of the Year 2021

Fancy wheels, a whole range of tyres, safety first and a clean bum

Tom Marvin / BikeRadar

Despite bike and component availability having been pretty limited this year, it hasn’t stopped the bike industry from churning out tons of new bikes.

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It has, therefore, been a hectic year, even if international travel (from a work perspective, at least) has been non-existent.

As befitting my role as a technical editor on BikeRadar and MBUK magazine, I’ve been fortunate to ride with a lot of fresh kit this year.

It’s fallen upon me to kick-off our Gear of the Year series for 2021, so here are some of the items that have stood out as being absolutely top-notch.

Maxxis tyre range

Vitus Escarpe 29 CRS trail mountain bike
Sticky Maxxis Assegai rubber provides brilliant grip on almost all terrain types.
Ian Linton / Immediate Media
  • From £30

My colleagues and I have said it dozens of times, on our YouTube channel, on BikeRadar and on the BikeRadar Podcast, but top-end tyres are one of the few places we would definitely spend top dollar if we had to.

Decent tread, good carcasses and appropriately sticky rubber compounds all play a part in helping you get the most out of your bike. I’d rather spend a hundred quid on a good pair of tyres, than an extra couple of hundred jumping up a rung on the fork damper or drivetrain family ladder, every day of the week.

So, why Maxxis? Well, the brand’s naming convention, though long, is relatively easy to understand, and it feels as though it has a great tyre for every situation.

Starting at the faster end of the scale, the Rekon and Rekon Race are great treads in the summer on a cross-country or downcountry bike. They roll fast, but have enough of a shoulder for confident cornering.

Own brand carbon wheels are wrapped in fast rolling Maxxis rubber
Fast-rolling Maxxis rubber on the Rekon Race.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

On dry, rocky, gnarly tracks, the Assegai is great, especially up-front, and so long as you’re not expecting it to roll fast on tarmac. The Minions, DHF at the front and DHR II at the back, are a classic all-rounder combo, and if you’re riding in the slop, the Shorty is a revelation.

Their triple-compound rubbers are good too, though I’d stay within MaxxTerra and MaxxGrip if you can.

The EXO casing is good on a downcountry bike, the EXO Plus on a trail bike, and DoubleDown on an enduro rig is where I’d be aiming.

Mudhugger Gravelhugger

Lauf True Grit E13 XCX Race Gravel Hugger
The excellent Mudhugger Gravelhugger fender.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • £23

Let’s be honest, nobody likes a wet bum three hours into an eight-hour drizzly epic. A gritty paste working its way through a single layer of lycra isn’t anyone’s recipe for a good time.

My Lauf gravel bike doesn’t have room for full Jack-Luke-spec mudguards, so this zip-tied-on fender is the best I can get.

Sitting around the top of the wheel, it does a good job of protecting me from spray. This means even if the ground is damp, I stay dry, as does any luggage I might be carrying around.

It also prevents rear lights from getting caked in mud, so I stay that little bit more visible when I do venture onto tarmac.

lauf true grit at summit
The Gravelhugger keeping my saddle bag clean and dry.
Tom Marvin / Immediate Media

When it comes to race-focused bikes, such as the True Grit, mudguards do have a bit of an image problem, in that they tend to look a bit crap. While I’m not going to claim the Gravelhugger has improved the aesthetics of my Lauf, all I will say is that I can’t see it when I’m pedalling, so I don’t really care too much.

Fitting the fender is nice and simple, once you’ve applied some protective tape around your seat stays – it just zip-ties on. If you want it a little more removable, Mudhugger will sell you some Velcro straps to make fitting and removing it a touch quicker.

At £23, it’s fairly cheap, and over the course of its life will almost certainly prevent 23 quid’s worth of wear to your bike, kit or nether regions.

Leatt Body Tee AirFlex Stealth

Leatt Body Tee AirFlex Stealth body armour for mountain bikers
The AirFlex (soft impact gel) back and shoulder padding provides Level 1 protection.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  • £189 / $221 / AU$ 334 / €224

I did a mini-test of body protection earlier this year. Usually, I wouldn’t go for such levels of protection, preferring gloves, helmet and knee pads – purely for comfort reasons.

I’d written off torso protection as hot, unwieldy, annoying items of clothing that, with my generally more XC and trail-riding focus, were unnecessary.

But work is work, and I spent a couple of months riding in body protection on almost every ride.

While I didn’t love every item I tested, I came away thinking that additional protection was nothing to be sniffed at (and, once worn, nothing to be sniffed at all…).

While I liked Fox’s Baseframe Pro, it was the Leatt Body Tee AirFlex Stealth that came out on top. Yes, it’s warmer to wear than a baselayer and jersey, but save for a little more sweat, on anything chunkier than a relaxed trail ride I struggle to see many downsides to riding in it.

There’s Level 1 back and shoulder protection that reaches far enough down to offer good spinal protection, while not impinging on your oh-so-enduro bumbag, as well as some chest protection.

Getting it on and off is easy, thanks to a decent-length zip, you can just about wear it comfortably without a baselayer, and there are two stash pockets should you want to ride without a hip pack.

Since the test, I’ve ridden with additional protection much more often, and while it won’t stop every injury, I’d feel like a fool if I did crash and hurt myself when it’s stashed in the van…

Zipp 3ZERO MOTO wheels

Zipp 3ZERO MOTO mountain bike wheelset
Zipp’s fancy carbon wheels proved to be some of my favourites.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media
  •  £670 / $700 / €750 per rim

One of the biggest bits of work I did this year was a wheels group test for BikeRadar and MBUK.

A dozen pairs of wheels take quite a lot of testing. There’s all the workshop stuff to do, including weighing, measuring and stripping down, before you get out riding. Then you’ve got to consider tyres, rotors and cassettes – all of which need swapping from wheel to wheel every time you head out.

As much as I’d love a dozen cassettes, 24 rotors and 24 tyres, I’m not sure my garage has capacity (nor, it seems, does the bike industry’s manufacturing capabilities).

Zipp 3ZERO MOTO mountain bike wheelset
A single-wall rim articulates on the spokes, adding compliance, grip and puncture protection.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Each of the wheels needs riding back to back to back on a multitude of surfaces, in a range of conditions, and with multiple riders and bikes.

It is, as I’m sure you can imagine, quite the undertaking.

So what did I find?

Well, generally speaking, most wheels feel very, very similar. There’s far more variation in feel with a single PSI difference in pressure than there is in £1,000 worth of hoop.

Except in a couple of instances, and the Zipp 3ZERO MOTO wheels were one of those instances.

Thanks to some smart single-wall construction trickery, the wheel rims’ additional flex adds a little extra comfort, a little extra grip and a little extra puncture protection. It’s all pretty marginal, but if you really want some posh carbon hoops, I reckon these are the ones to go for.

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And, if you don’t want posh carbon hoops, Hunt’s low-mid priced Enduro V2 wheels will do an impressively good job for a fraction of the price.