I'm extremely fortunate to test loads of the latest bikes, components and riding kit, and then tell you exactly what I think of them. But I've picked just four of the products that stood out for me this year, whether that be down to their consistent all-round performance or being particularly impressive in some regard.
These picks include a reassuring helmet, uncomplicated grips, reliable brakes and a super-smooth (but flawed) mini downhill bike.
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Bes bike gear of 2018
Fox Proframe helmet
The new breed of lightweight, breathable full-face helmets may not offer quite as much protection as full-on downhill helmets, but that’s missing the point. The Proframe is not meant to replace your downhill helmet; it’s designed to offer substantially more protection than an open-face lid without being unbearable on longer rides.
For me, it suits a lot of my riding. The Proframe is light, comfortable and cool enough to wear on long days in the saddle, yet offers more piece of mind when riding sketchy trails.
It’s a little hotter than an open-face when standing still, but once up to speed the ventilation is seriously impressive.
I haven’t had the chance to review it head-to-head against its main rivals, such as Troy Lee’s Stage or Bell’s Super DH, but it’s only marginally more uncomfortable than many open-face helmets I’ve tested, and offers far more protection.
I also like that you can eat Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers through the hole in the chin-guard.
Specialized Sip Grips
There are a lot of weird grips out there, but I find the simple ones work best. The Specialized Sip has a simple knurled surface with some waffled ribs underneath to give your fingers a little more padding. There’s no distracting details or excessive wobbly parts, so your hand feels nicely connected to the bike, but without being uncomfortably firm.
The lack of an outboard lock-ring allows you to make use of every millimetre of handlebar because you can place your hands right on the edge of the grip. It also means you can hang the grips a few millimetres off the end of the bar to gain a bit more width.
There are two sizes to choose from: 30mm or 32mm diameter. I prefer the 32mm.
I like the simple design so much that I often replace the grips on test bikes with Sip grips to get a better feel for the bike without being distracted by weird grips.
SRAM Guide RE brakes
One of my all-time favourite brakes just happens to be among the cheapest.
Our super-experienced tester, Guy Kesteven, gave these 4.5 stars, and the value award in our annual brake group test last year.
I’ve personally tested six bikes spec’d with these brakes, including downhill bikes, e-bikes and enduro bikes, and they’ve all been faultless. Every set has had consistent lever feel, with a nice short free-stroke and crisp bite-point with every pull of the lever.
That’s not something I can say about many Shimano stoppers I’ve tested recently, and SRAM’s own Guide R brakes are no better from a lever-feel perspective. The Guide RE offers more power and a more consistent, sharper lever feel for a small weight penalty.
Best of all, you can pick them up for as little as £80/ $83.99 / AU$115.99 an end from Tweeks Cycles.
Commencal Supreme SX
This is one of the most interesting bikes I’ve ever ridden. The 180mm-travel high-pivot suspension delivers a totally unique ride characteristic.
There’s virtually no feedback through the pedals even when hammering through the roughest tracks. It out-performed many DH bikes on one of my favourite test tracks (50 shades at Bike Park Wales), delivering less fatigue and faster times than the likes of Specialized’s Demo Alloy or Nukeproof's Pulse Comp. It’s seriously, seriously impressive in the rough.
I even liked how the rear suspension squatted into its travel when braking — a trait which high-single-pivot bikes are often criticised for. By preventing the rear suspension from rising under braking, the head angle doesn’t steepen as much and this allowed me to run the fork softer.
There is a little drag from the idler pulley when pedalling, but not so much as to be utterly demoralising (like a gearbox bike). Pedal-bob is not bad for a bike of this travel either. It’s no XC bike, but it climbs better than you might think. It’s particularly good over bumpy terrain because the suspension is fully active under power.
The rearward axle path means the chainstay gets significantly longer when the rear suspension compresses. This took some getting used to, especially in tight berms, but in fast turns I grew to like this quirk because the longer back-end puts more weight on the front wheel, helping it to grip.
It’s not without its faults, though. The suspension wallows too much for some tracks if run at more than 25 percent sag, but if run with 25 percent or less, the bottom bracket is too high, making it a little awkward in tight turns. At 492mm (XL), the reach is also a bit short for my liking too.
Sadly, my test bike (which had been ridden before I got hold of it) had a pivot bolt work loose and then strip-out when I landed a sizeable drop. This caused the linkage to snap, resulting in a pretty nasty crash.
I asked Commencal to send a second bike to test, but it has so far declined to do so. That’s why I’ve been unable to publish a review of the bike — it broke before I had chance to test it properly or take any pictures of it other than on my phone.
Still, the downhill performance is enough to give the Supreme SX a mention here. Issues aside, it’s one of the most impressive bikes I’ve ever ridden.