Yes, it’s been a challenging year – but at least we’ve had bikes (and new bike bits) to keep our spirits up.
Like many bike journos, I decided to compile a top 10 products for the year, except mine’s better because it goes up to 11.
Rock Shox Zeb Ultimate
It’s common to hear people saying that modern enduro bikes are just as capable as older freeride, or even DH bikes. But despite being longer, lower and slacker and having very nearly as much travel – I’ve still found they lack the authority I remember from my old big bikes.
So the launch of the Zeb had me intrigued (yes, I know the Fox 38 came out first, but I can’t afford one of them). And despite reports of “too much stiffness” from some quarters, I’ve found the Zeb has done exactly what I hoped and almost didn’t dare to expect.
Just like my old Totem or Marz 66, it’s made my big bike feel like it has power steering, compared to the Lyrik that was on it before.
It also holds the bike up beautifully, carves a line across wet roots like a hot knife through butter and has 190mm of travel. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Superstar Slackeriser -2deg headset
Bike brands have been going longer with frame geometry for a few years now – and some have even been putting short-ish seat tubes on their bikes to allow stumpy-legged specimens like myself to size up.
Slacker head angles have taken them a bit longer though, so – if used wisely – angle-adjust headsets can bring a few-years-old bike bang up to date.
Superstar’s offering cost me £35 In a sale, though it’s still good value at the usual £50. It’s nicely made and well-sealed and also has the benefit of steepening up the seat angle at the same time.
Oh, and it was easy to install with a rubber mallet and a dab of grease.
Orange Stage 4
I bought this frame secondhand at the start of the year and it was the recipient of the above headset.
During lockdown v1, the Stage 4 was perfect for the 40-minute pedal over to the local hill – where I could then do another couple of hours riding it still not feel like a chore to ride home.
Sprightly, engaging and rewarding, it’s the perfect #shorttravelshredsled for me – and when it gets up to speed it’s one of the most fun bikes I’ve ridden.
Sunrace CSMX9X 11-speed 10-46t XD cassette
I made the decision to stick with 11-speed drivetrains across my MTBs earlier this year, both for ease of wheel-swapping and for reasons of economy.
This obscure Sunrace cassette has been a godsend, giving me just enough useable range for all of my MTB needs – paired with either a 28t or 30t chainring depending on which bike I’m riding.
It’s proved durable and reliable so far and the shifting quality is nice and solid. It also works fine with my Shimano 11-speed mechs – which are just that little bit less exposed to danger than the 12-speed ones.
WTB Verdict Wet
The one item which has had the biggest positive impact on my bike riding this year is the WTB Verdict Wet tyre – which I purchased in the Tough / High grip version.
It’s very heavy (1,369g in 29er 2.5in form) and it’s very draggy – but when it comes to mud and wet roots, I’ve never known anything like it.
It provides substantially more grip than a Magic Mary or Shorty, along with an impressively damped carcass and a surprising versatility that makes it better than a Shorty on hardpack or rocks.
Basically, this tyre helps me feel like I’m channelling my inner Joe Barnes as I slither down the sloppy local trails through the winter months – and that’s absolutely worth being a bit (OK, a lot) slower on the climbs for.
Strapping a tube to my frames (with a £3 velcro strap)
I’m not obsessive about carrying spares and tools on my frame, and I even still like to wear a backpack for a lot of rides – but I have gone all in on one #fullenduro trend.
I purchased a pack of three Velcro straps for a tenner from eBay earlier this year and wrapped some of my spare inner tubes in postage bags, before strapping one to each of my MTB frames (with helitape to prevent scratching.
Not having to store a tube in my backpack or fannypack has liberated valuable space for sandwiches, spare layers and other essentials – and I haven’t had any of them fall off yet (despite a number of crashes).
For a couple of years now, certain riding buddies have been telling me how great long trousers (or “pants” if you’re a Yank) are. Saying things like “it’s just nice to finish a ride with clean legs and kneepads”.
I must admit, I’ve inwardly rolled my eyes a little bit – I’m not that bothered about having to wipe my shins after a ride.
But after experimenting successfully with my softshell walking trousers, I took the plunge this autumn and purchased a pair of Madison Zenith DWR trousers (with a nice big waterproof bum panel) – swiftly followed by some Nukeproof Blackline ones in the Black Friday sale.
Both are great and it actually is nice to finish a ride with clean legs and kneepads.
How do you dry your FiveTens between rides? Balled-up newspaper stuffed inside them? Kids’ nappies? Propping them up in front of the fire?
Whatever, just stop it and buy one of these instead. You prop a shoe on each of the prongs and turn it on, then come back an hour or so later to dry shoes.
If they are absolutely soaked, it might take two goes – but I can now wear the same shoes multiple days and I think there’s less stink as they don’t sit and ferment for as long.
OK, you might have been using it for years, but 2020 saw me purchase my first ever roll of 3M 2228 rubber mastic tape.
I’ve used it to create chainstay protectors, downtube protectors and to go under the zipties which hold on my mudguards – preventing them from eating into the paint (zipties quickly eat through helitape, in my experience).
Some people don’t believe me when I tell them my Orange bikes are quiet to ride, but this magic mastic is the reason why.
Writing this on the day that my area has gone into Tier 4, I can only speculate about when I’ll be able to go away to ride (or do anything) again.
So I’m really glad I managed to get a few trips to Scotland, Wales and the South East to ride with pals when it was permitted.
With months of local slop ahead of me, at least I can look forward to returning to places like the Cairngorms, Dunkeld, Innerleithen, Gwydir Forest and those secret Welsh trails I’m not allowed to talk about.
Modern road bikes
I’d been mulling over upgrading my 2013 Scott CR1 SL for a while, and took the plunge just after the first lockdown was imposed.
Luckily for me, prices actually dropped initially, and I got this nice Boardman for a bargain price.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the combination of disc brakes and wide, tubeless tyres has been a revelation. It’s so much more comfortable – and despite being 1kg heavier than my old Scott, it’s faster everywhere.
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