Bikerumor Editor’s Choice Awards 2021 – Zach’s Best Bikes & Gear Picks
Well, here we are. Closing out another year of product shortages, zoom presentations, and uncertainty. One thing is certain though. The bicycle has continued to be an indispensable form of two-wheel therapy for myself and a growing number of riders around the globe. While it’s been a weird year for product launches, there have been several products that have risen above the rest. Products we could actually get our hands on. Which these days, seems like a feature in itself.
With a few notable exceptions, 2021 felt like it wasn’t a huge year for the bike industry in terms of product launches. But if anything, it allowed us more time on our home trails, getting back to the reason we all got into this gig in the first place.
The perfect bike doesn’t exist. Which is why you need so many of them—or at least that’s what I tell myself when thinking about the next build. I got my start in the industry because I was obsessed with working on bikes more than I was riding them, but that’s changed over the years. I still love working on bikes and would rather buy a $400 tool than pay someone else $20 to do it for me, but now I’m just as happy with bikes that need as little maintenance as possible, leaving more time for, you know, actually riding.
I still ride a bit of everything, but this year it was mostly MTB, gravel, bikepacking, and road riding. And e-cargo bikes. And pumptracks. Oh, and fat bikes. I guess you could say I change riding styles with the seasons, but I will say that I think I rode more gravel bikes this year than ever before. Mostly because I can grab a gravel bike, head out from the house, make my way quickly on pavement to the good stuff, and then rip through most terrain before looping back to the house. I love how gravel bikes make easy mountain bike trails more challenging all while improving your fitness for the big days on real mountain bike trails.
All of my top rides this year have things in common: friends, gravel or mountain bikes, camping, and a sense of adventure. This year, some of my oldest riding buddies and I planned a bikepacking trip based on a route we found from Bikepacking.com. If you haven’t checked out their route-finding tool, it’s a great resource for planning a bikepacking trip—even if time is at a premium. Between travel time and balancing the schedules of three dads with young kids, carving out enough time to bag even an overnighter was a challenge, but so worth it.
This particular trip took us up to Michigan where we found mostly deserted gravel and sand roads, a bit of single track, and a route that was fun for the whole crew. Bikepacking can be intimidating, especially for beginners. But with each trip you get better at packing, making do with less, and generally just enjoying the moment. It’s definitely something I need more of in my life, which is why we’re already making plans for 2022.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Revel Ranger
If you read my EC post for 2020, you know that the Revel Ranger was already an Honorable Mention. But a funny thing happened on the way to returning the bike—I just didn’t. Not right away, at least. When the Ranger first arrived, it was during one of the most chaotic points of my life. We had just had a baby, the world was in the middle of a pandemic, and we were getting ready to move. Ultimately, I just didn’t feel like I had gotten an honest impression of the bike yet.
So I hung it up over the winter and checked back in during the spring. It was then that I really started to understand the Ranger. Unlike many ‘downcountry’ bikes, the Ranger doesn’t feel like it’s just a stretched-out XC rig with more travel. Instead, it feels like a truly capable trail or even light enduro bike, just in a compact package that really likes to climb. It honestly made my Revel Rascal (which I bought a few years ago) feel a bit redundant.
Long story short, I’m glad Revel let me keep the Ranger for so long. And even though I did eventually send it back, it was a hard one to let go.
Road & Gravel Bikes
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Specialized Aethos Frameset
Without a bit of dumb luck, I wouldn’t have even gotten to ride the Specialized Aethos this year. Which would have been terrible, because it’s really, really good. When tasked with finding a frameset to build up for the Shimano Dura-Ace launch (see below), Specialized ended up being one of the only companies with a frameset that would fit me. But part of what made the Aethos the perfect candidate for the Shimano build is why I love it so much.
Thanks to the lack of proprietary parts and fitments, it was an easy task for the frame to be built up with the latest components from Shimano and PRO. The resulting silhouette is a true modern classic with minimal branding and great paint. And the ride? The ride is sublime. Before I had even ridden it, everyone at the Shimano launch seemed to be talking about how good the bike was. Would it live up to the hype? Yes.
Note that this isn’t even the “expensive” S-Works model. But it’s still a sub-700g painted frame with FACT 10r carbon that claims to offer the same ride and stiffness as the S-Works models—and it’s $2,200 less. The standard Aethos frames also have the option to run mechanical drivetrains, so if you’re looking for a frameset to upgrade with a group you already have, it’s the clear choice.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Schwalbe Wicked Will
Usually, when companies claim something is all-purpose, that seems to mean it’s good at a lot of things. But not great. The new Wicked Will challenges that notion, with a truly all-purpose trail tread design. OK, they’re no replacement for studded fat bike tires in the winter, but within reason, the new tread design is hard to beat. From the moment I mounted these up in early spring, all the way to late-fall leaf surfing, the Wicked Will was up to the task. All while remaining incredibly fast-rolling, and sure-footed in the corners.
It’s also impressively light at 816g for a 29 x 2.4″ tire in the Super Race skinwall casing. And at the end of a full season, the tread is showing very little signs of wear. The tires never quite reached their 2.4″ potential at 2.35″ on a 30mm internal rim, but I’ll gladly give up 0.05″ for this level of performance.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Shimano Dura-Ace R9200
With Dura-Ace written on the parts, it’s no surprise that it’s great. But like Shimano’s 1×12 mountain bike groups, their newest road bike drivetrain was worth the wait. Not necessarily for the shifting though—for me, it’s the brakes. Don’t get me wrong, the speed and precision of the new Dura-Ace drivetrain is second to none. But every time I get the Aethos out to ride, I’m struck by how smooth, how powerful, and how quiet the new brakes are.
Ultimately though, there are many reasons to love the new tech from Shimano—including the fact that it’s also available in Ultegra straight away. I haven’t been able to test the Ultegra version myself to confirm. But if it is just as good and a bit heavier, there’s even more reason to be excited.
Honorable Mention: SRAM Rival AXS eTap
While Shimano stole the show with their new electronic drivetrain, SRAM deserves credit for making electronic drivetrains more widely available. After trickling down their AXS eTap tech to the Rival level, more riders than ever can afford the leap to electronic shifting as well as more affordable replacement parts for existing bikes with RED and Force.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: WTB CZR i23 Gravel
Carbon rims probably wouldn’t be my first choice for aggressive gravel and bikepacking duties, but the WTB CZRi23 gravel wheels challenge that notion. After plenty of abuse and loaded riding, they’re the first carbon gravel wheelset that I’ve used in a while that hasn’t required truing and spoke tension adjustments. These wheels are certainly not the lightest, but what they lack in gram-shaving, they make up for in ride quality and durability with reliable Frequency hubs, and high-end Pillar Wing Spokes. When wrapped in one of my favorite gravel tires, the 45mm Riddler, the combination is nearly perfect.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Rapha MTB
Go ahead, roll your eyes. But the new Rapha MTB clothing, particularly the shorts, is good. Really good. On the shorts, the waist belt and adjustment system are simply the best that I’ve used. The wider section in the back is extremely comfortable, the waist doesn’t bunch up when you cinch it down, and the cam locks don’t interfere with waist belts from hip packs or hydration packs. Then there are the side pockets for storing a phone, which sound simple but are difficult to do well. For me, the jersey material handles our oppressively humid summers better than most, and the material has proven to be quite durable—though each piece includes its own repair kit just in case.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: MAAP ALT_Road
Initially, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to test out the new ALT_Road collection from MAAP. I detest the baggy jersey with tight short look (fortunately not the only option), and wasn’t sure about the style, but I decided to give it a shot. Straight away, I was impressed with the fit. You’ll probably have to size up, but for someone who’s almost always between the small and medium sizes for Rapha, the medium MAAP gear fits surprisingly well.
On top of that, the finish and material feel are impeccable. And it should be, given the price. But if you’re looking for premium, versatile cycling kit with a unique style, the MAAP goods are worth a look.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Specialized Trail Pants
Trail pants for me are a bit of a mixed bag. They often seem too warm or too cold for the conditions causing me to reach for shorts or heavier weight winter pants. But the Specialized Trail Pants seem to get it just right with a thick enough material that will keep you warm on chilly days, but enough ventilation that you won’t be creating a sweatbox inside.
The ratchet waist belt seems to be durable and impervious to mud, and the fit is tapered enough at the ankles to keep the pants out of your drivetrain while allowing enough room at the knees for knee pads. Just plan on sizing up—I typically wear a 30/30 in most pants, and the 30s of these were way too small. I bumped up to the 32 and I’m much happier, though the ankles are tight enough on my calves, that I have to put on socks before putting on the pants.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Gore WEar Endure Jacket
Looking for the perfect rain jacket for bikepacking? The new Gore Wear Endure Jacket could be the one. It’s made from Gore-Tex Paclite Plus so it’s durable, waterproof, windproof, and can be packed down into its own pocket. That means it takes up little space in your bag, and weighs in at 295g for a medium. The hood fits over a helmet for those days where it’s pouring but you have to keep pedaling, there’s velcro cuffs and a drawcord at the hem to keep out the elements, and there are two front zippered pockets so you can store things, warm up your hands, etc.
Just know that Gore Wear updated their sizes, and you’ll probably want to size down if you’ve had one of their jackets in the past. I went with the medium which is what I used to wear in Gore, but now really should be in the small.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Kali Maya Full Face Child
Should you get your child a full-face helmet? Or a half shell? What if you didn’t have to choose? That’s what makes the Kali Maya Full Face Child helmet so rad. The convertible helmet includes a removable chin bar for higher-risk days on the trail or at the pump track. Fitting heads from 48-52cm, the helmet includes Kali’s Composite Fusion and Contigo EPS foam, and Quad Core Low Density Layer to protect your child from linear and rotational impacts. Plus, it comes in awesome colors as part of the Kali Artist Series.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Tailfin Aeropack & Mini Panniers
There are lots of ways to carry cargo and bikepacking gear on your bicycle, so why consider something as expensive as the Tailfin AeroPack system? For starters, it will easily fit many (most?) bikes. With their Fast-Release Dropout system and their Universal thru-axle kit, I can mount it to every bike I have up with 148mm rear axle spacing or less.
The system is one of the lightest ways to add a large volume of storage with the integrated bag offering 20L, and you can add up to another 46L depending on the pannier options chosen. On top of that, it doesn’t sway or bounce like most seat bags do.
But what really sold me on the system was the fact that it’s compatible with full suspension bikes and it’s quickly removable. There are other racks that are full suspension compatible, but what I love about the Aeropack system is that it makes it possible to ride trails unencumbered once you’ve bikepacked to your destination. Just load up your gear for the weekend, ride to a destination mountain bike trail, and in seconds, you’ve completely removed the rack and gear from your bike. Then, you can set up camp and go ride the mountain bike trails as they were intended. When it’s time to go home, the rack snaps back on in seconds, and you can hit the road.
There’s so much to the system that you’ll have to read it in the full review. Just know that it’s incredibly well built, super easy to load and unload, and 100% waterproof.
HONORABLE MENTION: Old Man Mountain Divide Cargo Rack
OK, but what if you need to carry more weight, and larger, bulkier items than the Tailfin system will allow? Then you might want to check out the new Divide rack from Old Man Mountain. In its frame eyelet-mounted configuration, the weight limit is about the same as the Tailfin, but with the optional fit kits for thru-axle or QR mounting, the Divide can hold up to 70lbs. It also fits on the front or the rear of most bikes, including suspension bikes. You won’t be removing it as quickly (or at all) during your journey, but for big adventures where you might need to carry a pack raft or something similar, the Divide is well executed.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Route Werks Handlebar Bag
I’ve been using a prototype of this bag since shortly after it launched via crowdfunding, and now the production bags are shipping. This bag probably isn’t for the weight weenies as it starts at 692g before you start adding accessories, but what you get is a handlebar bag with a rigid quick-release mount and the ability to add mounts for your GPS, light, and more.
The hard clamshell top is easy to open and use while riding, there’s plenty of storage pockets and additional elastic cords to lash down loose items on the outside, and there’s even a shoulder strap to carry it around once you reach your destination. The whole thing is quite well designed with an attention to detail that really shows.
Tools & Accessories
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Wolf Tooth Components 8-Bit System
The new WTC 8-Bit tool system isn’t perfect, but so far, it’s one of the best all-in-one multi-tools I’ve found. That’s mostly because it’s technically three separate pieces held together by magnets. That makes it far easier to use individual tools when you don’t have to fan it out from 37 other attachments on a Swiss Army-style multi-tool.
It’s reassuring knowing that short of a pump, the 8-Bit system has most of what you need in one easy-to-grab and stash package for your next ride—tubeless plugger (which has already saved the day), chain tool with spare master links, tire lever, rim wrench, multiple bits, even a retractable utility blade. I’d like to see a bit extension for hard-to-reach bolts and stronger magnets to hold the tools together, but those are small critiques for what is otherwise a very well-thought-out kit.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Topeak Ninja Master+ Cage SK
Water bottle cages are a dime a dozen, but the Topeak Ninja Master+ is very well designed and inexpensive. The side-access cage includes a moveable bottom ‘tab’ which allows the cage to be mounted for access from the right or the left side of the bike, depending on which end you mount the tab. This makes it very useful for full suspension frames with tight spaces for water bottles, or any frame with limited space for that matter (like my bikepacking set on the Otso, though not without some help from the WTC B-RAD base). As a bonus, the cage is compatible with the Ninja Cage accessories so you can add a multi-tool, spare tube, Co2 inflator, or other things to the bottom of the cage if your frame has the room.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Thule Yepp Maxi Child Seat
Ask my daughter what her pick for the year’s EC awards was, and simply say “bike!” while excitedly running to the basement, grabbing her helmet, and tugging on the cargo bike that’s equipped with the Thule Yepp Maxi Child Seat. The seat is easy to use, soft, comfortable, and well ventilated, and secure. The seat is quickly and easily attached to the RadPower Radwagon 4 that I’m currently reviewing, so it can be removed just as quickly if you have to run errands in full cargo mode.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt GPS Bike Computer
When it comes to cycling GPS computers, I am not the type of person to geek out on every little detail. I basically just want it to record the ride and provide navigational support—with as little programming and button-pushing as possible. On that note, I’ve been very pleased with the new Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt. Wahoo greatly increased the onboard storage capacity so you no longer have to pick and choose what maps are preloaded, and with a simple click on the app, you can sync up your various accounts for easy uploading to programs like Strava as soon as you’re done riding.
It also allows integration with MTB Project and others to show MTB trails and fire roads on the screen while you’re navigating in real-time. I’ve used this feature a lot while exploring new terrain.
Finally, pairing other sensors is incredibly easy. I paired a heart rate sensor the other day as I was pedaling along without stopping. Once it paired, it even added a heart rate field in the display which included a color-coded background based on my HR zones automatically. It may not have the most advanced color screen, but it’s one of the most visible out in direct sunlight which makes it much easier to see at a quick glance.
Off the Bike
EDITOR’S CHOICE: GSI Rakau Knife Set
As cyclists, we all love to travel. Eating and drinking are high on the list for me as well. Because of that, I have put the GSI Rakau Knife Set to an impressive amount of use. More impressive though is how quality the whole set feels given the price. I’ve used single knives that were more expensive than this full kit and weren’t any sharper (warning, these are incredibly sharp). From slicing up some limes for post-ride cocktails, or chopping up an entire steak dinner for a ravenous group of bikepackers, the Rakau should be in any car camping (or vacationing) kit.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Hydro Flask 20 L Day Escape Soft Cooler
Wherever the Rakau knife set went, the Hydro Flask 20L Day Escape Soft Cooler backpack went with it. Noticing a pattern here… Regardless, the Hydro Flask cooler offers a completely watertight construction—meaning you can fill it with loose ice cubes and if it gets turned upside down in the chaos of packing for a trip, it won’t leak all over the inside of the car. It also has the option for drybag storage on the outside so you can stash electronics or other things that can’t get wet (or sandy). For a cooler that is designed to stay cold for 36h, it’s surprisingly light while feeling like you could run it over and it would survive.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Silky Pocketboy 170 Folding Saw
I’ve been wanting a trail saw that was more durable and portable enough to stick in a pocket—the Silky Pocketboy 170mm is that saw. Not only does it include a slick plastic case that will keep the teeth from catching on your jersey/bib/short material for easy removal, but it features an all-metal construction for the locking mechanism where many competitors use plastic. If you’re like me and often use your trail saw more as a machete to clear gnarly thorn branches that stretch across the trail, that metal construction will keep your saw from breaking. This saw has very sharp teeth, great ergonomics, and weighs in at 290g.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Honey Stinger Cookies & cream waffles
This is an easy one. They’re Honey Stinger Waffles which are awesome. They taste like Cookies & Cream, amazing. And they’re gluten-free, which for me is a requirement. Perfect.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Skratch Labs Horchata Recovery
Skratch Labs introduced their Horchata recovery mix back in 2019, but I haven’t tried it until just recently thanks to a single-serving pouch I got inside one of the recent Rider Boxes. Apparently, I’ve been missing out. In terms of recovery mixes that you mix with water instead of milk, it’s the best I’ve tried. So good.
Many more great products have passed through our hands this year, but this collection highlights the best I’ve seen or ridden. Full disclosure: Each of these products has 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 simply because we’ve had a chance to try them first hand.