Graham Cottingham's gear of the year 2021
A fast do-everything gravel bike, bib shorts with pockets, a packable backpack and double Dogma
I started the year with some pretty low expectations if I’m being honest. As a bit of a realist and with the continued projection of world pestilence, I made peace with myself that I would use what freedoms I had available to spend time riding and reconnecting with friends, rather than getting my hopes up for embarking on ambitious adventures. The lockdown situation in Scotland would drag out until June when the R number finally dropped low enough that we could start going to pubs again, which was obviously a big milestone. I was fitter than I had ever been and reinvigorated to get out and make the most of our returning freedoms. Unfortunately before the summer of fun could start I rode into a curb, awkwardly tumbled off my bike and fractured my ankle.
This was a real bummer in a number of ways. The obvious pain and following weeks hobbling about off the bike were annoying, but it was made worse as I was meant to be riding the Rapha Pennine Rally the following week and had to resign myself to sitting at my desk watching dots. I also had a week of annual leave shortly after with more bikepacking and gravel adventures bookmarked, all of which had to be changed in favour of sedated ankle-friendly bimbling.
Luckily my ankle healed up quickly and fitness bounced back just in time to catch the last bit of summer. I did the Racing Collective’s Glenduro, a self-supported gravel enduro race, and rounded the year up with a last-minute entry to the Dirty Reiver too, both of which reinvigorated my enthusiasm for riding.
The easing of restrictions also meant I was actually able to attend some press launches which was a real novelty after 18 months of travel restrictions. BMC invited me to Switzerland to see its new BMC Roadmachine X One and URS LT, then onto a weekend with Basso in the Dolomites to ride the new Basso Palta. However, Omicron put paid to any further trips.
For everyone, 2021 was a tantalising taster of what once was and will hopefully act as a reminder that if we all behave and take our medicines then better times are around the corner. I still feel like I have local lane cabin fever, stomping the same safe roads and routes, although 2021 has given me hope that we can still get out and do things too. I have no doubt that even the best-laid plans of 2022 will be upended at a moment's notice, so it's going to be even more important to try and be organised, be spontaneous and make the most of the good days.
So while I put together my 2022 bucket list of rides, here’s my favourite tech of the last year.
Best bike: Canyon Grizl
As someone who is lucky enough to ride a great variety of bikes, I struggle to define what it is that makes a bike the best bike of the year. Is it the bike ridden the most or the bike I wish I rode more? Maybe it is the one that clocked up the most distance, although for many riders that could mean the old rusty commuter would top the favourite rather than the bike that's preciously hidden away until peak summer. It’s rarely by price, yes the expensive bikes almost always perform better but these days budget and mid-range equipment are so good that purchasable performance gains are pretty marginal. There is definitely an element of how the bike makes you feel and what you can achieve on it that contributes to its 'bestness' as well as experiences and nostalgia from past rides.
For me, there has been one bike that has ticked almost all of the above criteria and the Canyon Grizl has been an utter joy to ride throughout the year. Canyon released it as a ruffty-tufty brother to the existing Grail and I knew straight away this was going to be a winner. As a mountain biker at heart the large 50mm tyre clearance, dialled geometry and a seriously stout frameset meant straight from unboxing this is a gravel bike I could send hard. It’s taken me on numerous adventures from exploring some of Scotland's best gravel climbs to loaded bikepacking trips. Up mountains and down mountain bike trail centres to racing gravel enduros or racing my roadie friends.
To be honest, I don’t want to give this bike back and considering I have clocked up a whopping 4,254km, along with all the associated bumps that go along with that much off-road riding, I’m not sure Canyon would want it back. This bike has been non-stop good times and I get excited about what’s in store every time I swing a leg over it to go for a ride.
Read our Canyon Grizl review
Best groupset: SRAM Rival XPLR
SRAM has been seriously busy this year with a plethora of new releases for 2021. The new Rival and GX AXS groupsets help make wireless shifting more attainable, Flight Attendant could transform mountain bike suspension in the future, and it also released an entirely new gravel ecosystem. SRAM went all out too, leveraging all corners of its cycling tech umbrella to produce a full XLPR system from tyres to suspension. While I didn’t get a go on the suspension fork, dropper or wheels, I did have a few rides using SRAM Rival eTap AXS XPLR and every time it delivered on performance with slick shifting and comfortable ergonomics.
I have put a lot of miles on the standard Rival AXS, which was also released this year, however, it’s the cassette of Rival XLPR which makes it a true gamechanger. Similar to the Campagnolo Ekar gravel groupset that I included in my 2020 gear of the year, the progressive ratio spread of the cassette makes it extremely usable whether riding road or gravel. The fact that Rival XPLR is also affordable, wireless, and (if my experience with the standard road-going Rival AXS is anything to go by) extremely dependable too, makes it one of the best options for those looking for a new gravel groupset in 2021/2022.
Guy Kesteven reviewed the SRAM Rival Etap AXS XPLR groupset and liked it so much he also included it in his gear of the year.
Best jacket: La Passione PSN LS Rain jersey
While it's not technically a jacket, I gave the La Passione PSN LS Rain jersey five stars in my review earlier in the year for one very good reason, I basically lived in this jersey across the unpredictable spring months. The same can be said as autumn rolled around and it’s holding up well despite being subjected to some seriously unpleasant weather, hours of gritty spray and frequent washes to make sure it’s fresh for the next outing. I find the Pro-cut fit great, it has a 20,000mm waterproof rating and there are some really nice weather-sealing features too without making the jersey feel over-engineered. In fact, the only downside is that La Passione doesn’t offer this fantastic jersey in a women’s fit.
For more details, check out my full review of the La Passione PSN LS Rain jersey.
Best bib shorts: Rapha Explore Cargo
I have decided, all bib shorts and tights should have pockets. Rapha’s Explore Cargo bib shorts are some of the best too, managing to integrate the pockets without looking or feeling like you are wearing cargo pants to a black-tie event. Having the leg pockets to quickly and securely stash things is something I just don’t want to live without anymore. Plus the additional pockets in the rear open up all sorts of alternative layering options from casual t-shirts to pocketless mid-layers.
Obviously a bib short is primarily measured on its comfort and Rapha has nailed it here too. Excellent fit and a great chamois means these were a go-to throughout the summer months. For those with tighter budgets, Rapha also has the Rapha Core Cargo bib shorts which we scored 4.5/5. If you're looking for bibs to go under your baggies, Rapha now has its Trail Cargo Bib which loses the two-leg pockets in favour of mesh side panels for better ventilation.
Object of Desire: Pinarello Dogma
Regular readers of the Cyclingnews tech content may remember the Campagnolo-equipped Pinarello Dogma F12 Disc we featured as part of our (semi-regular) weekly ‘Object of Desire’ series. It was a real pleasure to not only be trusted to look after something so expensive, but also ride it for a good length of time. The gold paint was absolutely on the right side of outrageous and it rode as quickly as it turned heads. No bike has resulted in so many people asking me if I race, and I mean strangers with potentially little or no knowledge of bikes would literally walk up and start asking me questions about this bike.
Then Pinarello launched a new Dogma F and shortly after I received a special delivery of my test bike. It was lighter, faster and, despite not having the wonderful golden finish of my F12, was in my eyes better looking. I found myself in the very privileged position of having both bikes at my disposal and it was a real first world problem trying to pick which Pinarello Dogma to ride. They had a lot in common; excellent handling and a surprising level of comfort meant they were both wonderful to ride. The Dogma F’s weight savings were noticeable and the tweaks to the frame give it a really sleek and refined finish, however the Campagnolo groupset and wheels were fantastic on the F12, also did I mention the F12 was gold?
Ultimately while the Dogma F definitely offers some performance gain over the F12, when talking about desire the decision isn’t based on rationality, rather how it makes you feel. If I was to have my way I would have the Dogma F in gold with a Campagnolo build, but as I don’t have that sort of money to spend I just need to remember how lucky I was for a few short months to have the choice of riding both of these superbikes.
Gamechanger: Apidura Packable Backpack
I’m a bit of a minimalist when it comes to bikepacking as I want my bike to ride as it is intended rather than being weighed down or impeded with lots of extra baggage. While there are many areas across a bikepacking setup where little luxuries can be trimmed and pruned, one thing I have learned the hard way is that you can’t skimp on food. As my bikepacking guru and mentor Stuart Allan says, ‘if you don’t eat, you die’.
That might seem obvious, food is fuel after all, but when you are strung out after what feels like a million hours on the bike and your refill spot is a sparse local post office, it's easily forgotten. With minimum choice and space at a premium, it’s easy to shop based on what fits which severely skews your perception of how much you should actually be squirrelling away.
Having a packable backpack has been a revelation. Tucked away until it’s needed, I can hit the shops like Supermarket Sweep, knowing that I have a full 13 litres of capacity to fill with delicious things to invigorate mind and body ready for the next day. Not only that but it’s also waterproof and if packed well, stable and comfortable enough to ride a good few hours between resupply and camp spot. Once you have eaten all your food and disposed of the rubbish, it quickly folds back down into its little pocket and to be stashed away.
Gamechanger: AfterShokz Aeropex
I like listening to music when I ride, but with conventional headphones that can present some issues around safety and comfort. Aftershox’s Aeropex bone-conducting headphones have been a real gamechanger and mean I can enjoy listening to tunes without isolating myself from what’s going on around me.
I wear them on every ride, even when I am riding with friends, as they are so comfortable that I don’t notice I have them on. Standby is incredible so it’s just a case of leaving them connected to my phone ready for when I want to listen to some tunes. They are super secure as well, so there is no fear of them dropping out on a bumpy gravel ride and the IP67 water resistance rating means you can enjoy music come rain or shine.
Check out our full review of the Aftershox Aeropex for more details.
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Graham has been part of the Cyclingnews team since January 2020. He has mountain biking at his core and can mostly be found bikepacking around Scotland or exploring the steep trails around the Tweed Valley. Not afraid of a challenge, Graham has gained a reputation for riding fixed gear bikes both too far and often in inappropriate places.