My kit picks for 2020: tech writer Simon Smythe

A lockdown diary in cycling products

smythe 2020 products

Our safe, secure world might have become a dystopian nightmare recently, but it's clear there's one thing a pandemic will never kill, and that is the end-of-year listicle.

But this is one with a difference: it's part listicle, part lockdown diary. I've picked my 12 favourite products and assigned each one to a month, starting in January when for all we knew Wuhan was a make of Chinese cycling computer, and finishing in December when my favourite thing was a luscious respray, which I am going to pretend represents renewal, starting afresh.

January: the Zwift 4wk FTP booster

Zwift

This is not strictly a product – it’s much better than that. After troughing pigs in blankets and swilling red wine for 10 days and with the fatshaming from the family well under way, the Zwift 4wk FTP booster put more on my average speed than any aero wheels, wind tunnel-tested bars or hidden cables ever could.

I discovered it in mid-2019 when I was sent a spanky new Ribble TT bike like Dan Bigham’s and John Archibald’s to review and I didn’t go any faster on it. It dawned on me that what I actually needed was some training. So I hit the 4wk FTP Booster, kept going and finished 2019 with my FTP about 20 watts better. In 2020 I used it as my ‘New Year, New You’ programme.

It’s a tough four weeks and you need to stick at it you want the better version of yourself to actually emerge at the end.

Little did we know that just two months later we would we would all be back on the sofa eating and drinking too much and getting on each other’s nerves all over again.

February: VeloPac RidePac Lite

VeloPac

Riding behind somebody whose jersey pockets look like Worzel Gummidge’s Y-fronts is enough to put anyone off their clubrun. I don’t want to look at their protruding minipump, coins jiggling around in the bottom and who knows what lumps and bumps in between.

I’ve tried various pocket ‘organisers’ over the years, but only discovered the VeloPac RidePac this year. It is big enough for a plus-sized phone, which I didn’t like much at first: cyclists tend to go for smaller phones just because they fit more neatly in jersey pockets. It’s obvious. But at 19cm the Velopac is exactly right for my Topeak RaceRocket HP pump, vintage Ofmega peanut butter wrench – if I’m riding my fixed bike – and a trusty Topeak multitool. There’s no room for the phone in there, so that goes in a different pocket, and an emergency bar or gel in the third pocket. I don’t care what Velominati say – I still use a seatpack for a spare tube, patches, quicklink etc and save my bottle cages for real bottles – and I hope it’s a pleasure to sit on my wheel now.

March: Selle Italia SP-01 Boost Tekno Superflow saddle

Selle Italia SP-01

I spent most of 2020 freelance, which suited my family situation since my younger son’s school had closed for the lockdown and one of us had to step up and be his teacher. (My older son is autistic and was allowed to go to school three days a week for a well deserved break from the rest of us.) Home schooling went like a dream for the first two weeks and a nightmare for the next five months. It was a surreal time when everybody had to recalibrate every part of their lives – so it suited the mad year perfectly when I was sent an outrageously expensive £440 saddle to review.

The Selle Italia SP-01 Boost Tekno Superflow is like a miniature carbon-fibre F1 car chassis for the sitbones. It weighs just 119g and my son used his year-four division skills (OK my iPhone calculator, he was on strike that day) to work out that it costs £3.70 per gram.

The two halves of the carbon shell, which don’t join at the rear, are designed to flex independently as you pedal. If you look at it from the rear it’s more Space Shuttle than saddle.

I was devastated to find that it wasn’t quite right for my sitbones, despite trying everything, and in my review I said I felt like the Princess and the Pea crossed with one of the Ugly Sisters trying to force her foot into the glass slipper.

So there’s no fairytale ending as yet: I’m depending on bike fitter Giuseppe Giannecchini to work his magic whenever I see him next.

April: Knog Lil’ Cobber rear light

Knog Lil Cobber

Now that rear lights are compulsory in time trialling I’ve been paying more attention to them – there’s nothing like watching the rear light of your minute man slowly disappear into the distance – and I think the Knog Lil’ Cobber could be close to the perfect TT light. It’s really lightweight at 22g, it’s super bright in its 50-lumen flash mode, it’s aero shaped but best of all it has amazing side visibility for passing spearpoint junctions. The wraparound panel of mini LEDs makes it almost visible from the front.

It’s not quite perfect: the red ring indicating low charge tends to come on after about an hour when in reality you get six hours out of the daytime flash mode but I’ve decided I can live with that.

May: Daccordi Noah

Daccordi Noah

This Italian stallion was a punchy but sublime ride that was perfect for rediscovering one’s mojo in time for the resumption of the rule-of-six clubrun. All carbon and handmade in Italy using a tube-to-tube construction, it was really gorgeous. Diego Lombardi from Racer Rosa anticipated any remarks I might make about the very loud paint scheme by telling me it wouldn’t be every British rider’s cup of tea, deftly deploying the silly phrase to ridicule our conservative tastes. I liked that.

I doubt Valentino Campagnolo had a nice cuppa in mind when he created the awesome Campagnolo Bora WTO wheels that came with the Daccordi, but they absolutely hit the spot. I was this close to having a chocolate biscuit with them.

June: Rapha Core Lightweight jersey

Rapha Core

The moment we were told that we ‘must stay at home’ the sun came out and the weather was glorious for months.

It seems like a long time ago now, but for a while cyclists hotly (sorry) debated the exercise allowance and whether or not a long ride was appropriate. There was no official upper limit, but I decided to keep my rides to an hour but to make it a fairly fast hour, and the Rapha Core Lightweight jersey was ideal for that.

Made from very lightweight mesh and very ventilated, nicely fitting as I find Rapha jerseys generally are but not too aero-race tight, it was my favourite training jersey in the summer. I washed it plenty of times and it still looks as good as new.

I used it for turbo top-up sessions a few times too – with all of us at home I spared them the sight of my pale, hairy, heaving torso where possible – and it works perfectly for that too, with its relatively loose-fitting sleeves.

I was fortunate enough to be sent one to review, but at £60 I could actually afford one with my own money, and it definitely got the thumbs-up from the family.

July: Lotus 110 – The Story of a Bike by Paul Greasley

Story of a Bike

One of my proudest moments this year was not when I managed to teach equivalent fractions to a kid who appeared to be in a coma but when I received this beautiful book through the post and discovered that I was included in the Special Thanks section at the back after my original feature on the Lotus 110 club sparked a mini-revival of interest.

Paul Greasley, Lotus 110 owner and the club’s historian, tells the story of Lotus’s five-year involvement in cycling, which starts with Chris Boardman’s 1992 Olympic gold and more or less ends with his 1996 hour record, the UCI’s banning of monocoques and Lotus’s distributor doing bust. As I said in my review, there are more threads in this tale than in the pre-preg carbon that the bike is made from, and of course plenty of lovely pictures.

August: Hotta TT700

Hotta

Yes yes, the Hotta is the ‘poor man’s Lotus’ – although the Lotus 110 club are always generous enough to point out that the Hotta actually has the better palmarès (I still haven’t quite worked out how that is).

My Hotta had been in pieces in the loft for about five years, and with the summer holidays coming up and no more Google Classroom to keep my younger son from Fortnite or me from tinkering with bikes, I started rebuilding it for a time trial at Goodwood that had a 'Bandit Bikes' category.

But rebuilding the Six Million Dollar Man was far simpler: I had forgotten that a very fiddly grub screw that holds an aluminium sleeve in place that the rear brake caliper bolts into (are you following?) had stripped. It’s was a common problem with Hottas: because the caliper bolt doesn’t actually emerge from the monocoque to be kept in place with the traditional top-hat nut, the Hotta has an ingenious but overly fragile system of a sleeve and grub screw in a perpendicular channel that is accessed from underneath where the brake bridge would be.

Hotta brake

Long story short – there was no time to send it back to HQ Fibre Products for yet another repair so I would have to put the track dropouts on and ride it fixed with no rear brake (as is legal in UK time trialling) and my knackered old HED disc with a screw-on fixed converter.

Goodwood is actually well suited to fixed riding: there’s a drag from Fordwater around St Mary’s but with the right gear and good legs, fixed shouldn't be a disadvantage. On the day, on 54x15, I averaged just under 26mph, first of two Hottas but beaten by Lotus rider Dan Sadler by two minutes out of a turnout of three Lotuses and two Hottas. I consoled myself with that quote about how it’s not whether you won or lost but how you played your game.

I can’t wait for more Lotus v Hotta showdowns in 2021 and if you have a Hotta, please get in touch and join my team.

  • Price: Priceless of course
  • Contact Ebay if you’re very lucky

September: Salice 022 glasses

Salice 022

I’m not usually a fan of cycling glasses – I hate that the moment a drop of sweat lands there’s an opaque streak that obscures my vision for the rest of the ride. Eventually it becomes a curtain of sweat that I’m trying to peep through and I take them off mid ride. I honestly don’t know how other people manage. Maybe that’s why the pros are always crashing in the last 400 metres…

But this winter I’ve been testing a pair of the new Salice 022 sunglasses and have been enjoying 20/20 vision for the whole ride. And it’s not often you’ll read ‘2020’ and ‘enjoy’ in the same sentence.

I put this partly down to the design, which tilts the top of the frame away from the eyebrows. My eyebrows are like mini sweat clouds: sweat builds in them until they reach saturation point or the frame touches them, whichever comes first, and then it cascades down the insides of the lens. But with the Salice lens clear of my eyebrows, that doesn't happen.

The other plus is that when sweat inevitably does hit the clear lens it doesn’t seem to streak it in quite the same way. I’ve never heard of a sweatophobic coating and it’s probably nothing more a lucky coincidence, but these are a bit of a find for me.

October: IRC Roadlite X-Guard tyres

IRC Roadlite X-Guard

I’m going to hear that hissing sound the moment I say this, but I absolutely love these IRC training tyres. I reviewed them two years ago and not only have I have never had a puncture on them, but they’re also light and fast with a supple ride feel. And judging by the excellent grip of the totally slick tread, IRC has got the compound exactly right for cold, wet slippy roads.

It’s true I haven’t ridden them consistently – last year I had other ‘all-season’ tyres to review, including the Continental GP 4 Seasons and the Michelin Power All Seasons – but this winter I’m back on the IRCs, I’ve done some long rides on my fixed bike in bad weather and have been so impressed with them all over again. I’m using the 25mm clinchers and yes, I know I should have gone tubeless but if they never puncture they don’t need to self-seal, right?

I think these are a bit of a winter secret weapon – and they are cheaper than Conti and Michelin too.

November: Wahoo Elemnt Rival watch

Wahoo Elemnt Rival

I like to do a bit of running in the off-season and for a cyclist I’m not a bad runner. I tend to smash myself until all the old injuries come back – shin splints, bad knee, achy hip flexors etc – and by then it’s time to hit Zwift again (see January).

Although the Wahoo Elemnt Rival is aimed at triathletes, it’s still great for someone like me who dabbles in other endurance sports but would never dream of doing them one after the other. It has the user friendliness and intuitiveness of the Elemnt bike computers and is really simple to learn.

I’ve used Garmin, Sigma and Suunto GPS watches in the last couple of years and so far the Wahoo is the one I like best. It prioritises actual sport without trying to be an Apple watch and the optical heart-rate monitor, although not perfect, is also the best I’ve used of this type.

It does a tri-nerdy thing where it pairs with a Wahoo bike computer so that when you get out of the water and run to your bike, the bike computer has all the swim data on, and then it goes back to the watch when you finish the bike leg and start your run. But don’t worry, I won’t be testing any of that. Stay tuned for my review.

December: Roberts respray by Colour-Tech

Roberts

A clubmate of mine had fallen out of love with this Roberts that he had made to measure in 2001. It's made from Columbus Max, the stiffest steel tubing of the time, and it's well over twice as heavy as a modern carbon race bike with its weight of just over 2kg. My clubmate still races at a high level and his bikes are all about performance – so when he had tried unsuccessfully to Ebay the Roberts (covid made it extra problematic) we did some swapsies involving a pair of new carbon-soled Lake shoes and a few other modern bits that were much more useful to him.

The Roberts had started out grey and purple but been sprayed ‘carbon’ black some time in the 2010s and now had a fungus-like corrosion growing on it from sitting in his garage, so I took it to Colour-Tech in Dartford to be blasted and resprayed by Dave Crowe, who used to spray frames for Roberts before they closed in 2015.

I asked him to copy a really nice Trek fade scheme, but I think it turned out even better than the Trek. Dave used automotive 2-pack acrylic enamel – wine red at the bottom and a candy red above over a metallic base – and it has a magical sparkle. It’s a bike worthy of Santa himself, and the big guy definitely owes Rudolph and the rest of them a turn on the front after all these years.

  • Price £200
  • Contact www.colour-tech.co.uk