As 2020 comes to a close it marks the end of my first year as a tech writer on Cyclingnews and what an eventful (or uneventful, depending on how you look at it) year 2020 was. The excitement was high as I joined the team in January and calendars quickly began filling up with interesting events and launches only for everything to suddenly get cancelled again as the world plunged into lockdown. While that was a bit of a dampener I have still greatly enjoyed my 2020 and continually feel grateful for all the experiences and support that I have received as part of the team thus far.
I am lucky that the terrible events of the last year had no reaching effects beyond my social life and only being able to ride locally. While I look forward to the return of group rides, pubs and bikepacking adventures of the old days, I would be lying if I said that the summer of social distancing didn’t have its positives. We saw huge numbers of people reassess priorities, work-life balance and experience a life free of many of the pressures that can take precedence over self-care. This did mean that my quiet local gravel and singletrack trails became awash with people keen to escape the confines of their living room though.
While I would always resist outright identifying myself as a road rider, much preferring to get my drop bar dosage aboard a gravel bike, to avoid the hoards of roving ramblers I took to the tarmac. Usually occupied by speeding cars and impatient commuters, once nobody had anywhere to go all the roads became wonderfully quiet and much of my spring was spent tearing around peaceful East Lothian lanes.
Freedom from the distractions and excitement of riding far afield, this year was also an opportunity to explore locally both on and off-road, experiment with products and introspectively looking at the reasons that I ride bikes. While 2020 has not been a year of grand adventures and epic undertakings, it will undoubtedly shape my riding in 2021 and beyond.
Here are my top products from 2020 that made my lockdown riding experience the best it could be and will help inspire future riding in the new year.
Spoiler alert, none of them are turbo trainers.
1. Specialized S-Works Aethos Dura-Ace Di2
Specialized remained quite tight-lipped regarding the bike they were sending me at the start of September, with little in the way of clues other than it being big news and a promise it was going to be something really fun. My mind was awash with speculation and rumours, forum chatter hinted at a super-light climbing bike but, let’s be honest, climbing doesn’t fall into the standard definition of fun. With the SL7 and Diverge already announced and the Venge killed off I was drawing a blank.
I knew it was lightweight before I had even received delivery of the bike because the courier told me on my doorstep. “Is there a bike in there?” he asked. As he handed over a suspiciously light bike box, “I hope so,” was my reply.
From the first ride, I was smitten with the Specialized S-Works Aethos. Weight became the main talking point around the bike on its announcement with many commenters quick to point out the bike’s weight wasn’t groundbreaking in and of itself. A light bike is always charming but what makes the Aethos stand out from other feathery examples is despite its low mass there isn’t a hint of weakness, it feels strong and rewards being ridden as hard as possible. The frame is beautifully composed and responsive on rough roads and while it holds no prisoners on the climbs it will snap up KOM’s on the descents as well. Even when turning an intensive paceline on the flat, where aero should be everything, the Aethos would hold impressive levels of speed. Handling is lifted straight from Specialized’s SL7 race bike and allows you to drive momentum precisely through corners.
Specialized couldn’t have picked a better year to release a bike that is specifically not designed for racing either. The Aethos is a bike designed with one consideration, to ride perfectly. Accepting no compromises to reach its goal and opening up the exciting prospect that the lessons learned from the Aethos will in the future be applied to other bikes.
£10,750.00 / $12,500.00 / AU$18,500.00
2. Campagnolo Ekar groupset
Campagnolo released its first dedicated gravel groupset called Ekar earlier in the year. With Campagnolo’s groupsets only covering road bikes the approach into a 1x specific off-road groupset took Campagnolo down a (metaphorically appropriate) unknown path. The result is a groupset that not only expanded Campagnolo’s design but pushed gravel technology to the next level.
Opting to fully commit to 1x, Campagnolo went with a 13-speed system that features carbon cranks, a newly designed rear derailleur with a clutch and a host of other smart refinements that create what Campagnolo claims to be the lightest and most reliable gravel groupset available. A bold claim from a brand that has almost zero experience in the off-road world.
The Campagnolo test bike became my second most ridden bike this year, clocking up almost 2,000km over four months, with a good portion of said miles covering some of the wettest gravel rides I have ever experienced. Despite repeated coatings of grit and grime, rattly singletrack descents and chain-straining climbs, Ekar has worked dependably throughout. Gear changes are smooth even under power and the spread of gears manages to cater for everything between winching climbs and fast descents. The brakes are also remarkably good providing predictable bite, ample power and resisting heat fade on downhills where you daren’t let momentum take control.
Since my Ekar test bike was packed off back to Italy, returning to a double chainset on my road bike has felt almost archaic and overly complicated. I miss the binary gear changes of harder or easier, with zero considerations of dropping or cross chaining during a poorly timed change, the simplification of gear shifting allowing me to focus on other aspects of riding such as line choice and body position. I have ridden off-road drivetrain offerings from Shimano and SRAM this year and while they do have their own advantages in performance, for me the Campagnolo Ekar really stands out from the crowd.
£1,449.00 / $1,764.00 / €1,696.00
3. Straight Cut Design Bagel Bag
I really hate riding with full jersey pockets, it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient, especially on a long ride. I am a custodian of the frame bag, the ample amounts of easy access storage they offer means that most of my personal bikes get the custom frame bag treatment. However, now that I am in a privileged position and get to ride many different bikes I needed an alternative, more universal storage method.
Straight Cut Design’s Bagel bag has been transporting my snacks, tools and other useful items on all manner of rides this year. Fastening to the handlebars using two Voile Nano straps means it can be securely attached to any bike from road to mountain bike. The 200mm width doesn’t interfere with hand positions or GPS mounts and with a depth of 120mm offers around 2.2L of storage. My Bagel bag is made from super-tough 1000D Cordura, features a bright X-Pac™ VX21 yellow liner and has two hand side pockets perfect for stuffing my face mask and empty snack wrappers. The bag is handmade and the quality is fantastic, plus if you want something a little special you can even opt for custom materials and colours.
Buy at Straightcutdesign.com
I am lucky enough to ride some of the best bikes and kit around but when it comes to choosing my gear of the year it would be a disservice to not include a product that I use regularly and truly makes my life a whole lot easier. Merida’s Adjustable Torque tool may not be glamorous, but the joy of being able to quickly adjust handlebar or seatpost positions to a specific torque value saves a lot of time, worry and as the tool makes its clunk noise to signify the correct torque has been reached, is oddly satisfying to use.
The tool can be adjusted for 4, 5 and 6nm values which should cover all but the ultra-exotic of components. The head is magnetic and securely holds standard bit tools. The tool comes with a 3mm, 4mm and 5mm hex key and T25 tool with the extra bits neatly stored in the handle for when they are needed. The bits are just standard fitment so if you have bolts outside the included sizes it’s easy to supplement your tool selection
5. Velocio Concept Merino jersey
Over the spring, summer and autumn months this was my go-to jersey. Whether it was worn on its own or layered with other items, Velocio’s Concept Merino jersey was often the basis around which the rest of my cycling attire was chosen.
The very thin merino material is wonderfully soft and is extremely versatile thanks to merino’s natural qualities. Cool (including UPF30 protection) in the relative heat of my Scottish summer yet insulating enough should the sun disappear behind a cloud. On top of that when it did rain the merino continues to keep you warm when wet, a property that was not lost on me on numerous occasions.
The fit is race tight but because of the ultra-fine fabric, it doesn’t feel very compressive and it’s comfortable for full days in the saddle without excess flapping. The arms are cut fashionably long like all of Velocio’s jerseys and sit comfortably just above the elbow. When I first received the jersey the thinness of the material had me concerned about durability but almost daily wear for half a year on road, gravel and XC mountain bike rides plus the countless subsequent washes have proven my concerns unfounded with the jersey still in shape and intact.
It isn’t perfect. It has shallow unsupported pockets and it certainly isn’t cheap, but it’s a fantastic piece of clothing that you can easily get year-round use from.
£160.00 / $189.00 / AU$239.00
Buy at Velocio.cc.
7. Continental Terra Trail gravel tyre
I have used the Continental Terra Trail across two bikes and covered every type of terrain imaginable and I haven’t been as impressed with a gravel tyre since I first tried Gravelking SK’s. Using the 650b x 47mm tyre, the grip has been fantastic with both the centre and side knobs tenaciously holding onto any surface whether its exposed rock or loamy singletrack. It rolls fast as well, and while the slimline Terra Speed version should give even better performance on hardpack I would always just go for the chunkier Trails.
I experimented a lot with tyre pressure on the Terra Trails as well, dropping lower than I have ever previously to settle at around a 21psi sweet spot. Previously I would have expected disaster but I didn’t have a single flat or tear despite sending it down some seriously rugged gravel riding around the Cairngorms and one particularly poorly judged gap jump over a rock section on my local loop that I won’t be repeating even on my mountain bike.
Tubeless can be a little off-putting but the Continentals were one of the easiest tyres I have ever set up with little more than 10 minutes, a squirt of sealant and a track pump to get them popped into place and airtight.
£59.95 / $64.95
7. Shimano RX8 gravel shoes
Cyclingnews did a gravel shoe group test earlier in the year where I pitched eight of the most popular gravel shoes head to head to find out which was best. The test resulted in a mixed conclusion, however I felt that overall the Shimano RX8 came out on top.
The wrap-around tongue is cinched up using Boa’s excellent IP1 dial which allows easy fine-tuning for the perfect fit. Pedal inputs are communicated through a stiff carbon sole which Shimano rates as 10/11 on its own stiffness chart. The result is a very light, performance gravel shoe that doesn’t punish you with vibrations on longer rides. While the RX8 certainly isn’t the right choice for adventurous hike-a-bikers, its overall performance and fit make Shimano’s shoe the benchmark in which all other gravel-oriented footwear should be judged.
Despite this, it was still a difficult decision about whether the RX8s would make my top list with notable competition from Giro’s Sectors. The Sectors, which unfortunately didn’t arrive in time to be included in my group test, have been another of my go-to kicks for gravel riding.
£219.99 / $250.00
8. CADEX Boost saddle
Some riders get on better with different saddles than others but what astonished me with the Cadex Boost saddle was how comfortable it was from the first fitting. It might not have the futuristic ‘out of this world’ tech that can be seen on the latest crop of 3D-printed saddles but that’s not to say it isn’t packed with technology. I am still not entirely sure what CADEX mean by pockets of ‘free-flowing’ ETPU particles. It sounds like technical jargon for bean bag but it doesn’t really matter as the padding is incredibly effective, easily making it one of the most comfortable saddles I have ridden this year.
The shape is also superb, with the curvature giving a locked-in feeling without being restrictive to repositioning and featuring a channel to help relieve any additional pressures. The Boost looks stunning as well with its one-piece carbon body and high carbon rails, which are 9mm so will fit standard seatposts. Weight is a feathery 141g as well for those that are gram-counting.
9. 650b wheels
A bit of an off-the-wall inclusion to my gear of the year but having spent much of my 2020 gravel life rolling on smaller wheels I can, without a doubt, say that I’m a big fan. It’s not necessarily the wheel size itself, but the fact that – depending on your frame’s chainstays – they will allow fatter tyres to be fitted.
Simply put, bigger tyres are better, in all circumstances, no argument. More grip and a smoother ride are well worth the offset of a little extra rolling resistance that you may or may not be able to feel.
That might raise the question of ‘why aren’t bigger tyres on your list’, but there is a good reason for this. If you already have a gravel bike it’s crazy to suggest upgrading the frameset at great cost just to fit a few extra millimetres of tyre, however, if you can get your hands on a cheap set of 650b wheels you can transform your bike into a monster truck for very little outlay.
During the summer, I learned to build wheels in order to fill the void created by my new non-existent social life. A very useful skill to have, I built my first full wheelset using Halo hubs and some cheap tubeless 650b WTB rims for my Surly Steamroller. One of my favourite all-time bikes and easily the best gravel fixed gear bike available if you’re into that sort of thing. Tyre clearance is a decent 700 x 40mm but with my new 650b wheels I can now squeeze a wonderfully voluminous 48mm tyre. The result is like riding on a cloud and I don’t see myself returning to 700c any time soon.
Changing the wheels for bigger tyres won’t work on every frame, but if you have a much-loved gravel bike that would benefit from a little extra comfort, grip or needs a new lease of life, it’s an excellent upgrade.