Bikes, A Destination, and some Gear...
Best of 2019 - Cam's List
There are many ways to slice a year, but by one measure it was a beauty. I had more fun on my bike and rode better and more confidently than I have for years. In some ways I rode better than I ever have, and bikes likely get much of the credit.
*Header image - Sven Martin
It's pretty easy to find a 140mm travel trail bike that's more capable than DH bikes of 10 years ago. The age of incredibly trail-worthy bikes that can be pedalled all day is here and it only seems to be getting better. And I'm not taking about carbon super bikes; their less expensive aluminum siblings rarely give up much in the performance department when adorned with the right parts. The sweet spot keeps getting sweeter.
Here are some my bestest picks from 2019.
As a tester it's not ideal when you find a product that makes you stop looking. Ideally you want to be hungry for a solution to a problem; tires in the right size, compound and tread pattern, flat shoes with the perfect combo of grip and stiffness, or pads that stay put, don't rub and protect to your personal specifications... For better or worse, I've crossed one category off the list. For now at least. And it's not an easy category.
I wear the same protective gear on 90% of my rides; an enduro style half lid, gloves, and kneepads. Because I don't wear much I'm fussy about each touch point, and kneepads are the spot where I'm most apt to complain. Often they rub skin raw, generally they slip down, and even more often they provide inadequate protection, which is particularly annoying if they slip down and rub uncomfortably in the process.
The Shred (formerly Slytech) Noshock Heavy Duty kneepads are the best I've found for my knobbiest and boniest appendages. No slip, no rub, even when pedalling, and on top of flexible and effective polymer dough padding front and centre, they protect above and below the knee and even laterally. My full review for more details is here.
Info from Shred is here. Use code NSMB20 for an additional 20% off any order from SHRED.
RRP Bolt on Fender (and forks with threads for bolts!)
This RRP direct mount fender appeared in our gift guide, but I hadn't tried it by that time. Since then I've ridden a lot in mostly torrential weather - and it's been brilliant. My eyewear has invariably become unusable part way through the ride but I have only gotten a mud booger in my eye once. It never rattles or rubs and the coverage is perfection. If you ride in sloppy conditions and you have a fork with threads for direct mounting (hello SRAM!) you should consider one of these. RRP's zap strap/velcro fenders work very well also but they move around a little more require more TLC to keep them adequately tight.
Almost Plus Tires
I've had some fun on Plus tires, but getting the sidewall support I'd like without squirm can make them nastily heavy. Trying a few 27.5 x 2.6 meats was a revelation. Can run at lower pressures? Check. Tonnes o' grip? Yup. Decent cornering support? It seems so. Reasonable weight without squirmage? Check! Check! Check! Particularly for winter riding on the North Shore, having extra rubber on the trail is a great feeling. Lower pressures on shiny green rock faces and glossy roots can mean the difference between nailing a feature and an ambulance ride.
I've used a set of Terrene Chunk 27 x 2.6 in the tough casing to both mullet and size down a Santa Cruz Hightower with great success. Last year I rode a Tallboy with Maxxis DHR IIs in 27 x 2.6 with excellent results as well. Finding the right tire in 29 has been harder but now both of the tires above are available in 29 x 2.6. The Maxxis 29 x 2.6 DHR II is only available in EXO and EXO+ casings for now but the Terrenes can be had in both light and tough casings.
I have one ride on the DHR IIs in 29 x 2.6 already (on a Santa Cruz Tallboy) and they have been great. They don't look very wide (measuring yet to come) but they feel great and can easily handle pressures in the mid teens without losing positive trail feel or support.
I just scratched the surface in New Zealand, spending two days in Wellington at the south end of the North Island and four days in Nelson and the surrounding area. It's no exaggeration to say that both places were nirvana for riding mountain bikes. And this was literally scratching the surface without going anywhere near world class destinations like Rotorua and Queenstown.
I was toured around Wellington by Caleb Smith, a Kiwi who lived in Squamish for several years. Caleb works producing media and handling marketing for Kona and he was clearly very proud of the trails his town has to offer. We did four rides in two days and it's pretty clear we were just getting started. Excellent trail quality, fabulous views and perfect dirt.
One of the best things about the riding in NZ is NZ itself. The people, the countryside, the food and drinking establishments; the place is made for having a good time. Did I mention the beaches? There are now direct flights from west coast cities like Vancouver, Seattle, L.A. etc. and flying Air NZ was an excellent experience. It probably takes a long time from Norway. Or London.
There's a theory I heard over there about the trail quality in New Zealand. When Ken Dart was building his private bike parks all over the world, many of his builders came from New Zealand. They learned building in far flung locales like Princess Lousa Inlet in B.C., Patagonia, Portugal, Mexico and Jamaica, to name a few. After working in a 'money is no object' world for Dart, they brought their skills home and built incredible trails to share with more than one rider.
If you are thinking about buying a new bike, or upgrading your vehicle, go to New Zealand instead. You can thank me later.
Travel < Geometry (Santa Cruz Tallboy IV)
It's likely there are other short travel bikes out there with aggressive geo, but the Santa Cruz Tallboy is the first one I've ridden, and it's ridiculously fun. Maneuverable, capable, fast, and it's a ripper uphill as well. Riding it with the aforementioned 29 x 2.6 rubber made it even more of a sleeper, and in some horrendous conditions it had me feeling like a rockstar. The nice long cockpit, (468 or 470 size large reach depending on position) and 65.5/65.7 head angle deliver more confidence than an extra 10 mm of travel but don't sacrifice in any other area. You can pick it up and switch lines and clear gaps you didn't realize we're possible.
You don't need rent out your bedroom or take a second mortgage to pick up one of these either. Aluminum completes start at 2699 USD and the base carbon model is 4199 USD.
Of course it's possible to overwhelm 130/120 mm of travel, but the aggressive geo gets you out of trouble more often than not. After a stint with 29 x 2.6 rubber I'll try it with 27 x 2.6 and do a stint mullet style and then report back. So far it just gets better every time I saddle it up.
My prelim. review of the TB4 ishere.
Honourable Mention - Shimano's Return
Options are great and having Shimano roar back with XT and SLX versions of their new 1x groups has tilted the tables back to consumers. SRAM's temporary virtual monopoly provided little incentive for creative spec choices or pricing competition for the same model of bike. Now there can be two bikes with similar prices but entirely different component groups.
Of course this would only work if the new Shimano stuff turned out to be good, but it hasn't. It's excellent. The trickle down from XTR preserves much of what makes that group so good; excellent shifting, stylish finishes and shapes, and best in class braking. It's too early to tell about durability, a category where Eagle has been spectacular, but my own experience has been very good thus far.
Honourable Mention - SRAM AXS
Independent of your thoughts about batteries or motors involved in shifting gears or raising saddles, it would be tough to deny what a technological masterpiece SRAM's wireless electronic group is. By most accounts it works incredibly well, shifts faster and more accurately than a human can, will correct problems on the trail, and it will even move out of the way when it detects an impact FFS! It remains to be seen if this is the future of mountain bikes, but I am sure this is a remarkable achievement.
Happy New Year! May 2020 bring more rides and more radness than 2019!
Age - 54
Height - 6'/183cm (mostly legs)
Weight - 165lbs/75kg
Ape Index - 0.986
Inseam - 33"/84cm
Trail I've been stoked on lately - Fifth Horseman
Bar Width - 770mm
Preferred Reach - 475-490mm