As 2023 comes to a close, I was asked to give a quick rundown of my favorite products of the year. Now, you may be asking yourself, who the heck is this guy? And that’s totally understandable. My name is Jeremy, and I started working at Bikerumor in March of this year. My role is relatively behind the scenes, so you won’t see my name or image nearly as much as your favorite members of the Bikerumor editorial team. Still, I’ve been testing and reviewing bikes and related accessories for over 7 years, and I get to see and use A LOT of products over the course of a year.
Mountain biking has come a long way in the 30+ years since I started bouncing around on fat tires in the woods. It has always been fun, but the bikes we ride and the gear we use just continue to get better every year which helps enhance my performance, enjoyment, and experience out on the trails. The list below covers some of the best experiences, bikes, and products that I loved in 2023 and feel are worthy of mention or high praise. Some of these things were brand new this year, others have been around a while and I finally got to try them, and some of it is just stuff that I like a lot. I tried to keep it short, there’s plenty more where this came from.
Experience: Local Races
The Downieville Classic
After a three-year hiatus, the Downieville Classic made a triumphant return last summer for its 25th Anniversary. Although I don’t live in the small town of Downieville, I’m only about an hour away, ride in the area frequently, and consider it to be one of my local races. I was very excited for it to be back on the calendar as it is hands-down my favorite race, and arguably one of the best events in the country. It seems I wasn’t the only one excited as the event sold out as usual, and the pro field was stacked heavier than I’d ever seen it.
If you aren’t familiar, the Downieville Classic is a uniquely challenging mountain bike race put on by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship that takes place on the rugged and rocky trails just west of the crest in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. There’s a standalone XC race, or you can sign up for the All-Mountain which consists of the XC race on day one, followed by the Downhill race on day two, and you have to race the same setup both days. The point-to-point XC race is 26.5 miles with 4,500 feet of climbing and 5,700 feet of descent. The DH is a 15-mile time trial with 5,000 feet of descent and 500-ish feet of climbing. Oh, and it just happened to be 100° F both days. (Shout out to the Evoc Hydro Pro 1.5L vest for keeping me hydrated on day 1)
I raced in the pro class so there was definitely no chance of me winning, especially when many of the best racers in North America showed up this year. Still, lining up with the likes of Keegan Swenson, Chris Blevins, Geoff Kabush, Felix Burke, and many others was pretty cool. Despite the heat, I still managed to meet my goal of PRs on both days and prove to myself that I’m somehow faster than I was 4 years ago. It was also incredible to see so many of my friends come out and push themselves and the community come together over riding and racing bikes again.
Truckee Tahoe Gravel
In addition to the occasional mountain bike race, I thoroughly enjoy gravel riding and racing. There are lots of great gravel races throughout northern California, and we’re lucky to have a local event in my hometown of Truckee. Truckee Tahoe Gravel is a well-run event with challenging courses that take place on roads that I can ride right from my house.
In the past, this race felt like more of a local, grassroots event. In fact, the last time I raced it in 2019, I finished 2nd overall. Like the sport of gravel in general, this race has steadily grown in popularity and participation, and a date change this year meant it lined up well for a whole bunch of get-paid-to-race-bikes pros to attend. While that dashed any hopes of an overall podium, it was still a blast to compete against those in my age group, and it was pretty sweet to race alongside legends like Peter Stetina, Levi Leipheimer, John Borstelman, Matt Beers, Haley Hunter-Smith, and others. Until they flew off the front and I didn’t see them again, that is…
1984 Six Pac Camper
Okay, not an experience per se, but about a year and a half ago, my wife and I picked up a 1984 Six-Pac cab-over camper which has facilitated many great experiences. It’s not exactly the fanciest thing in the world, but it was very affordable, and it fits in the bed of my Toyota Tacoma. It’s nearly as old as I am, and far from cutting-edge, but it’s super comfortable and is a major upgrade over sleeping in the bed of my truck with a camper shell like we did for too many years. It has made our frequent road trips and weekend getaways this year much easier and more enjoyable, and it’s definitely one of the best purchases we’ve ever made.
Of course, bikes come with us most of the time, and transporting them on a rack while still having easy access to the camper is pretty darn important. I’ve been using a Rocky Mounts MonoRail as my primary bike rack for many years but purchased parts to convert it into a BackStage Swing-Away. It’s lighter and far less expensive than most racks plus swing-away extensions, gets the bikes and rack out of the way for camper access, and continues to work well after lots of use and abuse.
EDITOR’S CHOICE MTB: Fezzari La Sal Peak
I’m admittedly a huge fan of do-it-all mid-travel trail bikes, but when I got the chance to ride the latest version of the Fezzari La Sal Peak, I jumped on it. I don’t spend a lot of time on longer travel enduro bikes, but there are a bunch of super fun steep/skiddy/slabby trails very close to my house (thanks local trail builders!) where the 170mm of travel and 64-degree head angle of the La Sal were a welcome change compared to my everyday ride. Tyler reviewed it a while ago, so I’ll keep my thoughts brief.
With 170mm of front and rear travel, a slack 64-degree head tube angle, and a long wheelbase, the La Sal performs exceptionally well on the descents. It feels stable at speed, soaks up big hits and drops, and has a calm, muted, ground-hugging feel. But all that is to be expected. What I didn’t expect from a bike like this is just how well it does everything else. Sure it’s a little heavier than what I’m used to, but this bike climbs like a goat with incredible traction and very reasonable, controlled handling for its travel/geometry. I felt like I could claw my way up just about anything including super technical sections and tight switchbacks where I initially expected it to falter. This translated to mellower trails too as it didn’t feel overly portly or bland on moderate descents or at lower speeds, instead, it remained engaging and fun.
While it might not be the outright hardest charger for its travel category, it’s the versatility that really impressed me the most about the La Sal. For a bike to perform as well as it does on the descents yet retain climbing and handling attributes more akin to a snappier trail bike is something special, for me anyway. Oh, and Fezzari’s prices are outstanding. The Elite Shimano build I’ve been riding retails for $4,799 (currently on sale for $3,999), which is incredible for a full carbon frame, XT drivetrain and brakes, and Ultimate-level RockShox suspension package. The Zeb Ultimate fork and Super Deluxe Ultimate shock also deserve special mention for being absolutely fantastic on this bike.
EDITOR’S CHOICE E-MTB: Specialized S-Works Levo SL Gen 2
On a trip in the early summer, I blew out the rear shock on my trail bike riding in Ashland, Oregon. We were meeting a bunch of friends in Oakridge, OR, the next day to rip shuttle runs for two days, so I was in a bit of a pickle with a shock that had no compression or rebound damping. Lucky for me, a friend brought an extra bike with them, which just happened to be a brand new Specialized S-Works Levo SL, that they kindly let me borrow. (Zach got to ride it back in May when it launched)
I’ve ridden a lot of different e-bikes in my life, but I was particularly excited to throw a leg over the new Levo SL Gen 2. On the first day, we did six shuttle laps and I even rode with the motor completely off for a few of them. What immediately struck me was just how much it handled and pedaled like a regular trail bike. It also felt incredibly intuitive and comfortable with no getting-to-know-you period at all. Of course, we are talking about the absurdly expensive top-of-the-line model with the fanciest everything and a just-under-40-lbs weight, so you’d hope that’s how it rides, and it does.
The SL motor was also a highlight. Putting out more torque than the previous version while also producing less noise. The updated display is also a big upgrade, as are the motor tuning options to dial it in how you like. Of course, there’s also the wealth of geometry adjustments, yada yada. Would I ever spend that much on a bike? Absolutely not! Will I jump at the chance to ride one again if the opportunity arises? You bet I will.
EDITOR’S CHOICE GRAVEL: YT Szepter Core 4
YT stepped into the gravel market last year when they launched the Szepter. I love gravel riding but I’m still a mountain biker at heart, so this bike really spoke to me. I got to ride the YT Szepter Core 4 for several months last winter and spring, and while it may not fit everyone’s idea of the perfect gravel bike, I fell in love with it.
A lot of people talk about how gravel bikes are basically just turning into hardtail mountain bikes from 20+ years ago, and while that’s kinda true, a bike like the Szepter actually rides way better than my vintage ‘93 S-works FSX custom hardtail. With a 40mm RockShox Rudy fork, 50mm Reverb AXS dropper, and progressive (for a gravel bike) geometry, this bike smoothes out the rough gravel that’s common in my area and it’s surprisingly fun and capable on mellower singletracks as well. Sure, the suspension and the dropper add a little weight, but I’d happily trade the few seconds I lose on a climb for the comfort, control, and stability it gives me on the descents.
Like the Fezzari above, the YT Szepter Core 4 is also very reasonably priced for the quality of the build and one of the best values you’ll find. You can find out more in John Herron’s Szepter review from earlier this year.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Roval Control SL Wheels
I like my bike to be a reasonable weight, but I definitely wouldn’t call myself a weight weenie. But when I mounted up a set of the Roval Control SL wheels on my trail bike, it felt like unlocking a cheat code. At just 1,282 grams for the pair (measured with rim tape and valves), they are very lightweight for a 29er wheelset. In fact, they’re around 500 grams (17 ounces) lighter than my usual wheels, which is very significant. I slapped some XC tires on them for good measure and dropped the total weight of my bike by over two pounds, and, right where it matters.
These wheels instantly made me feel noticeably faster on the climbs and accelerating out of corners. They don’t strike me as the most forgiving wheels, but they are snappy, precise, and responsive without beating you up either. At the same time, they feel surprisingly tough for something so shockingly lightweight. They don’t feel like they are going to explode if you hit a rock, and the flat-topped 4mm wide bead wall should help reduce pinch flats if/when you do. I’m not saying anyone should go out and race enduro on them, but they are a great way to lighten and quicken up your XC or short to mid-travel trail bikes if you can justify the high asking price.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Reserve Fillmore Valves
$50 for a set of tubeless valve stems? I also scoffed at the price of the Fillmore valves when they first came out, but then I started using them. These things deliver on the promises they make, stay clog-free, and make it way easier to do frequent tire swaps without needing to use a compressor or tubeless booster. I know you can remove valve cores, clean them, replace them, etc, but with the Reserve Fillmore Valves I don’t have to and that’s a win for me.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Schwalbe Tires
Maxxis has been and continues to dominate the mountain bike tire market for good reason, but several other manufacturers are putting out great tires these days. Continental’s latest tires are pretty awesome and I really like Vittoria’s tires too. Until this year, however, I had pretty much sworn off Schwalbe tires given their high price and questionable durability. I tore enough knobs off of older models years ago that I have been very reluctant to give them another try.
Well, a lot has changed since then, and Schwalbe’s latest crop of tires has impressed me enough to change my tune. I spent quite a bit of time on the Magic Mary (Soft) and the new Tacky Chan (Ultra Soft), and I’d argue that they’re just as good as any similar tires on the market. Our dirt is almost always loose where I live and it was super dry all summer before having an uncharacteristically damp fall. Through it all, both tires excelled, providing excellent cornering grip and great braking traction whether dry or wet. Even in the soft and ultra-soft compounds, they’ve also been surprisingly durable and lasted much longer than expected.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: HT T2 Pedals
HT Components doesn’t have the market share of better-known pedal brands like Shimano, Crankbrothers, or Time, but their T2 Trail pedals might just be my new favorite. They’ve got a somewhat unique clip mechanism that takes a proprietary cleat, but they are easy to get in and out of, have a solid connection, and a more dynamic-feeling float that I’ve grown to really like. The mid-sized pedal body interfaces very nicely with the soles of shoes for great lateral stability, and adding the rear traction pins can help increase the grip and sole contact. They’re also lighter weight than many similar pedals, competitively priced, and they come in a huge range of colors if that’s your thing.
The Hope Union TC pedals also deserve a mention here because they are beautifully crafted, just like everything else Hope makes. They’ve also got a great clip mechanism that takes as proprietary cleat and provides a very secure connection. There are 4 optional, adjustable pins per side and the slightly larger than mid-size platform provides excellent support and stability underfoot for a trail/enduro pedal.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Cannondale 18-in-1 with Dynaplug
I won a Dynaplug pill several years ago and they quickly became my tubeless tire plug of choice. I’ve always had pretty bad luck with bacon strips, but Dynaplugs almost always work for me and they are super quick and easy to use. Lately, many brands are incorporating tubeless tire repair tools into their multi-tools, and the one that got me most excited is the new Cannondale 18-in-1 with Dynaplug.
This is a compact and lightweight (125-gram), fully-featured multi-tool that comes equipped with a dual-headed Dynaplug plugger. The tool itself works just fine for my on-trail needs, and now I can carry one less thing with me when I ride. Yes, the $80 price tag is high, but it’s still cheaper than buying a Dynaplug pill and most other multi-tools separately.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Mons Royale
I’m a fan of natural fibers and I love Merino wool for its comfort and natural odor fighting ability. I’ve got an older Mons Royale ¾ sleeve jersey that I’ve been riding in for years, and I’ve always kinda just liked their stuff in general, even if it is expensive. At the end of the summer, I got my hands on the Mons Royale Virage Pants and the Tarn Merino Shift Wind Jersey, and they quickly rose to the top of my pants and jersey piles and stayed there.
In recent years, I’ve been riding in pants a lot, and there are a lot of great options on the market for all types of riding and preferences. What I love about the Mons Royale Virage pants is not only that they fit great and have awesome pockets, but they are made from a blend of Merino Wool and recycled polyester that’s simply more comfortable against the skin than any other pants I’ve worn. They’re also the perfect weight. They aren’t overly hot, they breathe well, and at the same time, they take the edge off the cold in temps down into the 40s. When I do get sweaty, they dry quickly, and they don’t hold onto my stink nearly as much as synthetic materials when I use them for more than a couple of rides between washes. They also look fairly reasonable off the bike, and you can wear them around like a comfortable pair of joggers and not look like you just finished a bike ride.
The Tarn Merino Shift Wind Jersey unlocked a new level of comfort while riding in cool fall conditions. It’s a long-sleeved jersey made from a Merino Wool blend, and it has a wind-blocking Pertex panel covering the entire front panel. On chilly days where I’d usually be putting a jacket on at the top of a climb to keep the wind off my sweaty torso, then taking it off again before heading up for another lap, this jersey allows me to just skip those steps a lot of the time and keep on rolling.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Velocio MTB
I’m going to echo what Tyler said about Velocio’s new line of MTB apparel. I’ve been riding in a few pieces of their latest gear and absolutely love it. Their expertise in making quality road cycling gear is very apparent in the design, construction, and quality of materials, and this stuff fits me better than just about anything else I’ve worn.
The Ultralight Trail Shorts feel like they were custom-tailored to fit me. That may not translate to everyone, but the paneling and fit of the size Medium is absolutely perfect for me. They are, in fact, ultralight, weighing in at a scant 135 grams in a size Medium. Thankfully, they aren’t awkwardly short like many other superlight shorts tend to be, so they cover more of your leg and don’t make me look like an XC nerd, even if I am sometimes. Sure, they are expensive, but they come with a sweet, stretchy Arcade belt, and I can’t say enough good things about them.
Along with the shorts, I’ve been rocking the Delta Trail Jersey which is super light, airy, and fits exactly how I want my riding jerseys to fit. I sized down to a Medium from my normal Large, and it’s plenty long while having a very contoured fit that works exceptionally well for my body shape. With a solid color and minimal branding, it blends in well with other brands’ apparel, and it quickly became my new go-to warm to hot weather riding top.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Specialized SWAT Bibs
For shorter rides or rides when I’m never that far from the house or the car, I try to avoid wearing a pack of any kind. I strap things to my bike and I wear cargo bibs to carry everything else. I’ve tried many different brands, but for me, the Specialized SWAT Bibs are still the best. I can stuff a surprising amount of snacks and other gear in those back pockets and it’s comfortable and doesn’t really move around. My favorite part about the most recent version is that they shortened the front of the chamois pad (the part you don’t sit on anyway), which allowed them to incorporate a flap in the front that makes stopping to pee so much easier.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Giro Manifest Spherical Helmet
I don’t crash that often, but when I do, it is usually pretty spectacular, so protecting my head is a priority. I’ve owned and tested a lot of different helmets over the years, and I have to say that the Giro Manifest Spherical is my new favorite. It’s been around for a couple seasons now, but this year was the first time I spent significant time wearing one.
The Manifest has the coverage I look for in a modern trail riding helmet, yet it’s still competitively lightweight. Ventilation is right up there with the best of ‘em and it has an adjustable visor that’s actually effective at blocking the sun when you need it to. I haven’t personally tested the dual-shell MIPS Spherical system by smashing my head into anything, but the Manifest has a 5-star Virginia tech rating that leads me to believe it works. Even with the dual shells, Giro managed to keep it relatively low-profile, and I think it looks pretty cool even if I don’t.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Race Face Covert Knee Pads
I like to pedal, a lot. I’m the kind of person who gets as much satisfaction out of pushing the pace up a climb as I do on the descents, and that’s the main reason that I’ve never been a huge fan of wearing knee pads, even when I should be. A quick look at my knees, and you can tell that’s actually fairly often. For me to wear knee pads consistently, they’ve got to be lightweight, slim, breathable, super pedal-friendly, and not move around on my legs at all while I’m riding.
That’s why I was stoked when I got my hands on the Race Face Covert Knee pads this fall. These are light-duty knee pads but the sizeable D30 Ghost pad gives me the coverage I want and has a much tougher feel than most similar pads while remaining super comfortable against the knee. The sleeve is fairly long, but it’s made from super breathable mesh that allows for great airflow and doesn’t irritate me no matter how long I ride. The upper and lower leg openings also have excellent grip that has kept them securely in place on my legs with less movement than any other pads I’ve tried.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Julbo Density Sunglasses
I wear contact lenses and my eyes are fairly sensitive as a result, so good eyewear is absolutely critical for me whenever I ride. I’ve been and continue to be a huge fan of Smith’s cycling sunglasses, but what impressed me the most this year is the new Julbo Density. I’ve tried numerous pairs of Julbo glasses in the past, but none of their previous models really worked for me, until now.
The Density glasses came out this year and they are super lightweight at just 19 grams. They are so light that it barely feels like you’re wearing anything at all, yet they have been incredibly stable on my face on the roughest trails and even during trail runs. They also have huge lenses that effectively keep the wind, dust, and bugs from irritating my eyes. The Reactiv 0-3 High Contrast photochromic lens adjusts based on the light conditions and has been absolutely fantastic. They definitely aren’t cheap, but they are some of the best cycling sunglasses I’ve ever used.
I’m a shoe guy. I own more bike shoes than regular shoes, and that’s not an exaggeration. My favorite shoe of all time is the original Specialized 2FO Cliplite, which I felt set a bar for what modern trail riding shoes should be. Ever since those shoes got updated, however, I’ve been struggling to find something I like just as much. The Shimano ME7 was working well for me, but alas, now those have been discontinued as well. Fortunately, I rode in a lot of different shoes this year and found some new favorites.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Crankbrothers Mallet Boa
They’ve been on the market for a few years now, but I finally got around to riding in the Crankbrothers Mallet Boa and I was very impressed. The sole is a tiny bit softer flexing than I’d like, but everything else about these shoes really does it for me. They are some of the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn, have a reasonable weight, are easy to walk in, provide a moderate level of foot protection, seem super durable, and I like the way they look.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Fox Union Boa
Fox’s new Union Boa shoes also get a nod from me. These might be “DH” shoes, but they’re trail bike weight and as stiff as I like to feel efficient on the pedals and prevent foot/calf fatigue. They aren’t quite as cushy as the Mallet Boa and the toe could use a little more flex for long hike-a-bikes, but they look badass and I really like them regardless.
EDITOR’S CHOICE: Shimano S-Phyre XC-9
When I’m riding or racing gravel, the Shimano S-Phyre XC9 is my go-to. I got a fresh pair at the beginning of the summer to replace the previous version that I’d been riding in for the past 5 or 6 years. These shoes are crazy light and super stiff, yet they are surprisingly comfortable with the wrap tongue and dual Boa closure. Ventilation is also impressive and the bright blue color just makes me feel fancy. Yes, they are wildly expensive, but my last pair lasted long enough for me to consider it money well spent.
I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again. There’s never been a better time to be a mountain biker, or any type of rider for that matter. The bikes we ride and the gear we use just continue to get better and I think that’s a wonderful thing. I’m not sure what 2024 has in store, but health, happiness, and time spent riding bikes are all that I’m really hoping for, and I wish the same for you.
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 invite us on trips. Our selections are 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 firsthand.