For many, the end of 2020 can’t come soon enough. From supply chain issues to non-existent travel for product launches in glamorous, far off riding destinations, 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.
I ride equal parts flat and drop bar, with a healthy mix of road and gravel, a lot less CX this year (so far), and XC to trail to enduro/all-mountain. My local terrain is flat to rolling, but it’s easy enough to get into the East Coast’s best mountains for a rooty, rocky test of body and bike.
Anything that’s both light and functional earns my respect, as do the people, places and products that push the boundaries and move things forward. Here are my picks for the best bicycles, components, gear and experiences of 2020…
This year’s adventures were closer to home, but no less awesome. In fact, the travel limitations forced me to explore areas I knew were good, but were continually overlooked in search of more glamorous sounding locales.
The flip side of that is our local trails are pretty decent, too. So, the motivation is low to drive 2-6 hours for a trail system. Go big or go home is quite literally the mantra that kept me off four amazing trail locations for too long:
- Urban Wilderness in Knoxville, TN
- Tannery Knob Bike Park in Johnson City, TN
- Wind Rock Bike Park in Oliver Springs, TN
- All the trails around Roanoke, VA
It’s a bit longer drive for me (1.5 days), but Bentonville, Arkansas, is simply next level. I’ve been three times and barely scratched the surface.
The point is, a great experience doesn’t need to be built around bucket list destinations. Grab some buddies (or your family) and head somewhere close by. Make it just far enough away that you’ll want to stay a night or two. Ride and walk as much as possible to soak it all in. Then plan another trip a couple months later.
Even closer to home is our annual Family Christmas Tree Ride. For the past I-can’t-remember-how-many-years, we’ve ridden bikes to get a Christmas tree. Sometimes it was strapped to the back of a cargo bike. More recently it’s been thrown on a bike trailer…first a Topeak model, and now the Burley Coho XC.
Every year, we pick up our tree then get Mexican food, with me hauling the tree home while uncomfortably full (because of free chips and salsa). This year might be the first year no one cried, either over the tree selection or restaurant choice. Kids grow up so fast, but this (which might be our only) family tradition is one experience I hope we can share for at least a few more years.
ROAD, GRAVEL & CYCLOCROSS BIKES
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Evil Chamois Hagar: If there’s one bike that truly pushed (destroyed?) the boundaries of a category, it’s the Evil Chamois Hagar. Called a gravel bike, it’s about as close to a full fledged drop bar hardtail mountain bike as you can get.
Even with some brands making “monstercross” bikes, nothing comes close to this. Its handling is weird, yet spot on. It looks weird, yet somehow so right. When gravel rides turn singletrack (and back again), there’s no better bike I’ve ridden for going fast on that combination. It’s not for everyone, and it’s fearlessly unapologetic for being so.
HONORABLE MENTION – Specialized Aethos: It seems odd to award such a normal looking bike that, by many measures, simply reduced a centuries old concept to its core. Yet, this normal looking road bike is an astounding technological achievement in that it weighs under 600g for most of the size range.
Of course, that claim is for the S-Works models. I’ve been riding the Aethos Pro (reviewing coming soon) since its launch and even that’s under 700g for most frame sizes. Combine those feathery weights with a ride quality that rivals the best bikes of any material, and you now have the benchmark for “road bikes” intended for everyday riders.
HONORABLE MENTION – Fezzari Delano Peak: To be fair, with the absence of launch events to ride new bikes, I haven’t been on enough new mountain bikes to definitively claim a “best bike” of the year. That said, the two I did review in 2020 are worth mentioning because they’re both really good.
The Fezzari Delano Peak converts their abrupt-yet-slack geometry that started with the La Sal Peak enduro bike into a long-travel trail bike. With 135mm rear travel and a 150mm fork, it has the squish to destroy most obstacles. Thanks to an efficient suspension design, it’ll also crush the climbs. I rode it all day on several really big trails and racked it thinking I should go ride some more.
HONORABLE MENTION – YT Izzo: The Izzo takes a more balanced approach to its travel, matching front and rear at 130mm travel. What stands out most about this bike is the extremely low center of gravity. The standover height is super low, too, lending a very BMX-like quality to its handling. As in, low, light and flickable.
The suspension is efficient enough that I’d personally shed the remote lockout to save a bit of weight and clutter. If you don’t need big travel, this bike uses its 130mm quite well, blending speed with aggression for a bike that works great on a wide variety of trails.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Specialized Turbo Levo SL: When the Turbo Levo SL launched, it redefined how light a stock e-mountain bike could be. After riding it for a couple of big, long days for thousands of feet of climbing (and descending!), it proved it could ride just like a regular mountain bike, but help me ride more like a pro.
The one knock on it was the whir of the motor, but honestly, I didn’t mind it as much here as I do on their Vado SL commuter bike. Even so, the ability to provide all-day fun (thanks, battery extender!) and extremely capable suspension, along with the lightweight, kinda puts this bike in a category all its own for now. Much like their new Aethos, the Levo SL is the featherweight contender to beat.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Rockshox SID SL, SID Trail: OK, so technically the new 120mm SID isn’t called the “SID Trail”, but it’s clearly aimed at owning the “light trail” category of bikes with 100-120mm of rear travel.
For years, the Fox 32SC and 34SC ruled the light trail category, and it showed in OEM spec. This year, Rockshox answered with a fork that gets bigger stanchions and lighter weights. It’s an impressive feat of engineering and one that rides really well, too.
By offering two distinct forks, the SID SL for 100mm XC race bikes, and the SID 120mm fork for the rest, they were able to optimize performance and stiffness-to-weight for each category.
Even better, they made the new Race Day Damper backward compatible with prior SID models, which gives older forks one of the new SID’s biggest weight-saving upgrades without having to buy a whole new fork. It’s this combination of mind-blowing lightweight, top-level performance, and user friendliness that earns it top marks.
HONORABLE MENTION – 2021 Rockshox DebonAir Air Spring: The new DebonAir air spring comes on most of their 2021 forks and earns these kudos for simplifying the setup for all users.
Let me explain: With the revised transfer port position, you no longer have to cycle your fork to equalize air pressure then re-check and adjust the PSI a couple of times to get it perfect. Bonus points are that the parts are backward compatible for many prior year models, too. Check out our DebonAir Explainer Video to see how it works.
The upside is the forks stay higher in their travel through really rough terrain, offering better support on both low- and high-speed compressions. Buuut, the forks feel a little firmer at the beginning of the stroke. In my opinion, the performance benefits become greater as travel increases. On shorter travel forks, proper tuning with their Bottomless Tokens and air pressure adjustments are more critical if you want good, supple small bump performance on a fork like the SID.
HONORABLE MENTION – Cane Creek Helm MKII – An already amazing fork gets incrementally better…and easier to adjust. This one’s a step different from the lighter “Works” version I tested last year, but the gist is the same. Cane Creek’s proving year after year that just because they’re relatively new to the fork market, they skipped right over any learning curve.
The Helm MKII is probably the plushest fork I’ve ridden…and I feel bad that I’m only using it for 130mm of travel right now. Fortunately, internal travel adjustments got easier, and their spacer-less volume adjustments give you more granular control over the spring curve. This is a fork that rewards riders who like to tinker…and who knows what they’re doing with all those knobs and adjustments. I have more things to play with before writing the full review, but I can assure you, it’s not coming off my bike any time soon.
HONORABLE MENTION – Shimano Deore 12-speed group: Shimano gets kudos for trickling their top tech down to a much more affordable level. While there are a lot of subtle upgrades that make each successive group better (check out this comparison to see all the tech differences between groups), the flawless performance Shimano is known for is all here in this entry Deore 1×12 group.
HONORABLE MENTION – SRAM Eagle AXS Rocker Paddle: Their wireless shifting mountain bike group is great, but the original paddle’s ergonomics never felt quite right for me. The new Rocker Paddle is much closer to their mechanical trigger shifters in feel and positioning, making shifts more intuitive. It’s a simple, cheap upgrade (or option if you’re buying a new AXS group) that makes a big difference.
HONORABLE MENTION – Look X-Track Carbon Pedals: For SPD-compatible pedals, the challenge is trying to do it better than Shimano. Look’s X-Track pedals offer easy-to-clip-in performance, plenty of adjustability, and solid retention. Weights are competitive, too. Where they stand out is the platform size. It’s just a wee bit bigger than anything else out there, providing rock-solid support for “race” shoes and ensuring maximum power transfer.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Zipp 303 Firecrest: What impresses me about the new Zipp 303 Firecrest is, well, everything. They’re way lighter than their predecessor, which is a good start, and even more impressive when you consider how much wider they are. I’ve been riding them on gravel since they launched, and they’re about to move over to a road bike for pavement testing.
Zipp 303s have always been a good wheel, these new ones are better. But what pushes them to the top of my list is the courage to change, quite literally, everything about a wheel that has become so iconic that it’s often the benchmark against which all other wheels are tested. I applaud Zipp for having the courage to go big on the redesign, and the effort has paid off with a wheelset that rides extremely well and sets the bar…again.
HONORABLE MENTION – Bontrager Aeolus RSL gravel, road wheels: In a similar vein, Bontrager has managed to drop grams from their already very light road wheels, then use that same rim tech to develop an insanely light set of gravel bike wheels.
For tubeless novices, they include snap-in rim strips that make setup easier than easy. For weight weenies, swapping that for a little (or a lot of) rim tape (and some patience) will minimize their rotational weight while also providing great tubeless performance. It’s the combination of impressively low weight with their stellar warranty, plus good ride quality, that earned their spot on my list.
HONORABLE MENTION – Princeton CarbonWorks GRIT 4540: It’s not lost on me that my Editor’s Choice list last year also contained wheels from Zipp and Bontrager. This year, another, much smaller brand joined their ranks. Princeton CarbonWorks broke the mold with their wave-like rim shape. I reviewed their deeper road wheels last year, and this year it was their shallower GRIT gravel wheels. The short of it is this: They roll smoothly, can be built really light, and seem to offer a little crosswind benefit even with big, knobby gravel tires…and that’s something not many wheels can claim.
TOOLS, GEAR & BAGS
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Next level wax chain lubes: If there’s an upgraded trend that seemed to be in an arms race this year, it was chain lubrication. Between hot melt wax baths and infused, wax-based drip lubes, we now have some insane claims to reduced friction.
New products from absoluteBLACK (lube, wax, chain), Silca (lube, wax lube, wax melt), and Ceramicspeed (lube) led the way, and will almost certainly push other brands forward. I’m awarding my Editor’s Choice not to anyone specific product, but to these brands for advancing the category.
Personally, I love wax lubes as they keep the chain clean, quiet, and gliding smoothly. Whether my legs and lungs will really be able to tell the marginal gains is up for debate, but I love seeing a category being redefined and pushed forward…and seeing brands push each other harder, too.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Saris MP1 Nfinity Platform: This thing has absolutely transformed my enjoyment of indoor training. Which is to say, it eliminates the sucky feeling of trying to move naturally without also feeling like you’re going to topple over during a ferocious out of the saddle sprint.
The platform rocks 12º side to side and has 24cm of fore/aft “sliding” movement. This latter feature lets the bike move the same way it would outdoors, on the road, and it feels amazing. Yes, it’s expensive, but with so many of us logging so many miles indoors these days, it’s a worthy investment in building out your ultimate indoor training environment.
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Granite STASH RCX Multi-Tool: This one wins for working exactly as advertised, being super easy to install, and offering road and gravel riders a solution for hiding a mini-tool in their steerer tubes. Prior to the RCX, steerer tube tool installs were limited to forks with alloy steerers, but this one uses a metal sleeve to prevent the stem from pinching and damaging the carbon. It’s easy to remove, is packed with all the main bits you need, and also comes in black.
HONORABLE MENTION – PRO Strap Saddle Bag: For something so basic, it’s amazing how many brands get this wrong. The PRO model’s design is basically perfect, and has thankfully been unchanged for years (other than materials and colors). With two simple Velcro straps to loop around the saddle’s rails and another around the post, it attaches in seconds. Nothing fancy, but it moves from bike to bike quickly, and even has a little side zipper pocket to hide cash or a key. It’s not the only saddle bag I use, but there’s never a moment when it’s not on one of my bikes. It would be on more bikes if I had more of them.
CLOTHING & APPAREL
HONORABLE MENTION – Smith Pinpoint Sunglasses: Sometimes, you just know you’re going to finish a ride at the brewery, coffee shop, or taco truck. And hanging out will ensue. The last thing I want is to be sitting around looking like a triathlete, which is why I like the Smith Pinpoint shades.
They have a casual look and work great blocking wind on the bike. I’ve been wearing the ChromaPop Polarized Platinum Mirror lens inside the Matte Iron frame color. I love the hues, and they work great for just wearing around town, too. The lenses are a bit dark for mountain biking in heavy tree cover, but otherwise great for any type of riding. Lots of other color and lens choices available.
HONORABLE MENTION – Shimano S-Phyre XC9 MTB Shoes: Shimano’s latest top-end mountain bike race shoe combines a stiff carbon sole with dual BOA closures snaking cables through multiple grooves to evenly distribute pressure. Even with nearly full coverage Michelin rubber protecting the outsole, they come in at a very reasonable 395g per shoe (size 47 tested).
A one-piece synthetic upper feels stiff, and the sole is definitely XC-race stiff, yet they remain all-day comfortable. Perhaps the only downside is a $400 price tag, but that’s become the norm for many brands’ top level shoes, sooo…
HONORABLE MENTION – Giro Ventana Trail shoes: Technically, these launched in 2019, but as with many things, that doesn’t always mean they’re immediately available. In contrast to the Shimano XC shoes, these are aimed at riders who take things a little slower, might walk a little, but also shred hard. The sole is flexible enough for hike-a-bikes (or just walking up to the taco stand), but light and efficient enough for long distance pedaling. These have quickly become my casual gravel shoes when a ride with friends is likely to end hanging out over beers.
HONORABLE MENTION – Gore x Fabian Cancellara Kit: Launched in spring 2020, Gore’s Fabian Cancellara Collection surprised me not because of the quality (that should be expected), but because of the price. Yes, there is a very expensive top level for all of the pieces, including a ShakeDry jacket. But the C5 collection shown here is reasonably priced at $99-$109 for the kits, and a lot less for the matching accessories. For mid-tier items, they punch above their class in comfort and performance…and they look great doing it!
OFF THE BIKE
EDITOR’S CHOICE – Thule Tepui HyBox Wedge: This item launched in May, then quickly left the market for a little upgrade to the interior lining. Fortunately, we got ours before then and have been camping in it for the past couple months. It’s awesome. Take all the pain-in-the-butt aspects of mounting and using a rooftop tent and chuck ’em out the window.
The HyBox Wedge uses a simple, clamshell design with hard shell exterior. Just unlatch the rear and pop it open. There’s a comfy mattress inside, the windows and flaps open on all sides, with poles to prop them open, and it all closes down in about two minutes.
The only downside? You’ll have to wait until March 2021 before you can buy it again. I’ll publish my full review once it’s on sale. Kudos to their new Foothill mini tent, too.
HONORABLE MENTION – Yakima CBX Solar: I haven’t used this yet. Heck, it’s not even out yet. But it’s something totally unique and gets me excited about a rather unexciting category. Honestly, I see this as only the beginning of bigger and better power solutions for the #Vanlife and car campers, but it’s a good start. High five to Yakima for combining two things overlanders and adventurers want on their vehicles. Check out the CBX Solar’s specs and details in this post.
HONORABLE MENTION – Transit Offroad Lift Kit: The way VanDOit is cranking out custom Ford Sprinters with giant BF Goodrich tires on them, there’s a growing need for this exact kit. It’s affordable, easy to install (*ish), and solves ALL of the tire rub issues I had without it. Plus, my van looks more boss.
True off-roaders may laugh that this is merely a 2″ spacer lift, but it did exactly what I needed it to. And it improved ground clearance and appearance. (*full story of this and the entire van coming, but if you’ve upgraded your Transit with offroad tires, definitely check this kit out)
THREE RANDOM THINGS
HONORABLE MENTION – NOCS Binoculars: Small, light, waterproof, and affordable. They’re easy to stow in a pack or glove box, have decent magnification, and they’re tough enough to get banged around a little. In other words, NOCS is the perfect binocular for active folks that want to get a better look at nature.
HONORABLE MENTION – Vybe Pro Massage Gun: Percussion massagers are so hot right now, and this one’s a steal. Try to compare them and you’ll find a lot of look-a-likes cluttering Amazon, most with no real explanation of their tech or benefits. This one’s a little light on the research/benefits claims, too, but I can vouch for it being pretty darn good. I’ve been using the Vybe Pro for a few months now (as have my kids) and it’s still going strong. Combine its very good price, long-lasting battery, and EIGHT custom tips all inside a convenient carrying case, and you have a great way to get into self-massage without breaking the bank.
HONORABLE MENTION – Rogue Monster Lite Matador Dip Bar: After years of trying to figure out how to build something myself, I finally just bought the one I really wanted. Rogue Fitness stuff lasts forever, and the Matador Dip Bar mounted to the 3×3 Half Strip makes it easy to do a killer exercise. Now I can train my triceps for those once-a-year 10-hour sufferfests and eliminate at least one weak link in my program.
2020 lasted three years while simultaneously blowing by faster than ever. I mean, I was going to get fast this year, right? Without events to train for, actual training took a back seat to just riding around for fun, and that’s OK.
A certain Gravel Project Bike build slid to the back burner, too, but you’ll be seeing that very soon. In fact, we have quite a few exciting Project Bike builds coming for 2021, in just about every category. Stay tuned, and be sure to check out the Editor’s Choice lists from the rest of our team, too.
Happy Holidays, and as always, thank you for reading Bikerumor!
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, if only because we can share our real, firsthand experiences.