The Good From The Bad

Best of 2020 – A.J.'s List

Words AJ Barlas
Photos AJ Barlas
Date Dec 29, 2020

It's no exaggeration to say 2020 hasn't been a great year for heaps of people. For me, it started back in the homeland. When Covid-19 went bang, I was forced to leave my family in Australia early with no timeline for when I'd see them again, but that was just the start. Later in the year I lost a loved one, had health complications that built until being diagnosed with Lyme disease and mycotoxin poisoning, and my young, super energetic furball, Chase, appears to have issues with his hind legs. It's been an absolute bugger of a year but there are still so many positives more worthy of attention.

Throughout the doom and gloom that's followed us around thanks to mainstream media, there have been heaps of positives and all these experiences have taught me lessons and encouraged growth. After 17 years married to the love of my life, we're closer than we've ever been. I've also grown closer to my parents despite the distance, something I look forward to building on in the coming years. When we narrow our focus back to mountain bikes, it's been a great year for many. Racing has taken a hard hit but without it, brands have still seen incredible growth and there were some excellent new parts and bikes for us to enjoy.


Shimano's SLX 12-speed drivetrain was the first wallet-friendly drivetrain to provide performance on par with their XT offering. Then Deore came along.

Shimano 12-Speed Drivetrains

Shimano released the 12-speed XTR drivetrain in May 2018 and a year later, the technology trickled down to their popular XT range while in 2020 they released SLX, closely followed by the Deore group. These lower-tier groups come at a significant cost saving but the quality of the products remains incredibly close to their far more expensive siblings.

I've spent a lot of time on 12-speed XT and now after most of the year with SLX on my bike, I can't see the benefit of forking out more money for the higher end kit. Then there's the Deore group, which costs less again and by all accounts retains the shift quality and consistency of SLX and XT. Shimano has done such a great job retaining the quality of their high tier groups lower in the range, it may cannibalize their profits in the process, to our benefit.

The only caveat to the excellence of the lower cost SLX and Deore drivetrains lays with the shifter. Thankfully a small upgrade to the XT shifter unlocks all the functionality from the more expensive drivetrains for less. I've been testing the more expensive XT chain with the SLX drivetrain since my SLX review and haven't found a large enough improvement in shifting to warrant the extra cost. Durability so far is similar.


Eliot Jackson is one of my favourite people in mountain bikes. He's such a good representative for our sport.

Social Awareness & Positive Causes

As if a global pandemic wasn't bad enough, social issues erupted in 2020, revealing the ugly truth that justice is anything but blind, nearly starting a civil war in the now not-so-United States of America.

But away from the nasty things fed to us on news, there were some positive notes. Perhaps the most applicable to mountain bikes was the sharing and education provided by Eliot Jackson. As someone who doesn't consider themselves prejudiced in any sense, the video below Eliot shared was tough to swallow, but his help has given me a greater understanding and we can learn from his words.

Eliot took it further than simply sharing his experiences with the predominantly white males in mountain biking. Alongside Katie Holden and others, Eliot started the Grow Cycling Foundation, making himself an example of what people of colour can achieve and making it clear there is a place for colour in cycling. Grow Cycling will focus on helping diversify the sport of mountain biking.

"Grow Cycling Foundation to me is about providing the opportunity to achieve the life that I have and way more. When I look back there are a few lucky moments, like @kragarchery dragging me up to Whistler, that if they didn’t happen, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today." – Eliot Jackson

A few years ago trail heads in Squamish never looked like this unless there was an event. Now it's a regular occurence; the people, colourful outfits, and large numbers of female rippers. Image from the Hot On Your Heels women’s enduro event.

Mountain Biking is Booming

For the past decade, our sport has been steadily growing. We're no longer participants in a fringe activity, viewed as a bunch of rogue dirtbags like when I was first hooked ~20 years ago. But in 2020, we've seen an increase in new riders and participation that dwarfs the last few years. Men, women and children are flocking to the trails. In the Sea to Sky, we live in a bubble but the number of women and children joining in the fun gets me stoked nonetheless. It's great to see, albeit at the expense of busier trails and trouble sourcing some of our favourite products.

The growth is creating great opportunities for small brands doing cool things and we're seeing the birth of more. Living in the Coastal B.C. bubble or anywhere similar, the concentrated number of riders provides a chance for new ideas, with heaps of visibility and a market keen to support them, even from relatively unknown entities. I've spent time chatting with and enjoying products from small companies like STFU, Privateer Bikes and Khyber Racks, to name just a few, and have found their outlook refreshing.


The STFU may not be for everyone but it works and the brand is just one of the small companies growing thanks to a unique idea.

Many of the bigger brands have been enjoying the explosion of our sport too. As riders, it can be a battle to get some of our favourite products, particularly consumables like tires, but in the end I believe these are good problems to have. As we grow, there are more opportunities within the sport, the potential for greater events and bigger prize purses for athletes, more possibilities for riders to make a living doing what they love. If things keep on an upward trajectory, today's grommets have a greater chance to make a career from riding their bike.

The products we use are also rapidly improving as a result. Every year things get so good and just when you think they can't get better, they do. We're living in an unreal period to be mountain bikers, with greater trail access, bikes, gear, variety and more friends to share the journey with.


The capabilities and feel of TRP's DH-R Evo brake make it hard for me to imagine riding anything else.


I'm a picky bugger when it comes to brakes and have realized that for me, they can have the most drastic effect on my enjoyment on the bike. Not enough power and I can't ride how I want. Inconsistency, especially in challenging terrain, quickly ruins how I attack the trail and having to work on them all the time means even more hours spent in the garage. Lever feel and shape is something I surprisingly struggle with too.

GeoMetron G16 29er Frankenbrakes

The lever blade of the second gen Code brakes is still one of my favourites for feel but the brakes performed well, especially when considering how dated they were.


The latest Shimano brakes feature a great lever feel, too. The blade is thinner than the TRP and while comfortable, I prefer the latest lever from TRP.

My G16 was proof of my picky ways. The bike was built with a franken-brake consisting of the original galvanized Code calliper and the second-gen. Code lever. They met most of my needs and still to this day the shape of the lever blade remains a favourite. Shimano's latest models had me very impressed and were set to be on this list, until the TRP EVO showed up.

In terms of power, with the same size rotors, all three are similar but how they deliver it differs greatly. The TRP DH-R EVOs are lighter at the lever than SRAM and Shimano's newest, bite quickly but provide an incredible amount of control with the power on tap. All the TRP brakes I've ridden have outperformed the big 'S' models in terms of consistency and no matter what I throw at them, they stay this way. I've been beating on these for six months and the effortless stopping has helped stave off fatigue during long rough descents. And after all that time, all I've done is switch brake pads around to experiment with the new performance resin and their sintered pad compounds.


I need to do an update of this incredibly versatile bike. My GeoMetron G1 has seen a huge amount of changes in 2020 but no matter the configuration, the geometry still pushes it into realms the big brands are scared to enter.

Mountain Bikes Moving Away From Road Bike Roots

It's been a long time coming but I believe 2020 has seen the switch flipped on MTB. For decades we rode bikes that were heavily influenced by our road cycling brethren, and to be honest, trail bikes sucked for a long while. Things improved in recent years, thanks in part to the EWS, but now we're seeing some of the big companies pushing geometries and shapes that better reflect how we use our mountain bikes.

We don't ride relatively static for long periods, climb gradual road inclines or require the same aerodynamics as road bikes. Mondraker's Forward Geometry, which arguably kicked the new direction off, is now almost dated compared with what we're seeing from Transition, Specialized and Norco, to name just a few. Balance between the wheels has become a focal point, seated positions have been kicked forward, allowing more effortless weighting of the front wheel when climbing. The change in seated position has allowed for slacker head angles, providing riders with more protection behind the front hub and less chance of being tossed over the bars. And it all translates to bikes that want to fall into a turn and remain comfortable while tilted.

Then there's the interest in smaller brands like GeoMetron Bikes, Privateer, and RAAW, who each take their approach differently but offer equally exciting options for riders that aren't interested in mainstream brands. They also provide another option that I'm a big fan of…

RAAW Madonna in Whistler

Metal is back (a bit at least), and so is that raw metal finish


Six or seven years ago everyone was ditching their metal bikes for the fantastic plastic but now, things appear to be mellowing. Metal bikes are seeing a resurgence and not only because they're cheaper, because some of them aren't. GeoMetron/Nicolai, Privateer and RAAW are just a few of the metal bikes we have to choose from and they all offer something different. Whether purely geometry focused, suspension performance, or value, I've seen more metal bikes on the trails this year than many of the previous combined.

Some of the major manufacturers still offer alloy frames but sadly, generally spec them with low tier parts and no frame only options. The recent increase of metal bikes on the trails leaves me wondering if more people would be on metal frames were there more available with better suspension and running gear.

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+3 Doug M. Velocipedestrian twk
Vik Banerjee  - Dec. 29, 2020, 6:24 a.m.

Yeah metal bikes! I've worked in composite manufacturing, owned carbon in the past and will likely buy more carbon in the future so I am not a luddite I just think a well designed and manufactured metal bike is a thing of beauty.  I was really stoked to get my GG Smash just before GG went carbon. Their new carbon frames look great [my GF got a carbon Smash and loves it], but I plan to ride my metal Smash for many years. I'll appreciate it even more now that it's a collectors item!

Those RAAW bikes look really nice and I have been tempted to try a steel FS frame since I love my steel HTs so much. Anyways I'm glad there are still quite a few great metal frame options for those of us that swing that way. :-)


+6 Vik Banerjee Doug M. ManInSteel DancingWithMyself Velocipedestrian twk
AJ Barlas  - Dec. 29, 2020, 7:52 a.m.

The more industrial look of a metal bike just sings, doesn’t it? I’m definitely a sucker for the straighter lines and really like the way they ride. A steel dually is very interesting. Like you, I’ve always enjoyed the feel of a steel hardtail over an alloy one (mostly in DJ/jib bikes for me). Thankfully there are a few solid options out there for you to consider.


+9 JVP Vik Banerjee Sanesh Iyer Andrew Major ianterry mrbrett Agleck7 AJ Barlas twk Pete Roggeman Brian Tuulos
Cr4w  - Dec. 29, 2020, 9:24 a.m.

Cycling's tiny shifts towards broader inclusion are good but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Those shifts are due to focussed dedicated efforts from individuals. Specifically not from industry or bike companies. Yeah cycling is finally reaching out to include a wider range of genders and ages of affluent white people but that's about it. As a visible PoC myself I'm still in this sport after all these years despite cycling's best efforts to exclude me on every level.


+6 Cr4w Sanesh Iyer ianterry Carlos Matutes AJ Barlas twk
JVP  - Dec. 29, 2020, 11:44 a.m.

Industry could start to broaden the reach of the sport by starting with trails/pumptracks/DJs right were people live. Get kids of all backgrounds on this stuff, then we actually start to branch out from the current "rich ski town" demographic. 

This is where the big brands could step up and make a difference beyond just marketing. Build trails/parks/jumps where kids live, and make them fun as hell on basic bikes. It would take real dollars, real coordination, and it's not a short-term solution.

I can't remember where I read the article, maybe here or Freehub, but there's a guy working with first nations finding trail funding and building trails with them. That's exactly an example of how to get real things done. So rad.


+2 Sanesh Iyer ianterry
Cr4w  - Dec. 29, 2020, 2:13 p.m.

That kind of thing is win-win for everyone. Help the community, help kids, learn some skills and foster goodwill in future customers.


Mark  - Dec. 31, 2020, 9:55 a.m.

It's the Indigenous Youth Mountain Bike Program



+1 Bogey Brian Tuulos cedrico Sanesh Iyer Carlos Matutes
[user profile deleted]  - Dec. 29, 2020, 6:11 p.m.

This comment has been removed.

+1 AJ Barlas
Vik Banerjee  - Dec. 30, 2020, 5:44 a.m.

I've been riding the last 30+ years and I am usually the only visible minority in the group. I've never felt excluded/unwanted in biking/MTBing, but it's nice to see companies making a bit more effort to try and show a more diverse image to the wider world. I've always been crazy about bikes so nothing was going to stop me from riding, but I can imagine lots of other folks who'd enjoy the sport, but don't get motivated to spend the $$ and try because they don't see themselves represented in any of the media that gets created.

The whole process can be a win-win since new riders are a fresh market for bike companies and being more diverse/inclusive in how you approach marketing isn't expensive. It just takes a bit of consideration.

I wasn't sure my GF would become a MTBer because she had to learn as an adult in a really hard/techy location. Riding with the guys was okay and we tried to be thoughtful/considerate, but what really took her to the next level and love the sport was finding a ladies riding group. Where they looked like her, talked like her and had similar challenges and found solutions together that worked well for them.


+1 Vik Banerjee
Cr4w  - Dec. 30, 2020, 10:33 a.m.

I'm thinking excluded might have been a strong word. But I think we're similar in that I was exposed to riding and loooooved it, rode more, harder, longer. Moved to BC back in the day for MOAR. Steeper, techier, big bikes, small bikes, road bikes all of it. 

I still feel there is basically zero representation for PoC and TBH that's not going to stop me as long as the experience continues to give me what I want. Still, it's curious that after nearly 30 years I've never been on a ride with another PoC. That speaks volumes about how welcoming this sport is. I could see how for many young PoC they might be dissuaded. Guys like you or I are the exceptions that prove the rule.

I think it would be hard for your average BC white bro-brah guy to appreciate what it's like to join an activity/culture where they are the only one like them attending and they are literally not represented in any way at all and then stick with it for 30+ years.


Mark  - Dec. 30, 2020, 12:20 p.m.

When you say representation do you mean in advertising/promo/racing or just people who ride? Mtb'ing is for sure white dominated, but yeah POC being excluded or not welcomed I think would not be accurate. On the flip side of the equation I've been part of a riding group that's been 50/50 white/poc.

There are many reasons why mtb'ing is dominated by white folks and I think the most significant factor is social/cultural where cycling in general and mtb'ing in particular simply aren't in the realm of some socio-cultural groups. For example you see the same thing in hockey to a degree and again I think a lot of it is cultural.


[user profile deleted]  - Dec. 30, 2020, 4:13 p.m.

This comment has been removed.

Mark  - Dec. 30, 2020, 10:54 p.m.

I get the sarcasm here, but one of the dangers with the pendulum shift in social attitudes is that too critical a lens and shame can get used to observe things in trying to simplify complex issues which can end up makings things worse for marginalized or oppressed groups.

+2 Dogl0rd Vik Banerjee Cr4w DancingWithMyself
bigbrett  - Dec. 29, 2020, 9:45 a.m.

Stoked on the metal bike resurgence, as I don't understand how anyone who rides hard and eats shit a lot could ride a carbon bike? I chuck my bike off of so many trails that I don't think a plastic bike would last more than a week. Especially when carbon enduro bikes need to have a heavier layup anyway, so they don't really end up being lighter. YAAAAY METAL.

AJ, how would you compare the TRPs to the Hayes Dominions? I'm a lifelong SRAM Code rider, since I'm one of the crazies that is hyper-sensitive to the stupid shimano wandering bite-point issue, and it seems like the TRPs + Dominions are the front runners for my next build. Any comments comparing the two?


Vik Banerjee  - Dec. 30, 2020, 5:52 a.m.

Putting the right kind of protective tape [not all tapes are created equal] on your carbon frame can make it very durable and it pretty easy when the frame is fresh. It's the first thing I would do with any carbon frame and then I wouldn't be overly worried about riding it in rocky terrain.

That said I don't disagree that metal bikes make a lot of sense...especially for burly rigs.


+1 Cr4w
AJ Barlas  - Dec. 30, 2020, 7:31 a.m.

Glad to hear of others as excited as me for metal bikes! Regarding your brake comparison Q. I’ve not spent more than a few minutes mucking around with the Dominion so i can’t fairly compare. They’re both great brakes by all accounts and it may come down to whether you want to work with DOT or mineral oil? Lever blade feel will also be a consideration and for me, the TRP wins there.


+1 Vik Banerjee
Cr4w  - Dec. 30, 2020, 10:42 a.m.

I had a few beautiful carbon bikes and hated that they were so delicate (after putting some major scars in them after relatively minor impacts). I've been full on metal for the last two seasons and it's awesome. I love how metal really doesn't care. My riding experience is fully enhanced by not having to baby my bike.

Shelter Tape is the best shock-absorbing tape I've found. Not for use all over the bike but perfect for under chainstays and bottom of the down tube.


Vik Banerjee  - Dec. 31, 2020, 6:09 a.m.

Yes Shelter Tape is awesome for high impact areas. I have a few different kinds of tape for different parts of my bikes depending on the likely damage that area will see. I tape my metal bikes as well. Even though they react differently to impacts than carbon they can be damaged. And I enjoy the pre-build drink some beers and tape up a frame ritual before hanging parts on the frame.


+2 Vik Banerjee AJ Barlas
Ripmoslow  - Dec. 29, 2020, 6:16 p.m.

The ripmo AF is a great example of a metal bike with quality suspension. I bought the bought the nx build at around $4000 CAD, crazy value, and I can upgrade the drivetrain when it wears out.


+1 AJ Barlas
Vik Banerjee  - Dec. 30, 2020, 6:01 a.m.

Ibis did a great job on the Ripmo AF. Especially the lowest spec. It's a bike worthy of keeping long-term and upgrading as you go.


+1 Vik Banerjee
AJ Barlas  - Dec. 30, 2020, 7:34 a.m.

We need more companies doing sick specs like the Ripmo AF. Fingers crossed more brands will see alloy frame options as an alternative for riders more-so than the current low quality builds many are making them.


mudrunner  - Jan. 3, 2021, 12:30 p.m.

Metalheads unite!

Also...Norco has something shore-specific in metal coming out this year.


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