It's not been long since our Editor's Choice awards – with all the best kit we've tested this year getting its showcase – but here I wanted to carve out a space for my personal favourites.
Perhaps it's a subtle difference between 'best' and 'favourite', but for me there's a recurring theme of these being the kit selections I made for meaningful rides and races – with completing the South Downs Double (opens in new tab) and earning my second cat licence (opens in new tab) being the highlights.
The foundation for that – and my other smaller targets along the way – has been many, many hours of on-the-bike training. Consequently, it’s given me the opportunity to put a great deal of kit through the absolute wringer.
Having moved to South Wales in the final months of the year, the amount of time I’ve been able to spend on my bike has dropped off quite a bit. But, as things settle down, I’m really looking forward to a new year of exploring the roads and trails around the valleys.
Vitus Vitesse Evo
The classic quip of Keith Bontrager: “Strong, light and cheap – pick two” doesn’t seem to apply to the Vitesse. It hits all three.
Of course, at this price, the Vitesse was never going to be the lightest or most aerodynamic climbing bike out there. But the point is that it’s not significantly far off.
You can think of the bike like the groupset it’s sporting - Ultegra rather than Dura-Ace. Sure, for world record attempts and racing at the very pinnacle, you would want something appropriately superlative.
But having reviewed the latest Merida Scultura climbing bike with the latest Dura-Ace at around the same time, I can tell you that the difference really isn’t very large at all. For me, getting PBs up the local climbs depended much more on my sleep the night before than which bike I happened to be riding.
The one thing I felt let this bike down was the choice of wheels. The Reynolds AR29 carbon hoops aren’t a cheap choice, but they’re also not notably light for their depth. They end up neither minimising the price nor maximising the performance.
But with that said, even factoring in an immediate wheel upgrade, it still works out cheaper than buying an equivalently specced bike from most of the big brands.
DT Swiss GR1600 Spline
These wheels might not boast an ultra-lightweight hubset, or feathery carbon rims, but their blend of robust durability – coupled with a still sprightly ride feel – meant they quickly carved out a place as a go-to workhorse wheelset
At this level, you get the upgrade to DT Swiss’ ratchet freehub system, which is very mechanically pleasing over a standard pawl-type design. The spokes are straight pull and aero bladed, lending additional strength without excess weight, while the internal rim width at 24mm has proved a good match for tyres as wide as 2.1 inches.
I ended up using these wheels for my attempt at the South Downs Double – and if anything is a testament to a bombproof build, it is surely that. The GR1600 Splines held up excellently, shrugging off a fair few rim strikes and remaining perfectly true at the end of it all.
The only downside to the wheels is that the freehub engagement is 20 degrees as standard. Generally, you can get away with a lower engagement on road and gravel than you can with mountain bikes as the bigger gears mean you don’t really feel it at the cranks. But there is the option to increase the tooth count to give an engagement of 10 degrees, should you wish to.
Exposure Strada MK10SB
Now we mark a bit of departure from the (relative) frugality of my first two choices, with one of the most expensive lights on the market.
It didn’t arrive in time to be pressed into service on the South Downs Double, but I wish that it had. The program selector makes it very easy to quickly cycle through the modes you actually want, saving a degree of cognitive effort and faff. It might not sound like much, but things like that really get to you on a 20 hour ride.
Likewise, the battery life indicator, displaying to the minute the amount of change that’s left, would also have been a great help. When unsure, I tend to very much err on the side of caution – there were some rolling stretches I could have tackled much faster if I knew exactly how much charge I had left.
The only criticisms to make are the fact that it takes a DC charger rather than any form of USB. If you forget your cable, you’re not so likely to just be able to borrow a friend’s. Also the clamp is a little fiddly for swapping between bikes – although with that said, it does hold the light in place very securely.
Lezyne Gravel Digital drive pro floor pump
Now, there are many products which are - somewhat questionably - pitched directly at the gravel audience. Helmets and saddles are a couple which tend to have us raising our eyebrows.
But the Lezyne Gravel Digital Drive is almost quite the opposite, in that the benefits are clear and immediate – as well as the fact that it’s almost equally useful for use with road bikes.
Sporting a large diameter barrel, more air is moved per stroke, meaning it’s a little quicker to inflate. The flip side of this is that the maximum pressure is only 100 psi and it does get quite hard to pump over 85psi.
Now, given that the ETRTO guidelines for hookless rims is to use pressures no higher 72PSI – for people over 90kg, SRAM recommends only using tyres 28mm or wider – it is fair to say that modern road pressures really do fall under this pump’s remit.
But the best thing about the pump is really the digital gauge. It allows you to make those fine psi by psi adjustments for gravel tyres around the 20 mark in addition to setting you road pressures – analogue gauges struggle to combine quite that combination of granularity and range.
La Passione Prestige bibs
At £145, these bib shorts do still represent a considerable investment, but at the same time, we are seeing ever more shorts soaring above the £200 mark - so in that context they’re by no means an outlier.
Even compared to those shorts which are so much more expensive, the Prestige bibs do really shine. The fabric of the main body feels so soft and luxurious, it’s really quite different to that of most other shorts.
Couple that with the wide and stretchy straps, along with the seamless finish to the legs, and they look as smart as they feel comfortable.
For all-out anaerobic efforts, I do prefer the cut-out chamois of the higher-tier Assos shorts, such as the Cento Evo (for context, those retail at £225).
But for longer distance efforts, the dense chamois of the Prestige bibs keeps a low profile while still excellently sounding out vibrations. I used them for longer road races and, perhaps most significantly, for the South Downs Double as well.
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Starting off riding mountain bikes on the South Downs way, he soon made the switch the road cycling. Now, he’s come full circle and is back out on the trails, although the flat bars have been swapped for the curly ones of a gravel bike.
Always looking for the next challenge, he’s Everested in under 12 hours (opens in new tab) and ridden the South Downs Double in sub 20 (opens in new tab). Although dabbling in racing off-road, on-road and virtually (opens in new tab), to date his only significant achievement has been winning the National Single-Speed Cross-Country Mountain Bike Championships in 2019.
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