I don’t think I’ve had a year when I’ve done more diverse riding more often than 2021 and I reckon that’s true of a lot of people. I’ve always hovered on the dirty, silly edge of pure road testing anyway (apart from that big stint where I tested loads of freaky aero bikes for Tri mags) but the explosion of ‘gravel’ has been a godsend. For someone like me, whose steady-state FTP, souplesse self-belief and attention span all make staring at the miserably mesmerising cassettes of the back end of a club run the very definition of suffering.
The randomness of being able to veer off in any direction while still clinging onto drop bars takes me right back to why I started riding in the first place. With the explosion of the category comes an abundance of new tech, so let's take a look at what stood out for me in 2021.
GPS: Brooks Challenge saddle bag
No I haven’t mixed up the categories here, I’ve deliberately put an old leather saddlebag in where a GPS computer should be. That’s because I’m sure everyone else on the team will compile compelling reasons why you should be Team Garmin, Team Wahoo (that’s me too just for the fool proof connectivity if you’re going to force an answer) or the rapidly growing Team Hammerhead.
One of the best things I’ve done this year is fitted an actually pretty useless (it’s too small, the internal strapping is awkward and the leathery ends are bending up and creating a gap) miniature leather saddle bag based on a 19th-century design by English saddle makers Brooks where a GPS should be on my gravel tandem build.
With no mileage, speed, power or even mapping data to act as a chaseable stick for my inner Labrador, I’m suddenly much happier walking at heel, sniffing the flowers, and taking a break to pee up fence posts. I’ve even got out of the habit of logging rides on Strava, which makes getting back from a ride, cleaning up and having a brew a whole lot more relaxing, too. That's right, your GPS will never log your best ride.
Power meter: SRAM Rival AXS
Created to satisfy the power-fixated newcomers who pupated on Zwift during the first lockdown and couldn’t ride outdoors without a wattage to validate their existence, SRAM’s Rival AXS is the bare minimum done brilliantly. Yes, you’ll regularly forget to zero the offset before starting your ride if you’re used to a posher meter but otherwise, the simple axle based, slide-in cartridge power meter makes itself easy to find and stays on-screen with a determination a lot of meters double the price could learn from.
It doesn’t need you to rummage through the ‘chargers’ drawer trying to work out which is the power meter lifeline and which is the one for the Christmas lights and because it’s offside only you can bolt whatever DUB chainset you want onto it. It's cheap, too.
There’s a bitter irony that the swirling mass of new bike bag brands - and established brands jumping onto the bikepacking bandwagon - have taken the limelight from the OG indestructible, submersible ‘hipster’ originated masters Ortlieb. A sodden (surprise surprise) bike tour of the UK by a young German called Hartmut Ortlieb prompted him to build a set of innovative roll-top panniers out of truck tarpaulin when he got home.
In a world where the previous benchmark had been waxed canvas, leather and wood bags from Carradice (which are still awesome in an iconically medieval sort of way) these bombproof, totally waterproof bags became the must-have investment for anyone serious about touring. Their latest range ticks all the usual bikepacking boxes, but with a mix of signature Ortlieb sealing and strapping goodness plus some typically innovative features that make a lot of the upstart bag brands look like generic fashion pieces.
Groupset: SRAM AXS XPLR
It seems like SRAM is on a mission to not only banish wires from our bikes, but also vowels and lower case letters. The best thing about XPLR though is how far it expands the potential performance of your drop-bar bike. The 10-44T cassette is the one we’ve been waiting for for ages since 11-42T got left behind with 11 speed. Wider chainring stance is a gift to frame designers trying to squeeze bigger wheels and tyres in. While we’re still uneasy about saying how much difference the 30 or 40mm travel Rudy suspension fork can make just because it sounds stupid, the Reverb XPLR wireless dropper/suspension seat post is a work of wonderment. The Zipp 101 wheels that complete the “hang on, why is this more fun than my MTB” collection roll in as my favourite ‘disruptor’ of the year, too.
Read my review of SRAM Rival Etap AXS XPLR to see how and why it was worthy of five stars.
Bike: Kinesis RTD Scandium
Scandium was the alloy alchemy element of the future over a decade ago, but you’ll rarely find it on bikes today. The biggest surprise about this mid-priced ‘Race The Distance’ frame from UK brand Kinesis though is the sheer joy it manages to find in every ride I’ve taken it on. Even the really grotty, gritty, numb nose, one eye mostly shut ‘character builders’ of winter or the ones where I should definitely have unhooked a super-bike from the wall to have a hope of keeping up.
Jacket: Giro Chrono Pro Neoshell
Giro’s Chrono Pro Neoshell has an athleisure cut and a chest pocket rather than the classic 3 row lower back design. That makes it brilliant for - you guessed it - gravel and other rides where bike bags are carrying your gear and the Neoshell fabric is left to breathe outstandingly well. It’s the heat management and moisture transfer performance that makes its low-level waterproofing and limited thermal retention (compared to say Polartec Alpha or Primaloft Gold Active) a 'fit and forget' win on days when you’re committed to staying out whatever the climate decides to do. It’s cheap for a Neoshell too and doesn’t look daft on the dog walk either.
Check out my review of the Giro Chrono Pro Neoshell jacket for more details.
Bib tights: Giro Chrono Expert
I wouldn’t listen to what I say about fit much as I spend way too long standing up on short, steep MTB test loops so my legs have evolved the wrong way up with calves bigger than my quads. That means most mixed material panel designs end up baggy in all the wrong places. Giro has gone for maximum stretch in its mid weights which works fine for me, but mostly it’s the excellent Elastic Interface pad which I became addicted to in its bib shorts over summer that makes me excited to prance about in tights again this winter.
Overshoes: Spatz Roadman 3
Seriously, if you think it’s just long rubber overshoes that might make you look a bit weird this winter, then have a look at the rest of your outfit through the eyes of a normal citizen. I’ve been a Spatz addict since I bought a set (yes, a tester BUYING something) to try and end the annual months of dead white toe, stomach-churning pain and can’t get in the shower for an hour misery of advanced Reynauds (non) circulation issues.
Brilliantly designed and getting better (and with more options) every year, these are a genuine revelation/revolution in cold and wet weather comfort, whatever shoes you’re hiding underneath, and while they’re expensive for overshoes they’re far better value than most winter boots.
I reviewed the Spatz Pro 2 overshoes and gave them a full five-star rating, and the Roadman 3 is even better.
Saddle: Brooks Cambium
I get all sorts of saddles through to test but the only ones I’ve ever bought for personal use are the uniquely conforming and comfortable retro icon meets modern tech Cambium saddles from Brooks. Pretty much everyone I’ve lent them to has ended up a very happy owner too. Just don’t put them on the scales.
Read more in my review of the Brooks C17 Cambium saddle
Tyres: Schwalbe G-One R
There is no ideal gravel tyre. There can’t be. ‘Gravel’ is just too many different things to too many people from dusty road races to basically MTB wilderness exploring. Nobody seems to have told Schwalbe though, as its new G-One R is actually the ideal gravel tyre as far as I can tell. Blisteringly quick with pillowy buoyancy that somehow doesn’t mind you bouncing it off the rim regularly but also finds far more grip from its unique finned tread in far more situations than is reasonable.
Wheels: Zipp 101
I could fill the internet trying to describe the differences between the endless amount of mid-depth, varying width ‘pick your hype of choice’ carbon aero wheels you could buy but there’s only one recent wheel that owes more to MotoX and century-old town bike design than a wind tunnel. Zipp’s 101 is heavier than its 303s, it feels a bit soft when pedalling and it’s as aero as a dog with its head out of a car window.
However, the flat - non-box section - carbon rim design means it can twist and writhe over rough surfaces and impacts like no other wheel. That means you can hit sections that you’d normally tiptoe over on drop bars properly flat out with the lolling-tongue, flapping-ear joy of that same car-window canine. It’s the closest thing we’ve found to putting tank tracks on your gravel bike in terms of traction.
Read my review of the Zipp 101 XPLR gravel wheels over on Cyclingnews' sister site, Bike Perfect.
Protecting my peepers from rain, sun, cold, insects or whatever the road/trail is flinging at me is something I’ve always struggled with. Not because there isn't a huge variety of options to choose from, but because I have an unnatural talent for destroying sunglasses. That’s a real pain when I’m also very picky about being able to see through them and as far as I’m concerned, terminal scratches across the lens of specs well over £100 within a week is unforgivable.
I’ve been rotating three sets of glasses from French mountaineering brand Julbo over my sunken sockets (and forgetting they’re in pockets/waist packs/kit bags and other lens-hostile environments) for the best part of a year, and they still look totally box fresh. Depending on the model they give excellent coverage, security/stability is spot on and the photochromic versions have become my go-to tear stoppers now the temperatures are dropping and the light levels are as random as 12-speed chain supply forecasts.
Object of Desire: Specialized Chisel
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If you like saying that gravel bikes are just rubbish versions of XC mountain bikes, here’s the bike to prove you absolutely correct. Specialized sent me a limited edition fancy ‘elemental’ paintwork version of its SmartWeld D’Alusio alloy Chisel hardtail frame and its gobsmackingly light and not even that expensive Roval Control 29er Carbon wheels with instructions to do something fun with them.
Cue some of those fancy one-piece Syncros Nino Schurter bars, SID SL race fork, 590g Specialized Renegade S-Works 2.35in tyres and a 10-36 SRAM Red block and AXS rear mech for a complete bike weight of 9.1kg even with alloy cranks and seat post. That’s 500g lighter than my Santa Cruz Stigmata with XPLR Rival kit and 101 wheels but far faster and smoother on anything remotely rough. Still fast enough to race for village signs with cross bikes too. Best of all it looks absolutely sick, represents really good value and really confuses people when they pick it up.
Gamechanger: Ratio Technology 12-speed
If making the new Rival AXS 12-speed wireless controllers cheaper than the 11-speed analogue Force shifters that have been around for years isn’t a sign that SRAM really is on a crusade against cables, I don’t know what is. However, if you want to play in the big cassette wonderland of 12-speed Eagle, mid-range XPLR or the almost straight through roadblock options, but have a battery allergy or don’t want to junk those seemingly indestructible 11-speed shifters, there is a solution.
Ratio Technology in the UK makes a variety of simple-to-self-install mods that, with a bit of careful tension fettling, sync your shifters and appropriate rear mechs with whatever 12-speed SRAM ratio setup you want. I’m running two sets now and it ‘dozen’t’ (sorry not sorry) even have problems handling Eagle on the hideous torque created by a gravel tandem.
Read more in our Ratio 12-speed Gear Kit review
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