I’ve slept 24 hours in the last two nights, which might sound ridiculously luxurious until you consider that I barely got that much sleep total in the seven days beforehand. That’s what happens at the annual Outside bike test, when we bring over 75 bikes to Tucson, gather 25 or so testers per day, and ride so much and so hard that my coach writes daily to tell me to ease off.
This year we built many of the bikes in Tucson (as opposed to bringing them down pre-built in previous years), which gave me almost two weeks of warm-weather testing time. During that period, I logged solid ride time on every bike in the test except for the women’s models, racking up over 350 miles and more than 25,000 feet of vertical. If you extrapolate those numbers to 15 testers total, which is on the conservative side, you get a sense of the breadth of mileage and experiences we accumulate to pick the best new bikes of the coming year. And on about half of the bikes, I spent extended time before and after the test to solidify impressions.
More than just picking favorite bikes, however, the bike test is interesting for the trends it reveals.
In road bikes, we saw two major developments this year. The first is the spread of disc brakes, which were mostly a novelty last season because the hardware wasn’t widely available. This season, almost 60 percent of the road bikes we tested came with discs. And though some of the staunchest roadies in the test still have reservations about discs, consensus was unanimous that their performance is superior to rim brakes.
The other trend is the proliferation of adventure road bikes. The label is a replacement for the term gravel bike as many in the industry found that moniker too limiting. But the idea is the same: a road bike with a longer wheelbase than normal, a taller top tube, clearance for wide tires, and sometimes cross-oriented knobbies. Adventure roadies are built for versatility, and we tested them on a short circuit that took in some fast, hilly pavement as well as some hardpack singletrack. Again, some testers rolled their eyes at the new label, but pretty much everyone agreed that the mixed-use day of riding was the most fun in the entire stretch of road riding.
Big is the catchword in mountain bikes: Big tires, big travel, and, much to some riders’ chagrin, big prices. As manufacturers continue to refine frame and wheel designs by cutting out excess, bikes are getting both lighter and more capable. That means that where four inches (100mm) was once considered the standard travel for cross-country bikes, now many of these fast machines come with five. And it’s not uncommon to find bikes aimed at general trail riding with six or more inches of travel (150mm+) that weigh less than XC rigs did just a couple of years ago. Fat tires have gone mainstream, too, with the full-suspension Bucksaw proving that big is not necessarily unwieldy.
Over the next week, I’ll bring you a look at some the bikes that topped our favorites list and that we believe will influence the direction of bike design and the cycling market as whole in coming years. The truth is, there are a lot of very good bikes out there now, and it’s increasingly becoming a question of nuance and refinements that set apart the bikes. Having said that, there’s still lots of innovation going on, from electronic shifting and suspensions in mountain bikes to flat-out road racers with discs and even a climbing bike that barely tips 10 pounds.
It’s exciting times in cycling, which partly explains last week’s sleep deprivation. Who wants to sleep when there are so many good bikes to ride?