How Outside Tests Bikes
Our bike-test director just wrapped up our 13th annual testing marathon. Here's how it works.
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Every year I ride about 100 bikes. I write about a third of those for Outside and also review helmets, soft goods, components, wheels, and pretty much any other riding accessory you can think of. Many of these reviews start with the Outside Bike Test, an annual event where several dozen testers and I ride a sampling of the best new gear on the market.
Before that, and long before the year’s bikes hit the market, I’m tracking trends, chatting with manufacturers on what’s coming down the pike, and generally trying to keep on top of where the industry is headed. I eventually compile a list of bikes for the coming season that I deem important, innovative, quirky, or otherwise notable. Once I’ve settled on a list, I choose a venue for testing, hire a mechanic to wrench, and get busy ordering bikes. The goal is to get a heap of new bikes for the coming year, gather a group of worthy riders, and put the fleet through its paces.
What Is Our Bike Test?
The concept is simple: bring the best new bikes and a load of qualified testers to a place with outstanding terrain, and then spend focused time riding said bikes to figure out which ones merit your (and our) dollars. It’s easy to take a bike on a ride and feel good or bad about it. What we do is back-to-back-to-back testing, which is critical for understanding the models’ nuances. We collect feedback from a wide range of riders on a broad spectrum of bikes. When I launched the test back in 2005, it was a pretty low-key affair with a few editors and a couple dozen bikes. As interest grew, so did the test. We now recruit between 9 and 12 testers per day and queue up 50 bikes during the test—25 road bikes and 25 mountain bikes.
Where Do We Test?
This year we held the test in Grand Junction, Colorado. Following years of testing in Tucson and Sedona, Arizona, where we’ve always gone to take advantage of good weather and varied terrain, I decided to bring our most recent test here after visiting Grand Junction earlier this summer and being absolutely blown away by the riding. Full disclosure: after selecting our test location, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership kicked in some funds to help us with the test, providing shuttles (Desert Rat Tours), wrenching (Zen Bikeworks), and catering from a slew of local eateries. With a tight web of trails, crystal autumn weather, and arguably the most scenic, best-paved road ride in the country, Grand Junction proved an ideal testing ground.
Who Are the Testers?
Our testers run the gamut from retired pro racers and bike-industry engineers to your run-of-the-mill cycling geeks. The only requirements—other than knowing me and having a good attitude—are that you know bikes (most testers have been cycling for 15 or more years) and you’re fit (we’re talking full days of riding for one to two weeks). This year, seven of our 20 testers were women, and ten of the 50 bikes included in the test were women’s models. Testers also can’t be sponsored, because sponsored athletes are partial to specific brands, and besides, pros handle their bikes in ways that most of the rest of us do not, so their feedback isn’t always applicable to you and me. I believe that testing and feedback from riders with diverse riding styles and abilities best serves the public.
How Do We Test?
Officially, the bike test spans eight days, four devoted to mountain biking and four to road biking. However, with scouting and pre-rides, it’s always two weeks or more of straight pedaling. On test days, we load bikes for the trip to the test location starting at 8:30 a.m., pedal by 9:30, and usually don’t finish the last lap of the day till dark, usually 5:30 or 6 p.m. Testers have some latitude in what they ride, though I generally set out a few optimal test laps. Personally, I prefer to settle on a single one-hour test lap per day and then repeat it five to six times in a row on competing bikes.
For road bikes, I like a lap with some sharp climbs, fast and technical descents, flats and rollers, and terrain with options for really pinning it. On the dirt side, I want a lap with technical, slow-speed inclines, including steps and spots requiring balance moves to test chunk both up and down, step-downs and drops, as well as smooth arcing turns and berms. The goal is to pack a month’s worth of terrain into an hourlong loop—not easy.
In between laps, everyone fills out review forms on the bike he or she has just ridden. The form includes a host of multiple-choice questions on a five-point scale about a bike’s particular features: geometry, handling, road and trail manners up and down, drivetrain, wheels, tires, and suspension where applicable. Most important to me is the free-form section where testers can expound on their likes and dislikes. I encourage every rider to compare one model to another, as I truly believe most bikes are solid these days, and reviews come down to nuance. After filling out the forms, we switch bikes and repeat. This year I rode 14 of the 16 test days, logging almost 34 hours of pedaling time, 425 miles, and over 41,000 feet of elevation on 41 bikes. Most of the testers were right there with me.
And at the end of it all, I tally the numbers, consider the context of riding styles versus trends, and convene a roundtable to talk about trends and favorites. (One of our testers has already written a worthy state-of-the-industry report from his experience.)
I’ll keep riding and testing many of these bikes throughout the fall and winter in order to get the most complete grasp of them. All this testing is what determines our Gear of the Year choices and coverage next spring. And in the coming weeks and months, I’ll be rolling out additional stories from the test, including quick hits on new bikes, deep dives into the latest technology, and a look at some of the developing trends. Rest assured, everything I write is coming from lots of firsthand experience. Just ask my weary legs.