These are the sport brands or tech or products that affected me during 2020, that changed my habits, that made a real impact on how I live my life day-to-day. I hate the clickbait listicle, or the pay-to-play Buyer’s Guide-ish advertorial that’s become ubiquitous. Nevertheless, here is my own private listicle, just, none of these brands below know I’m writing about their products today.
I often think about the brands that matter to me most, like Apple, and like AT&T (and it’s truly regrettable that this horrible customer service brand matters to me as much as it does). Then there are the sport-specific brands upon which I rely almost every day and if they went away I’d be in deep doo-doo, like HOKA and Zwift. Below are the products and technologies that have bubbled up during 2020 to become important to me on an almost daily basis. Some are single models, like a particular bike helmet. Some are paradigm shifts in tech, like the coming-ubiquitous use of Go-Pro style mounts on bikes. Anyway, here they are.
De Soto Skin Cooler Short Sleeve Top
I list this garment because of the huge use footprint (for me). It’s my favorite running top (along with De Soto’s split short which – alas – it rarely makes). It’s absolutely what I wear when I cycle indoor, that is, I’ll ride in a bib with the skin cooler overtop instead of a cycling jersey. I would use this as a time trial garment – sort of a poor man’s skinsuit – over the top of a bib. I do use this outdoor for a cycling base layer. Okay, it’s not a perfect base layer, but I have a problem spending $60 for a glorified undershirt, so I repurpose this garment as a base layer. This isn’t cheap at $88, but I’m not buying it as a base layer; I already own it for all these other reasons, and I’m just hijacking it as a base layer (in white). I put it on, then put the bib on over it, and the cycling jersey overtop of all of that. This garment makes it onto this list because I have 4 of these and they’re in constant use, almost every day, for ride and run, indoor and out, and a year ago I didn’t know what this garment was.
Yes, this company makes wetsuits that are terrific; and apparel that is terrific. But for me, the common everyday benefit of ROKA is as an eyewear company. I have just gotten so tired of prescription frames from Costco that just wear out and fall off my face. I have now transitioned to ROKA as an eyewear brand for every use, and now that ROKA has begun making progressive lenses, I don’t have to buy ROKA frames and take them to my optician. I am also exclusively in ROKA’s goggles, and whether the glasses or the goggles I buy them just like you do, that is, I buy them when I need them and then kick myself that I missed the sale. I’m wearing ROKAs with a reading prescription as I write this.
Mostly notably Schwalbe, because it was the first brand to make a hookless ETRTO spec tire across the skinny-to-fat range. This was important to me because the wheels I’m riding are overwhelmingly made with hookless beads, from road (CADEX and Zipp) to gravel (ENVE). Three years ago I could barely have told you what tubeless was.
Dual-use Gravel bikes
I’m riding an OPEN WI.DE for gravel, and an OBED Boundary for bikepacking. What these bikes have in common is the capacity to take either a 55mm, more or less, tire on a 650b wheel – I’ve got a Schwalbe G-One Bite on an ENVE G27 wheel and a HED Emporia wheel – but I can swap these out for a 700c wheel with a Schwalbe 30mm Pro One or any 28mm or 30mm tire and I’m good for road. I find I keep recommending this set up to my peeps who’re looking for a new road bike, because it’s 2 bikes in 1. When I asked Gerard Vroomen this question – What tire radius did you assume for this bike? – he came back, not missing a beat, with, “345mm.” I promise you, if you ask 10 gravel bike makers that question, 8 or 9 of them will scratch their heads and give you a blank look and bikes designed by these designers are the gravel bikes not to buy. The reason this is critical is that steering geometry, shoe overlap, bottom bracket height, all work or they don’t work based on the distance from the wheel axle to the ground (and even that is not exactly precise for reasons I’ll describe elsewhere). The two kinds of wheel/tire combos I describe above – the fat tire on the smaller wheel, and the skinny tire on the larger wheel – each have a 345mm tire radius. This kind of bike, made this way, with this tire clearance, with tire radius as a design input, is the transformational bike design of the past year, and almost none of the “10” bike designers I mention above even know this.
Tacx/Wahoo Smart Bike
I’m a fan of the Wahoo Kickr Bike. But honestly, either this or the Tacx NEO Smart Bike are far ahead of whatever sits in 3rd place as a smart trainer. (I haven’t ridden the Stages Bike, so I can’t opine on that one.) The ability to fiddle with your position, dialing it in during stationary rides, is huge. No missed shifts. No wear and tear on your bike. Virtually placing whatever gearing you want on your bike. The difference between a good smart trainer and a good smart bike is about $2,000, maybe $2,500 ($1,200 to $3,500). That’s a lot of money. But you can spend either $1,500 or $15,000 on a treadmill, and the difference between a smart trainer and a smart bike is, in my view, bigger than the difference between those treadmills where one has an extra zero added to the price.
Shimano SH-RC902 S-Phyre Road Shoes
Oh geez. I lucked out and got a pair I didn’t have to buy. Oh man. These shoes are just ridiculously comfortable and structural. “So what?” you might say. “Lots of nice shoes out there.” But this is my list and I suffer from hot spots. After 90 minutes of riding here they come. So, this is a big lifestyle limiter when you just can’t comfortably ride long. My wife has a little bit of a shoe fetish going on. She’s not exactly Imelda Marcos, though I think her closet could give Imelda’s a run. But with these cycling shoes I guess I kind of have a shoe fetish myself now. And by the way, my wife just bought a new pair of Shimano bike shoes and now she and I share the same fetish. In my own personal history, Specialized also makes nice shoes, and I’ve had some luck with Bont. I was never a Shimano user until 2020.
Giro Helios Spherical
This isn’t breakthrough tech. It’s breakthrough tech for me. As I wrote in the review of this helmet, this is a sort of good/bad news story for Giro. I finally found a helmet that fits and is comfortable. But it replaces a Giro helmet that did not fit and was not comfortable. Which just goes to show you, helmets are personal just like shoes are. I would say that for every 8 helmets I try, 1 works. It’s road helmets I’m talking about which for me means road, gravel, and tri when I’m not racing. So, it’s the helmet I literally wear 99 percent of the time assuming I’m not cycling on a trainer. When I opt for an indoor ride because I know that an outdoor ride mean wearing an ill-fitting helmet, that’s a sad state of affairs. Should you get this helmet? I don’t know. You’d probably have to have my oddball shaped head.
HOKA Mach 4
HOKA has been, for me, a 4-model brand, and 1 of those models is my everyday kick around shoe, which is its hiking shoe. That means the shoes I use for running are only the Bondi B, the Elevon, and the Carbon X for racing. You could add the Clifton I guess, but that shoe very sparingly makes its way into my rotation. The Mach 4 has erased the Clifton, and would wipe out the Elevon 2 except that I do run in the latter shoe offroad whereas I don’t think the Mach 4 would handle the trails very well. The major footwear brands have reconciled themselves to HOKA getting shelf space in specialty stores. Their job now is strangle down HOKA’s space to the Bondi, the Clifton and maybe the Speedgoat. The Mach 4 is a pivotal shoe for HOKA, because it’s a proof-of-concept test: Can and would HOKA’s shoes sell at retail beyond the 3 or 4 models that stores often tend to stock? But I digress. This column is about me! And what 2020 meant to me in terms of product finds.
Road bars suck. Pretty much. Gravel bars do not suck. What about gravel bars don’t suck? Three things. First, low drop. Second, short reach. And third, flare. It’s the flare that allows gravel bars to have low drop. So, if you look at vintage pics of Major Taylor, you’ll see him on a handlebar that’s got features that are someone gravelish, namely, the “drops” position on most of his track bars had flare. Flare is cool. Now, flare was not cool 30 years ago, when I was a bike racer and only tourists with Skid Lids rode handlebars with flare. But flare is cool now, and I’m going to be putting bars like these on my road bikes. Above, for example, is the 3T Aeroghaia, expertly crafted out of unobtainium, as I have been awaiting mine for some 9 months now!
GoPro Mounts for everything
One case in point is the Zipp QuickView. This is a stem faceplace that works with most of Zipp’s stems and has a GoPro-style mount built into it. Likewise the Cervelo Caledonia, which to me is kind of like the Trek Speed Concept of road bikes: the Caledonia took all the good ideas, good handling, aerodynamics, comfort and integrations and stuck them all in one bike. Among them was front and rear GoPro-style mounts. Look at two Cervelo bikes I reviewed this year: early in the year it was a P-Series set up the way I want; and the Caledonia. Each had a Garmin Varia rear radar on it. For the P-Series I had to jury rig my own Varia mount; for the Caledonia Cervelo supplied it as part of the bike. The FormMount we’re reviewing now, but the point is made: GoPro-style mounts on my bike made my riding experience easier, less complicated, safer.
What about 2021?
I have found that, while the shoe itself is a big deal (as per my Shimano “discovery” above), footbeds also make a difference. I’ve used to good effect Footbalance and Sidas. I’ll be doing some more experimenting this year. I’m back to having saddle trouble, this time for road. Everybody is making now a style of saddle I don’t particularly like: The short, fat-flange saddles Specialized popularized with its Power series. Who makes a racy but padded saddle I can ride? Formula makes a thingy called the Speed Lock. It’s an inline hydraulic quick coupler. I can’t believe it actually works as I want it to because, if it does, how come it isn’t on all my bike and why isn’t it standard equipment on every internally routed hydraulically shifted bike? so, we’ll see about that (it’s in my workshop ready to be deployed).
And then there’s what I don’t know. Stuff I haven’t yet seen.