Despite COVID-19's best attempts to overthrow the cycling zeitgeist, there was a smorgasbord of pretty important and radical product drops that took place during 2020. Manufacturers had to get creative with their launches and Zoom and other virtual meetup platforms became the norm as the cycling industry banded together symbiotically. In fact, I don't ever recall testing as many bikes and products as I have during 2020 - but that's a good thing.
Unlike my home country of South Africa that was locked down solidly for three months, we had it fairly good here in the UK and were allowed to ride outside and experience, arguably, one of the better summers on record - or so I'm told. The awesome weather and huge spread of daylight afforded me the ideal platform from which to test all of the latest bikes and gear, which helped formulate objective opinions. And there was a lot of gear. And bikes.
In fact, this has been my most productive year in a long time - both as a journalist and cyclist. Working from home has allowed me to structure my days to maximise my time on the bike and laptop resulting in over 21,100km ridden for the year according to Strava (at the time of writing). Not all my riding took place outside though. The growth of indoor cycling and the subsequent barrage of indoor-specific gear also needed testing and so my love affair with the smart turbo trainer was re-ignited. I also spent a lot of time working on my own bikes and playing mechanic. It's fair to say I've learned a lot this year.
In terms of gear, it's not just the fancy stuff that made the best impressions. There were many surprises, too, and each product listed here represents something I'd happily buy. Here are my top 10 picks of 2020.
1. Hammerhead Karoo 2
Despite boasting the best screen and mapping capabilities in the business, the first-generation Hammerhead Karoo was blighted by its dimensions and weight. The new Hammerhead Karoo 2 you see here, however, is 40% smaller and 33% lighter than before and weighs 125g, attributes which bring it more in line with the current crop of best cycling computers. It's now somewhere between the Wahoo Elemnt Roam and Garmin Edge 1030 in terms of scale.
As part of an exclusive test, Hammerhead sent an engineering prototype to sample a few months ago and it blew me away. The big focus with Karoo 2 stems from its connectivity prowess which sees it employ twin Bluetooth, low-energy chipsets that connect to ANT+, WiFi, Smartphone, GPS, 3G and 4G, which lets it talk to any device - iOS or Android.
It also uses a USB-C charging slot for faster charging. We just received the full production version which is currently being put to the sword.
Price: US$399 / £300 / €335
2. POC Ventral Spin Rapha x Palace Edition
I'm a big fan of the POC Ventral Spin helmet. Not only does it provide a superlative mix of aerodynamics and ventilation, but it also benefits from POC's very own slip-plane brain protection system called SPIN. While many pundits have been quick to dismiss POC helmets based on the Swedish company's brazen colour palette and design philosophy, the Cyclingnews tech team quite likes the way it does things.
For this year's Giro d'Italia, EF Pro Cycling decided to change things up and scrap its now-famous pink livery for something more disruptive, more street orientated - enter the Rapha x Palace collaboration. As such everything from the team's Cannondale bikes and kit to the team-issue POC helmets got treated to a Palace makeover with the London-based Skateboard firm going all out in an attempt to shake up the rolling billboard-like cycling kit that comprises the contemporary peloton.
Like EF Pro Cycling's Cannondales, the Ventral started out as a blank canvas before getting sticker-bombed with Palace's polarising imagery and cartoon-style graphics. While not to everyone's taste, the playful designs broke the internet and the limited run of gear sold-out instantaneously. We were lucky enough to get our hands on this Rapha x Palace Ventral Spin. Apparently, POC wants it back.
Price: US$290 / £270 / €300
It's the small things in life that matter most, right? Well, when it comes to taking bicycle shots for Instagram or Cyclingnews, the ShadowStand has quite literally changed the game - forever. Never again will you have to balance your bike using a branch or stick, nor will you need to Photoshop it out later when you get home. The ShadowStand is made from Perspex and is virtually invisible in photos.
It's available in two iterations - the original ShadowStand which fits under the vertically positioned crank/pedal, or the Photographer's Stand (pictured here) which is a slightly bigger version that fits between the bottom bracket and crank allowing the cranks to sit parallel to the ground.
Both the stand and packaging are manufactured from 100% recycled materials, the stand itself is made from Green Cast recycled acrylic.
Price: $20 / £15 / €17
4. Elite Direto XR
The Elite Direto appears to be getting better and better with every passing year. Following on from the success of the Elite Direto X comes the XR, which has replaced the Elite Drivo at the top of the brand's direct-drive line of smart turbo trainers. Having spent close 4,000km on the new model as well as sampled every Direto since inception, the nuances between the new XR and the models below it are clearly evident thanks to radically improved innards.
The XR can now simulate gradients of up to 24 per cent (up from 18 on the Direto X) while the maximum power output is pegged at 2,300 watts. It also gets a 20 per cent heavier flywheel (5.1kg) which does wonders to help simulate real-world road feel and help carry momentum up virtual rolling terrain in the best cycling apps such as Zwift.
As a competitive eRacer, the biggest drawcard for me personally is the XR's improved data harvesting accuracy. Thanks to its ability to record 220 data points per pedal stroke, it's accurate to a maximum deviation of only 1.5 per cent. Put to the test in dual recording sessions alongside Favero Assioma DUO power pedals, the XR tracked accurately and within manufacturer specifications. To keep it relevant in a highly competitive space, Elite has also included a pre-fitted Shimano 105 cassette.
Price: $949 / £824.99 / €912
5. Rudy Project Spinshield
I've tested a lot of cycling sunglasses during 2020 - earlier in the year I waxed lyrical about POC's Aspire Solar Switch shades that use an LCD lens to seamlessly switch between tints but they only work well when it's very sunny. I also enjoyed the Koo Open Cubes, Spectros and Demos not forgetting the Rudy Project Defender and all-new Cutline sunglasses.
While I found myself switching between the options from POC and Koo, I kept going back to Rudy Project because of their compatibility with myriad helmet designs. The Spinshield is Rudy Project's newest model. These sunglasses make use of a massive, one-piece lens with integrated nosepiece. The design harks back to the 1985 Rudy Project Super Performance sunglasses complete with the thin frame and pinstriped upper taking centre stage.
Despite the lack of adjustability the Spinshields fit well and provide an unobstructed and commanding field of view. While the large, goggle-like appearance might limit its appeal somewhat, they're bold and exude the panache the Italian firm has become famous for over the years.
Price: $159 / £100 / €125
6. Fizik Antares Versus Evo R3 Adaptive saddle
I didn't choose the range-topping, superlight Fizik Antares Versus Evo 00 Adaptive saddle and there's a very specific reason for that - you don't need it because the Evo R3 Adaptive does everything its pricier sibling does at £141 less. Sure, it comes without the carbon garnishing of its sibling, but it benefits from the same 3D-printed lattice and saddle geometry.
Comfort levels of this saddle are simply superb and the R3's plastic underpinnings also have a tendency to flex which provides an extra layer of comfort should you choose to use it for gravel riding or mountain biking. The saddle, however, is on the narrow side of the sizing spectrum and might not gel well with those with wider sit bones so it's worth checking your compatibility before splurging on this 3D-printed perch.
Price: $377 / £249 / €275
Best 3D-printed saddle: A Fizik vs Specialized head-to-head
7. NoPinz SubZero Indoor cycling kit
Really? Indoor-specific cycling kit? I'll admit I was a little on the sceptical side when it came to the performance claims of the NoPinz SubZero Race suit but, after testing it thoroughly over the past two months, it's clear that the concept works. Especially considering indoor cycling and the eRacing sphere is moving into a golden age.
NoPinz has designed the SubZero race suit to combat the overheating issue by ensuring your core temperature stays as cool as possible. And it works, thanks to the introduction of strategically placed 'FreezePockets' which have been designed to house gel-based cooling packs - one just below the neck and the other on the lower back. The mesh-like fabric is resistant to holding moisture and also helps when it comes to ventilation and further cooling measures.
Having used the SubZero Race suit during a variety of online races including Zwift Racing League events, WTRL TTTs as well as the World TTT Champs on Zwift, the benefits were notably evident. It taking me substantially longer to work up a sweat and my heart rate was building up progressively rather than spiking and staying high throughout efforts. The built-in airconditioner-like effect of the perforated fabric also means it can be used outside in hot-weather climates.
Price: $214 / £159.99 / €177
- Indoor cycling: A comprehensive guide
8. Merida Reacto Team-E
The aero road bike revolution has continued its path of perpetual plagiarism for 2020 with only a handful of manufacturers managing to stand out from the rabble. When the all-new Merida Reacto arrived for testing in Team-E guise, I was genuinely excited by what I saw. Yes, it followed a similar design blueprint to that of its rivals but subtle tweaks gave it a distinctive edge, not to mention the Bahrain McLaren team-issue livery and Papaya-orange paintwork.
It's a super-fast machine with rocketship-like response but it's the manner in which it corners and soaks up road imperfections that sets it apart from its counterparts. Merida's design team spent just as much time crafting it for compliance as it did making it a veritable speed demon. Improvements in the carbon lay-up techniques have helped reduce mass as well as made the bike more comfortable to ride and live with every day.
Set it up tubeless and everything from its straight-line speed to cornering proficiency sharpens up, providing a tactile and granular experience that often gets lost when using regular tubes. The Merida Reacto is a faultless take on aero road bike recipe - a genuine superbike and one of the best bikes to come out of 2020.
Price: £9,000 / €10,299
9. Fizik Alpaca Tool Carrier
I hate riding with full pockets. I also hate riding with saddlebags as these bolt-on appendages do little to complement a bike's aesthetic qualities. That's just my personal opinion but I am open to less conspicuous modes of on-bike storage. Take Fizik's Alpaca Tool Carrier for example. It really is a nifty little gadget that bolts onto the Italian brand's range of Terra and Alpaca saddles.
The Tool Carrier comes with a diminutive twelve-strong multi-tool with provisions for two CO2 cartridges. The compact design is slimline enough not to inhibit dropper post actuation and looks rather stealthy when fitted in position. The multi-tool itself is a handy little gadget that contains a variety of hex keys, a T10 and T25 Torx Phillips and flathead screwdrivers. The Tool Carrier can also be split up - the CO2 cartridge holders can be removed leaving just the tool and carrier.
For those who currently use a Terra or Alpaca saddle, the Fizik Alpaca Tool Carrier is a no-brainer, really.
Price: $39.99 / £39.99 / €40
10. AbsoluteBlack Oval PVD Rainbow Rings
British oval chainring manufacturer AbsoluteBlack knows a thing or two about maximising power delivery on the bike. The company has been making some of the lightest, hardest-wearing oval chainrings for some time now.
The rings are also exquisitely designed and detailed and available in a range anodised, gloss-black and gold hues but it's the new PVD Rainbow Ring that has made me weak at the knees. Available in a host of sizes and compatible with most contemporary axle standards, the chainring can double up for use on both a mountain or gravel bike and is only available in 1x, direct-mount, Boost spacing derivatives from 28-36T.
The aluminium chainring has been treated to a physical vapour deposition (PVD) Rainbow Titanium coating process. It's basically witchcraft but what this process does is essentially lower friction and improve longevity and performance. It's also the blingiest chainring on the market.
Owing to the manufacturing process, no two chainrings are the same in terms of how the rainbow treatment is applied which makes for a truly unique drivetrain addition. The rings are available in limited numbers and will set you back £110 for SRAM and £115 for Shimano.
Price: $150 / £110 / €122
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