I took over at the helm of the Cycling Weekly tech team towards the end of December 2019, expecting a normal year of launches and Grand Tour races, with my own National series racing served up as a side plate.
The reality which unfolded was something very different: 12 months of Zoom call unveilings, experiments in Wifi optimisation (thanks Amazon Eero for keeping my marriage and sanity intact!) plus a lot more miles on home roads. Personally, my racing consisted of one pre-lockdown British Women's Cup race, from which the only memorabilia I collected were several stitches and a new scar to add to the elbow collection.
The show must go on, however, and products already designed and ready to see the shining light of day were still queuing up to be tested, to clawing demand it would transpire, as cycling saw a huge increase in popularity during the unconventional year that was 2020.
Whilst we all wish the year had been different, keeping it local was perhaps one of the very few upshots of a bizarre 12 months.
Here's a look at the pieces of kit that defined each month for me. Some are new, some are old, but it's all good stuff.
January: Elite Arion Digital Smart B+ E-Rollers
Rollers seem to have fallen out of favour with the increasing popularity of virtual riding and racing, and I can see why: the sudden arrival of a 20% climb, recreated on a trainer that is more engaging due to the requirements of balance, sounds like a bit too much excitement for me too.
However, for structured indoor sessions, these smart rollers are my go-to. Whereas I'd find myself running out of resistance on my old, dumb rollers, that issue is completely eliminated with the plug-in offering from Elite, which powered many a two-hour winter Fleabag marathon/kitchen Sweetspot session.
Being lighter than modern-day smart turbos also means they're a much better travel companion when visiting the in-laws for Christmas – and family members find rollers mildly more entertaining than the Queen's Christmas day address, so I could get away with a couple more sessions over the festive period without being labelled a grinch, too.
I will caveat the recommendation with the fact that (as noted in the review) the power readings have always seemed somewhat lenient, I always use the power meter on my bike, instead... not doing so could serve you well in a Zwift race, if you can master the roller sprint.
February: Assos Legwarmer Evo7
Typically, we review new gear that's just arrived on the market, but every so often a piece of kit impresses us so much that it deserves a very special place in the 'long termer' category.
The Assos leg warmers earned this title having survived four years of use and abuse by yours truly. Sure, they come in at £70 but over the last four years I've probably been sent about 10 pairs of leg warmers and not one has held a candle to Assos's offering. I will admit to having tried to black label them, by colouring in the Assos logo thus allowing me to wear them to events where other brands may not relish their presence. They're so good that attempts to deface them simply came off in the wash, leaving the logo pristine.
March: Canyon Ultimate Evo/Canyon Ultimate CFR
At the beginning of March, the Cycling Weekly tech team calendar was bustling with overseas launches, my 2020 race season calendar was pretty much finalised and I jetted off for a week-long training camp with my 1904rt team mates.
We all had our brand new Rapha custom team kit, and I had taken delivery of the 5.98kg Canyon Ultimate Evo (since renamed the Canyon Ultimate CFR) which proved to be the perfect launchpad for a week of PB busting among the peaks of Denia.
Canyon's lightest chassis was an ideal companion throughout. The Ultimate has always been a solid all-rounder of a race bike, and the Evo/CFR model has had its weight snipped away at via the use of a ultra high modulus (UHM), ultra high tension (UHT) carbon fibre layup, the presence of the Schmolke 1k seatpost, limited graphics and that integrated carbon derailleur mount. For all these reasons I opted to travel with a hard case, this time around.
Soon after we returned, the country was in lockdown, and this transpired to be my only overseas riding of the entire year. I'm so pleased I was able to etch the memories of sun and smooth tarmac into my consciousness ahead of a year dominated by limitations; recollections of carefree abandon on Spanish tarmac proved to be a valuable souvenir.
April: Specialized Romin Evo saddle
The Specialized Romin Evo saddle was suggested to me at a pre-lockdown fit by former British Cycling head of physiotherapy Phil Burt. Up until then, my saddle search had always been centred around looking for a seat that didn't cause me discomfort when leaning forwards in a racing position. Most of these came in a maximum width not far over 150mm so I'd all but discounted my sit bones from the conversation since they measure in at 169mm and were largely uncatered for in the racing market.
Burt supplied me the Romin Evo in a 168mm width, and all of a sudden my derriere was actually supported. Perhaps this is a feeling that most readers have been enjoying since day one on the bike, but in my case pressure mapping showed this simple change evened out my weight distribution, solving a seeming leg length discrepancy all in one hit.
The long-nosed saddle has been superseded in the popularity stakes in recent years, with snub nose designs taking over. Call me old fashioned, but I like the way the Romin Evo allows a racer to move around pending circumstances - sitting on the nose during efforts and easing back during lulls in activity. Specialized has since unveiled a 'Mimic' version for women, but it transpires I far prefer the unisex design in this instance.
- Honorable mention: Specialized SL R women’s bib shorts
May: Kinesis G2
I've tested plenty of pricey bikes this year, and at £1,600 (£1,500 at time of review) the G2 from Kinesis definitely packed a punch in terms of hours of fun to RRP ratio. The powder blue gravel bike left my fleet in June, and, being one of the last in the country was sold almost immediately.
There's a lot to be said for a bashable aluminum frame, wide-ranging geometry and the simple joy of touchpoints that work - in this case the flared bars piled my confidence higher than it's been ever since. A bike like this cashes its cheques in smiles over performance, and that's just what was needed during the summer months of a year that was clearly heading south on the 'would like to repeat' scale.
A concoction of the Covid year, Kinesis' Sussex HQ and my love affair with the South Downs culminated to make this bike a perfect match for me, and I've yet to find a gravel bike I'd recommend more strongly.
June: Cinelli Mike Giant bottle cages
The decimation of the 2020 race season (and its stimulating effect on print pagination) meant that in June I found myself with the exciting but challenging task of sourcing all parts required for my ultimate race bike, amid a pandemic. Having test ridden a Basso Diamante courtesy of my local bike shop Maison du Velo - and concluded that it provided a punchy but still impressively comfortable ride and excellent handling - I specced if up with all of my favourite parts.
At the front end, my absolute ideal would have the Cinelli RAM Mike Giant handlebars; 31 years old I might be but on my race bike I still want to feel like an anarchic youth and these embody that smash-it-up vibe which takes over and goes a long way to fuelling a solo break.
However, the Basso Diamante's front end is designed to perfectly incorporate its own cockpit, so to avoid aerodynamic suicide I looked for more creative ways to pull in the punk rock character that I wanted to embezzle upon this Italian station of a build. Enter: £100s worth of carbon bottle cage and matching handlebar tape. The price tag attached to these cages seemed a bit excessive initially, but after six months of companionship I can declare them a winner – they hug bottles without squeezing so tight they're hard to remove, they're lightweight and they still look as good as new.
I also fitted the bike up with Shimano Ultegra mechanical (because honestly, no one needs anything more) and XTR rotors - making the switch to the lighter stoppers before Tour de France riders could steal my thunder.
- Honorable mention: Ribble R872
- Honorable mention: Wahoo Kickr exercise bike
- Honorable mention: 100% Speedmax XS glasses
July: Wera Allen keys
Another one for the long-termer diaries. Now just over two years into their life with me, the Wera Hex-Plus keys are still going strong.
Since I'm fettling on a daily basis, a set of quality Allen keys are an absolute must. Whilst some brands (questionably, judging by the results) boast absolutely perfect tolerances, Wera use a star shaped design to provide larger contact zones thus limiting the chance of the dreaded rounded bolt which can arise from hasty tooling.
- Honorable mention: Hunt 54 UD Carbon Spoke Disc Wheelset
August: Garmin Edge 1030
I'll caveat this micro review with the fact that I've not had the opportunity yet to try the Edge 1030 Plus, which I'm reliably informed has a much better touchscreen and improved navigation.
However, the Edge 1030 has been invaluable to me in a year where club runs were largely non-existent, rendering my normal 'rock up and ride' approach unworkable. As a previous Edge 520 user, the navigation available via the 1030 was a game changer, and allowed me to explore lanes and trails and have previously evaded me.
The Edge 1030 isn't perfect: the touchscreen clearly needed work as my colleague noted in the full review. Most distressing is the way the screen seems to be easy to change when you don't want it to, but difficult to change when you do want it to – I can only imagine that the 'ideal' pressure is that of an accidental swipe whilst purposeful prods are ineffective. However like the Allen keys above, whilst I didn't review the 1030 itself, without it reviewing the kit I did test might have been more difficult.
- Honorable mention: Specialized Tarmac SL7
September: Favero Assioma power meter pedals
I've had enough hair-pulling experiences with faulty power meters that my number one 'would like' is reliability. The Favero Assiomas provide that. They're also easily transferable between bikes, which is pretty important for someone who is riding a new set of wheels every few weeks. They charge via USB, so there's no messing with batteries (or risking water damage, which probably explains the reliability).
The only downside to these is that clipping in isn't as natural as it would be on a pair of Look/Shimano/Speedplay pedals because the platform spins oddly as a result of the weight of the unit itself. That's been a bit of a hindrance on photo and video shoots, where 80% of the rider's time tends to be turning around and clipping in, but it's a minor price to pay for trustable power data on every single ride.
October: Specialized Aethos
I was not at all impressed when Specialized hiked the price of this bike by £1,000 after launch. However, if I could choose one bike of all those I've tested this year to ride off into the sunset on, it would be this one.
This was a bike designed with ride quality at front of mind; so I can completely understand how anyone looking at it from a distance might feel it's a little bit underwhelming, but any misgivings I had were blown away into oblivion every time I put a few pedal strokes through it. Even the memory makes me smile.
Sure, the Aethos isn't aero – but on my two-hour testing loop I found little difference between my average speed on this vs the Tarmac SL7. It's highly likely that's because, like many readers, I was riding at a speed under the 50kph testing standard.
Before I rode the Aethos, I was beginning to wonder if I needed to recalibrate my idea of how a road bike should feel, largely as a result of the surge in 'aeroised' lightweight race bikes we saw this year yielding the same repeated criticism: just a bit too stiff. This bike was the remedy, and a reminder to trust my instincts. And man, a standard 27.2 seatpost, stem and handlebar are music to the ears of any bike tester.
- Honorable mention: Cannondale SuperSix Evo Ultegra
November: Rapha x Outdoor Voices bar bag
Rapha launched its collaboration with Outdoor Voices in June, amid much applause thanks to the brand's collective choice to focus on the joy and exhilaration of cycling, as opposed to tired homages to grimaces and suffering.
I'm typically more in the 'dyed in the wool' camp vs the new hipster camp when it comes to cycling etiquette, so this one was a surprise for even me. However, having begun using this bar bag for gravel rides where I just needed to take more snacks (but not quite enough to justify a backpack), in the later months of the year I can confess I even began to attach it to my road bike. Sure, it's not aero, but it's also November and so no one smart is going anywhere fast. With coffee stops off the menu as Covid lockdown 2.0 arrived, it made for a fantastic place to stash a peanut butter and honey waffle.
Admittedly, the final item on the 'Phone, Keys, Snacks, Sunscreen' checklist could be replaced by 'Rain jacket' in the UK, and the amount of muck and grime this bag has attracted means I'm unlikely to use the handbag strap it came with to convert it for casual wear, but they were both nice ideas, if completely incompatible with UK conditions.
- Honorable mention: Castelli Sorpasso RoS women’s bib tights
- Honorable mention: Scott Addict RC Pro review
December: Castelli Alpha Ros 2 Light
When it comes to winter warmers I have a wardrobe full of potential candidates, but the Castelli Alpha RoS 2 Light is pretty much always the pick of the bunch. If not that, then the Castelli Alpah RoS of 2019 - or the Castelli Alpha RoS 2 non-light. These two-part jackets are the absolute bees knees when it comes to staying comfortable in cold, damp conditions - they're all good, but the 'light' variant would be the one I'd recommend for those seeking an all-rounder.
There you have it – my year in cycling tech. It's been a strange one, and whilst the local roads have been fun, here's to a 2021 that will hopefully involve a little more Spanish sun and a little less time shouting "you're muted!" at a video conference call.
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