Bikerumor Editor’s Choice Awards 2020 – Jessie May’s Best Bike & Gear Picks
For many, the end of 2020 can’t come soon enough. From supply chain issues, to cancelled events, and full on quarantine, it was a very different year for everyone in the bike industry. For us, it meant fewer bikes available to test, fewer opportunities to ride everything, and less time with the people behind the products and tech.
But that didn’t stop us. And it certainly didn’t slow down the news cycle. In fact, we were incredibly busy covering all the new products. Rather than two big motherlodes of coverage in April (Sea Otter Classic) and September (Eurobike), the brands spread things out as they were able to launch. Which meant a constant stream of bikes, components and tech to share with you (and a lot of late nights and retina-searing screen time for us!).
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the industry to find new ways of communicating, some doing better than others. And for us, it’s led to a hybrid approach to our Editor’s Choice list for 2020. Usually, we focus on products we’ve actually tested. This year, it’s a mix of bikes and gear we’ve used, and those that we’ve admired from afar. As always, we’ll lead off with the experiences that earned our attention.
Feature image by David Cheskin
You’ll never catch me wearing Lycra, skinny tyres or not; as a very occasional road rider, I still feel far more comfortable in my baggies, thank you very much. My riding style is predominantly gravity-focused mountain biking. Pedaling is a means to an end; my great love is haring it down hills, attempting to find that balance between riding the bike and having the bike ride me.
I ride and race enduro in the Tweed Valley, Scotland, so when you only see a list of mountain bike recommendations and gift ideas below, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Products that are pushing the boundaries of what bicycles and riders are capable of earn my respect. It doesn’t have to break the bank though; if brands are making functional products at accessible price points then credit is due. Here are my picks for the best bicycles, components, gear and experiences of 2020…
Enduro World Series, Zermatt
Though 2020 was largely a massive disappointment for racers, I did achieve my ambition of racing an Enduro World Series. No, I wasn’t in the EWS 100, or EWS 80. I raced it as a qualified athlete alongside some of my actual heroes like Isabeau Courdurier, Miranda Miller and Katy Winton. Yes, I was star struck. Though the season was a flop, I’m not in a position to complain too much.
Having said that, conditions in Zermatt were some of the most testing I’ve ever experienced. Snow, rain, thunder and lightning, freezing temperatures, thick fog, slick rocks and improbably tight switchbacks all came together to produce, you guessed it – utter carnage. It was character building, to say the least. You may have seen Jesse Melamed’s perfect winning run, but here’s what it was really like for a first timer.
With an EWS race as my goal for the year, I was put through a rigorous training regime under the mentoring of Sports Scientist and coach to Katy Winton, Professor Geraint Florida James. Despite the disappointing race result (20/21), I finished the season fitter, stronger (and heavier) than I’ve ever been in my entire life. The whole experience likely added several years to my life. I’ve a lot to be thankful for.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – 2020 Nukeproof Mega 275c
Extremely late to the party, it was only in September of this year that I finally got to swing a leg over a Nukeproof Mega. That was the Mega 275c of 2020. Honestly, I’m still not quite over the fact that it’s gone. A more capable bike I have never ridden.
It was the refreshing playfulness of the 27.5″ wheels (I race a 29er), the responsiveness of the rear suspension, the planted cornering and 435mm reach came together to produce a bike that just… worked.
Right, but that’s the old frame. With the 2021 Mega, Nukeproof have tried to engineer the leverage curve and thus ride feel of the previous 275 frame into the new 290 frame, as per the request of Sam Hill. So, naturally I got the 2021 Mega 290 in for test. Nukeproof sent a medium my way but unfortunately, the 455mm reach proved too much of a stretch for this 5ft 4″ rider. I got a couple of rides in and felt some of the character of the old 275c bike but with the wrong fit, it’s hard to tell. Watch this space…
HONORABLE MENTION – Kona Process-X
We got to see Miranda Miller’s Process-X in the flesh at the EWS in Zermatt this year. What catches our attention with the Process-X is its versatility. Adjustable length chainstays and a flip-chip at the rocker-seat stay interface mean this bike’s 161mm of rear wheel travel is mullet-able.
Right enough, you can bodge any 29er into a mullet by sticking a 27.5″ wheel on the rear. But, by doing that you compromise the bike’s geometry and you probably aren’t going to get any of the supposed benefits from running a mullet setup. With the Kona Process-X, you can run a mullet setup without significantly altering the geometry figures. So, the BB height stays the same, as do the seat tube and head tube angles. Neat.
HONORABLE MENTION – Last Tarvo
The Last Tarvo was released earlier this year claiming to be the World’s lightest enduro mountain bike, weighing a claimed 2.08 kg. Importantly, Last Bikes set out on this mission not because they wanted to build the lightest enduro bike ever, but because they realized they could do it without any performance drawbacks.
Beyond its bold claim, the Tarvo stands out in many other ways. Notably, a flex pivot delivers 160mm rear wheel travel. That means the bike should be fairly low maintenance with just three sets of bearings that will need to be replaced, as opposed to the 10 or 12 that we commonly see on enduro mountain bikes.
The geometry catches my attention too; Last have gone to the trouble of altering chainstay length throughout the frame sizes, mindful that the ratio between the rear-centre length and reach measurement plays a big part in how a bike actually rides. I’d love to see more of this from the big brands.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – SRAM Code RSC
I’ve spent a season on SRAM’s top-level DH spec Code RSC brakes, fitted to my Cannondale Jekyll 29er race bike. Unlike a lot of riders, I’m not a SRAM-enthusiast and Shimano-hater or vice-versa. I can adapt pretty quickly to the differences in bite feel and appreciate both. However, when it comes to racing I want the most powerful and reliable brakes going; for me, those are the 4-piston SRAM Code RSC brakes.
SRAM brakes are known for the good degree of modulation at the lever. The harder you pull the lever, the more braking power is delivered. A light squeeze is sufficient for controlling speed so you can remain within your comfort zone, while very powerful stopping power is available with a tighter squeeze. Never have I found myself wanting more braking power.
The Code RSCs are adjustable both in terms of lever reach and bite point, so you can dial them in to suit the size of your hand perfectly. Some people like a early bite point, others prefer a late one; with the RSCs, you can play around with this to find what works best for you.
HONORABLE MENTION – Shimano SLX 4-Piston
Switching from SRAM Code RSC brakes on the race bike to Shimano SLX brakes on a Nukeproof test bike did take some getting used to. You’ve heard it all before but yes, Shimano’s brakes are known to be more sensitive. Extra caution is required; grabbing a handful of brake in a panic is not likely to end well, as these brakes don’t offer quite the same degree of modulation you get on any SRAM brake. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t powerful.
SLX is Shimano’s mid-range componentry, sitting between Deore and XT, with XTR at the top-end. The feel of the initial lever travel is very light, offering very little resistance before reaching the bite point. I liked this aspect as it means you spend less energy pulling the lever toward the bite point when it’s not actually delivering any braking force.
With a 180mm rotor on the rear and a 203mm up front, the Shimano SLX brakes were completely sufficient in terms of power and reliability. I’m happy to report that I experienced none of that “wandering bite point” that I’ve experienced on some of Shimano’s lower end 2-piston brakes.
There is significantly less modulation available but I wouldn’t go so far as to say these brakes are either on or off, as Shimano have been accused of in the past. There is still some modulation, but it is far more subtle and takes a little getting used to. Overall, I find the SLX brakes less taxing on my forearms as less force is required at the lever to produce sufficient stopping power – at least for my local steep loamy enduro tracks.
HONORABLE MENTION – TRP DH-R EVO
I don’t have any personal experience of the TRP DH-R EVO brake – this is a component I’ve admired from afar. That said, Bikerumor’s Steve Fisher recently published a glowing review.
TRP recommend the use of their 2.3mm rotors for downhill applications. Thicker rotors offer improved heat resistance and thus a reduced likelihood of rotor warp. The DH-R EVO brake caliper is actually designed around these thicker rotors, just like standard brake calipers are designed round thinner ones.
The DH-R EVO is an evolution of their DH-R brakes. Updates for the DH-R EVO include a new lever blades, a new brake pad compound, new 5mm brake hoses and a new high-performance mineral oil. It seems every detail of new brake has been well thought through. For a brake developed for the likes of Arron Gwin to race DH on a 29″ bike, the DH-R EVO still boasts an impressive weight; 133g for a lever, and 200g for a caliper – it wouldn’t look out of place on a trail or enduro bike.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Ochain Active Spider
We love seeing these types of products! Ochain is a truly innovative component for full suspension mountain bikes that seeks to solve the problem of pedal kickback. Don’t know what that is when it’s at home? Check out Tyler’s explanation here. Basically, it dissociates drivetrain forces from a bike’s rear suspension to improve the performance of the latter.
And by all accounts, it works. A few local riders in my area swear by it, claiming improved rear wheel traction through rough terrain. And, recently crowned Downhill World Champion Reece Wilson runs one on his Trek Session. How much more convincing do you need? Dear Ochain, I really want one for Christmas. Thanks!
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Crankbrothers Synthesis Alloy
When you consider the season-long battering they’ve taken, it would be rude of me not to make the Crankbrothers Synthesis Alloy wheels my Editor’s Choice for 2020. I put these on the Jekyll enduro bike in February, and they’re still there. That makes them my longest surviving wheelset yet. A couple of very subtle dings in the rear and numerous substantial scratches to the rim wall is what they have to show for their service. They run as true as the day I fitted them.
Beyond their obvious hardiness, there are other reasons to celebrate these wheels. Their front and rear specific tunes, that we also see on the carbon version, show that Crankbrothers have put some proper thought into tailoring the wheels for their different roles.
The rear wheel is stiffest as it will take the most abuse, and the stiffness is necessary to allow it to hold the line through rough terrain. The front wheel is more compliant, forgiving through undesirable line choices, while also transferring reduced trail chatter to the rider.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Rimpact
I run set of Rimpact PRO tire inserts sandwiched between my Crankbrothers Synthesis Alloy rims and, on the rear, a Vittoria Martello tire, and on the front, a Vee Tire Snap Trail. This has been the single best upgrade I’ve made to my bike all season. The inserts have successfully protected the rims from the numerous sharp rocks and square edged hits I subjected them to in the Alps. But that’s not the best bit about them…
My favorite thing about the Rimpact PRO tire inserts is the vibration damping. Running an insert, especially in the front tire, smooths out trail chatter far more than I was expecting it to. The result? Less fatigue on long descents which translates to riding faster for longer. Not to mention the fact that with the added rim protection, you can get away with running lower tire pressures for extra traction. What’s not to love? This is why I continue to run them despite the weight penalty.
HONORABLE MENTION – CushCore
This is something we’ve yet to test, and have admired from afar for some time now. Cushcore offer some of the most expensive tire inserts on the market, but they also seem to go through more R&D than the others too, or they at least shout about it more.
Cushcore tire inserts claim to offer rim protection, improved cornering traction, added suspension benefits, reduced rolling resistance, a smoother ride and, as a result, reduced rider fatigue. What’s cool about Cushcore is that they’ve got data to back up these claims. They actually publish their test methods and experimental data on their website for everyone to see. You can’t argue with science!
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Vee Tire Snap Trail
We met the guys from Vee Tire Co early this year at BCA’s Winter Bike Connection event in Italy. There we were introduced to their new enduro tire, the Snap Trail. Layered up with Vee’s Super Tacky TOP 40 compound, we were immediately impressed with the grip on offer.
On the dry hard-pack rocky trails of Massa Marittima, the Snap Trail performed very, very well. Despite not having the most aggressive tread pattern, or the tallest side knobs, its cornering capabilities were tremendous, daring me to lean the bike further and further through flat turns. I didn’t find the edge of my grip.
Bringing the tire back to Scotland where the trail conditions were wet and sloppy, the tire continued to perform. It’s narrow profile helped it cut through mud, and the tread pattern didn’t hold on to too much of the brown stuff either. A standout feature of the tire is the ultra low-rebound characteristics of the rubber. It makes for a smooth ride, absorbing much of the vibrations you’d normally experience through choppy sections of the trail.
Kudos to Vee for putting grip and downhill performance before rolling resistance. It’s an enduro tire, after all. We race downhill, not up!
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Specialized Trail Series Wind Jacket
Simple, lightweight and functional. You’l forget you’re even wearing it. The Specialized Trail Series Wind Jacket makes it to the top of my list for these reasons. It’s a breathable windproof that packs down into a small fistful of material that you can simply stuff into your shorts pocket until you need it later. The pullover design features a zip that comes down to solar plexus height so you can get some more ventilation on the go. A small zippered pocket at the front left side of the jacket fits my iPhone 7 perfectly. No qualms!
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Crankbrothers Stamp
Crankbrothers have just released no fewer than nine mountain bike shoes to pair specifically with their range of flat pedals and clipless pedals. The Match System concept is simple; the Stamp Shoe is optimized for maximum surface area connection at the shoe pedal-interface with the Stamp flat pedal.
And… we’re pleased to say it’s concept well-executed. After testing the shoe with Look’s new Trail Roc pedals, and switching to the Stamp 3 pedals, we noticed a significantly improved shoe-pedal connection with the latter. The MC2 rubber of the shoe securely locks the pedal pins into place, providing a very confidence-inspiring connection. It’s also nice to see a BOA fit system on a flat pedal shoe; it’s been pretty robust so far, even through some arduous days’ riding in biblical Scottish mud. We like these shoes a lot.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Bluegrass Solid D3O Knee Pads
It’s not easy to find a set of knee pads that satisfy both of the following criteria:
- Comprehensive protection during big impacts, not just protection from abrasions
- Comfortable for all-day pedal missions
The Bluegrass Solid D3O Knee Pads satisfy both criteria and more. The bonus feature with these pads is their zip-on design. I’ve said it once and i’ll say it again; it is so nice to be able to put your riding shoes on first, then put your knee pads on at the trail head. It is such a small point, but I love this feature. And yes, the zip is robust!
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Bluegrass Armour Lite Back Protector Vest
This is another protection product from Bluegrass that has been very well thought through. It ticks all the boxes on the protection front – a CE certified back plate meant it satisfied EWS minimum requirements for back protection. What makes the Armour Lite stand out is its super lightweight and breathable vest design, the zippered pocket for carrying small spares, and the fact that you can fit a small bladder in there for hydration on the go. We love this multifunctional piece – the perfect solution for enduro racing.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Formula MOD Coil Shock
We first got eyes on Formula’s new MOD coil shock at the Winter Bike Connection in Italy, way back in February. Yes, it certainly is a very beautiful coil shock, but that’s not what makes it stand out for us. The innovation here is the fact that you, as a rider, can swap out the shim stack in the damper, without the need for any special tools. How many shocks can you do that with?
The Formula MOD uses the CTS Valve technology seen on their Selva coil enduro fork. Suspension tuning is often the job of a specialist mechanic. It can be quite easy to spend a lot of money sending your shock off for custom tuning, and it’s not uncommon for it to take several weeks, which means time off the bike.
With Formula Compression Tuning System, you have the luxury of tuning your shock from the comfort of your own home. This will be a shock for the keen bike fettlers out there, but Kudos to Formula for making suspension tuning more accessible. We got a brief ride on a Geometron running the shock, but we’re keen to get this one in for a thorough testing.
The WTC EnCase is a very good multitool option for those wanting to refine their packless set-up. No one wants to stow a multitool in their pocket, for fear of landing on it in a crash. The EnCase system provides a neat, hassle-free solution to this problem, housed inside rubber sleeves that slide into your handlebar.
The articulated design is user-friendly as you can use it like a screw driver or as a lever for more torque, and it can access some normally hard to reach bolt heads. The other half of the EnCase system is the chain tool and tubeless repair kit, so between them, these two tools cover almost all bases when it comes to trail side repairs.
This is a great tool concept that has been practically well-executed. And no, they don’t rattle about in your handlebar. You can’t feel them or hear them. For the self-sufficient rider who wants a minimalist setup, the EnCase system ticks all the boxes.
HONORABLE MENTION – OneUp EDC Lite Headset Tool
Another Every Day Carry tool makes it onto my Honorable Mention list for 2020. OneUp Components just released their EDC Lite 9-function multi-tool which stows very neatly into a headset.
The cool thing about it is that it actually forms part of the headset itself. The bolt at the bottom of the tool carrier threads directly into the star nut, while the carrier itself replaces the headset’s traditional top cap. Ultimately, this means you can carry a tool inside your headset without the need for tapping threads into your steerer, and potentially invalidating the fork’s warranty.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Ergon SM Women’s Saddle
The Ergon SM Women’s saddle is my favorite saddle of 2020, beating two offerings from Fabric in terms of both aesthetics and comfort. In fact, it’s the first cut-out design saddle I’ve ridden. The benefits associated with pressure relief on sensitive areas far outweigh the downside of an occasionally wet undercarriage when you plough through large puddles.
I have narrow sit bones so opted for the small/medium size optimized for sit bone widths of 9cm-12cm. The subtle rise at the rear provides a nice supportive feel for climbing while the cut-out is well positioned, and suitably long enough, to avoid unnecessary pressure on your sensitive bits, even when you sit really far forward on the saddle for steep technical climbs. On the descents, the saddle is narrow enough to go unnoticed, with no obvious interference at the thigh/knee region. I’ll be sticking with this one!
THREE RANDOM THINGS
HONORABLE MENTION – Car Tire Sized Tire Plugs
When it comes to tire plugs, size definitely does matter. Car tire-sized tire plugs are a great option for tubeless repair when you’re unfortunate enough to have a slash in the tire side-wall, or an annoying pinch at the tire-rim interface that simply won’t seal. At the end of the day, most tire plugs you get with bicycle tire tubeless repair kits simply don’t have the girth to plug these holes.
Get some fat ones for emergencies people! I successfully repaired a 12mm slash at the tire-rim interface with three of these bad boys sidled up next to another – the fix survived a 40 minute run off the top of Pila Bike Park. Very satisfying.
HONORABLE MENTION – Nukeproof Horizon Enduro Strap
The humble frame strap has become a key part to any enduro rider’s packless setup. I’ve been running the Nukeproof Horizon Enduro Strap this season. It neatly and securely holds a 29″ inner tube, a 16g CO2 canister, inflator head and massive X-Tools tire lever with no fuss. Can’t fault it. Plus, it’s only a tenner.
HONORABLE MENTION – Descent Master
The Descent Master is a mountain bike-specific body-weight training tool. A handlebar of your choice clamps into a 360° articulating pivot. As you can probably tell, this pivot provides a certain level of instability. The idea is that rather than doing countless static push-ups on the floor, you instead perform them on the handlebar from a plank position.
The pivot can be tuned to offer more or less friction, providing more or less instability. Ultimately, push-ups on the Descent Master provide a better workout for your core and shoulders, mimicking the instability of the dynamic front-end of the bike during descents. I’ve used the Descent Master all season long in training for my first EWS race and I plan to keep using it well into the future.
Happy Holidays, and as always, thank you for reading Bikerumor!
Many more great products have passed though our hands this year, but this collection highlights the best I’ve seen or ridden. Full disclosure: Each of these products have been chosen purely on their performance and/or technological merits for the reasons described above. Under no circumstances were any of our selections paid for by their producers. Nor was any preference or favor given to advertisers or brands who bring us on trips. Our selections are for the most part (but not exclusively) limited to products that we’ve actually spent time riding/testing in person. So a brand’s willingness to invite Bikerumor to join a launch event, or to provide product samples does make it more likely that we will have considered their products, if only because we can share our real, firsthand experiences.