Ten products I loved in 2020: James Huang

Cycling took on a whole new meaning for me in 2020. Looking back, I’d more or less taken for granted the ability to head out for an hour or two at a moment’s notice, and to ride purely for the sheer enjoyment of it — that sensation of earthbound flying,…

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Cycling took on a whole new meaning for me in 2020.

Looking back, I’d more or less taken for granted the ability to head out for an hour or two at a moment’s notice, and to ride purely for the sheer enjoyment of it — that sensation of earthbound flying, as I’ve always liked to think of it. A few months ago, that carefree attitude gave way to cycling becoming more a respite from increasingly stressful days that never seemed to have nearly as many hours in them as my family deserved, and increasingly restless nights that felt just as unfairly short.

For a while there, getting on a bike became something I did almost more out of necessity instead of something that just made me happy. It was a precious moment of escape that I grew to cherish more than ever. Somehow I get the feeling this is something that doesn’t need to be explained to anyone reading this right now.

That shift in perspectives only further cemented the way my views on gear had been evolving in recent years. I still love ultra-high performance stuff: the cutting edge in weight, efficiency, aerodynamics, and so on. But when I look back at the equipment that really stood out to me this year, there were three clear categories: things that just somehow make things a little easier, things that I didn’t have to think about, and things that just plain made me smile when I used them.

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that life is short, the days are fleeting, and whatever waning patience I had at the beginning of 2020 for stuff that isn’t worthwhile evaporated long ago. These days more than ever, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be in the position I’m in — a stable job, a happy family, with physical and mental health — and it’s far more productive to focus my energy on the things that add to my life rather than somehow take away from it.

To co-opt a popular Marie Kondo quote, “Imagine yourself riding only things that spark joy. Isn’t this the lifestyle you dream of?”

Urban Arrow Family cargo bike

I’m often asked what my “favorite” bike is, and I know the expectation is that my answer will revolve around some fancy high-performance carbon fiber go-fast machine. But when I think about what bike actually makes the most dramatic difference in my day-to-day life, the one that brings the widest grin to my face, it’s instead the biggest and heaviest bike I’ve ever ridden.

I brought the Urban Arrow Family e-cargo bike in for a long-term review almost exactly a year ago and was immediately blown away by its immense capabilities. On its very first ride, I accompanied former CyclingTips editor-in-chief Neal Rogers up the entirety of Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain as he raced ex-pro Jonathan Vaughters to the top, hauling all sorts of camera equipment, video gear, and extra layers for half the crew. I went straight to the other end of town afterward to pick up my daughter from school, and still had about 20% of battery power left after 850 m (2800 ft) of elevation gain and 34 km (21 miles) of distance.

I’ve hauled full-sized bike boxes to UPS and FedEx in the thing. Shuttled three kids around town. Retrieved four giant bags of dirt from the hardware store. Crammed nearly an entire shopping cart’s worth of groceries from Costco into the giant foam box. I’ve listened to countless hours of giggling and enjoyed all sorts of silly conversations emanating from right in front of my face instead of way behind me in a sterile metal box. We’ve done family trips to parks for play time and picnics with my wife and our daughter cozily seated inside. I picked up a hobbled friend from her doctor’s appointment — crutches and all — and saved CyclingTips associate editor Abby Mickey from having to pay for an Uber.

With the rain cover installed, the Urban Arrow has even proven to be a true four-seasons vehicle, keeping occupants pleasantly warm and dry from both torrential downpours and pounding snow. And throughout it all, the only maintenance it’s asked for in return for nearly 1,600 km (1,000 miles) of thankless service is some chain lube, some air in the tires, and the occasional wipe-down.

It’s not perfect (I’ll get into the details once I find the time to write the full long-term review), but if the mark of a utility bike’s worth is how well it can serve as a car replacement, the Urban Arrow gets two big thumbs up from me — not to mention a big withdrawal from my bank account, seeing as how I ended up buying it. If my house were burning down and I only had time to save one bike, this would be it, no question.

Price: US$5,999 / AU$10,750 / £4,895 / €5,390 / (without accessories)
More information: www.urbanarrow.com

My $5 used slow cooker

I was admittedly reluctant to get on the chain waxing bandwagon — too much hassle, too much mess, too much time (or so I thought). I made a commitment to giving it a concerted go last winter, though, and I’m kicking myself for not doing it sooner, especially since I already had an ultrasonic parts cleaner to help get chains prepped for treatment.

For sure, the process is more involved than the usual routine of taking a bottle of chain lube and dumping it on (you can find a detailed step-by-step tutorial here), and there’s a fair bit of waiting around for the wax to fully melt in your slow cooker. But that initial time investment ends up paying off big-time afterward in drivetrains that stay cleaner (and last longer), less-frequent lube touch-ups, and less overall work in general.

Even disregarding the long-term benefits in terms of component wear, waxing even costs less than conventional lube, too. A couple of recycled glass pickle jars (or something similar) and some good solvent is often good enough to strip away any residual lubes from the chain, you can reliably find old slow cookers at thrift stores for next to nothing, and bags of even top-rated waxes cost less than many conventional bottles of lube, and last way, way longer.

It’s the best five bucks I’ve spent in a long time.

Price: Varies.

DT Swiss GR 1600 Spline 25 gravel wheels

I’ve always found myself scrambling for free time, and with COVID-19 forcing my seven-year-old to spend her days homeschooling in front of a computer screen all day, I have more appreciation than ever for high-quality gear that deftly toes the line between high performance and hassle-free durability.

I’ve absolutely ridden gravel wheels that are substantially lighter and more aero than DT Swiss’s mid-range GR 1600 Spline 25 gravel wheels. They’re hardly remarkable on paper. But they ride lighter than the scale would suggest, the 24 mm-wide aluminum rims set up tubeless easily and provide ample support for higher-volume gravel tires, the Star Ratchet internals are legendary for their durability, they have just the right balance of stiffness and give in my opinion, and despite 18 months of regular abuse, I have yet to need a spoke wrench for even a minor touch-up.

Would I prefer that the freehub body engaged a little quicker, and that the intricately machined hub shells were a little easier to keep clean? Sure, but if those are the only complaints I have, I’d say DT Swiss has done an awfully good job here. The only problem may be finding a retailer that has them in stock.

Price: US$707 / AU$TBC / £TBC / €559
More information: www.dtswiss.com

Vittoria Mazza mountain bike tires

When it comes to mountain bike tires that just plain work, my gold standard has long been the Maxxis Minion DHF. Though hardly super light or particularly fast-rolling, they’re not that heavy nor that slow, they deliver reliably predictable traction in an extraordinarily wide range of conditions, and they’re tough enough for even the most anvil-like of descenders — and Vittoria may have knocked it off the top step of the podium.

Perhaps not surprisingly given that the same person was involved with the design of both of them, the new Mazza looks a lot like the Minion DHF. But the Mazza’s knobs sport a more intricate network of steps and sipes, they’re made of not just three, but four fancy rubber compounds, and it all somehow manages to yield meaningful improvements. They roll noticeably faster, corner more securely, last longer, and have a generally livelier and more precise feel on the trail.

The lighter trail casing has proven plenty durable for everyday trail riding in my incessantly rocky local conditions, and the heavier-duty enduro casing option has been wholly trouble-free in the bike park, too.

Don’t get me wrong; the Minion DHF is still a great tire. But these are better, and that’s saying a lot.

Price: US$70 / AU$90 / £60 / €63
More information: www.vittoria.com

Devinci Hatchet Carbon gravel bike

I’m not sure I appreciated the Devinci Hatchet Carbon as much as I should have until after I sent my review sample back to Devinci and I started looking for a gravel bike for myself. I wanted an MTB-inspired geometry with a slightly slacker and longer front end, lots of tire clearance, a smooth ride, and a price tag that wasn’t going to require me to tap into the kiddo’s college fund.

As it turns out, that proved harder than I’d bargained for, and the more I looked, the more I realized just how well Devinci had shot the gap in terms of handling that borrowed the best from the mountain bike world without going too extreme, adding just enough length and stability to make the bike silly-fun to charge through loose singletrack, but not so much that the bike was a barge to pilot on a curvy stretch of tarmac.

Out back, the low-slung frame borrows yet again from the mountain bike world, increasing the amount of seatpost extension relative to something with a less dramatically sloping top tube, and adding noticeable comfort when charging through singletrack. And at either end, there’s far more tire clearance than even the 700×45 mm maximum that Devinci officially claims.

Devinci even managed to fit it out with a wisely chosen build kit that kept the asking price impressively low without sacrificing (much) functionality.

Whatever the opposite of buyer’s remorse is, that’s certainly what I felt after driving away from FedEx that day. Regret is a bummer.

Price: US$2,700 / AU$NA / £NA / €2,699
More information: www.devinci.com

Specialized S-Works Aethos

I can’t recall another bike that generated as much ire upon its launch as the Aethos, and perhaps it was warranted. After all, Specialized spent years drilling into people’s heads that “aero is everything”, and that the last two generations of Tarmac were the perfect quiver-killer road bike — only to introduce an ultra-premium bike that unabashedly tosses a lot of that messaging out the window. It’s also stupidly expensive.

But here’s the thing: this thing is absolutely brilliant to ride. It’s lively and responsive with just that right amount of flex to feel like the bike is almost a part of you. It’s supremely light. It’s so understatedly beautiful that even Specialized sees fit to put a single “S” logo on the head tube (and that’s it). It rides really nicely. Maybe most importantly, it’s just plain fun to ride in a way that sterile aero machines just can’t quite match.

Despite the feathery weight, I know I’m slower on the Aethos than I am on the Tarmac or Venge (or any other aero bike). But I also don’t care. Those bikes make it so I can theoretically finish my ride a hair sooner, or go a smidgeon faster. But on this bike, I just want to disappear until all the daylight is gone.

Maybe more important than this actual bike is what I hope it indicates for the rest of the industry. For so long, we’ve been chasing seconds and watts. That’s all well and good for racers, but a lot of us are just chasing smiles and endorphins, and my fingers are crossed that we’ll see more bikes like this from more brands in the years ahead.

Price: Too much.
More information: www.specialized.com

Giro Xnetic H2O gloves

Cycling gloves are tricky beasts. They need to be warm, but also sufficiently low-profile that you can still hold on to the bars. And if it’s wet out, the task is doubly difficult.

Giro’s humble-looking Xnetic H2Os sport a simple knit nylon outer shell, but hidden inside is a stretch waterproof/breathable liner that shields you from both cold wind and biting rain. There’s not much insulation to be had, but yet I’ve still found them to keep my fingers reasonably toasty well below the suggested 5°C / 40°F lower limit.

Unlike most neoprene gloves I’ve used, my hands never get clammy inside, and they’re also a lot stretchier so my hands don’t get as fatigued on longer rides, either. The fingertips also work with touchscreens, and after five months of use both on and off the bike, they’re still holding up better than I’d expected they would.

Shoulder season in Colorado is notorious for quickly changing weather conditions, and big differences in temperature as you go up and down in elevation. Rarely do I venture out around then without a jacket rolled up in my jersey pocket. These days, there’s usually a pair of these gloves tucked next to them, too.

Price: US$50 / AU$79 / £TBC / €54
More information: www.giro.com

Roka prescription eyewear

I’ve worn corrective lenses since 1990, which — at least for me — has also entailed contacts any time I go for a ride. I don’t always feel like being bothered with them, though, nor do I want to be locked into prescription sports eyewear when on the bike, either. But yet I’d never encountered a set of everyday frames that I felt looked normal enough to wear in casual settings while still being sufficiently functional to use on a ride.

Roka’s been on a bit of tear in the eyewear department recently, and in addition to a growing collection of dedicated cycling sunglasses, there’s now a range of everyday frames that finally seem to fulfill that role for me. The model I’ve been wearing for the last few months incorporates the same textured rubber grippers in the nosepiece and temples that I usually only find in cycling sunglasses, and the nose pads are even offered in multiple thicknesses to help fine-tune the fit.

There’s no color-enhancing tint in the lenses, of course, but on days when I don’t really need to knock down the sun, it’s been really refreshing to just wake up in the morning, toss on my glasses, get through my day, and then just hop on the bike without having to think about what’s on my face. The lenses are crystal-clear with excellent clarity and no noticeable distortion, there’s sufficient coverage to keep my eyes from watering on most descents, they’re impressively lightweight (just 19 g for the Rory S model that I’ve been wearing), and most importantly, they don’t move on my face at all.

As compared to prices you see in a specialty optometrist’s office, the Roka prescription glasses are quite the bargain, too.

Price: US$195 (including single-vision polycarbonate lenses) / Pricing for other regions varies with currency rates.
More information: www.roka.com

Continental Terra Speed gravel tires

It’s easy to discount the significance of low rolling resistance when it comes to gravel tires. After all, how much difference can there be, right? And seriously, who can actually feel the difference of a handful of watts?

You’d be surprised.

It was apparent to me how fast Continental’s low-profile Terra Speed tires are from the first time I rode them, feeling more like a high-quality dedicated road racing tire than something meant for endless stretches of crushed granite and packed dirt — and that sensation has since been verified by independent third-party testing.

Although they run a touch small (my 700×40 mm samples consistently measure closer to 38 mm on most gravel wheels), the casings are noticeably soft and supple, but still readily set up tubeless on the first try. The knobs are very low-profile, but yet provide far more grip on hardpacked dirt than looks would suggest, and are still great on tarmac without any of the annoying knob squirm that you can get with more aggressive tread designs (Continental’s own Terra Trail included). They’re also impressively light at just a hair over 400 grams apiece.

That speed comes at the expense of cut resistance on rocky terrain, and there are, of course, limits to what that minimal tread can handle. As such, I still prefer the WTB Riddler when I know I’ll be spending more time on churned-up dirt and loose rock than tarmac. But for mixed-surface riding on better-maintained paved and unpaved roads, these are my favorites, hands down.

Price: US$65 / AU$90 / £60 / €58
More information: www.continental-tires.com

Velocio Alpha System winter clothing

I’ve been a “cyclist” for the past 30 years, but it’s always been tricky getting dressed for a ride when it’s cold outside. That’s been especially the case since I moved to Colorado, where the temperatures can vary dramatically with the time of day and elevation, and the consequences of getting it wrong can be downright dangerous.

What I love about Velocio’s Alpha System is its simplicity, and how it makes for one less decision I have to make in my day. Up top, it consists of only two pieces: the Signature Softshell jacket and the Alpha long-sleeve jersey. The three-layer jacket sports a DWR-treated nylon shell, eVent Direct Vent stretch membrane, and a hint of Primaloft synthetic insulation. If it’s only pretty cold out, I toss on a long-sleeve base layer underneath and call it good.

It provides an excellent barrier against chilly winds and the occasional shower, it breathes far better than I usually see in soft-shell outerwear, and the cut is trim enough to minimize annoying flapping at speed, but there’s still room for extra layers. There’s a zippered chest pocket that’s big enough for a lot of smartphones, and three pockets out back for snacks and other goodies. Unlike a lot of winter jackets, it’s actually available in bright colors.

If it’s seriously cold out — well below freezing — I add the Alpha long-sleeve jersey, made with a layer of Polartec Alpha Direct high-loft insulation up front and a Merino wool-blend back. Although Velocio equips it with its own trio of pockets, it’s really designed to be primarily a dedicated mid-layer with its super-fuzzy exterior and nary a hint of wind protection (an intended role reinforced by the single dark-blue color option).

The combination is one of the warmest and most breathable I’ve ever come across. It’s also admirably low-profile with a grown-up aesthetic, it came out the other end of last winter still looking new, and prior experience with other Velocio garments suggests that’ll be the case for several more seasons to come.

No question, the combo is also far from inexpensive. But if that’s the price to be paid for actually enjoying riding outside when everyone else seems to be sweating their brains out going nowhere in their garages and basements, that makes it a tiny bit easier to swallow.

Price: US$299 / AU$365 / £248 / €278 (Velocio Alpha System Signature Softshell jacket); US$199 / AU$239 / £159 / €179 (Velocio Alpha long sleeve jersey)
More information: www.velocio.cc

[ct_highlight_box_start]Stay posted for ‘Ten products I loved in 2020’ posts from other members of the CyclingTips team.[ct_highlight_box_end]

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