After riding more bikes and kit this year than most people will get the chance to in their lives, I've learned a great deal and feel incredibly fortunate. Despite this, I've never pulled any punches when it comes to passing judgement, and when something could be improved, I will say so.
There have been five products this year that have genuinely impressed me with their performance and their value for money. Some are still far from cheap, and none of them are exactly perfect, but if perfect products existed, I'd be out of a job. These are simply really well designed, well made items that perform exceptionally well for how much they cost. In short, of all the gear I've tested this year, they're the bits i would most heartily recommend buying.
Fox Float DPS EVOL shock
Bolting this to my long-term bike (Focus SAM 3.0) was the single best upgrade I made all year.
The DPS (dual piston system) damper certainly was part of this. It offers a super-efficient lockout, a handy medium mode for technical climbs, and (best of all) three more settings within the open mode.
While many shocks are under-supported in the open mode, the DPS allows the required level of compression damping to be selected, and can easily be changed to suit a particular trail. The EVOL spring is the main advantage, though.
By oversizing the negative spring, Fox has made it suppler off the top for more traction and calmer rebound manners, while ramping up smoothly after the sag point for increased mid-stroke support and less wallow.
Whether it’s Fox’s EVOL, or RockShox’ Debonair, bigger negative springs are, in my humble opinion, the most important recent step forward for air-sprung suspension.
Stan's Bravo Team Wheelset
Using carbon tech developed with the Athertons, the Bravo’s wide but shallow rim is designed to be (cliché alert) laterally stiff, yet vertically compliant - a phrase I treat with a healthy dollop of scepticism.
Although light at 1630g, I couldn’t feel them flexing much despite really hard cornering loads, and I measured the stiffness too, finding them to be among the sturdiest wheels I’ve tested. As for the vertical compliance, we rode them back-to-back with a benchmark DT Swiss E1700 wheelset, using the same tyres and pressures. The Bravos transmitted noticeably less feedback through the bars, resulting in reduced hand-pain after each run. I was sceptical at first, but this in-built vertical give (dubbed ‘RiACT’) appreciably improves comfort. It’s claimed to reduce the chances of puncturing too – incredibly, I suffered none throughout testing.
At 26.6mm internally, the rims are moderately wide, but the short bead-socket gives a nicely rounded tyre-profile for predictable cornering grip, and secured our tyres with minimal squirm and no burping. After weeks of rocky riding, including racing the Finale Ligure EWS, they remain impressively straight, with no visible damage to the rims despite regularly whacking them on rocks at low pressures.
The bearings remain smooth, though I did manage to damage the XD driver. A replacement has survived deliberately brutal pedal-punching abuse without the issue repeating so far. Besides, the wheels come with a two-year warranty.
Available in all current axle/wheel combinations, they offer otherwise sublime performance to all who can afford them. Stiff yet comfortable, light yet tough: barring that possible freehub issue, I’d argue that these are as close as it gets to the ideal enduro wheelset.
There is a more expensive Pro version available, which uses triple-butted (rather than double-butted) Sapim spokes, making them even lighter at 1566g on our scales. They also feature a super-responsive five-degree freehub engagement, but I’m more than happy with the 10-degree pickup offered by the Teams, as the extra play reduces chain feedback on pedal-efficient bikes.
Despite the carbon and Kashima exotica on display above, we really do love a bargain here at BikeRadar. Especially in this case, given that I bought this beauty with my own hard-earned cash.
Despite the low price, I’ve been consistently impressed with the footage it generates, and so have our highly discerning video team. Able to capture 1080p quality footage at 30 frames per second, or 720p at 60FPS for those slow-mo shots, it’s more than adequate for most people’s needs.
GoPro describes the low-light performance as ‘consumer grade’, but the auto low-light mode has generally kept things clear, even in the deep dark woods where I do most of my riding.
Specialized Butcher Grid tyre
I’ve been consistently impressed with the Control casing Butcher, stocked on many Specialized test bikes, but the sturdier and tackier Grid version is a real revelation.
The thicker casing and seriously tacky 42a tread slow down the tyre’s rebound from bumps, keeping the tyre planted to the trail (known as damping). The soft, cleated blocks stick to wet rocks pretty well too, and the stiff sidewall also supports the tyre when cornering hard, allowing for softer pressures as a result.
The fairly short, spaced-out tread clears mud really effectively for an all-conditions tyre, and purposeful, gappy shoulder lugs bite hard in the loose corners. When back-to-back testing against Schwalbe’s Nobby Nic, the extra cornering bite from the Butcher was marked, particularly on a set of greasy, off-camber turns which we repeated three times on each tyre.
We wish there was a higher-volume version for rockier trails, but it’s a superb year-round UK front tyre and great on the rear in muddier conditions too. At this price, it’s hard to fault.
100% Brisker gloves
Fit will always be somewhat personal, but when comparing directly against many other winter gloves, the Brisker’s snug fit and comfort put them on top for me. The thin, precurved palm didn’t bunch up and gave a really direct, sensitive feel on the grips and brakes.
Meanwhile, the softshell upper keeps them cosy even on cold and wet rides, yet they remain beautifully dexterous and tactile whether riding hard, or sending a text. The palm is also very grippy, even when sodden. The low price is just a bonus.