A FEW OF MY FAVORITE CYCLING THINGS
It can be a daunting task for a road cyclist to choose from all the gear that’s out there. There’s an incredible number and range of bikes, wheelsets, components, clothing and accessories to start with and new gear that often sounds better is always being introduced and hyped. Each company promotes the proclaimed superiority of their products, each shop spotlights the lines they sell, each reviewer judges gear in ways they feel are most important, and we roadies get all of that and the opinions of our riding friends.
In the search to find the best road bike gear, all of this is enough to choose gear based on the last person you talked to or the last thing you read or price or looks or sheer impulse. Sometimes we just hold off from doing anything, preferring to avoid making a wrong, expensive decision with too little information while occasionally we spend hours, weeks, even months researching, trying, analyzing everything we can in the hopes of making the right, better choice for our own needs and budget.
ABOUT IN THE KNOW CYCLING
I fall in that last category, probably as a result of trying and being less than satisfied with all the other ways to choose gear. I started doing that a few years ago when I needed a new wheelset, shared what I found out with some of my cycling friends, and started blogging about it under the banner of In The Know Cycling.
Rather than evaluate and post reviews about individual products, I compare an entire category of them (e.g. carbon climbing wheels, performance cycling shoes, top-tier groupsets) using performance, design, quality and cost measures that allow me to confidently recommend a Best Performer and Best Value choice from all the products in that category and that I’d be willing to (and often do) spend my own money on to ride.
To get there, I and a couple of similarly analytical enthusiasts I know test gear, talk to and read what others I trust have to say about the same gear, and look at and interpret any available independent performance data. I then write a comprehensive post that explains the category and reviews most of the widely available gear in it, gives you links to stores that have both high customer satisfaction ratings and the best prices for each product and then answer your questions about what’s in the post.
It’s probably what many of you would do if you had the time, resources and access to gear, up ’till the part about writing it up, finding and updating store links and answering the many, many questions I often get with each new post.
For those of you who understand that different pressures can sometimes influence reviewers, know that you won’t see any advertisements or sponsored content here and I don’t need to rewrite press releases posing as reviews to drive up my click count. I buy or demo and return all the gear we test, don’t go on company-paid product review trips, and don’t charge for any of the content on this site. My only influence is what I think would be best for my fellow roadies. This is a passion, not a business.
The gear I buy to test and other site expenses are funded when you click on and buy from some of the stores you’ll see in my reviews which send a small amount back to support the site, through voluntary contributions you can make through this link here, or when you buy anything through these links to Amazon or eBay. The more you link and buy or donate, the more and better reviews I can write and questions I can answer. It’s that simple. Independent reviews and comments written by and for fellow enthusiasts, funded by enthusiasts and with no outside influences or potential conflicts of interest.
A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS AKA THE BEST ROAD BIKE GEAR
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a list of my favorite gear and ways to use the gear you have to ride better, faster and have more fun doing it. If you ever saw The Sound of Music as kid or are a fan of the iconic jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, you know the joy that the song My Favorite Things can bring. In that spirit, what follows are a few of my favorite cycling things.
To set the mood and match the intensity we roadies feel about our favorite things, may I suggest you listen to Coltrane’s soaring version of the song while you read through the rest of this post.
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 I’d sacrifice 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, perhaps more. I’d had a head start, however, with the Castelli Alpha jacket, buying it a season before 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, wind-breaking, very insulating yet breathable outer layer that fits like a jersey and is vented and designed 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
I love and rode a Dura Ace groupset for years. The SRAM Red22 is balls. Campagnolo’s Super Record is, for many, iconic. Di2 has been a huge step ahead and SRAM’s eTap wireless is very exciting.
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. You can read what I’ve written about groupset choices and my recommendations here.
As a road cycling enthusiast on a budget, I need 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… all the other gear in this post! You get all the technology that ‘trickles-down’ (someone should ban that phrase!) from the Dura Ace. You give up none of the functionality and a barely perceptible level of performance. I know, it’s a few grams heavier. Sorry, it’s not going to matter unless you are a top racer. Spend your money where it will.
The Ultegra 6870 Di2 groupset is available at ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles, Merlin Cycles and the Ultegra 6800 mechanical groupset is available at Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles.
PARLEE ALTUM DISC – My favorite road disc brake bike
As I’ve been researching and test riding road bikes with disc brakes for my yearly post (here) for a couple years now, I’ve been looking for a diamond in this rough to appear in what has been a rapidly developing segment before I landed on a bike to call my own. While I pick gear that are clear winners in each category and update the posts and reconsider my recommendations as new products roll out in those categories, I wanted to make sure I bought a road disc brake bike that would stand up over time before I spent a boatload of money on something I’ll want to ride for the next 5-7 years.
That time came for me when I met, fell in love with and bought my Parlee Altum Disc. “A racing bike with an endurance bike fit” is the way Andy over at my LBS Landry’s summarized it so aptly. The frame is snappy, responsive and handles well enough to race but has a geometry that suits my less than racer-flexible body. It didn’t hurt that I could also customize the paint job to suit my preferences, though it was a pricey demonstration of my vanity.
I added an Ultegra 6870 Di2 groupset and have been riding it with a range of different wheelsets and having a blast. No, I haven’t posted a review beyond what you see above. It’s not widely available, is a good bit more than I recommend my fellow enthusiasts spend, and it was flying a bit under the radar at least until I and a few others found out about it. Now you know. Look up Parlee Cycles for your local dealer if you want to check one out.
THE BEST WIDER ROAD BIKE TIRE AND WHEEL SIZES – My favorite “click here” post
The move to wider tires has been undeniable. It’s hard to know whether it comes from the added comfort, handling and speed you can get or the hype surrounding wider tires that might lead you to believe that you’ll get all of these improvements after dropping a mere $100 on a new set of 25C rubber.
I saw the questions about wider tires start to come into the post comments and increase in number during 2015. I found I was answering them much the same over and over again – it’s not just about the tires; it’s about the wheels you are putting them on and the level you are inflating them to. Indeed, I warned some riders that their comfort, handling and speed might actually get worse if they put wider tires on without considering these other factors. Considering the width of the wheels many wanted to use wider tires on, I suggested some readers might want to roll with narrower tires to get better performance. (Gasp!)
Why? That was the question that I often got in response that drove me to write the post with the name of this favorite thing. With it, I answered the “what width?” and “why?” questions, albeit in about 5500 words, and that allowed me to respond to similar wide tire questions with a short response that said “click here” for more.
ASSOS Tiburu – My favorite spring and fall bib shorts
The right bib shorts are the holy grail of cycling clothing. Get one with the right cut, fit, comfort, compression, straps, grippers, panels and access that keep you warm on cooler Spring and Fall days and you can extend your season by starting to ride a month earlier and finish a month later than you would with your regular spring/summer bibs.
There are a lot of good bibs out there but few that combine top shelf design and performance in all of the ways I just listed to make them truly great. The Assos Tiburu bibs do that for me at level above a lot of other good ones I’ve worn.
The material they are made of is truly wonderful – warm, soft, elastic, supportive, you name it. The chamois is so good you never even feel like you have padded shorts on yet you feel totally comfortable in every position in the saddle. I put them on and they just feel great. I start riding and almost forget them as they are so in tune with my movement and never ask for attention.
There are likely a lot of reasons that they do what they do – you can read the fact sheet or product description reviews. I’m sure it’s all in there. But after I put these Tiburus on, I just go and don’t worry about them any more because they are totally right.
REYNOLDS ASSAULT SLG – My favorite carbon value wheelset
A couple years after buying and reviewing this wheelset (here), and testing many other wheels since, the Reynolds Assault SLG continues to hold up as a very good all-around wheelset and clearly the best bargain you can find in this category. Readers ask whether wheels from unknown “Chinese” brands that sell at half the price of the Assaults aren’t a better deal or whether those from well known brands like Mavic and Campagnolo that cost a bit more aren’t a better choice or whether ones selling at nearly 2-3 times the Assaults aren’t better performers.
Depending on your own situation, in some cases they are but in most cases for enthusiasts looking to get their first (or last) carbon all-around wheelset without breaking the bank, the Assaults are the way to go.
No, they aren’t the most aero or widest or lightest or best braking or least expensive carbon rim brake wheelset on the planet. But, they accelerate well, are stiff, comfortable, handle well, ride smoothly and quietly, maintain their momentum well, can climb without difficulty and give you aero benefits at speed. And, quite often you can find them around or even below US$1250, £1050, €1275 CA$1700, AU$1950. That combination of performance and price is really hard to beat in a carbon wheelset these days.
CASTELLI FREE AERO RACE JERSEY & BIBS – My favorite summer kit
Wearing this kit made me feel, if not look like Superman. They wrapped me in a contoured fitting yet stretchy and comfortable envelope that felt energizing. I found just putting on this Castelli Free Aero Race jersey and bib combo motivated the heck out of me, especially important on those days when my legs were telling me to roll over and go back to bed.
The feeling didn’t end when I started riding either. This kit breathes well, moves with you, compresses your legs in the right places and has a very comfortable chamois. Looks good too. Vibrant but not loud. (OK maybe a little.) All of this matters a lot on hot summer days when you are cranking out the watts.
I wore a lot of good jerseys and bibs in preparing this review on summer weight cycling kit (here) and I’ll add more to the review each summer. For now and for a slender rider like me though, the Castelli kit is the one I reach for first when I need a little extra mental and physical boost heading out the door on a hot day.
4iiii PRECISION – My favorite power meter for enthusiast
It’s a bit ironic. Power meters seem to be one of the most subjective products for riders that own one yet their performance can be more objectively compared, and therefore they can be be more easily chosen, than bikes, wheelsets, groupsets, apparel and other cycling gear.
Why this subjective – objective chasm? I think it may be because of the dizzying range of measuring options and extra analytics that come with some power meters available in this rapidly growing market. Riders already using them also seem to have a loyalty to their units and defend them at times with a sort of religious zeal despite some being more costly or less easily transferred than many newer products. Yet, the accuracy level of most power meters can be established as inside or outside the norm and the level of consistency from ride to ride and in different riding situations becomes clearly evident by reviewing the power reading charts of different ones tested simultaneously out on the road.
So if a power meter is inside the +/- 2% accuracy norm and reads consistently from ride to ride, why not go with the lowest priced unit that fits your bike and transfers easily and keeps those levels of accuracy and consistency when you switch it to another bike you may train or race with?
Only elite athletes or enthusiasts who are fascinated by data that no good training benefit has been shown to provide need spend more. Religiously following a good training program and remembering to calibrate each time you ride will get you a lot further than whether you find yourself in the power meter denomination that worships measuring your left side power and doubles it, your left and right side power independently and totals them, or your total power and estimates your left and right side power using an algorithm.
After working through over 20 established and proven power meters and applying the point of view I’ve just shared, the 4iiii Precision power came out on top in my search for the best value power meter (here). It’s not compatible with every bike but will fit those with a Shimano 105, Ultegra or Dura Ace crankset, which is the great majority of new bikes sold around the world over the last few years. And at $400 if you send them your own left crank, or slightly more if you want to order a new crank with the power meter already installed, it’s the best priced power meter of the accurate, consistent and easily transferable ones. That’s why it’s my favorite and I expect will be yours if you are looking to start training with power (here’s why to do that).
SPECIALIZED S-WORKS 6 – My favorite performance cycling shoes
Frankly, shoes was a category where I felt might be out of my depth when I first started. They were mostly black, unless you wanted to make a fashion statement right? Velcro or turny knobs to tighten them; what’s the dif? Find a pair that fits you and move on. It must be fashion, branding and marketing, just like with athletic shoes, that caused them to vary so much in price. That was always my understanding, though I hadn’t really thought about it much
Boy did I get schooled. Shoes, I learned, are all about efficiently and comfortably transferring the power from your legs to your pedals. You could get shoes that fit well yet lose a lot of watts if you wore a pair that didn’t have a stiff bottom sole (or “outsole) combined with an upper and heel cup that held you in tight yet breathed as well as any other piece of kit you wore. That’s where those turny knobs and wires (or “Boas”) made a difference over laces or Velcro.
Oh, and I also came to learn that black is fashionable but doesn’t help you be more visible on the road as a pair of brightly colored cycling kicks bobbing up and down does to catch a driver’s eye.
After evaluating a bunch (here), I found the Specialized S-Works 6 were my favorite performance shoes. The are stiff and wrap tight while still being incredibly comfortable over even an 8 hour ride. I noticed a little pick-up in performance and felt safer on the road with my “Rocket Red Dipped” colored pair. More performance, comfort and safety from pair of shoes. What a great deal.
Specialized now allows customers to order and get direct shipment of their shoes through the online portal of their dealer stores in the customers’ region. You can find these favorites of mine at top stores and at the best price in the US/CA at Art’s Cyclery, UK/EU at Cyclestore, Tredz
COMPETITIVE CYCLIST AND WIGGLE – My favorite online bike stores
In my review here of the best online bike stores, I laid out the benefits they often bring – price, selection, inventory, service – versus those of LBS (local bike shops) or IBD (independent bike dealers) – community, knowledge, see & touch, bike fitting, repair. I also wrote that while I have long had loyalty to my favorite LBS (Landry’s and CycleLoft), I make most of my large purchases at online stores these days because those benefits far outweigh ones from LBS or IBD.
Indeed, customers who have rated online bike stores for independent survey firms like TrustPilot whose ratings are also key to Google’s own service ratings show “very satisfied” (4 stars) or “outstanding” (5 stars) customer ratings for only about 35 of the roughly 100 stores that sell online which I’ve evaluated around the world. In my product review posts, I only provide you links to those stores that meet or exceed these high levels of customer satisfaction. That’s the way I want to be treated; as a fellow enthusiast, I assume you also want that same level of satisfaction.
I also rank order and regularly update the top performing stores (here) based on their customer satisfaction, product prices, selection and support they provide in a couple ways to you, my dear In The Know Cycling readers. Surprisingly, there are several well-known online stores in the US, UK and Germany that don’t make the rankings because they have poor customer satisfaction ratings despite their low product prices.
As the saying goes, “you get what you pay for”. In the case of some of these stores, fellow enthusiasts report that you don’t even get what you’ve already paid for (wrong product sent) or it takes a long time to get it or you go through a lot of hassle to return it if it isn’t right, or there’s too little independent customer feedback that you don’t know what kind of experience you might have when ordering through some of these low price stores in the first place (filtered reviews on the store’s site and their Facebook page aren’t independent reviews) .
My rankings of the best online bike stores give you the confidence to know that you will likely be very satisfied or better with a store that also gives you a good price and has the kind of selection enthusiasts look for.
Among all the stores I evaluate and list and rank, two stores are special favorites of mine.
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 far, far better than most retail or online stores I’ve ever been to. It’s a place you really feel special shopping at.
Wiggle, like many of the major online bike shops, is based in the UK but they sell gear to cyclists in dozens of countries. They have topped my store rankings list since the beginning and through every update I’ve done of it. What I like most about Wiggle is that their prices are competitive, they have a wide selection and deliver quickly. If there’s ever an issue – for example if the size you ordered doesn’t fit – they just take care of it. If that sounds like these things are what you’ve come to expect from every online store, I share that expectation. The reality is that while a handful of online cycling stores have the combination of price, selection and service that Wiggle has, Wiggle is the best at it right now.
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 Wiggle 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. I usually want to keep what I recommend, but I can’t afford that so I return rather than buy the demos and resell much of what I do buy when I can’t get demos.
One can sometimes lose perspective on the relative benefits of everything I recommend. I sure do. Looking at my budget helps a bit but I was searching for a way prioritize with more than a financial filter.
For the first of two posts I wrote about 10 ways to ride faster that you can read here, I didn’t buy or demo anything. For the second, I did compare the benefit of different gear on a watt vs. watt basis. I’m not going to give you a link to that one. I want you to start with the first one – you can actually go faster without spending money. Yeah. Read all about it.
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, 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 before buying new gear if you want to take your riding to the next level.
KASK PROTONE – My favorite helmet
When it was time for me to get a new helmet, coincidentally, most of the major helmet companies had recently 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 picked and now wear the Kask Protone, now my 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. It also looked more like a road helmet than an aero one.
Yes, it was also a bit more expensive than the others I reviewed – but only about $50/£35/€45/AU$60 more – but it was incredibly well made from the padding running between my head to the leather straps running down my face and under my chin. Of course helmet style and fit are 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. That’s the part I really like.
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 mental and physical 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 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.
In recent years, I’ve 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, with the support of financial donations mostly from individual cyclists, to people in developing nations and by creating programs that provide those people the skills, jobs and sustainable transportation to mobilize what truly becomes community transformation – better access to healthcare, jobs, getting crops to market, etc.
In addition to giving some of my old bikes to them, I’ve donated a portion of the money that comes back to the site when you buy gear though the store links 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 that explains this, 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 few years since I started In The Know Cycling in the spring of 2014 with my first post on all around wheelsets. While the site has certainly 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 (see the ways to do this in the sidebar), what’s amazed me most has been the community that seems to be developing around the site.
To get as many good questions and instructive 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 for my fellow cycling enthusiasts 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 or make a donation here 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 ban the commercial interests of advertisers, suppliers and other potentially conflicting influences so we can remain independent.
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 all the 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.
Feel free to tell me and all readers about about a few of your own favorite cycling things this year in the comments section below. And below is a quick survey you can take that will help me prioritize upcoming reviews.
Thanks, enjoy the ride and do it safely.