Josh Croxton's gear of the year 2021

Gear of the year 2021
(Image credit: Future)

Hello, and welcome to my Gear of the Year. Which, if you read last year's, you'll know usually takes the form of a short story of my year, followed by things that have stood out, impressed or made a difference to my cycling. As ever, this year's list is mostly tech, because that's the bit you're actually here for, but I've thrown in a few other things for good measure, so let's get into it. 

Well, another year has passed, and despite the current concerns surrounding yet another COVID variant and what looks to be a lifetime of booster vaccines ahead, things are looking up, aren't they? 

Even before those as spritely and young as myself - 29, thanks for asking - were given access to a vaccine, it felt like our understanding of how to live in a pandemic had adjusted, and summer began with the return of real-world bike racing here in the UK. I couldn't resist being a part of the first 'test' road race, and despite British Cycling and UK Sport watching their every move, thanks to the impeccable organisation by the South West Road Race workgroup, it went off without a hitch, paving the way for the reintroduction of grassroots sport across the country. We won't talk about my performance in the race, but we will say that I got a little too excited by the occasion. After a winter on TrainerRoad, the legs were in a good place, the best they'd ever been if we're judging solely on FTP, but I was reminded that racecraft is a thing. 

I'm no coach, I don't have the funds to pay for one, nor the brains to become one, but I'm nonetheless very interested in the science of athletic performance and throughout winter and spring, I toyed with my training, my fuelling and more. For example, I spent my entire winter training my gut to handle 100g of sugar per hour, so that I could fuel my races. Don't worry, I do still have teeth. Another thing I tried was simply replicating a race and trying to complete it in advance. I went through old Strava data for riders of my weight in a race I was doing six weeks later and made notes of the power they were putting out at certain sections of the course. I built a TrainingPeaks workout with intervals replicating the course, nine sets replicating the nine laps I'd be doing, and then tried to complete it. I never succeeded - the furthest I got was seven sets before failing, and when race day arrived, I told my teammates that if the race was hard, I had seven laps in me. As the race unfolded, I got into a break with two others and, lo and behold, I was dropped on the eighth lap. I managed to stay clear for third, which was a nice reward for the effort, but in hindsight I do wonder how much of that was in my head, getting dropped because I believed I would. 

Anyway, as the season continued and racing slowed, I felt like I needed some fresh motivation so I entered Dirty Reiver, a 200km gravel ride/race in the north of England. I knew I had the power, I just needed the endurance, so I set about some big days out. Training started well, but after a few weeks of focussing on endurance, I started to pay more attention to an injury that had been with me for years: a painful knee that I'd never had looked at by a professional. Four weeks later and an evergrowing concern that 200km of gravel could actually do some longstanding damage, I pulled out and went to see the doctor and a physiotherapist instead.

Thankfully, I know now that there's no lasting damage, just a misalignment of how the patella tracks, so my time since has been spent working on that. In a strange oxymoronic sense, as I chase health, my 'fitness' is rapidly dissipating. The only thing reducing more quickly is my remaining time in my twenties, with my 30th birthday just 43 days away… but who's counting, right?

But that does lead me nicely onto a sentimental lesson with which to finish this intro: Health is the most important thing. So from now on I'm no longer going to only chase watts, weight, or a combination of the two, I'll chase health primarily - both physical and mental - because if I'm not healthy, how can I call myself fit?

And with that, my new year's resolution is that I want to be a more rounded athlete. I no longer want to be a living iteration of a cycling meme who can't do more than a couple of press-ups, who will happily push 300 watts for an hour but is broken by a 5km run. I want to be able to hike up Snowdon with my dog, run a half marathon whilst hungover, ride 200km off-road without having to hobble up the stairs the following day, and enter my hometown triathlon so I can purposefully take an extra 20 seconds sorting out my sock height. 

But anyway… enough about me. Let's look at some cool stuff. 

Best bike: Cervelo Caledonia-5

Gear of the year 2021

Versatility defined, this road bike can handle road, light gravel, comes with a power meter for training, and can accept mudguards to keep the rain off (Image credit: Future)

I think about the 'perfect one-bike solution' a lot, and I know that for different people, the solution will be different. Someone wanting a fast bike that can handle gravel road and also race cyclo-cross would do well with the new S-Works Crux, and that bike was very close to making this list. However for me, the Cervelo Caledonia is a perfect match. It's a road bike, it can handle going off-road, it can fit mudguards for the morning commute, and its geometry is comfortable for rides that last from dawn to dusk. The model I reviewed featured a SRAM Force groupset, complete with a power meter, so it was readymade for training and racing, and everything about it matched my needs perfectly. I've since sent it back to Cervelo and it's the bike I miss more than any other.  

Read our Cervelo Caledonia-5 review

Best wheels: Zipp 353 NSW

A close up of the sidewall on the Zipp 353 NSW wheels showing the tubeless valve, the logo wordmark and the hexagonal indentations

The sawtooth profile oscillates from 42 to 45mm deep (Image credit: Josh Croxton)

Perhaps also winning the award for the most expensive wheels launched this year, the Zipp 353 NSW might not offer great value for money, but there's no denying that they are an excellent wheelset. At launch, they were marketed towards endurance riders, with a minimum recommended tyre width of 28c and a shallower depth, but these hookless-rim tubeless clinchers are perfectly primed for performance too. For starters they weigh 1255g for a pair with tubeless valves installed, which is incredibly light for a clincher. They are brilliantly stable, and their 25mm internal width means tyres are nicely rounded with low pressures. Racing them around the tight turns of criterium circuits, they were comically good. I actually found myself laughing mid-race when I realised just how good they were, and then spent the remainder of the race taking 180-degree bends on rails. 

Best tech: Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

Wahoo Elemnt Bolt on a wooden surface, with a Gear of the Year badge in the corner

With added colour, increased memory, USB-C, better buttons, better maps and a whole host more, the Elemnt Bolt is currently my favourite cycling computer (Image credit: Josh Croxton)

The newest entrant into the ring battling it out for the title of best cycling computer, the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt is a very strong contender. Wahoo not only brought it back on par with the Elemnt Roam, but went a step further by adding more colours, bigger memory, USB-C charging and more. Thanks to Wahoo's solid and simple app, it's a genuine pleasure to use day to day, whether that's just simply pushing your rides onto Strava or pulling workouts and routes from various third parties. The on-device navigation is better, too, though it does still suffer from its smaller screen. The Hammerhead Karoo 2 wins in that department, but for all-around use, the latest Wahoo Elemnt Bolt has been the one I pick up first when they're all charged. 

For more information, read our Wahoo Elemnt Bolt review.

Favourite tool: Slow cooker (and chain wax)

Gear of the year 2021

I wonder if Crockpot know about their niche customer base in the cycling world (Image credit: Future)

I'll admit I'm a little late to this party, but at the start of 2021, I bought myself an ultrasonic cleaner, a small slow cooker, and some Silca Super Secret chain wax. I have no experience to say whether Silca is better than any other brand in this regard, but it came highly recommended by friends and various sources online. I also don't know whether it's faster than a standard lubricant. 

All I can say is that not having to deal with a filthy chain when riding in winter has been a joy, and the fact that it's widely considered to be faster is an obvious bonus, even if it does feel negligible in operation. 

Best jacket: Sportful Total Comfort

I've only had this jacket for around a month, but it's immediately impressed me with its levels of warmth and comfort. On the outside it looks pretty unassuming, just your typical winter road cycling jacket, if even a little looser fit than I'd usually like. It's on the inside where the differences lay, thanks to a full inner face of Polartec Alpha material. Honestly, anything with Polartec Alpha is a winner in my eyes. Santini makes a pair of gloves made entirely of the stuff to serve as a liner, Santini also makes a sleeveless base layer from it, which is just excellent. 

Read our Sportful Total Comfort jacket review

Best bib tights: Assos Equipe RS S9

Gear of the year 2021

The Equipe RS S9 bib tights are packed with top tech and winter-beating features (Image credit: Future)

Another very expensive but very impressive item comes in the form of the Assos Equipe RS S9 winter bib tights. From their waterproof 'geoprene' calves, the impressively supportive bib strap bracing construction, the immensely comfortable chamois pad, and the Christmas list of proprietary materials, these are a truly premium product that have so far kept me comfy in all manner of disgusting British weather. 

Gamechanger: Sugar

Gear of the year 2021

A sweet money-saving hack for your winter's training ahead (Image credit: Future)

More specifically sucrose, or even more specifically again, its 1:1 ratio of glucose and fructose. According to basic understanding, the human body can absorb approximately 60g of glucose per hour and 30g of fructose - a total of 90g per hour. More recent research actually suggests that athletes can take on more, and I've experimented beyond 90 grams in my own training, but the exact makeup of glucose to fructose beyond 90g gets blurry, so for the sake of simple maths, we'll stick with 90g for now. 

A 1.5kg tub of Torq energy powder (premixed 2:1 glucose to fructose) is £27.99 at Wiggle. Meanwhile a 1kg bag of table sugar (1:1 glucose to fructose) is 65p, and a 500g bag of dextrose (which for all intents and purposes, is glucose) is around £2.00 on Amazon. With that, you've got 1.5kg of 2:1 energy drink for £2.65. I'll occasionally throw in some electrolyte tabs from Nuun on longer days, and I'll flavour it with some blackcurrant or some lime juice, but all in, you're looking at an energy drink that costs you a tenth of the overall price and flavours you can mix and match as you wish. 

Gamechanger: Strength & conditioning / stretching

Gear of the year 2021

If like me you've carried niggling injuries through your cycling career, a physiotherapist or a strenth & conditioning coach is possibly the best thing you can invest in for 2022 (Image credit: Future)

As I mentioned before, I've ignored niggling injuries and carried them with me for years. Ever since my late teens, I've endured recurring lower back pain; since my early 20s, my knee has hurt when walking on stairs; and for about four years, my neck has been sore after long road rides. My knee was the focal point of my initial assessment with my physiotherapist, but I soon realised that it was all connected and relevant, and I'm not going to fix one issue until I address them all holistically. 

Sure, it's not a cheap process, and sadly there are no quick wins in this game. It's a long process that requires a daily commitment to stretching and/or strengthening, but I am already at a point where I know how to manage the pain when it flares up, and I am on the road to addressing the muscular imbalances and weaknesses that are causing the pain. 

My time feels unproductive because I'm spending less time sweating buckets on the indoor trainer and covering far fewer kilometres outside, but I just need to remember that I'm training for health. 

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