It’s hard to believe that I’m about to put yet another year behind me, one filled with great memories of families and friends, some incredible rides, and as usual, a massive heap of different bikes and gear.
Much of that equipment was good but maybe didn’t blow me away while a few other items were sadly forgettable. Some, however, left such a good impression that I still reach for them whenever I’m not obligated to ride something else. My top picks this year aren’t necessarily the most exciting or the most expensive things – or even new in 2015. But if given the option, this is the stuff I tell my own buddies to buy (and in many cases, have purchased myself).
Campagnolo Super Record groupset
I’m talking about the mechanical group here, folks, not the fancy electronic one. Electronic drivetrains – and especially SRAM’s new wireless Red eTap group – garner all the attention lately but there’s still something about a cable actuated transmission that I dearly love, and this one’s my overall favorite.
To me, Super Record offers the tactile feedback of SRAM Red 22 but a more refined feel, as well as nearly matching Shimano Dura-Ace for precision but with more – for lack of a better descriptor – emotion. It works extremely well, it’s lightweight, it’s proven to be very durable, it runs whisper-quiet, and it’s utterly beautiful to look at.
That it also happens to be outrageously expensive is almost a plus in my book because it’s rare that I ever see anyone else on the road using it. Super Record is far from the most sensible choice when it comes to flagship conventional road drivetrains, but sometimes the things that elicit the most impassioned responses defy conventional logic.
Bontrager Flare R taillight
With an ever-increasing number of riders being hit by drivers and a bright-eyed toddler at home, I’m more focused than ever on safety when I head out the door. The deck is inherently stacked against me so I at least like to try and reverse the odds a bit. If someone’s going to rear-end me, it’s sure as hell not going to because they “didn’t see me.”
Of all the LED taillights on the market, the Bontrager Flare R has emerged as my go-to. It’s wickedly bright – particularly in daylight – easy to transfer between multiple bikes (with additional mounting options for clothing, packs, and helmets), has proven itself to be tough and weather resistant, and yet is still reasonably priced.
I worry about my wife in particular since she often heads out solo and during peak traffic hours. But I rest a little easier as I watch that little red light blinking intently as she disappears way, way, way off in the distance.
Ibis Mojo HD3
Ibis blew me away with its new Mojo HD3 enduro machine, so much so that instead of boxing it up at the end of the test period as usual, I sent Scot Nicol my credit card number. Its dw-link suspension is fantastically competent over a wide range of terrain and yet pedals more efficiently than many dedicated cross-country racers I’ve sampled over the years.
The fit and geometry are exactly what I want from an enduro rig (with the option of slacking it out for lift days), it’s light enough to climb for hours on end (and I normally hate climbing), and I’ve never gotten off of it feeling like I needed more bike. That it’s also pretty to look at is just icing on the cake.
Shimano Dura-Ace and XTR Trail pedals
I ride a lot of different bikes over the course of a year so it’s critical to have some point of stability between them all. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve transferred Shimano Dura-Ace SPD-SL road and XTR Trail mountain bike pedals over the years but they’re still going strong and as faithfully reliable as when they were new.
For sure, there are lighter options than Dura-Ace but they’re hardly heavy. More importantly, the wide bodies keep my feet very stable, they offer a high level of security, the cleats are confidently grippy on a wide range of surfaces (even tile!), the interface is impressively tolerant of light mud and debris, and the bearing system is utterly bombproof (and easy to service when necessary).
Likewise, Shimano’s XTR Trail mountain bike pedals are lightning-quick to engage, confidently secure, and provide a big enough platform that I don’t feel like I’m about to eat it if I unclip in a technical section. The aluminum bodies don’t look nearly as good as they once did but these things have shrugged off every rock strike with just a few scars to show for it, and they still work like new.
Pearl Izumi X-Project 1.0 shoes
While I might reach for something lighter for pure XC rides or something burlier for more abuse-intensive days, my Pearl Izumi X-Project 1.0 shoes have accompanied me more often than not for just about everything in between.
The welded uppers fit well and hold on tight thanks to dual Boa cable reels while plentiful open mesh makes them impressively airy on hot summer days. Their novel carbon plate design is stiff behind the ball of the foot for good pedaling efficiency but surprisingly flexible in the toe for good walking mechanics. Pearl Izumi even fits the heel with just a smidgeon of foam padding to take the sting out of long hike-a-bikes and the fully treaded sole offers ample grip even on wet rocks.
I gave these shoes a thorough workout during the six-day Breck Epic mountain bike stage race. Each day comprised over four hours in the saddle along with some truly ridiculous climbs – like one stage with a 3,000ft hike-a-bike ascent on foot. I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at the fellow racers who were visibly struggling on dainty Italian ballet slippers while I was happily trudging along.
I finished that race a little worse for wear but not once did I think about my feet, which is about the most praise you can heap on a pair of cycling shoes.
Giant Rail helmet
Giant is a newcomer to the trail helmet market but yet its new Rail is the best I’ve used. What impressed me most is its truly incredible ventilation performance, which bests even some high-end road helmets I’ve used thanks to huge external ports, extremely deep internal channeling, and enough airspace around the forehead that sweat rarely drips on to my sunglass lenses even on the hottest of days.
It’s also light, comfortable, and packed with features – but yet in classic Giant fashion, it still manages to be cheaper than most of its competitors.
Smith Pivlock Arena Max sunglasses
I’ve been a diehard Oakley guy for years but Smith may have converted me with the Pivlock Arena Max sunglasses. The frameless design offers up a huge viewing range with no obstructions, and they’re noticeably lighter on my face than most other glasses I’ve used. Lens quality is excellent with superb clarity and almost zero distortion, and there’s a huge range of tints to choose from, too.
I also particularly like the easily adjustable nosepiece and surprisingly secure fit, plus they look pretty good if I do say so myself.
Best of all, the Pivlock Arena Max offers premium features and quality but at a surprisingly reasonable cost. For a lower price than what others offer with just one lens, here you get three but without the decrease in performance I usually note in other higher-value options.
Specialized Atlas knee pads
Bone and rock don’t tend to mix well. The former has grown increasingly tired and weary in my achy old body and there’s plenty of the latter here in Colorado to keep you on your toes.
Recently, I’ve been donning knee pads even on relatively tame days on very familiar trails and the Specialized's Atlas are the best I’ve found so far, at least for everyday rides that involve a lot of pedaling. The rate-sensitive foam padding stays very flexible when on the bike but stiffens up upon impact for more protection. The body construction is more akin to a knee warmer, too, with a snug fit and long upper section that actually stays put.
I recently put these to the test on a trail I ride very regularly when I crashed rather awkwardly and landed directly on a pointy chunk of granite. I didn’t walk away completely unscathed (shin injuries bleed a lot, as it turns out) but with rapidly dropping winter temperatures and a potentially long haul back to the car, I shudder to think about how much worse it could have been had I not been wearing these.
POC Index DH gloves
Mountain bike gloves lead an embarrassingly unforgiving life but yet try as I might, I have yet to kill the POC Index DH. POC intends these for gravity use but I’ve found them so comfortable and versatile that I use them for just about everything.
The rate-sensitive knuckle padding has shrugged off countless brushes with trees and rocks (saving my hands every time in the process), the knit backing is super tough yet still sufficiently breathable in midsummer heat, and the palms have outlasted many sets of grips with nary a sign of wear. The fingertips even work pretty well with smartphone touchscreens and the Velcro wrist closures still hold tight after more than a year of regular use.
I ran into a friend of mine at a local resort and he was immediately envious when he saw me wearing these. They were the only ones he could get to last more than a few weeks but he had unfortunately lost his and couldn’t find any stores that had them in stock. Sorry, Colin, but you can’t have mine.
Skratch drink mix
I first wrote about Skratch drink mix in 2011 when it was still an underground product known as ‘Secret Drink Mix’. Since then, the company has grown in leaps and bounds, making its way not only into countless bike shops but also mainstream stores like Whole Foods.
The formula is incredibly simple but then again, that’s the point. There are no weird ingredients to ‘rot your gut’ as company founder Allen Lim says, the unusually high salt content makes it easy for your body to absorb, and the light flavors taste good because Skratch uses actual fruit powder.
As an added bonus for wintertime riding, the high salt content also significantly reduces the drink’s freezing temperature. I’ve filled non-insulated bottles with the stuff and still had liquid to drink after two-hour nighttime fat bike rides at 20°F while everyone else was lugging around ice cubes.
I couldn’t begin to tell you how many different drink mixes I’ve used over the years but Skratch is one of the only ones I can drink for hours on end with absolutely no ill effects.
Squirt chain lube
This is yet another oldie-but-goodie for me. The challenge to keeping chains lubricated here in Colorado isn’t rain or wet but rather the ultra-fine moon dust that somehow manages to work its way into anything and everything. Wet lubes simply pick up too much grit to work well long-term and most dry lubes just don’t work well, period.
Squirt is a water-based wax emulsion that requires some care to apply (it’s best to start with a totally bare and clean chain) but if you do it right, what you get is a chain that not only runs smoothly and silently but stays surprisingly clean. It’s not the best in wet conditions but it’s fantastic everywhere else. Lab tests have even shown it to be one of the best options in terms of friction.
Forget about the little bottles here; I get this stuff in bulk.