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Bikes, A Destination, and some Gear...

Best of 2019 - Cam's List

Words Cam McRae
Date Jan 7, 2020

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

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Stupidly capable bikes that pedal capably have been a highlight of 2019 for me. The Yeti SB150 continues to be one of my favourites in the 'big bike that can ride like a little bike' category. More on the 'small that can be big' cat below. Photo - Paris Gore.

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.

Shred Knees

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.

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For a moment Shred put the name Slytech on protective gear.

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Now they are named Shred - as in Ted Shred Ligety

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.

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You can even climb in them! I generally wear my knees around my ankles for longer climbs and pull them up when it's time to descend, but when I've left them in place comfort has been excellent. Photo - AJ Barlas

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.

Price: $44.99 CAD
Buy: Here (North America) or Here (everywhere else)

$5 from every RRP ProGuard sold in North America will go to benefit Cycling BC.

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.

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I rode these tires in 27 x 3.0 and wasn't very impressed. in 27 x 2.6 they were marvelous!

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After one ride I'm pretty keen on the Maxxis DHR II in 29 x 2.6. Review to come.

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.

New Zealand

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.

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Here I have skillfully(!) compiled New Zealand's North Island (left) and its South Island in a landscape oriented image. Normally the North Island sits directly north of the South Island but that would be hard to look at. Feel free to contact me if you require professional cartographic services. The point is the place is littered with amazing trails.

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.

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Caleb Smith's son Elliott ripping on Makara Peak. Wellington is surrounded by peaks and each one seems scattered with incredible trails of all levels. Photo - Caleb Smith

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.

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One of my best experiences was riding Wairoa Gorge Bike Park near Nelson. If you've ever wondered how a reclusive billionaire would build a bike park, this is your chance to find out. Photo - Sven Martin

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.

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A wolf with sheep's travel numbers. In my initial review I recommended the Tallboy IV for 'gravity riders looking for a short travel rocket.' Santa Cruz calls it an XC bike for DH riders.

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

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When SLX looks this good and works so well it's hard to justify XT or XTR. But I'm confident you can find a way.

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.

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The brakes are a highlight through the line.

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Shifting under power is a revelation.

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.

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Fastest dropper install in history. If the battery from your derailleur runs out you can swap the one on your dropper. photo - AJ Barlas

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How about those clean bars? It would be tough to go back to cables after riding AXS for a time. photo - AJ Barlas

Happy New Year! May 2020 bring more rides and more radness than 2019!

cam@nsmb.com
Cam McRae

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

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Comments

Timer
+2 IslandLife mike Ben Beau Miller
Timer  - Jan. 7, 2020, 12:37 a.m.

Nice writeup with some interesting choices. Hadn't heard of Shred protective gear until now.

I'm still not entirely sold on the current crop of "aggressive" short travel bikes. Why not put an extra 10-20mm on there and get rid of the only complaint? "Of course it's possible to overwhelm 130/120 mm of travel"

They already use the same components, weight the same, have the same geo numbers and the same climbing manners as their slightly longer travel cousins, so why bother?

Unless you live somewhere outside BC where the terrain doesn't require much travel. But then it also doesn't require 65° head tube angles and 470mm reach numbers.

What am i missing here?

Reply

Vikb
+4 Tremeer023 Pete Roggeman Metacomet Mammal
Vik Banerjee  - Jan. 7, 2020, 8:34 a.m.

I got a "modern" geo hardtail this year. Mostly for bikepacking, but I figured it would be fun on easy trail rides. The more I ride it the more amazed I am at how capable it is despite having zero travel out back. 

On some of the chunky sections I am getting bounced around a bit I've been thinking if I had even a small amount of travel out back that could be pretty sweet and I've been dreaming about a aggressive short travel bike.

So why bother with no travel or a limited amount vs. a 140mm-150mm bike? Basically because the no to low travel options feel quite different and that ride feel is a lot of fun on a lot of trails. I have been grabbing my hardtail for rides my mid-travel FS bike would be a "better" option. Logically I should grab the FS bike as it's the "correct" tool for the job, but the hardtail is just a blast to ride and it gets up and down a lot of the same trails just fine...although you have to ride it differently.

Reply

DemonMike
+1 Timer IslandLife Beau Miller
mike  - Jan. 7, 2020, 8:35 a.m.

Yup I agree. After watching the PB climbing vid. I think the validness of the aggressive short travels. Was nullified by the bigger travel bikes better suited to the aggressive set-up.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+5 Beau Miller mike AJ Barlas Metacomet Mammal
Cam McRae  - Jan. 7, 2020, 9:25 a.m.

Climbing on the TB is incredible. I’ve been on some other bikes that go up very well and his leaves them in the dust. Also all out acceleration when you need to get up to speed quickly. There’s also something about the feel of the trail with less travel under you that is very satisfying. For me this would  be an ideal second bike to complement something with 150 rear and more up front but I also reach for it on rides that would suit more travel just because it’s so much fun. Especially with beefy but relatively light rubber.

Reply

cooperquinn
0
Cooper Quinn  - Jan. 7, 2020, 1:06 p.m.

This comment has been removed.

cooperquinn
0
Cooper Quinn  - Jan. 7, 2020, 1:07 p.m.

Its an interesting conundrum (and a very first world problem).

We have long travel bikes that are light and pedal incredibly well.

We have well geometried short travel bikes that are lighter and are incredibly fun and can play with the big bikes, and to your point may be more versatile in many locales. 

Its honestly hard to pick a side, or find the 'appropriate' spot on the spectrum.

Reply

UFO
+2 Cam McRae Vik Banerjee
UFO  - Jan. 7, 2020, 3:19 p.m.

For me, a bigger bike allowed me to ride faster and feel like I'm a better rider than I actually am, until I hit actual harder trails and features and get served humble pie. And crashes at higher speeds also typically hurt more or cause more bodily damage. The small bikes IMO help to keep the trails in my wheelhouse interesting and keeps me on my toes without letting the bike go straight down wherever it wants. 

But I do also understand the struggle and safety net of 'overbiking', with how well many bikes pedal nowadays and weights that are very comparable to the smaller trail bikes

Reply

velocipedestrian
+1 Cam McRae
Velocipedestrian  - Jan. 7, 2020, 9:36 p.m.

This. My limited experience of overbiking made the usual trails boring, until I got over my personal speed limit.

Reply

velocipedestrian
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Velocipedestrian  - Jan. 7, 2020, 9:34 p.m.

Why were you riding Peak Flow? It's the worst option down from the summit of Makara Peak (IMHO of course). I hope you finished the lap with Live Wires, and perhaps a jaunt across the valley to Deliverance.

Glad you enjoyed Wellington, it's nice to have validation from a credible source that it's a good riding hood. I thought it might be just having a trailhead 100m from the house, and other options within easy pedalling distance... It would be terrible to hear it's actually full of boring trails.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+1 Velocipedestrian
Cam McRae  - Jan. 8, 2020, 1:29 p.m.

Is Peak Flow where the shot of Elliott was taken? We didn't ride that one and I think it was actually closed when we were there. The trail we rode was more technical and challenging but lots of fun. I have notes but I'll have to find them. We also rode Deliverance and two other areas. It was a busy two days but a blast! I'm waiting on a photo but it will become an article!

Reply

velocipedestrian
+1 Cam McRae
Velocipedestrian  - Jan. 8, 2020, 3:50 p.m.

Yup, Elliot is on Peak Flow. As you found, the natural surface up there is chunky. PF is groomed with machine and commercial gravel, flow trails are fine in places where the soil suits, but that's not one.

I look forward to the article.

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