Getting to ride the latest and greatest product on the market is a huge perk of this job. And I could talk for hours about how much I liked the technology or ride quality of this ten-thousand-dollar bike or that twenty-eight-hundred-dollar wheelset. And while I have very much enjoyed riding and reviewing those products, at the end of the reviewing period, these products (sadly) go back to the brand. And so, looking back at the year, I would rather talk to you about items that I used day in, day out and will happily continue using for some time.
Bonus: many of these also come with less of a sticker shock!
Flame Lacquer Brompton M6
My Brompton or "Brommie" as I call her was an impromptu, n+0.33 Craigslist purchase I made in January. I'd been low-key intrigued by Bromptons for a bit and when I was planning my trip to the UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Fayetteville in January, I thought a bike would be a nice way to get around but didn't feel like hauling my big bike box there. I'd only be on the ground for four days after all, and I would be too busy to actually ride.
Perusing Craigslist one evening, I found this gleaming orange beauty in like-new condition. How could I possibly resists?
Six days later I was on a plane headed to Arkansas with my new travel buddy in tow. Once at the Bentonville Airport, I unfolded the Brompton, swung my duffel on my back and pedaled the 24 miles to my hotel in Fayetteville — meeting quite a few stares along the way.
On that first trip we tackled road and gravel, attended a group ride and rode approximately 80 miles over the course of four days.
From that trip on, Brommie went with me to France for the Tour de France Femmes — I even sprinted up the finishing climb of stage 3 in Épernay—, to her manufacturing home in London and to Amsterdam.
With the Brompton in tow I always had my own transportation with me. I didn't have to rely on public transportation or taxis, I could move around more speedily than by foot and I got a teensy bit of saddle time in where otherwise I would have had none at all.
Unlike a regular bike, the Brompton doesn't require much added consideration for flying. I simply place the folded bike inside a clear plastic bag — the Ikea Dimpa to be exact— and drop it off as a checked bag. In the biggest planes, it can even fit in an overhead bin! And when flying in the U.S., I don't even have to put a bag around it, which I prefer because the more bag handlers can see exactly what they're transferring, the more careful they are with it. Then, on the other end of the flight, the bag is easily stuffed inside my duffel and off I go. No extra bike bags to stow away somewhere or bike building time needed.
Convenience aside, the bike gives me pure joy to ride, even if it's significantly slower and more work to pedal than a 700c bike. It's got six gears — two chainrings in the front, three internal gears in the rear hub—, a dynamo front hub to power my lights and fenders for the rainy Pacific Northwest.
It wasn't a necessary purchase by any means but it's brought me great joy.
Price: These Brompton lacquer M6L models with dynamo hubs usually retail for at or just below $2,000. I found mine on Craigslist for $1500.
Enve Puffy Poncho
Now this item is only bike-related in that Enve makes it. The American brand is best known for its high-end carbon wheelsets and components but surprised everyone this fall when they launched a line of off-the-bike apparel. The lifestyle collection features everything from hoodies, shorts and t-shirts to insulated jackets and even, a poncho.
“Even the most dedicated riders spend most of their time off the bike living life, recovering, traveling and in pursuit of their next ride. With no shortage of technical on-bike riding apparel available in the aftermarket, we set our sights on creating the clothing we want to live in,” explained Jake Pantone, Enve's VP of Product and Brand.
And that is exactly what I've been doing since acquiring the headliner of the collection, the PrimaLoft insulated poncho. When the temperatures dropped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit I've been working in, drinking my coffee in, walking the dog in, running errands in and basically living in the cozy poncho.
Made to serve as a "fashionable insulator for cool shoulder season outings" as well as a sort of privacy curtain for changing in or out of your kit at the trailhead or in the parking lot, the poncho quickly became one of my favorite items of the year.
The PrimaLoft Eco Gold insulation not only warms up quickly, it's also eco-friendly. The synthetic material is made with 55% recycled content, mainly plastic water bottles, yet remains as lightweight, compressible and warm as its Nano Puff predecessor.
Made to warm you up quickly post-ride, the one-size-fits-most poncho features a high roomy collar, snap-up sides for easy access, a zipper front pocket to stow valuables and a kangaroo pocket to keep your hands warm.
What I love about this poncho is the versatility. Beyond being a fashionable and super cozy poncho, it can double as a small puffy quilt —just unsnap the sides— and it also packs up inside its own front pocket to double as a pillow when bringing it along on an overnighter — there are even loops to fashion it to your bike or backpack.
This premium product does come with a premium price tag but given the amount of time I've already spent in this poncho, the dollar-per-minute value is pretty good.
Ergon Gravel & AllRoad Bar Tape
Gravel bar tape? Is that really necessary? I know that some of you are rolling your eyes right now but yes, gravel bar tape is a thing, and when the riding gets rough, it's sure nice to have.
Of course, you could just wear padded gloves or simply, HTFU. But you're going to wrap your bars with something anyway, aren't you? So it may as well serve a purpose beyond matching the color scheme of your bike.
Anticipating a bumpy ride, I wrapped my bars in some of Ergon's new BT Gravel tape ahead of Unbound this year, and I haven't looked back since. In fact, I have stocked up with several more rolls of Ergon tape, in various thicknesses, not only because the Merlot red looks great, but because I genuinely like it that much.
Made to reduce hand discomfort and vibration, the foam-backed bar tape offers both dampening and grip. The BT gravel is 3.5mm thick and provides the most dampening while the 2.5mm thick strikes a nice balance between dampening and road feedback. The block patterned surface texture provides excellent grip, even in poor weather like the sloppy mudfest we had at Unbound this year.
I've also been quite impressed with how durable and abrasion-resistant it is; and after a soapy rinse, the tape looks good as new.
The tape went on easily, is durable and provides added comfort to a bumpy ride without muting the ride feel.
On your daily, mixed-terrain driver, the 2.5mm BT AllRoad will provide ample dampening. But for the long and especially bumpy riding, I'd recommend the 3.5mm BT Gravel.
While expensive, the Ergon tape is still cheaper than the popular Super Sticky Kush Gravel tape and, in my opinion, more comfortable.
Schwalbe G-One RS Tires
A downside of product testing is that you end up spending almost more time unboxing and setting up your product than you do riding them. As such, I spent a lot of time in my home shop this year setting up tubeless tires — and subjecting my wife and dog to a fair bit of expletives and frustrated shouts along the way. Not all tubeless tires are created equal but as a whole, I do think the industry has come a long way when it comes to the ease of at-home tubeless setups.
There were a few different gravel tires I rode this year that I'd happily recommend to folks any day, but my favorite among them, hands-down, is the Schwalbe G-One RS.
The G-One RS is Schwalbe's take on the increasingly popular semi-slick approach seen in tires such as Specialized’s Pathfinder, Panaracer’s Gravelking SS, WTB’s Byway, Terravail’s Washburn and Challenge’s Gravel Grinder — just to name a few.
The tire marries the semi-slick pattern of the Schwalbe X-One Speed cyclocross tire with a more substantial outer knob to create a lightweight, fast-rolling race tire that's billed as Schwalbe’s fastest gravel tire yet.
I spent the majority of the season riding on the RS tires and fell in love with the sheer speed of them. Despite their low tread profile, they also impressed with the reliable bite on off-road terrain, be it around the bends and or on the up- and downhills.
I tend to ride my gravel bike on terrain well beyond your average finely crushed rock —underbikers unite!— but no matter what I threw at the RS’s, the tires handled the terrain capably.
It’s only in truly loose or wet conditions that the tread was simply not enough.
Oh, and I didn't suffer a single puncture or cut in several months of riding, which is a massive win.
The only downside really, is that they've had to come off now that the rainy season has arrived. That, and the price. Among the most expensive tires on the market, these will set you back $88 USD per tire.
Skymen Ultrasonic Cleaner
Next to my Chemex coffee maker, my most-loved practical birthday gift I've yet received may just be my ultrasonic cleaner. In normal circumstances, gifting someone a cleaning product could go over rather poorly but in this case, my wife knew exactly what she was doing.
The wet Pacific Northwest weather can be rough on bikes and I spend quite a bit of time on cleaning and maintenance.
While not necessary per se, an ultrasonic cleaner is a big aid in not only keeping your cassette, chain, chainrings and other smaller parts clean, but by keeping these parts clean you're also extending their lifespan.
Ultrasonic cleaners, common in science labs, jewelry stores and bike shops alike, are water tanks that use high-frequency sound waves to agitate the liquid and, by a process called cavitation, frees grime and dirt from hard-to-reach or tight spaces of whatever item you’ve got submerged in the liquid. Basically, tiny magic bubbles scrub and loosen the dirt for you. Ultrasonic cleaning is sometimes also called precision cleaning as the bubbles reach microscopic levels of the part you’re cleaning, i.e.: in between chain link plates.
After the bath, you’ll rinse the parts and maybe give it another gentle scrub et voilà, your parts looks good as new.
The machine makes an awful buzzing sound but luckily, it only runs for 10-15 minutes depending on how dirty the part is.
My solvent of choice is Muc-Off’s Tank Cleaner, and I mostly use the ultrasonic cleaner for cassettes and chains though I’ve also used it for my chainrings and pulley wheels with good success.
You can pick up an ultrasonic cleaner on Ebay or Amazon fairly inexpensively but I would recommend a 12- or 15-liter tank for large gravel and mountain bike cassettes.
My specific model is a Skymen 15-litre JP-060S model and it’s been serving me really well. I use it maybe once a month and my drivetrains have rarely looked this clean!
Liv Macha Pro shoes
I fell in love with these shoes the moment I unboxed them. I'm not usually a pink and purple type of girl, but the purple “Chromaflair” color is simply stunning. Even after hundreds of miles in them, I still can’t stop looking down at my feet.
I realize that purple is a very bold colorway choice and one that’s hard to match with your kit or bike. Purple is also a ‘loaded’ color for many women, who for entirely too many years were served up products that had been given the ol’ ‘pink it and shrink it’ treatment. But this is not that kind of purple. It’s dark, bold and has an almost oil-slick quality to it. It’s pure attitude.
There’s also a sleek and narrow profile about the shoes that is aesthetically quite pleasing to me. And the shoes do fit on the narrower side. Many companies have made a shift toward much wider toe boxes and Giant has not, which suits me well. I prefer performance shoes to have a snug, locked-in feeling and these fit me like a glove.
Looks aside, the Macha Pros are a purebred race shoe. They weighed in at just 406 grams on my kitchen scale, making them the lightest pair of shoes in my garage.
The dual ExoBeam sole design makes for one of the stiffest shoes I’ve ever worn. As such, it provides excellent power-transfer and responsiveness but there was a bit of a worn-in period, if you will. This wasn’t to break in the shoes so much as allowing my feet to get used to stiffness.
Once adjusted though, I reached for these shoes time and again, especially on days where I knew the roads would turn up or there were city limit sprints to be won. These are, however, performance-oriented shoes, not necessarily the most comfortable ones.
Despite the sturdy polyurethane coating, I found these shoes to be amply ventilated for even the warmest days. Plus, thanks to the coating, the shoes still look great. The uppers remain remarkably scuff-free, even the toes.
All-in-all, the Liv Macha Pro is an excellent performance-oriented and stylish shoe.
SKS Speedrocker Fenders
I don't know what took me so long but I've finally added fenders (mudguards for you Brits) to my gravel bike and it has transformed my winter riding experience.
Frustrated by flimsy clip-on fenders, rattling or the installation hassles of semi-permanent fenders, I’ve previously foregone fenders on my gravel bike and simply dealt with having to hose down my bike and my person every time I went for a wet ride.
But the SKS Speedrocker fenders have changed that for me. They’re lightweight, cleverly engineered, easily removed and remounted, and, wonderfully rattle-free.
Designed specifically for gravel, cyclocross and adventure bikes with disc brakes, the fender mounts on using rubberized hooks and straps.
The fenders are made of impact-resistant plastic, which makes for a lightweight but sturdy material.
The two-piece front fender attaches to either side of the fork so clearance isn’t an issue. The extended front piece provides excellent spray coverage, keeping your face clear of mud.
The rear fender provides solid spray protection and a custom fit, not only thanks to the easy wrap-around straps but because of a telescopic ability of both the stays and the fender itself, allowing you to shorten or elongate the fender. I will say that even fully extended, the rear fender does fall short when it comes to preventing your riding buddies from getting sprayed in the face. Luckily, SKS offers an extension piece for this very purpose, however, it is sold separately.
It took some time to get the fenders set up according to my bike and preferences but once that’s done, the fenders are removed and re-attached easily.
They’re meant to provide coverage up to 42mm tires but I’m currently running 650b x 47cm tires and the fenders still do a decent job keeping most of the mud and snow off me.
At $85 the Speedrockers are on the more expensive end and they’re also not as classy looking as the SKS Blumels Style (which are a more permanent feature on my basket bike), but they’ve made wet-weather riding so much more joyful and are well worth the money.
Bike Tow Leash
When I adopted my dog, I was dreaming of having a traildog, and all the two-wheeled adventures we’d go on together. So as soon as Flint, a very active Collie-Australian Cattle Dog mud, came into our lives, we took a host of obedience classes, read How-To guides and got him acquainted with the woods a.s.a.p.
There’s just one little problem: he cannot be reliably trusted off-leash. He’s a bit if a bolter. Any sign of a squirrel or any moving object really, and he’s a goner.
Not one to give up easily, I’ve been trying a variety of bike leashes and backpacks to get him familiar with bikes and trails while keeping him close.
My favorite among the items is the Bike Tow Leash.
Now, there are a variety of bike attachment leashes on the market but they’re all similar in design. A stiff arm attaches to your bike via the seatpost, quick release or chainstay. And some sort of bungee or flexible leash connects the arm with a clip for your dog’s harness.
The Bike Tow Leash, designed by an avid bike rider and mechanical engineer, is an innovative and much-improved take on the bike arm design described above.
The main feature of the device is a 29-inch leash arm made of a stiff and curvy inner core with a plastic coating and two flexible, rubber ends. One end connects the arm to a metal clamp to be used on your bike. The other end features a retractable clip for use with your dog’s harness. For tool-free mounting, the clamp attaches to your bike using two big knobs.
I'll admit that the first-time installation took a bit of effort as there are specific adapters and guidelines for using the attachment on the drivetrain side or non-drivetrain side, with or without quick releases, etc. All of it feels a little home-made, but once you’ve done it a first time, subsequent removal and reinstallation are simple enough.
The arm connects to the rear triangle of your bike and the low mounting location effectively places the leash closer to your pup's height and provides a lot more stability than a seatpost-mounted device.
The arm is flexible enough to give the dog some freedom of movement, yet keeps your dog away from your moving feet and wheels. The arm's flexibility also absorbs any pulling or jerking or forces that would otherwise impede your bike control.
The American Pet Association gave the device a five-star safety rating and deemed it suitable for trikes and wheelchairs in addition to bicycles.
The Bike Tow Leash has allowed us to go on gravel and easy trail rides together while also serving as a car-free option to take him to the dog park.