As we all know, 2020 was one of the roughest years in modern times. From the political, cultural and personal levels, I can’t think of a single person who could’ve possibly gotten through last year unscathed in some form or another. While the crux of this post is taken from the version which appeared in the March 2021 issue of Road Bike Action, I’ve made some additions to encompass the full year…and if you’ll indulge me, some more personal inclusions that had found less a place in the mag.
THREE WE LOST
On the personal side, in addition to all the Covid caused heartache, I lost three colleagues that each also impacted the greater world of cycling. One was the intrepid and crazed journo Roy Wallack (below) who died from injuries sustained in a mountain bike crash. Simply put, Roy was the real deal and a true inspiration for how life should be lived.
Another bitchen friend was Garrett Lai. Garret was a consummate cyclist, journalist and gentleman. We first met up when he took over duties as the Editor of Bicycling Magazine bringing a fresh sense of humor and humanism to that staff. Despite the neo-greaser look he maintained with his slicked-back hair, cuffed jeans and dangling wallet chain, Garrett was a suave, walking encyclopedia with a knack for honesty and integrity. He seemed to know everything about everything, especially road bikes and racing. Garrett passed while he was putting miles in on his trainer.
I first met Al Van Noy back in 1993 at the Moab Fat Tire Festival when we both found ourselves rapt in attention as Bob Roll expounded on his life & times on the 7-Eleven team. Back then Al was with Nike developing their cycling shoes before he moved on to Adidas where he became the director of their R&D department that focused on future trends and technology. In addition to pushing cycling among the stick & ballers, he was also an avid throttle-twister and made possible the Adidas sponsorship deal with the Troy Lee Designs motocross team. Cancer was the evil that robbed the world of a truly passionate and brilliant mind. Three stripes forever!
Regular readers of Road Bike Action would know well of our close relationship with Jack Nosco and the annual bike ride – The Mike Nosco Challenge – he started after losing his brother in a traffic accident. For over a decade now Jack has worked tirelessly to promote rides that raise funds to help local families suffering from various illnesses. With a level of enthusiasm, energy, determination and passion that makes most others pale in comparison, Jack has assuredly helped make the world a better place to live.
Thankfully, when the annual ride was postponed last year due to Covid, there was still a small group of riders to be found in the Hidden Valley portion of the Nosco route to celebrate the opening of the Mike Nosco Memorial Bicycle Lane. Jack never asked for it to happen, but for all the good he has done, it was definitely well-earned.
Speaking of the “stick & ball” types, I have to admit that after bicycles and motorcycles, my knowledge of, and enthusiasm for other sports falls off pretty quick. For the last few months I’ve told to watch the Netflix series “The Last Dance” which follows NBA star Michael Jordan for a decade of his tenure with the Chicago Bulls. Basketball?! Ten Episodes?! I have to admit that while the idea to dedicate that much time to a documentary on basketball seemed like a stretch – until I finished watching the first episode. Who knew that Jordan was such an entirely super-human, talented and fiercely dedicated athlete?! Yeah, call me late to the party, but I was hooked!
In one of the episodes when he was asked about huge financial losses that came with his insatiable appetite for wagering, Jordan had a retort that defined the essence of every champion worth looking up to…”I don’t have a gambling problem…I have a competitiveness problem!” Perfect!
It’s amazing what a difference a measly inch can make in a ride experience. But, that one inch of travel (or more accurately 30mm) found in the Lefty fork of the Cannondale Topstone was all it took to change my frequent gravel rides from fun to awesome. Sure, the rear Kingpin “suspension” would hardly rate as suspension, and the wheel options are complicated by the Lefty fork and the silly AI dished rear wheel, but the front end suspension made for a world of difference over the stutter bumps and for $3600, the 22-pound bike answered all my off-road needs.
Like Troy, my favorite road bike of the year didn’t show up until into the year—and that would be the Open Cycles MIN.D. Besides spot-on handling, most impressive was how designer Gerard Vroomen was able to suffuse such modern-day performance and technology into a veritable less-is-more package. Between the 25mm integrated seat tube, room for 32mm tires, small-diameter tubes, subtle, multi-colored flares inside the forks and seat stays, and best of all, spot-on handling, the Open checked all the right boxes.
BEST COST/PERFORMANCE-RATIO BIKE
Over the course of each year we test a lot of expensive carbon bike. Some are really good, some are okay, but many raise the question: are they worth their 6000 to 10,000-dollar price tags? The one bike that didn’t force this question was the $4600 Ritte Phantom. Not just inexpensive, but also made from Reynolds steel and chock-full of nice frame details. Best of all, the ride quality and handling were superb—and it wasn’t black!
Between a stable of road and gravel bikes I definitely got my fill of bikes from both segments. And then this aluminum Favaloro showed-up with 40mm Vittoria Terreno Dry knobbies mounted on Campagnolo Bora WTO wheels with a Campagnolo Chorus drivetrain. What?! Three months later it’s proven to be my favorite true dual-purpose bike. Aluminum?! The bike just proved once again, it’s not the frame material that counts, but how the frame is built. And as a custom builder – who really specializes in carbon frames these days – this bike caught my attention.
Between the Campy road group that has endured hundreds of miles of off-road beating and the excelling pavement rolling of the Vittoria tires, Italian frame builder Michele Favaloro’s hybrid bike left a great impression. Although I never had any use for it, cabling the left side Campy levers to actuate the Trans-X dropper post was a dab of genius.
BEST NEW HERO
Ever since I first visited Durango, Colorado, back in 1987 to cover the NORBA National mountain bike championships, the then-small mountain town has had a special place in my heart. Thanks to the miles of country roads, sweet single-track, cinnamon schneck pastries at Carvers Bakery and the outright friendliness of the locals, I even came close to buying a house there.
Lo and behold, all those Durango memories came rushing through my mind again late last summer when the town’s homegrown racer—Sepp Kuss on Jumbo-Visma team—first won a tough stage in the Criterium du Dauphine, and then became a household name in the Tour de France with impressive displays of courage, loyalty and sheer climbing talent. Sepp may not be the first example of D-town talent to grab an international spotlight, but none have shined brighter on a bigger stage.
Best Mountain Bike Technology That May or May Not Make The Leap
Back in the early days of mountain biking, riders had nothing more than high-volume tires to rely on for added comfort and control. Then came a tidal wave of suspension forks, followed by rear-suspension designs, which eventually became the standard for most mountain bikes made.
Like their back-in-the-day cousins, high-volume tires are the simplest and most-effective form of gravel bike compliance. Unlike the mountain bike market, when it comes to suspension forks, there’s only a few to consider—Lauf, SunTour, Cannondale and Fox. As for rear suspension, well, there’s really only the Niner MCR 9 RDO to consider. While it’s more bike than I have a need for, Niner’s initiative to take on the hurdle of designing a gravel bike with rear suspension is what advances the breed.
Television Ads That We Hate To Love
If it wasn’t for large fitness brands like Peloton and Nordic Track, millions of sedate Americans would never know the experience of climbing on a bike and pedaling hundreds of miles a week. Unfortunately, it’s all happening indoors on stationary bikes. Here’s to hoping that, just maybe, some of them will get hooked enough to venture out and join the rest of us on the real roads.
Most Antiquated Race Bikes That Are Still Capable of Winning
Shimano electric shifting notwithstanding, it’s a tie between the Team Ineos Pinarellos and Jumbo-Visma Bianchis. Caliper brakes—really?! I hear wood rims are coming back in style! They aren’t!
Silliest Refrain Regarding Rim Brakes
Like candle makers holding out against electricity, there are those who think just because the old-style brakes were victorious in the Grand Tours that they are still relevant in the face of dominating spec and performance of disc brakes. They really aren’t.
BEST BOTTLE CAGES
The only thing (way) worse than having a small struggle to pull a water bottle when you’re really thirsty is when said bottle has already ejected itself down a fast and bumpy fire-road descent. The Dawn to Dusk cages are close to vise-grip-tight, which is perfect for gravel riding, especially for under-the-downtube placement.
There is, of course, no shortage of options here. As much as I’m drawn to the multi-colored bling of SupaCaz cages and the carbon artistry of Calfee Design cages, I always fall back on the simple $60 titanium cages from King Cage that years later are still handmade in Durango, Colorado.
BEST WAY TO EMBRACE NEW TECHNOLOGY AND BECOME THE MOST DISLIKED PERSON IN THE GROUP RIDE AT THE SAME TIME
This is easy—just show up aboard a Specialized Turbo Creo e-bike. Thanks to its Class 3 motor, the Creo has a top (assisted) speed that matched its 28-pound weight that had this skinny Mexican doing the unthinkable—taking pulls and accelerating (30+ mph) to lead the Montrose ride. Along with its unmatched level of range, the Creo was the king of the e-road class in 2020. For 2021, look for the field to get much more crowded with many new Class 3 competitors.
Best Reason For Grown Men To Cry
Realizing that just getting the chance to even ride in the Tour de France is a dream come true for many pro cyclists, imagine what it must feel like to win a stage? Luckily, TV viewers were given the opportunity when both Marc Hirschi and Sam Bennett broke down in tears following their break-out stage wins.
Best Day #1: August 29
All praise to Tour de France promoters ASO for not only devising a plan to race during the COVID crisis, but to also pull it off so successfully.
Best Day #2: September 15
This was the day that laid bare just who were the strongest riders in the Tour de France when Primoz Roglic, Tadej Pogacar, Richard Carapaz, and Sepp Kuss battled back and forth for precious seconds on Stage 17. It was simply an amazing display of fortitude and willingness to suffer that no other sport can come close to duplicating. This was the stage that helps maintain a sense of pride and (ever so slight) camaraderie with the greatest athletes in the world.
BEST GRAVEL-SPECIFIC LEVERS
There isn’t much about Shimano’s GRX that screams “gravel-specific” to me, but with their ample flattened surface with a slightly textured finish, they provide the best fingertip grip through the rough stuff.
Best Industry Quote #1
“They are willing to spend tens of thousands of euros to drink a bottle of red wine. Why do they think other people are willing to ride a $60 bicycle?” —Giant Bicycles’ chairwoman Bonnie Yu on why some successful bike company owners thought people only cared about the price of a bike and not its quality, New York Times, August 25, 2020.
Best Industry Quote #2
“No relief in sight as bike imports can’t match demand.” “Bike company stocks rebound with the markets—as Shimano hits record highs.” —Headlines from Bicycle Industry & Retailer News
BEST INDUSTRY QUOTE #3
“$3500 and a couple of months of being insulted! It goes on and on…you follow everything to the T and they’ll just keep insulting you. It’s a whole other level of prejudice!” – Anonymous product manager when asked what it takes to get the official UCI approved sticker for their production bikes.
ALL THINGS RELATED TO 3T
Best & worst seatpost clamp
Seatpost clamps can be so basic, why do some feel the need to complicate them?! 3T gets the nod for having both. We have long had issues with 3T’s proprietary clamp, most recently with our Strada project bike. While I’m no mechanical genius, when even Troy has issues with something, I know my doubts are well-founded.
And then the 3T Exploro Race gravel bike showed up with a similarly shaped aero seatpost, but lo and behold, it had a Ritchey clamp that was the complete opposite in ease of design and function.
Handlebars I hate to love
For a few seasons now I’ve been on record for having a distaste for flared handlebars. While I get the wider stance for better control in the dirt, they always feel too awkward on the road. When it comes to aero bars with their ovalized flats, my distaste is even stronger. So, why is it that I found 3T’s Aeroghiaia flared aero bars so likable?! At $350, they aren’t cheap, but I begrudgingly have to admit that they work well.
THE TALE OF TWO BIKES IN ONE
As popular as 3T bikes have traditionally been with RBA test riders, the Exploro Race Max was not one of my favorites. The bike arrived with 650b wheels, and although it accomplished gravel tasks well enough, it was sluggish and uncooperative on the road. Oh well.
Lo and behold, about a month after we shipped the bike back to 3T, a new one was shipped to us from Campagnolo to act as our Ekar test rig. Rolling on 700c Fulcrum wheels with 40mm Continental Terra Speed knobby tires, after just two laps around the Rose Bowl, it was simply a revelation. In short, for true dual-purpose capabilities, any bike that rolls on 700c hoops will fare better overall than on 650b wheels.
THE QUOTES: OUR REASON FOR BEING
“It’s a love story, which lasted 11 years.” —Seven-time Grand Tour winner Chris Froome following his last race with his Sky/Ineos teammates
“I used to think that bicycles were the solution to the transportation problems. Now I know they are the solution to humanity’s problems.” —Carbon and bamboo bike pioneer Craig Calfee.
“What is it about the bike? I don’t know for sure, but when I’m out riding I often think about the stories my dad used to tell me about when he was a kid and he’d be riding down the Pacific Coast Highway, weaving through traffic, riding with his hands off the handlebars, and feeling the wind blow through his hair. It’s those kinds of moments on the bike that when everything is so awesome that if your body could taste it, it would be delicious!” —Galaxy Gearworks’ Ryan Johnson.
“The bike is everything to me. It is my freedom, my empowerment and my output of stress. The bike is my family. My brother got me started riding, and I met my wife riding bikes. I often wonder what I would do if I didn’t have a bike to ride. It’s my everything.” —Ted King.
BEST ALL THINGS RED
As biased for all things red as I am, I’m also just as biased for bikes of my own design. When I first saw the limited-edition red Strada frame hanging in the 3T booth at the 2019 Eurobike show, I immediately sensed its potential as a striking project-bike looker. Eight months later my vision came to life as the finished bike struck an eye-catching pose outfitted with Hunt wheels and a SRAM AXS Red drivetrain.
Although our Calfee Tetra test bike wasn’t as red as it could’ve been, owing to its DNA design link to the bike that Craig Calfee built for Greg LeMond for the 1991 Tour de France between that historical tie, its beautiful craftsmanship, and racy performance ride, it was red enough.
Sidi’s high-end Sixty shoes are as much a celebration of red as it is the vaunted 60-year legacy of Sidi founder Dino Signori, who carries on to this day with more race wins to his credit than any other shoe brand. Although the $499 price speaks to my inner Imelda Marcos shoe fetish, I actually prefer the $100 less-expensive Ergo 5 model, which is just as red but has an added closure dial for a more secure fit.
As sold as I am on Italian footwear, I couldn’t let my celebration of all things red pass without a tip of the hat to Shimano who broke with their staid-style legacy with the introduction of a brilliant ruby red version of the $425 S-Phyre RC902 shoe. Now, if only some of the top Euro riders who use the shoe would choose the red over the boring white, the sport would finally start to evolve!
MORE THAN RED
The funny thing about the meticulously machined AbsoluteBlack chainrings is that despite the company name, they are most famous for the chainrings available in a range of brilliantly anodized colors. Sadly, my love affair with their bright red rings have been eclipsed by their new PVD Rainbow finish.
AS FOR THE RACING WORLD
BEST SPRINT FINISHES
As exciting as the mano-a-mano battles on the climb stages are, for sheer, heat-pounding drama and excitement, nothing compared to the beautiful two-wheeled fisticuffs that broke out between riders like Caleb Ewen and Sam Bennett in multiple Tour de France stages. It was a serious display of raw power and courage like no other.
This is an easy one; throughout the shortened year, no other team brought more excitement and outperformed the Jumbo-Visma team in a wider range of stages and races.
Best Sprint Finish That Doubled As An Eye Into The Future
After world champ Julian Alaphillipe crashed out, the win at the Tour of Flanders came down to a dramatic duel between young guns Wout van Aert and Mathieu Van Der Poel. More than any others, these two—26 and 25 years old—respectively best represent the coming of age of history-making riders. Best side note: MVDP’s win came 34 years after his father Adri won the same race in 1986.
That Moment (I Guess) When Tour de France Riders Suddenly Became Something Less Than “Real” Road Riders
While watching the epic Tour de France Stage 18 that included a dusty, rock-strewn gravel section, I couldn’t help but wonder what could’ve been going through the minds of RBA readers whose strict interpretation of the word “road bike” has compelled them to accuse anyone who rides in the dirt (a la a gravel bike) of no longer being a “real” road rider.
After Ineos rider Pavel Sivakov endured a high-speed crash chasing Julian Alaphilippe on a serpentine descent during Stage 5 of the Criterium du Dauphine, in the best tradition of Russian hardmen, the 24-year-old rider remounted, chased down and dropped Alaphilippe before finishing fourth in a four-man breakaway. A simply amazing display of courage, dedication, tenacity—just what we expect from pro riders.
“He’s basically walking around with a house on his wrist!” —TV commentator Christian Vande Velde on the $140,000 Richard Mille watch worn by Julian Alaphilippe in the race.
Best race quote
“It’s a comeback with elegance, and I like to win with elegance.” —Nairo Quintana after winning the final stage of Paris-Nice.
BEST GRAVEL SURPRISE
Although I’m a big fan of their road components, I have to admit, that prior to riding Campagnolo’s latest Ekar gravel group, I did have my doubts. Lo and behold, adding to the superb disc brakes which I’ve long been a fan of, I came away just as impressed with the drivetrain components. Yes, the venerable road brand Campagnolo came to gravel and surprised everyone with how well the thirteen-speed 1x drivetrain worked. Bravo!