The prices of high-end bikes continue to skyrocket, but the spectrum's other end still has great values. And since features and technology from the premium products continue to filter down, what’s considered mid-range or even low-end these days is actually highly refined. Last year, a retired pro who raced for team 7-11 said to me, “Most of the bikes out there now, even the inexpensive ones, are far better than what we raced on in the Tour de France.”
Descended from the Gran Turismo, one of our favorite bikes a few years ago, the Wilier GTS perfectly illustrates this trickle-down. The bike borrows carbon layup technology from the Italian manufacturer’s flagship Zero and Cento1 series, whose frame sets alone sell for more than a complete GTS. The highly sculpted carbon frame weighs just 1,050 grams, which isn’t exceptionally light in this day of 640-gram superbikes like the Cervélo RCA. On the other hand, remember that just a few years ago it was a big deal when Scott managed to break the 1,000-gram mark with its Addict, so this is no pig either.
The GTS is a much different bike than the Addict or the RCA or any flat-out racer. It’s billed as an endurance ride, with a taller head tube, more upright position, and slightly longer wheelbase to make us non-racers more comfy in the saddle. The geometry works, too, as several testers remarked they’d be happy to ride the GTS all day long, noting, in particular, the frames chatter-dulling compliance.
Unlike many “comfort rides,” which handle sluggishly and feel terrible because they hang you out in the wind with too erect of positioning, the GTS manages to retain the quick steering and sharp manners of sportier rides. It is more stable and less nervous than most race bikes, though, so it’s easygoing enough in a big group.
The GTS sells for $2,600, which isn’t inexpensive, but you get a lot of value for that money. The bike is built with a Shimano Ultegra drivetrain, which works as flawlessly as the excellent Dura Ace 9000. And though Wilier has spec’d FSA cranks and brakes to save some money over a full Ultegra kit, they do it with characteristic Italian flare, including classy branding and color-matched touches so the bike is just as flashy as more expensive models.
It’s not light at 18.4 pounds (size 56), but it doesn’t feel excessive or lethargic. And though the wheels, Shimano RS11s, are definitely not race hoops, they’re befitting of the bike and durable, hard-working models that should last as long as you care to ride them.
The GTS is a mid-range roadie that looks and rides like much more expensive bikes. And for our money, it’s one of the best values going in a road bike this year.
I’ll admit it: I’m jaded about bikes. Because I ride hundreds of models a year, it takes a lot to make me notice—much less get excited. But when I saw this new collaboration between Calfee and Ellsworth, I nearly fell out of my chair. I forwarded it along to dozens of friends, all of whom oohed and ahhed in response, and I even asked my wife if we could get one.
Few bike manufacturers would make a better match than Calfee and Ellsworth. Based out of his Northern California headquarters, Craig Calfee has long produced some of the most distinctive and forward-thinking bikes on the market, including fine custom carbon fiber frames, gorgeous bamboo bikes, and even two-wheelers built from salvaged wood. Calfee’s Dragonfly is perhaps the pinnacle of road tandems.
Meanwhile, Tony Ellsworth has long built superior Made In The USA mountain bikes around his proprietary Instant Center Tracking (ICT) suspension. The design makes for extremely efficient pedaling with almost zero pedal bob, while still allowing for an extremely plush and nuanced ride. Over the years, two bikes from Ellsworth, the Truth and the Epiphany, have won Outside’s coveted Gear of the Year award.
The Witness mates a hand-wrapped carbon fiber frame from Calfee to a ICT rear triangle from Ellsworth. The stock bike is built around 27.5-inch wheels, with 140mm of travel in the rear. But it can also be ordered as a custom-built 29er with 120mm out back for a $500 upcharge. The frame weighs just 10.5 pounds and a complete bike should be able to be built up under 30 pounds without too much effort.
This could just be the ultimate Valentine’s Day present, though not every couple is made to ride a mountain tandem together. Nor is it guaranteed your sweetie will appreciate the $8,295 charge on the Visa. My wife, for instance, said I should feel free to buy it—as soon as I’ve sold off six other bikes to foot the bill.
I was halfway up Italy's Passo dello Stelvio, a 48-switchback beast in the Alps that's widely regarded as one of cycling's most mythic and punishing climbs, when the altitude kicked in. We were approaching 9,000 feet, after all. But rather than hurl my oatmeal breakfast, I settled into a manageable rhythm as the lead group of sinewy-legged climbers pedaled away from me.
Seasoned bike racers refer to this moment as getting dropped. But I hadn't clipped in to win. The annual Dreilander Giro is a 104-mile, fully supported ride known as a gran fondo, and its main purpose is to challenge riders with dramatic terrain—vertiginous climbs, historic cobblestones—while also providing cushy comforts like aid stations, bathrooms, and a SAG wagon. Fondos are not like century rides: these are serious riders with high-end rigs. Still, they feel rewarding no matter where you place in the pack.
After losing contact with the leaders, I drifted back to another group and soaked up the views. Four hours and 70 miles later at the finish, I toasted my efforts alongside thousands of other newfound cycling brothers-in-arms with a few too many steins of Stiegl.
Since the mid-1990s, fondos have been all the rage in Europe. Towns shut down, feed stations crop up along the course, and TV networks occasionally descend, as upwards of 10,000 amateur cyclists and a few notable pros compete over terrain made famous in races like the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia. A select few riders target top-ten placings, but the vast majority go for the experience. Among cyclists, it's the equivalent of playing softball at Wrigley Field, and more of them are being staged in the States.
"A gran fondo is like a marathon on bikes," says Ulrich Fluhme, a former corporate lawyer who ditched his career to start the Gran Fondo New York with his wife in 2011. "At the front people compete for the win, in the middle they want the P.R., and at the end they're simply having fun and trying to finish before the cutoff time." Today, the GFNY is one of America's largest, attracting an international peloton of 5,000 cyclists who ride a 100-mile out-and-back course in the Hudson Valley.
"There are no choices in a typical bike race. You have to go as hard as you can," explains Greg Fisher, marketing director at Bike Monkey, which organizes the annual Levi's Gran Fondo with former pro Levi Leipheimer in Santa Rosa, California. "A gran fondo lets riders modulate their experience based on their goals. You can still treat it as a race, but how hard you go is up to you."
That freedom to get what you want out of it—along with the gorgeous roads and ubiquitous wineries of Sonoma County—has made Levi's Gran Fondo the most popular in the U.S., attracting 7,500 competitors.
There's also a growing list of smaller, more curated fondos, like celebrity chef Michael Chiarello's Bottega Gran Fondo. Limited to 300 riders, the inaugural Napa Valley event in April will put competitors on teams captained by retired pros like George Hincapie and David Zabriskie, while chef-sponsored rest stops will guarantee that the calories are as epic as the riding. Chiarello, an obsessive cyclist who has competed in some of Europe's biggest gran fondos, sees it as the next step in the scene's evolution. "We wanted something intimate, experiential, and not so large that it was stressful," says Chiarello. "Like the best gran fondos, we wanted to make it fun, and we have."
Quick Fix: Adding tubeless tires like Continental’s Race King ($65) is one of the best ways to drop weight, and you don’t have to worry about pinch flats.
Easy Upgrade: The Fox DOSS dropper seatpost ($339; ridefox.com) lets you position the seat up high for efficient pedaling on climbs, then drop it lower for technical downhills.
Quick Fix: Go with your lightest shoes on race day. Every ounce shaved from shoe weight saves roughly 0.8 second per mile.
Easy Upgrade: A spendy backpack for calories and water is overkill. The Fastdraw Plus from Ultimate Direction has an adjustable handle and agel-compatible pocket.
Quick Fix: Get yourself a pair of Mad-Grip gloves (from $10). They’ll keep you from slipping on greased-up ropes, bars, and walls. Cut off the fingertips so water can drain out.
Easy Upgrade: Because they’re made of rip-stop polyester, Patagonia’s Stretch Planing boardshorts ($79) won’t easily catch on barbed wire or rocks.
Quick Fix: Get a bike fitting and the specialist will likely move your seat forward and lower your handlebars for a more aero position. You can do that yourself.
Easy Upgrade: Clip on Profile Design’s Century aero bars ($99) for even better aerodynamics.
Quick Fix: A cross bike isn’t a necessity. Put fatter tires on your road bike or skinnier ones on your mountain bike.
Easy Upgrade: Because you’ll be running over obstacles, get shoes that are as comfortable on the ground as they are on your pedals, like Pearl Izumi’s X-Project 3.0 ($160).