A FEW OF MY FAVORITE CYCLING THINGS
More than 50 years ago, Julie Andrews sang the words below in the stage and film versions of The Sound of Music. The song quickly turned into a Christmastime classic with its lyrics suggesting that thinking about your favorite things can overcome any fears you may have.
Well fear not, I have a list of a few of my favorite cycling things and perhaps it’s one you as a fellow road cycling enthusiast can relate to. After all, don’t we ride in part to put life’s concerns out of our mind, at least for a little while?
After reflecting on the different gear I evaluated and posts I wrote over the past year, I came up with list that follows. To set the mood and match the intensity we roadies feel about our favorite thing, I suggest you listen to the soaring version of the song played by my favorite saxophonist, John Coltrane.
ENVE SES 4.5 – My favorite wheelset
Riding the ENVE SES 4.5 was a revelation for me. I knew I could ride faster on wheels in the 50-60mm deep or ‘aero’ depth, but I never thought I could handle them as well as an all-around wheelset 25mm or so shallower. As I wrote about in my review of this category of wheels here and about this wheelset specifically here, all the things I worried about sacrificing with deeper wheels – comfort, handling, weight, crosswind control, stiffness – went out the window with the 4.5s.
In addition to these being non-factors, the speed, braking, ability to climb, DT hubs and look of these wheels put them well ahead of anything else in this class. Indeed, if I had only had one wheelset to choose from for all the different kind of riding I do, I’d pick these without a second thought.
CASTELLI ALPHA – My favorite anytime bike jacket
In the second half of 2015, I began to evaluate clothing more seriously and put up my first review on the best performance or technical kit here. As I wrote in my post, the clothing game is a bit of a jungle with what seems like as many brands and models as there are bikes and perhaps more. I’d had a head start, however, with the Castelli Alpha jacket, buying it a season ago and riding it through fall, part of winter, spring and again this fall and early winter.
I have found it the most versatile jacket of any I’ve evaluated so far and it works great from freezing temps up through 50F/10C. A nearly waterproof, robust wind-breaking, very insulating yet breathable outer layer that fits like a jersey and is vented and designed overall with ingenuity. It’s so comfortable that I wear it when I’m coaching ski racers in the winter; it keeps me as warm as a fleece yet its cut reminds me to stay in an athletic position going down the hill. Needless to say, I get a lot of use out of it, which turns its price into a good value.
SHIMANO ULTEGRA 6870 and 6800 – My favorite groupsets
Yes, I love and for years rode a Dura Ace groupset. The SRAM Red is balls. Campagnolo’s Super Record is, for many, iconic. Di2 has been a huge step ahead and SRAM’s wireless Red looks very exciting. I’ve written about most of it before here.
All great stuff. But do I really need it to ride faster or more effectively? Especially when I can get all the performance for half the price … or less?
Shimano’s Ultegra family of groupsets – the Di2 6870 and the mechanical 6800 – does all of what most anyone needs, does it well and does it at a remarkable discount to the top of the line groupsets from Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. As a road cycling enthusiast on a budget, I need to decide where to spread around my money to get all the things I need and some of the things I want. The Ultegra gets me all that I need so I can spend some on what I want (see above and below). You get all the technology that ‘trickles-down’ (someone should ban that phrase!) from the Dura Ace. You give up none of the functionality or performance. I know, it’s a few grams heavier. Sorry, much as I’d like, the weight difference is not going to matter. Believe it. Spend it where it will.
STAGES CYCLING – My favorite power meter
No matter how you look at it, power meters are one the most happenin’ places to be in cycling these days. New companies are getting in. Established companies are retooling their units and dropping their prices. More cycling enthusiasts are buying PMs and using them to get new training benefits.
Yet as the saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. At least for now.
Many of the new entrants are ‘not ready for prime time’. Few have been on the bikes of cyclists like you and me for even a season and several still have first generation bugs or worse to work out of their systems. The retooled units of older players operate more or less the same as they did before but at lower prices. Powertap is about the only established company that’s changed the way it measures power, surpassing some of the other PM makers with pedal and spider models.
All the while, for my purposes, Stages is still in the lead. What are my purposes? As a road cycling enthusiast, I want to improve my fitness and performance. Better power and better power at a given heart rate will get me there. Training routines based on knowing my threshold level of power. Doing it inexpensively. I wrote recently about why and how to train with a power meter to achieve those objectives recently in this post here.
Unfortunately, most of the buzz around power meters these days surrounds getting lots of features that the better than average road cycling enthusiast will never use and certainly doesn’t need to improve their power and efficiency. Some of these features, like independent left and right power measurement, still have the most well-known training experts trying to figure out what to do with the information.
I recommended the Stages Cycling power meter a while back (here and here) and continue to use it. Their PMs have only gotten better, cheaper and made for a wider variety of crank arms. I’ll be posting an update of the above mentioned reviews soon, but based on the performance and cost analysis I’m doing now, it remains the favorite.
COMPETITIVE CYCLIST and PROBIKEKIT – My favorite online bike stores
Earlier this year in my review here of the best online bike stores, I laid out the benefits of online stores – price, selection, inventory, service – versus those of LBS or local bike shops – community, knowledge, see & touch, bike fitting, repair. I also wrote that while I have long had loyalty to my favorite LBS (Landry’s), I make most of my large purchases at online stores these days because those benefits far outweigh those from even my favorite LBS.
Indeed, customers who have rated online bike stores for independent survey firms like TrustPilot that are compiled and published by Google’s Trusted Stores service show outstanding ratings for about 30 of the roughly 60 stores I evaluated around the world. I set the “outstanding” bar at customer ratings of at least 4 out of 5 stars overall with no more than 10% of customers rating a store 2 or 1 star. Surprisingly, there are several well-known online stores in the US, UK and Germany that don’t clear or even come close to this bar. FYI, I only link you to those stores that meet or exceed this outstanding level of customer satisfaction.
Of these, there are two that are special favorites of mine for different reasons.
Competitive Cyclist is a US-based online store that has product knowledge and selection that far exceeds any LBS I’ve ever been to. You can chat with them online or over the phone during most waking hours and they are fast and know their stuff. Their web site is rich with color and zoom photos, has a tone of useful descriptions and information and is incredibly easy to use. They ship quickly and will take back most anything without question. They carry the best gear, bikes and clothing you’d ever want and the service is better than most retail stores I’ve ever been in. It’s a place you really feel special shopping at.
ProBikeKit, or PBK, like many of the major online bike shops, is based in the UK but they sell gear in a dozen currencies to cyclists in more countries than I can count from Andorra to Zambia. What I like most about PBK is they are as competitive in their pricing as any store I track and they offer promotions that matter from those for first time customers to those on the most popular and highly rated gear I review from Shimano, Zipp, Campy and others. They also get what this site is about and offer exclusive deals to you as readers.
If this store was a cyclist, they’d always be in the breakaway, nose in the wind, pulling and setting the pace. I think that’s great because while I’m willing to take my pulls, I like to ride in someone’s draft as much as the next guy, especially when it means I save some energy, or in this metaphor, some money.
There are other shops I like a lot and have become as loyal to or more than my LBS. They come up frequently in the sidebar on each page an throughout my reviews. But for now, Competitive Cyclist and ProBikeKit are the first places I look when go I shopping for gear.
HOW TO RIDE FASTER ON YOUR BIKE – TRAINING AND TECHNIQUE – My favorite research for a post
Doing the testing, evaluation and research for In The Know Cycling posts is generally a lot of fun. That’s because I often get to try out new gear I buy or demo (and return) for a review. But for the first of two post about 10 ways to ride faster that you can read in full here, I didn’t buy or demo anything.
So why was it my favorite research for a post? Because I learned more about how to ride faster than any other post I’ve ever done and realized how I can save myself and all of you fellow road cycling enthusiasts a lot of money at the same time in our quest to ride faster.
What became clear as I really dug into the numbers is that while the right gear and kit will certainly help you ride faster (see here), there are six ways – largely training approaches and riding techniques – that will lead to gains greater than those you’ll get from gear and that you should adopt if you want to take your riding to the next level.
CONTINENTAL GRAND PRIX 4000SII CLINCHER – My favorite tire
Who thought something so relatively low tech and low-cost as tires could be so important to your riding experience? I found a lot of people asking me what model and size tire to put on the wheels I was recommending so I dug into the data this year and came up with some answers for this post.
No matter which way I looked at it – rolling resistance, aero performance, puncture resistance, handling, inflation levels and another half-dozen criteria I used – a short list of tires came up as the ones likely to help you go the fastest with the least hassle and best price. The 23C size Conti GP4KSII came out atop the list in almost every situation. I’d used it and a number of others on the list before but now I know why I should continue using it in most situations.
Invariably, most of the questions I get are about using a 25C tire instead of a 23C. And invariable, I must respond that unless you’ve got a very wide wheelset, you’ll ride faster and handle better with the 23C. There’s a lot of testing, at bunch of charts, about 8,000 words and over 100 comments on topic in that post if you want to dig deeper. But for me, the Conti is a great choice and my personal favorite.
SHIMANO DURA-ACE WH-9000 C35 CL – My favorite do everything anytime wheelset
If you can’t afford the ENVE SES 4.5 wheelset I raved about at the top of this list and want one wheelset to ride rain or shine, uphill or on the flats, through sickness and health, that does most everything well anytime you are out on your road bike, the Shimano Dura-Ace C35 clincher is my favorite.
It is incredibly versatile, a great alternative for those who feel the need to buy event-, terrain- or weather-specific wheels and the best choice for those who have carbon brake track fears. It’s deeper than most alloy wheels but not as deep as carbon aero ones, has an alloy brake track but brings the strength of its carbon fiber wrap, is light enough to climb up hills but also aero enough to zoom down and between them. It’s got Shimano quality and is always on sale somewhere for 60% of its retail price. I’ve previously written it up as the best all-around alternative here and the best climbing and descending wheel here. It just works well no matter what you are doing.
HED ARDENNES PLUS SL DISC – My favorite road disc bargain wheelset
Road bikes with disc brakes are here and they are gaining ground fast on the kind of road bikes with rim brakes most of us have ridden our whole lives. I wrote a series of posts earlier in 2015 that you can find here about why they are both the present and future and what stages of development the bikes, components and wheelsets are at now. Unfortunately, the wheelsets are furthest behind with most being merely heavier retrofits of their rim brake wheels. While the ENVE SES 3.4 Disc Clincher wheel is an outstanding, built-from-the-ground-up disc wheelset that’s actually lighter than its rim brake sibling, it’s also one that most cycling enthusiasts who just shelled out for a new disc brake bike will find hard to spend the extra coin on. I get it.
As with nearly all new bikes however, the stock wheels that come with them aren’t worth the proverbial bucket of spit. So, you’re often left wondering what to do to make your new bike purchase sing without making your wallet cry. Fortunately HED makes a great option in the their Ardennes Plus SL Disc wheelset reviewed here. Amazon and Competitive Cyclist have been selling it at a considerable discount to it’s $1100 normal retail. You often don’t find the words HED and discount together in the same sentence but you do often find the company at the head of the line (sorry) when it comes to new technology.
This disc wheelset is wide (almost 21mm inside width, 25mm outside), comfortable, handles extremely well, is plenty stiff, tubeless and weighs an unnoticeable 80 grams more than its rim brake brother. It’s essentially future proof, or at least good to go for at least the years you may need to recover from the money you put out for your new road disc bike before you would want to step up to a newly designed all-carbon road disc wheelset.
KASK PROTONE – My favorite helmet
It was time for me to get a new helmet this year and coincidentally, within the last two years most of the major helmet companies had introduced a new type of road helmet that was more aerodynamic than standard ones but not as geeky as you see track cyclists wear. I bought a half-dozen of the best ones and wore them during the summer while also doing a lot of research on their wind-tunnel performance. All of this came together in this post I wrote in the fall. I picked and now wear the Kask Protone as my new favorite helmet.
The Protone uniquely combined a lot things I liked. It was comfortable even on the hottest days, faster than most of the others and within a few watts of the traditional long, pointy aero helmets, and it looked more like a road helmet than an aero one. Yes, it was also more expensive than the others I reviewed by about $50/£35/€45/AU$60 but it was incredibly well made from the padding running between my head and helmet to the leather straps running down my face and under my chin. Of course helmet style and fit are a bit of a personal choice and there are a couple other good ones I recommended that you may prefer but wearing an aero road helmet now can help you pick up about 2/3rds the drag reduction benefit you get with much more expensive aero wheels while still looking like you’re just one of the group.
BIKES NOT BOMBS – My favorite cycling charity
Cycling has given me so much over the years. I joke that it is my ‘drug of choice.’ It makes me healthy, brings me lots of pleasure, has introduced me to a lot of people I now call good friends and, well, it’s just a kick. Without it, I’d certainly be a wreck, my wife and family would probably disown me and I’d be heading to the fat-old-man scrap heap as fast as many of my colleagues are who don’t ride.
There are never enough ways to give back for the good that has come the way of someone like me who can afford to buy the kind of gear I write about. I’m a very lucky man indeed and tremendously thankful for my good fortune.
Through my friends at my favorite LBS Landry’s, I found my way to what is now my favorite cycling charity, Bikes Not Bombs. Their mission is to use the bicycle as a vehicle for social change by repairing donated old bikes they then ship to people in developing nations and by creating programs that provide those people the skills, jobs and sustainable transportation to mobilize community transformation.
In addition to giving some of my old bikes to them this year, I’ve donated a portion of the money that comes back to the site when you buy gear though the links to the best prices and stores I post throughout my reviews and on the sidebar of every page. It’s a win-win. We can’t have too many cyclists out there doing good in the world. Feel free to join me in supporting Bikes not Bombs or find and fund your own favorite cycling charity. I haven’t finished the testing or written the post yet but I’m pretty sure that donating to a cycling charity will make you ride faster!
YOU – My favorite cycling community
By any measure, it’s been a great first full year for In The Know Cycling. While the site has certain grown in the number of you who view the posts or keep up with the site through Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds and e-mail notifications, what’s amazed me most has been the community that seems to be developing around it. To get as many comments as you provide on some of the posts I write really tells me you are engaged in a highly constructive way. The feedback you’ve given and questions you’ve asked has pushed me to think about things I’d never considered before and motivated me to look anew at many aspects of the site’s and my personal mission to figure out what cycling gear to get next and where to get it. I’m learning a great deal from you and becoming a better cyclist for it. So thanks, big time.
All of this support and your willingness to make some of your cycling purchases through the store links I provide supports my ability to buy and make the time to evaluate and review more of the gear. It also allows me to continue to be your humble, fellow road cycling enthusiast and keep the commercial interests of advertisers, suppliers and other potentially conflicting influences clear of my focus and the site’s pages.
Yes, like you I have a group of cycling buds that I ride with regularly and a club that helps me to meet new people. But knowing that you are going to ask me a good question at the end of one of my posts or are expecting me to really take the cyclist enthusiast’s perspective when I’m evaluating a new piece of gear makes me feel like I’m out riding with many of you at the same time. It definitely feels like we’re in this together, drafting each other as we go down the road.
So thanks to you, my favorite cycling community, for reading, engaging and supporting In The Know Cycling.
Please tell us all about about a few of your own favorite cycling things this year in the comments section below.