We test bike gear year-round at Outside, from our desert test trip in January and endurance races like the Arizona Trail Race, Breck Epic, and Triple Bypass, to daily road and trail rides here in Santa Fe (including snow biking just this week). In the process, we beat the bejeezus out of lots of gear, and while much of it these days is very good, there are often a handful of items that we come back to again and again. With our 2013 test trip to Tucson coming up next week, we decided this was the perfect moment to highlight the top pieces of bike gear that impressed us most in 2012.
01. CRANK BROTHERS KRONOLOG
This dropper post impressed us more than any other piece of gear this year. Crank Brothers replaced the hydraulic internals of the uneven Joplin with an all-mechanical design that has stood up to nine months of hard wear. We prefer the Kronolog’s infinite height adjustment to other brands' two- or three- stage configurations, as well as the simplicity of the air spring for slowing or speeding the post’s return rate. This is not only a huge improvement from Crank Brothers’ original design, but it’s darn near our favorite dropper on the market, and we recommend it on any bike except for your lightest weight racer.
02. SPEEDWAY CYCLES FATBACK
This was the year the fat bikes took to the mainstream, and though we've had plenty of fun on these hogs over the last few seasons, it is the Fatback from Anchorage, Alaska-based Speedway Cycles that has won us over for good. At just 27 pounds with huge standover and superfast steering, this bike rides more like an XC mountain bike than a monster truck. With a spare set of lightweight wheels, it easily pulls double duty as an XC racer, making this thus far the most versatile mountain bike around. (The Surly Krampus, a 2013 release, looks set to usurp that title.) Look for a full winter review of the Fatback soon.
03. SHIMANO XT
In our opinion, Shimano components are today's benchmark for performance. Released in 2011, the flagship XTR groupo shifts incredibly smoothly, brakes crisply and accurately, and is so durable that it virtually doesn't need tuning. This year, the Japanese manufacturer updated the second-tier XT groupo with pretty much all the same technology as XTR, including Ice-Tech rotors, a Shadow+ derailleur for less banging, and the same huge range of setup options (double, triple, etc.). The performance is virtually indistinguishable from XTR, and though XT is nominally heavier, it is also less than half the price. For the money, you simply cannot buy better components.
04. RAPHA GRAND TOUR SHOES
I tested dozens of bike shoes last year, and none compared to Rapha’s sumptuous Grand Tours. These aren’t the lightest, sleekest cleats out there, but they are, without question, the most comfortable. The Yak leather upper is so supple and conforming that I took them straight from the box on a five-hour century ride and had nary a twinge of pain in my feet. The Easton EC90 SLX high modulus carbon sole is one of the trimmest, stiffest designs around, and the cork version of Giro’s SuperNatural Fit footbeds make for a veritable custom fit. And while they don’t come cheap, these shoes are certain to last for years.
05. SCOTT FOIL
If 2012 was the year of aero road bikes, the Scott Foil was the king of them all. We've already written extensively about this bike, so we'll just say here that the Foil finds a subtle and brilliant balance between aerodynamics and standard geometry. It feels as stiff and responsive as the company's much lauded Addict, except thanks to the airfoil tube shapes it's even faster when you get it to speed. If you can own only one road bike, this should be it, and with seven carbon models priced as low as $1,800 it should be within reach of almost all riders. The $3,400 Foil 20 is our top value pick.
06. ASSOS ZEGHO SUNGLASSES
Not everyone will be willing to throw down $400+ on sunglasses, but those who do will see the difference. As with the majority of Assos gear we’ve tried, every detail on the Zeghos—the perfect curvature, the huge coverage with zero frame to impede your view, the outrageously light weight and feel on the head, the Carl Zeiss-crafted fade lenses—is optimized for high performance. The glasses come in three lens varieties (gray, yellow, and crystal clear), though for this much money we recommend going with the all-around gray tint.
07. NINER JET 9 RDO
There are lots of great 100mm 29ers on the market these days, but none meld performance and aesthetics like the Jet 9 RDO. We absolutely love the elegant, sweeping shapes of this full carbon frame, and the color-matched fork and bling anodized bits and pieces add to the overall effect. But like every Niner, this bike is as deft on the trails as it is beautiful in the showroom, and it has a solid, meaty ride quality unlike the pinball feel of similar models from other manufacturers. And while the Jet 9 RDO is a touch heavier than many similar-minded XC racers (24.1 pounds for our tester), we'll take the minor penalty for the good looks.
08. BIG AGNES FLY CREEK UL PLATINUM TENT
A tent might seem like an odd choice for best bike gear of the year, but Big Agnes' featherweight shelter has transformed our bikepacking experience. Constructed of ultralight silicone treated ripstop and a ridiculous amount of mesh, it feels diminutive verging on flimsy when packed but sets up so strong and solid that it has gotten us through a couple of all night high-altitude thunderstorms. Full pack weight is just over two pounds—ridiculously light for a shelter that comfortably sleeps two people, including a vestibule for gear—and if you're really going barebones you trim down to just one pound, seven ounces with just the pole, footprint, and fly. Either way, the tent easily straps onto MTB handlebars and is so trim and light that it doesn't feel like an impediment at all. If bikepacking were more popular, this would be our top gear pick for the year. It's an absolute stunning piece of engineering.
09. STAN'S ALPHA 340 PRO WHEELSET
We love the feel of tubulars but can't stand the hassle of gluing and the difficulties if you get a flat while out riding. Enter road tubeless, which has been around for quite a few years now, though with the Alpha 340, Stan's has refined the idea to the point that it's nothing but benefits. They weigh a scant 1,300 grams for the set, putting them among the lightest wheels on the market, and, with Hutchinson's Fusion 3 Road Tubeless Tires, they set up easily with a floor pump and have held pressure indefinitely. They are not the stiffest wheels around (and so probably best suited for lighter riders), but the road feel is as close to tubulars as you can get in a clincher.
10. BAR FLY GARMIN COMPUTER MOUNT
We love Garmin GPS devices and think their quick-turn mounting system is smart, but on tapering bars or a short stem it just doesn't work. Bar Fly's mount, a device that clamps securely to your bars and bumps the mounting device out front and center, is amazingly simple and works for every bike configuration. We also like that it puts the GPS smack in the center of the bars for easiest viewing. Garmin is set to release a similar device this year, but we wanted to call attention to (and reward) Bar Fly for bringing the design to the table.
HONORABLE MENTION: KNOG BLINDERS
We've written about these little front and tail lights half a dozen times already, but we really can't get over how much we like them. The designs are whimsical, the brushed metal finish is both classy and durable, and the lights are bright enough to ward off cars. We're slowly getting enough of them for every bike we own. You should too.