With wheels getting stronger and lighter, dropper posts more reliable, and bikes increasingly versatile, this was a good year to be on a bike
It’s easy to grouse about the constantly changing standards in cycling (think: new hubs, bottom brackets, wheel sizes, etc.) and the skyrocketing prices. The upside? With so many companies sinking money into the business, an awful lot of great products are being produced. I’ve been testing new stuff nonstop throughout 2016, and these are my 10 very favorite pieces, ranked.
10. Oakley EVZero Range PRIZM Sunglasses (From $160)
These wild-looking (my wife calls them ridiculous) shields are the finest riding glasses I’ve worn in years. The visual clarity is shocking after using inferior lenses. The coverage is as good as it gets without upgrading to a full goggle, and the lens is so well cut that you can’t see any of the edges. That combined with the exceptional light weight (23 grams) makes you feel like you’re wearing nothing at all—all while protecting your eyes from sun and debris.
9. Gore One Thermium Jacket ($400)
This was a late entry, coming to me in November, but it has quickly become my favorite piece of winter riding gear. More than a jacket, this is a true piece of equipment. Gore’s new Thermium fabric provides surprising warmth for its low bulk, and the soft hand of the materials add to the cozy feel. The details are totally dialed, including long cuffs with elegantly designed Velcro closures, a trim adjustable hood, and reflective hits for after-dark visibility. It is hands-down the best piece I’ve worn for very cold riding (zero degrees or lower), and it’s stylish enough that it can even double for going out.
8. Blackburn Outpost Frame Bag (From $60)
Bikepacking finally went mainstream this year, with dozens of companies jumping into the space with bikes, tents, and packs for self-supported backcountry rides. This means more people can get the gear and get out there (without the production wait times of small, custom manufacturers.) This range of bikepacking gear from Blackburn is actually two years old, but 2016 was the first time I encountered it firsthand. The company produces an excellent full kit for adventure riding, including seat bags, bar bags, and top tube bags, but it’s their refined frame bag that impresses the most. The zippered, telescoping design, which comes in three sizes, means the bag converts quickly from a strip that fits most full-suspension frames to a full triangle that fills adventure, cross, or road frames. And Blackburn’s entire range of bags are quite affordable compared to the competition.
7. Stan’s Mark 3 Wheels (From $675)
Stan’s No Tubes, the company that turned the MTB world on to tubeless, has long built what I consider to be the finest mountain wheels on the market for their blend of high performance, light weight, and affordability. And this year they got even better with the Mark 3 (or MK3) line, which makes Stan’s three most popular rims, the XC-oriented Crest, trail-oriented Arch, and all mountain-oriented Flow, both wider and lighter. This means you get better tire spread for improved traction, increased rigidity due to the new low-profile rim shape, the same easy-sealing setups as before, and less rotating weight. Carbon wheels are hard to beat for flat out performance, but these Stan’s alloy models are very nearly as good and cost about a quarter of the price of most composites.
6. Specialized Turbo Levo FSR (From $4,500) and Trek Powerfly FS ($5,000) Electric Bikes
I know the haters will bellyache when they see an electric bike on this list, but all I can say is: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Yes, there are still legislative hurdles and use practicalities to work out. And sure, these bikes are still heavy and are likely to get better batteries and longer ranges in coming years. But what Trek and Specialized have done with these two models is to both legitimize the category and to bring real mountain bike performance to pedal-assist. That’s the thing to remember: these bikes are not throttle machines—you have to pedal to get assistance from the motor. And whereas many prior attempts at this genre have felt cumbersome on dirt, the Turbo Levo and Powerfly FS are shockingly spry and nimble trail machines. The Trek’s Bosch motor system feels the smoothest, while the Specialized has the better trail manners. Both are excellent bikes and will likely shepherd in wider access for more riders, as well as a level playing field between partners of different abilities. And yeah, they’re pretty damn fun to ride.
5. Bontrager Drop Line Dropper Seatpost ($300)
The dropper seat post is arguably the most performance-enhancing piece of mountain bike gear that has come along in years, yet high costs and durability issues have plagued many on the market. Bontrager must have gotten fed up with third-party models failing (as Specialized clearly did a while ago) because this year they developed their own. So far, it is everything you want in a good dropper: smooth action, ergonomic lever, and almost zero movement at the head. I’ve used a handful and had zero of the sag, bleed, or failure issue so common in other brands. And while my sample size is small, I’ve heard from a number of shops that the Drop Line posts are holding up well on a large-scale level, too. Best of all, it’s relatively affordable compared to the competition.
4. Maxxis Rekon+ Tires ($120)
Plus-size tires have been the hottest thing going in mountain bikes in the last 18 months, and while I’ve generally loved the concept, one thing that has held back the new mid-fat bikes is tire selection, with the initial offerings tending toward rounded, low-profile treads. Those offerings have finally begun to fill out, thanks in large part to Maxxis, which now offers six models in 2.8- and 3-inch tires. I love the chunky treads of the Minion DHF and DHR II Plus models for the rocky, rugged riding we have out West, but the Rekon+, which is a bit less aggressive but still plenty strapping, is probably the best all-around plus tire out there. It rolls relatively fast but still has plenty of bite for the rough stuff and prominent side knobs so you can lean hard into turns. And the EXO sidewall protection means these tires resist the tears and flats that can be an issue with plus size.
3. Diamondback Haanjo Trail Carbon ($3,100)
Road bikes continue to morph into machines built for both pavement and dirt—credit the “gravel” bike movement—and my absolute favorite of any of these all-road machines is Diamondback’s composed and smartly spec’d Haanjo. This year’s carbon model not only lops some weight out of the previous year’s alloy edition, but it also adds the expected compliance. The main triangle is huge for frame bag storage space on long races like the Kanzaa and overnight expeditions, and, unlike so many companies out there, Diamondback wisely includes three water bottle bosses. The 700x40c Schwalbe G-One tires are an excellent all-around choice, but the bike also has more clearance should you want to run 650Bs up to around two inches. Everything else is just what you’d hope for: full Ultegra drive train, hydraulic disc brakes, and thru-axles front and rear. Oh yeah, and when I sub in a lightweight pair of road wheels with 28c tires, I’m perfectly happy riding the road with a fast group, which makes this possibly the most versatile road bike money can buy.
2. Evil The Following (From $5,100)
I’ve already dwelled on the exceptional details of this bike, but even after testing the new models for 2017, The Following remains one of my all-time favorite trail machines. This bike is built around the DELTA suspension from Dave Weagle, and it is his best design yet, which is saying something considering he’s the man responsible for the DW Link (Pivot, Ibis, Turner) and Split Pivot (Salsa, Devinci). Thanks to the design, this 120-millimeter 29er manages to pedal as efficiently as an XC machine, take big hits like a much longer-travel bike, and somehow feel plush and bottomless as well as hyper-efficient no matter the terrain. Evil has a newer, longer travel model, The Wreckoning, which is just as good (and is worth getting for the name alone), but The Following is lighter and more manageable and most applicable to the widest number of riders. It isn’t inexpensive, but it’s very good value compared to similar models from bigger brands, especially considering Evil’s choice of high-end parts. If I could own only one mountain bike, this would be it.
1. SRAM Eagle XX1 and XO1 (from $1,200)
Front derailleurs have quickly become obsolete on mountain bikes over the last few years, but I still haven’t been completely won over to 1x setups—until now. Eagle, which adds a 12th gear to the rear cassette in the form of a massive, 50-tooth granny, finally brings the single-ring gear range up to par with a double-ring setup, thereby eliminating the major drawback. There’s lots more that went into making a 10-50 cassette a reality, and I still don’t think that the shifting performance and smoothness is equal to Shimano. But Eagle works quite well, enough so that I’m finally ready to kiss my front derailleur goodbye for once and for all.