This is Dirt Rag’s second year doing an official “Editor’s Choice.” With editorial staff of all shapes and sizes, spread out all over the country, we can’t just pick one product per category and call it the best.
Also notice our timing. While we could do this in the early spring, how much ride time do you think those early season awards are based on, if any at all? Waiting until the end of the year allows us to consider all the products we’ve used.
And finally, notice not all these products have been reviewed (some we’ve shelled out our own money for), nor are they all from our advertisers. We’re doing our best to be honest with our selections here, and each one is deserving of its award on its own merits. While you can buy us a beer, you can’t buy our editors.
Electronic shifting? I can hear the purists and singlespeeders scoffing, pointing and cursing my name, but the unequivocal fact is this drivetrain works with absolute perfection. It’s been a few years since I’ve had a double chainring on a personal bike, yet with top-notch shifting from the auto Syncro Shift I barely notice it’s not a single—it’s that smooth, with no front shifter to fiddle with.
With almost a year of abuse, through the tail end of winter, a wet spring and a dusty summer I have never adjusted, tweaked or fiddled with it once. That’s the biggest takeaway: truly maintenance-free performance without frayed cables, corroded housing, water freezing the line or worrying about funky routing hampering shifting. Battery life is also longer than claimed, so I hardly think about that either.
Shimano Di2 XTR isn’t in everyone’s wheelhouse and it’s not meant to be, but the concept and performance is groundbreaking. Because of that it gets my choice and is certainly here to stay.
More info: bike.shimano.com
Price: Varies, but serious $$$. If you have to ask…
Tech EditorOther than good tires, a dropper post is the best upgrade you can make to your bike. The Fall Line is the best dropper I’ve used in 2015, and as long as it remains reliable it’ll be the best I’ve ever used.
The Fall Line is cutting-edge because its design is the first mechanically locking dropper with infinite adjustment. It also has a sweet remote that can be run horizontally or vertically on either side of the bar. And two offset choices: 0 mm or 25 mm along with internal routing with tool-free cable removal for packing or sharing the post between various bikes. And it never, ever needs to be bled.
All that, plus it’s made in Canada and costs less than most high-end droppers on the market. I hope 9point8 sells a million of these things.
More info: 9point8.ca
Contributing EditorAside from some early misadventures, I’ve ridden Time clipless pedals for what seems like an eternity. Sure, SPDs are great and they’ve been around forever, but once you commit to a pedal system and pick up a few pairs, it sure is hard to switch.
I signed on to review these SPD-cleat-compatible trail pedals from VP and switched over some cleats. With both the stock VP cleats and some old Shimano ones they have a positive engagement and a crisp, quality feeling when unclipping. I’ve moved them from bike to bike for the most part of the year, and they’ve never loosened, squeaked or complained one bit. The large platform is just the ticket for a secure feeling underfoot, as more of your shoe is in contact with the pedal.
I may not be ready to toss all my Time pedals in the recycling bin, but the VP VX Adventure Race pedals are good enough to find a permanent spot on one of my bikes and a pair of SPD cleats on my favorite shoes.
More info: vp-usa.com
Former Art DirectorStrength, weight and price. That’s the trifecta, and it’s been said that you can only have two of the three. So with a $2,850 base price it should be no surprise which two are finishing first and second.
While the hubs and spokes are machined by I9 in North Carolina, the carbon rims are made by Reynolds Cycling, of Utah. Rim profiles and layups are designed to maximize lateral stiffness but maintain controlled vertical deflection. The 32 spoke holes are angled to minimize stress and promote long-term durability. The hookless bead walls allow for a slightly increased internal rim width. At 24 mm they aren’t super wide, but the bead walls are formed using a continuous fiber wrap around the top of the wall, which increases strength and impact resistance. Without a bead hook, it’s counterintuitive how secure and burp-free the tire is. Setup was easy, and I’ve had no issues.
This wheelset is ’spensive, but I9 hubs are my favorite. They’re precisely machined with a 120-point, three-degree engagement. They’re compatible with everything, and there are several colors for a custom look, but which will cost you an additional upcharge. I even like the freehub sound. There’s no need for a bell on the crowded weekend trails.
More info: industrynine.net
General Manager and Photographer
SRAM has earned significant market share and popularity with its single-ring drivetrains for good reason. These drivetrains offer enough gearing range for most situations, greatly simplify bike setup and perform incredibly well.
Last year, Dirt Rag Editor-in-Chief Mike Cushionbury awarded SRAM’s X01 drivetrain his Editor’s Choice honors because it offered similar performance to the flagship XX1 group at a reduced cost. With GX1, SRAM has again significantly cut the price of entry to 1×11 ownership.
Sure, the GX 1×11 group gains a little weight, but it retains all of the performance benefits from its pricier siblings. Shifting might be ever so slightly less crisp than XX1 or X01, but I wouldn’t bet on being able to discern a difference if blindfolded. If I were building a bike or planning to buy a new one, I’d be targeting GX 1×11 for certain. This is the pinnacle of the current performance-to-value ratio right now.
More info: sram.com
Editor’s Note: Our 2015 Editor Choice Awards are out now in Dirt Rag Issue #188. But those items aren’t the only things we were impressed with this year. Here is a list of honorable mentions from our previous web editor (and current contributing editor and editor-in-chief of Bicycle Times, our sister mag).
Alpinestars All Mountain Jacket – $200
You’ll be shocked to hear that it can be quite damp here in the Pacific Northwest. Staying completely dry is almost an impossibility, but a rain shell is on my body or in my pack the majority of the year. While there are countless thin, packable shells on the market, the Alpinestars All Mountain jacket is the one that checks all my boxes for nearly year-round use.
The cut is casual enough to layer over sweaters or even a puffy coat, but is still cut for cycling with long arms and a dropped tail. The features are kept to a minimum, keeping the jacket light and streamlined, but the ones I really need are there: namely hand warmer pockets and zippered pit zips. The cuffs have a Velcro adjustment to keep out the wind and the hem and hood have minimalist drawcords.
The shell itself is a two-layer, breathable shell, and while it’s still thin enough to fit in a small hydration pack, it’s not the paper-thin material that I worry about tearing. I’ve scraped it across countless trees, gotten it completely muddy and generally treated it like crap and it’s still my go-to choice when the skies grow dark.
There are probably less-expensive options on the market (and certainly more expensive ones) but the All Mountain Jacket is a sure bet for keeping you comfortable on the bike.
Jandd fanny pack – $8 (used)
It’s true we get to test a lot of fancy gear here at Dirt Rag, but awesomeness knows no price and no age.
I picked up this fanny pack for $8 in a secondhand outdoors store and I find myself reaching for it all time on short rides that don’t require a full backpack. Jandd is the real deal when it comes to old-school Made-in-USA quality and durability (and its style hasn’t changed much). Vintage outdoors gear is back in style so this little guy came with extra street cred.
The main compartment has plenty of room for my phone, keys, tube and tools. Water bottles fit perfectly in the two side pockets, but my favorite setup is water in one and a cold beer in a koozie in the other for a little trail-side refreshment.
The best part is the adjustable lumbar straps, which allow you set the angle of the bag and really keep it in place better than just cinching down the waist strap super tight. I wear it low over my hips where I can keep it snug without it digging into my belly.
Hit up eBay or your local swap meet and see if you can pick up some unique gear of your own.
Catalyst iPhone 6 case – $70
Chances are few pieces of gear have changed the world as much as smartphones. Beyond mountain biking, they have become indispensable tools of everyday life. My iPhone helps me navigate to the trailhead, snaps photos along the way, records my GPS for next time, and most importantly keeps me in contact with the outside world should an emergency arise.
But these tiny, expensive computers are fragile and worth protecting. The Catalyst case is waterproof to 16 feet and drop proof as well … I’ve dropped it a lot. The rubber bumper around the edge makes it easy to hold without that slippery feeling of the naked iPhone case.
The round knob on the side controls the silence button, and there is a tiny loop in the corner if you want to attach a lanyard. The power port and headphone port are accessible behind a small, pull out gasket, which did come off a few times but luckily I never lost it. In fact, each component of the case (front, back, gasket, etc.) can be purchased separately and replaced if lost or damaged.
I’ve used and abused the Catalyst case for almost a year and aside from a few scratches in the clear screen cover, it looks good as new. Previously, I used a LifeProof case and, in my opinion, the Catalyst is better in every way. It’s also available in a bunch of colors and versions are available for most modern iPhone variations.
Editor’s Note: Katherine, our new web editor, wasn’t on staff when the 2015 Editor Choice Awards were being collected for Dirt Rag Issue #188, so her honorable mention list is made up of stuff she purchased during the past year on her own dime.
If you want to know what the rest of the staffers chose as their favorite bikes and gear of 2015, pick up the latest issue off a newsstand near you, or purchase a digital copy now.
Chromag Trailmaster Saddle – $96
The Trailmaster is my just-right saddle. It features a medium-sized platform, has a “medium” amount of padding (it’s not super soft, despite how thick it looks) and is neither too flat nor too curved nor too deeply channeled. Similarly to SRAM’s Guide brakes, I can ride my full-suspension bike all day and not notice this vital component because it just works. I usually ride wearing lightly padded liner shorts, but the saddle is padded and comfortable enough for a brief outing if and when I forget my chamois.
The perforated natural leather top wears a classy striped pattern and has aged admirably, with just a small amount of barely noticeable cracking on the rear after almost a year of rides. Otherwise, it still looks remarkably new and doesn’t feel as if it has lost any of its support.
The Trailmaster looks smaller than it feels under butt thanks to its padding and edges that are generously rounded off for ease in maneuvering off the saddle. At only 4 mm longer than Chromag’s dirt jump saddle, and featuring a soft nose, it might not be the best platform for people who spend a lot of time slid way far forward to grind out climbs, but I have been pleased with the Trailmaster on 99 percent of my rides.
The Chromag Trailmaster has chromoly rails, weighs 310 grams and measures 284 mm by 140 mm.
SRAM Guide RSC Brakes – $410/pair
SRAM’s Guide brakes have gotten so much love in the past year and have worked so well that they have nearly been forgotten, but they should still be on your radar whether you’re upgrading or building a bike from scratch. In fact, after choosing them for this list, I had to go for a quick pedal to think about how they feel; these brakes are so good that I have been able to ignore them, trust them and just ride.
The RSC Guides have impressed me with their modulation, reliability and adjustability. They don’t feel grabby nor do they replicate the unnerving, brake-pedal-to-the-floor-then-catch feeling of the old Avids I replaced. As a smaller rider with smaller hands, I appreciate tool-free reach adjust and true, one-finger braking that is always smooth. After many rides—not always in great conditions—these brakes have stayed true, quiet, powerful and proven to be very low-maintenance. Read Mike’s review if you want all the technical details.
Giro Wind Vest – $80
Simply called “Wind Vest,” this is Giro’s least-expensive outerwear offering (price is the same for men and women). Despite the steep price tag for what seems to be a simple piece of gear, I have found it to be worth every dollar. On any ride when the temperature is 70 degrees or below, this vest goes with me. I never know if I’ll get cold on a long descent or end up sitting outside a coffee shop in the shade. It wads up small, stuffs into its own pocket (inside the vest) and can fit in the hip belt pocket of my hydration pack or a rear jersey pocket.
Giro’s vest is made of Pertex Nylon Rip Stop fabric and features a perforated rear panel that means a less-sweaty back when riding with a pack. My vest shows no signs of wear after almost a year of abuse being worn under backpacks, stuffed into gear bags and rained on. It wicks moisture and is highly wind and water resistant. It’s an indispensable piece of gear with multiple uses that I’m never sorry I carried and often very glad to have.
The vest is slightly fitted but doesn’t have the upside-down triangle shape of hardcore roadie gear. It lacks grippers and still has room in the hips. It is comfortable enough off the bike that I also wear it running and hiking. The women’s sizes run almost a full-size large, especially if you want this to fit closely.
Surly Bikes Racing Sucks Hat – $28
Before you wave a rigid carbon pitchfork in my direction over my bad attitude, know that I bought this hat specifically to wear at a 12-hour mountain bike race. Since then, I have ditched my other baseball-style head coverings and reach for this Surly cap exclusively. It features fancy pinstripes, a high-qualty embroidered patch, Flex-Fit stretch, polyester and Spandex construction and a standard brim (as opposed to flat, bro-brah nonsense). The hat has even held up to multiple trips through the washing machine. Those are nice touches but, really, my favorite thing is that this hat says “Racing Sucks.”
Most people understand that the sentiment is supposed to be funny, and I can feel good about my day knowing that I made some people laugh. Even better are the ones who don’t know how to react to a woman wearing a hat that says “sucks.” I wasn’t allowed to say that word as a young child but we’re all adults now and, if you have a sense of humor, you should have this hat.
Editor’s Note: Our 2015 Editor Choice Awards are out now in Dirt Rag Issue #188. But those items aren’t the only things we were impressed with this year. Here is a list of honorable mentions from our general manager and photographer.
Showers Pass Rogue Pant – $110
Staying comfortable is key to enjoying rides through the fall, winter and spring. Good clothing is an essential part of that recipe. After reviewing the Rogue pants for Bicycle Times last year, they’ve become a crucial piece of my kit for cool-to-cold weather commuting, bikepacking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.
The Rogue Pant is a casual-looking softshell trouser made with water-resistant stretch fabric and finished with a DWR treatment to further enhance moisture resistance. The tightly woven face of the fabric blocks most of the breeze and a good bit of moisture, while a soft terry interior feels great next to skin. These pants are styled and fit like a pair of relaxed fit jeans, but offer a gusseted crotch to reduce seam irritation and facilitate movement on the bike. Fit seems to run a little on the large size. I’m normally a 33- to 34-inch waist and the 32-inch Rogue pant fit me comfortably. If you’re between sizes, you should be able step down a size without issue.
Wear them alone for cool days or layer underneath for comfort in much colder temps. The Rogue’s combination of ample wind resistance and stellar breathability make them incredibly comfortable. I’ve worn them for everything from mountain biking, to rainy commutes home from work, to going out for a date-night drink, to all-day, cross-country ski session. This is one of the rare products that delivers a casual aesthetic to blend in with most any situation, and also offers the technical chops to keep you comfy in most any situation short of a heavy, sustained rain—they’re not designed to be waterproof, after all. These versatile pants are worth every penny of the asking price.
NiteRider Pro 3600 – $700
Night riding season is upon us, particularly following the time change. If you’re going to ride at night, you’re going to need a headlight. Back in 2012, I tested NiteRider’s new-at-the-time flagship, the Pro 3600. Fast forward three years and this 3,600-lumen heavyweight is as relevant as ever. It’s even been updated with a remote switch and it now called the Pro 3600 DIY LED Remote.
The 3600 utilizes two symmetric beams that are broadcast by three CREE XML LEDs, each. NiteRider offers three settings in stock trim; 1,000-lumen “low,” 1,800-lumen “medium,” and 3,600-lumen “high” settings.
Cranked up on high, I’m able to descend at full-speed with confidence. In short, it’s overkill for slow sections of trail, but absolutely confidence-inspiring at speed. For most of my riding, I found the 1,800-lumen setting to be more than sufficient, only cranking full power on the downhills.
As NiteRider’s highest output light, the Pro 3600 is clearly its pride and joy. As you might expect, this baby carries a flagship-worthy pricetag of $700. A more budget friendly Pro 2800 Enduro Remote offers more than 75 percent of the output at less than 60 percent of the asking price.
Big Agnes King Solomon 15 and Insulated Double Z Pads – $450/$110
What’s better than sharing the experience of camping with your significant other? Sharing the experience and the sleeping bag!
The King Solomon is a deluxe, 15-degree down sleeping bag for couples. The 600-fill power DownTek down is treated to be water resistant, which helps maintain its ability to insulate in damps conditions. Zippers run down both sides of the bag to make entry and exit easy for both parties. Convenient pillow pockets can be stuffed with clothes to make a pillow, or hold your existing pillow in place. When things get cold, the internal collar can be positioned around each person’s head to maximize heat retention.
Like all Big Agnes bags, the King Solomon is not insulated on the bottom, but relies on the sleeping pad to keep you comfortable. Enter the Insulated Double Z. This 72 x 20 x 4-inch pad slides inside a sleeve on the bottom of the bag to keep it in place. The Double Z offers a two-way valve that greatly eases inflation and the whole thing threads out for speedy deflation.
Once the system is all setup, it’s supremely cozy. It’s awesome to be able to snuggle up to your partner to share body heat. My lady and I have comfortably slept down into the high 20-degree temps while wearing only a few layers. Much cooler than that and you’ll be searching for another insulating layer. Keep in mind the 15-degree rating is based on survival, not comfort.
Overall, this sleeping bag significantly increases the coziness of camping with your best pal, which is well worth the investment.
Editor’s Note: Our 2015 Editor Choice Awards are out now in Dirt Rag Issue #188. But those items aren’t the only things we were impressed with this year. Here is a list of honorable mentions from our editor-in-chief.
Vittoria Barzo – $55
Vittoria has been releasing some impressive tires lately and the Barzo has been my go-to cross-country tire for the last year thanks to being a true all-around trail performer and not a flimsy, “race-day only” tire. It’s fully lugged and has a wide, round, 2.25-inch casing. At 650 grams for a 29er, it’s still reasonably light and very durable. It’s one of the fastest rolling fully lugged tires I’ve ever used. It bites the earth in wet and dry conditions superbly, has good corning feel and—through a summer of East Coast XC riding and a stage race in Israel—I have yet to get a puncture.
I’ve been able to run tire pressure below 20 PSI on the front with great results without the tire squirming or steering funny. Besides the awesome traction and control in rough, technical sections thanks to the lug pattern and wide carcass the Barzo is a fast rolling tire on smooth fireroads and even on pavement if you ride to the trail. The TNT tubeless ready bead seals up with a floor pump as well which is a nice added bonus.
Specialized Command Post XCP – $450
I’ve pretty much made the commitment to dropper posts on every bike and the last one to make that change was my cross-county bike, the style of machine I ride most. Specialized’s carbon Command Post XCP is a beauty of a dropper that weighs just under 400 grams (for the 350 mm length without lever and cable) and has 35 mm of travel. For most trail and XC riding, that has been just enough. Dropping it means I can get nice and low back behind the saddle. Another benefit is that with just one setting that is 35 mm lower than my normal saddle position, I can drop it in technical pedaling sections and still turn the cranks without power loss and with an added degree of confidence.
The post is internally routed, operates via a shifter cable and has an air chamber so you can adjust rebound speed. Certainly it’s not for everyone but, for my style of riding, it’s a top pick.
SRAM Rival 1x – $1,357 (w/hydraulic disc brakes)
The technology behind this road group is the same as what you find in the dirt version. The wide-range 10-42 cassette is the exact same. The straight parallelogram and narrow/wide pulley tooth design and the chainrings have the same X-Sync narrow/wide tooth profile. All these put together is what makes SRAM Rival’s 1x work flawlessly without dropping the chain.
After some debate I chose a 48t ring to go with the wide range cassette since this was going on my primary road/gravel bike. The highest gear is equal to a 52×11 and my lowest matches a 34×28.
After months of riding Rival 1x on dirt, gravel and pavement I can say it performs flawlessly. Dirt and gravel is its obvious home turf. It’s completely silent with no chain slap against the chainstay and I’ve never dropped a chain or had shifting issues over washboards and other rough terrain. My gearing choice was certainly low enough for the steeps but, if not, there’s always the option to go with a smaller front ring—all the way down to a stump-pulling low of 38t to go with the big 42t on the cassette.
Is road 1x for everyone? Probably not. Will it replace a tight-ratio double ring set-up? Certainly not. However, it is a viable alternative for a great many riders who want to further simplify their bikes and who aren’t focused on high-end road racing. For me, it fits the bill perfectly.
Pivot Mach 429SL Carbon – $2,999 (frame and shock)
Even in a sea of excellent all-mountain and trail bikes on the market, I still prefer a good cross-country bike on most trails. Even though I’m not racing as much these days, I enjoy the quick handling and nimble performance that this style of bike provides.
Admittedly, Trek’s new and very capable Top Fuel 9.9 SL vied very heavily for honors here but, because it’s more specific in its race bike heritage, its performance breadth may be limiting to some riders. Which brings me to the Pivot Mach 420SL Carbon.
This frame came standard with a Fox Float Factory shock and a 120 mm travel fork but the geometry is designed to work with a 100 mm travel fork, as well. The bike’s stiffness and seemingly bottomless suspension creates a feel of confidence not usually associated with 100 mm travel frames. Of course, the fact that the geometry is adjusted to comfortably accept a 120 mm fork certainly adds to that go-anywhere attitude.
When climbing, the 429SL has just a touch of movement at the very top of the stroke to maintain traction on technical climbs with excellent anti-squat from the dw-link design to keep the bike feeling fresh and spunky when really putting power to the pedals on smooth sections. Generally, I kept the both the front and rear suspension set in “Trail” mode for majority of my ride time, only using “Climb” for long sections of smoothness and “Descend” when I knew it was time for a long downhill.
On the East Coast’s rough and rocky trails, Pivot’s “active” dw-link characteristics made it feel planted and confident at any speed. Its geometry, while stable at speed, makes it one of the tightest handling 29ers I’ve ridden. The Mach quickly sneaks around the tightest of switchbacks both climbing and descending. Out west, on the faster open trails with more sustained climbing, the 429SL made it easy to maintain speed through sweeping corners with precise steering. As for my setup, I use a 120 mm travel fork, dropper post and relatively wide 2.25-inch tires to fully enjoy trail bike fun from this cross-country racer.Tweet Print
On the cover
Andrew Whiteford does some tree splitting in Northern Thailand. Photo by Jay Goodrich.
The Dirt and Readings
This year history was made when the U.S. held its first ever World Cup cyclocross race. We show you in The Dirt along with a first hand account by American ‘cross racer Adam Craig in Readings. We also go to Novato, California, to ride the fabled “Ranch” at WTB’s first ever Throwdown. Plus, a very special Rusch Job titled “Riding With No Hands.”
Switchbacks, Spiders and KFC, by Jay Goodrich
“I couldn’t believe it, freaking KFC, only free-ranging, killed this morning, served at the perfect temperature and amazingly seasoned. We toasted with opposing chicken wings. Dinner was going to be simply amazing…”
Northern Thailand has jungles just outside its cities full of things that bite and squirm. It also has amazing singletrack, unique culture and incredible food to make it a true adventurer’s destination.
Singletrack and Kayaks, by Dan Milner
“It looks farther when looked at through sober eyes.”
Sea kayaking on its own is generally no big deal. What makes it harder is tying inflatable rubber rafts with mountain bikes lashed on them to the back of said kayaks. Now these once-streamlined vessels become slow, lumbering tugboats. It’s like using Donald Campbell’s record-breaking speedboat, Bluebird, to tow a barge.
The Fight For Winter Fat Bike Access, by Sarah Galbraith
With winter approaching, this month’s Access Action examines the ongoing battle between various land (snow) users that threatens fat bike access in many areas and how it’s being solved.
It’s time for our special Editor’s Choice awards. Check out our top picks following a year of debate and testing.
Bikes also tested in this issue:
- Cannondale Habit Carbon 1
- Canfield Brothers EPO
- Chumba URSA 29+ XT
- KTM Lycan LT XX1
- Polygon Collosus N8
Get A Copy