Every time we post a bike review on Outside, a dozen trolls on Facebook rush forward and assert that the product earned its eval because the company that produces it paid the magazine for coverage. Perhaps that’s the way it works at some other media. But at Outside, at least in our bike program, we choose the best bikes and cycling gear the good old-fashioned way: we ride the shit out of the stuff.
At the heart of that process is our annual bike test, which is coming up next week. It’s a simple concept: get a bunch of cyclists together, go somewhere warm, bring a lot of bikes, ride them all to find out which perform the best. Each day of testing, a dozen or more riders spin laps on just as many bikes, then fill out review forms. And each night, we sit around our big rental house, nurse our wounds, and debate which bikes deserve coverage. The bikes that garner the most favorable reviews are the ones that you’ll read about this spring.
I started the test back in 2005 in Tucson, Arizona, and this year, after two seasons in Sedona, we’re taking the show back to the Old Pueblo. We’ll miss the slick rock and easy access of up north, but the riding in Tucson is more diverse and the winter weather more reliable. For road riding, the one-way, closed-circuit circle through East Saguaro National Park might just be the best test loop anywhere, and the 21-mile ascent of Mt. Lemmon rates among the country’s most iconic hill climbs. The mountain biking is not as quantifiable and iconic as, say, Moab, but the loose-over-hard terrain, big jangling rocks, and cactus everywhere are optimal conditions for beating the bejeezus out of bikes—if mountain bikes make it down here, they’ll make it anywhere. And this place has some of my favorite rides anywhere: the descent down La Milagrosa Canyon, with rock gardens and big Sonoran Desert views, is perfect test grounds for all-mountain bikes, and south of town holds some of my favorite stretches of the Arizona Trail.
We also found two great partners in the city, with Arizona Cyclist building the fleet of bikes and Homegrown MTB running shuttles and support. Homegrown is run by some old friends of ours who helped with testing last time we were in Tucson, and it is an incredible addition and resource. They have vehicles that can handle up to 20 bikes, offer quality rentals if you’re visiting but can’t bring your own ride, and, most importantly, will shuttle to far-off locations, including up Mt. Lemmon and down south to points on the Arizona Trail.
By the numbers, we’re making the test a bit smaller this year, with 25 road bikes and 25 mountain bikes. While I was able to slam through more bikes in past seasons, I started to feel like we weren’t spending enough time on each one to get a true, fair test. So I’ve scaled it back a little in the name of quality over quantity. The more select group of bikes also means that going into the test, which officially starts in the middle of the month, I will have ridden pretty much all of them at least once. And I’ve logged half a dozen rides on many of them.
Between all the time that I put on the bikes and the feedback from our testers, who run the gamut from recreational riders to ex-pro racers, we will put hundreds of miles on each bike to determine our top picks for 2018. And, importantly, every test ride is comparative, meaning I always try bikes back-to-back with other similar models. I can’t stress enough the importance of this point. You could take a spin on any bike in the test and you’d think it was pretty good. It’s not until you ride a handful of models one after the other that you really start to feel and understand the nuance of each one. The whole point is to be as impartial and comprehensive as possible so that readers can trust in our feedback.
We’ll be reporting on some of the trends and new products from Tucson over the next couple of weeks, and we’ll release our top picks and reviews in April and May. Tune in to see what’s hot and what’s not.