Editor’s Dozen: Cass’ Favorite Gear of 2023
Is it that time of year again? After a busy 12 months of travel and time on two wheels in several countries, Cass kicks off our annual Editor’s Dozen gear picks with his roundup of favourite bikes, components, accessories, clothing, and more. Find out which old and new pieces earned top marks in 2023 here…
Living in Mexico means that access to “new stuff” can be somewhat limited, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it means I really use what I have, and that beguiling “Buy Now” button is less instant than it otherwise would be. However, 2023 has been the year that I’ve travelled more, mostly to see my family and friends in New England, the UK and Colorado, so this roundup is thus a selection of new things, new-to-me-things, and some old favourites. For the most part, they all have an accent on longevity, durability, and comfort, as that’s the direction I increasingly find myself steering towards. Kicking off out 2023 Editor’s Dozen series, find my top 12 picks from the year below.
Jones alloy rims (old-school durability)
755 grams / Made in Taiwan / $85 at Jones Bikes
For 2023, I decided to build up my ultimate “touring” wheelset. I knew I wanted a DT Swiss 350 hub to do the heavy-duty work – they’re most durable hubs I’ve come across, they’re super easy to maintain, and they’re SRAM and Shimano compatible, with the simple tool-less removal of a cassette, keeping my wheels easily interchangeable between different bikes and drivetrains. Brass nipples and double-butted spokes were also on the checklist – I’ve had too many alloy nipples crack or cease to want to save any weight there! Given how much I love the Sinewave Beacon 2, I specced a SON 28 up front – the 150TA version that fits my Jones cost a small fortune, but I think (and hope!) it will be worth it in the long run.
As for rims, I pondered the options long and hard. I considered carbon, but given the intended uses of the bike – being ridden in different parts of the world, both loaded and otherwise, and transported on all manner of buses and pickup trucks – I stuck with alloy. Carbon hoops certainly build up easily, hold their shape really well, and kick up to speed nicely, but I still feel alloy is a more resilient material in ways relevant to bikepacking. For instance, this summer I damaged a carbon rim trying to squeeze a wheel into the comically small hook on an Amtrak train, and I always worry about gouging them when my bike is jostling around in the bowels of a bus. An alloy rim also less questionable when it comes to the end of its life, and of course it’s much more affordable.
All this considered, I had my hubs laced to Jones Spec aluminum rims. Call me old fashioned, but there’s something reassuring about a double-walled, eyeletted rim! At 750 grams a pop, there are lighter options these days, but pickings are slim if an internal diameter of 45mm is what you’re after, which suits everything from a 2.6 to 3.25″ tyre, including my favourite Duro Crux. What’s more, it’s available in 32 or 36 hole options – good for Clydesdales or, dare I say it, e-bikers – and they’re Presta or Schrader drilled, the latter proving especially easy to set up tubeless with only a floor pump. Thus far, it’s been a great wheelset that I’ve really put through the wringer. True, I’ve had a couple of small dings from running excessively low tyre pressures, but these have been easy to remove with some pliers. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my carbon rims for mountain biking, but for distance touring, commuting, cargo hauling, and everything in between, this has been a great wheelset. Should you spec more affordable hubs, it’s one that won’t break the bank, either.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Mid Tarp 1 (Extreme minimalism)
250 grams (tarp only) / Made in Mexico / $471 (tarp only) at Hyperlite Mountain Gear
If you’re a fan of minimal Dyneema shelters, you may have noticed that Hyperlite released both the Mid 1 and the Mid 1 Tarp – and after visiting them in Maine, I had the opportunity to try both. At 6’1”, it’s the Tarp 1 that I’ve come to prefer – and my impending review will compare the two in detail. For good reason, I’ve used it all summer long in the UK, and more recently in Mexico and the American South West too.
I’ve always loved the simple, elegant simplicity of a ‘mid, or a pyramid-shaped tarp. I first discovered this style of minimal shelter whilst living in critter-free New Mexico. It barely takes up any room in your pack kit, it’s easy to pitch, weighs next to nothing, and offers good protection against wind and rain in any direction – much more so than both a flat tarp or a bivvy bag of a similar weight, in my opinion. And, it keeps you feeling close and connected to nature, unlike a fully enclosed tent. Think sprigs of wildflowers sprouting right by your nose!
As a fan of other shaped shelters – like the Six Moon Designs Deschutes I tested some years ago – I found the Tarp 1 to be especially well designed. It’s easy and intuitive to pitch, it’s quiet in everything but the strongest of winds, and it sheds water extremely well – and I say this having used it as my basecamp for an especially wet UK enduro event, where it kept me completely bone dry, to the surprise of those around me in their cosy camper vans. There are a number of neat details too, including a magnet to hold the door in place when it’s rolled back and stretchy guy points for windy conditions, or to open up internal space. Tabs inside suggest an additional mesh insert will be available at some point too – so don’t worry if the idea of sleeping without any mesh freaks you out! In fact, I really like this modularity in a shelter, as you can bring along what you need and leave behind what you don’t. I generally team mine with a piece of Tyvek as a groundsheet, which is durable, waterproof and keeps weight down.
In my most ideal of worlds, I’d love the Mid 1 Tarp to be a touch larger, use a heavier gauge zip, and have a slightly thicker grade of Dyneema, or at least be dyed a darker colour, as much for stealth camping and privacy as anything else. But when it comes to ultra-minimal bikepacking and backpacking, you can’t have it all, and these are all trade-offs I’m happy to make for the way in which it’s intended to be used. Suffice to say, it was the envy of all my bikepacking compadres in the UK this summer, and it’s the most refined minimal solo shelter that I’ve tried.
I should point out that the carbon pole offered by Hyperlite Mountain Gear ($59) is a separate purchase – after all, hikers will use their trekking poles – and you’ll need to source your own tent stakes too. A quick sidenote: I found Hyperlite’s to be unnecessarily long and their hollow shafts prone to bending in hard ground, so I’d stick with what you already have.
Pedaling Innovations (Not Just For Broken Toes)
525 grams / Made in Taiwan / $149 at Pedaling Innovations
I first began researching these unusual-looking pedals after I broke my toe – a long story that involved riding sandals down a techy trail and an errant root. Fast forward a few months, and I honestly can’t imagine going back to any other pedal, and that includes my favourite Hope F20s that I’m always waxing lyrical about. With or without a broken toe!
Skyler wrote a fantastic review of them back in 2018, which had me hooked, and since then, one of his main complaints – a lack of pins – has been addressed. Admittedly, it did take my ageing brain a while to adjust to positioning the middle of my arch above the spindle of the pedal, as foot placement is key to the Pedaling Innovations concept, and actually results in a slight lowering of the saddle. But now that I have, riding any other way feels like I’m on tip toes and somehow lacking in power through the pedal stroke.
Sized at 143mm by 95mm, they dwarf even the largest platform pedals I’ve come across – and there’s an XL version available too! The pedals themselves are made by VP, and I would comment that the bearings haven’t lasted anywhere near as long as my beloved Hopes – I’ve chatted to other bike-touring, Pedaling Innovations enthusiasts who have reported similar findings, though at least a replacement bearing kit is only $10. Out of the box, the shape of the pedal is also extremely sharp edged – I actually ended up filing mine down! Other than that, these massive pedals are more than worth the increase in weight over a standard-sized one, and they make cycling in almost any footwear (including sandals, just watch out for roots!) a real pleasure. Dang it, now I need a set for all my bikes!
Oveja Negra Don’t Worry Drink Water (Eat your bottle)
TBC grams / Made in TBC / $14 at Oveja Negra
I only came across these bottles recently, when I was was visiting Oveja Negra in Salida, Colorado, to ride with my son. But consider me sold! I love how easy plastic bottles are to squeeze… it’s just their landfill destiny that has always irked me. Oveja Negra’s Don’t Worry, Drink Water bottles are plant-based, which means they’ll break down a lot quicker than conventional plastic. Size-wise, they come in the standard 600ml and 750ml capacities, and sit snuggly in water bottle cages or holders. In use, I find them both easy to squeeze, with a drinking port that feels good in the mouth, and no weird after tastes to report either. I appreciate that stainless steel bottles remain ultimately a far better, long-lasting option for water bottles, but if you like the squeeze of the Specialized/Purist bottles of yore, these seem to be a good alternative. Just note that you do need to compost them in a designated facility, of which there are few at present… and they’re not actually edible! And a reminder – reducing and reusing are key, so only replace your current bottles when you really need to.
Shimano Linkglide XT cassette (3 x Tougher)
615 grams / Made in Malaysia / $130 at Shimano
I’m only going to mention this briefly here, as I have a full review coming soon on the new Linkglide drivetrain – after a number of months of riding through New and Old England, and wet Wales too. It’s the cassette though, that I want to bring attention to right now, as it has proved remarkably hardy and represents, in my view, the highlight of the drivetrain. And, whilst it may not have the Swiss-watch style lightness of shifting that I associate with my SRAM drivetrain, it does extremely well under load, or with a drivetrain full of glorious UK mud. At a little over $100 dollars, depending on where you shop around, it’s also on the far more affordable spectrum of 1 x drivetrains – more in line with the Sunrace cassettes I generally run – and uses an HG freehub body, which pleases me. And, thanks in part to its thicker teeth, it’s touted to be three times as durable as Shimano’s more established Hyperglide family. Aside from its extra weight, compared at least to a comparable XT cassette, the only real downside is that it’s only compatible with Cues and Linkglide components, due to their specific pull ratio. Until these new systems gain in popularity, this could make sourcing replacement parts – like a damaged derailleur – complicated in many parts of the world. This got me wondering: perhaps the ultimate hardwearing, affordable, international touring drivetrain is a Linkglide 11-50T cassette, teamed with a friction shifter and any derailleur of a suitable length… Watch this space, as experiments are ongoing!
Old Man Mountain Basket (Baskets Forever)
499 grams / Made in Taiwan / $80 at Old Man Mountain
It was a recent trip with my son Sage that reminded me of the value of baskets. If you have one bike that serves both commuting and touring duties, there’s nothing quite like them.
For the longest time, I’ve used the classic wire offerings from Wald, attached using a combination of zip ties and voile straps to a front rack; yes, they’re a little on the wobbly side, but they get the job done! OMM’s stamped and welded aluminium basket, however, is a different breed of altogether and commands a higher price tag. It’s far stiffer, especially if you mount it to one of OMM’s own racks (via 4 M6 bolts), and there’s a nice cutaway to accommodate the typical straps found on basket bags. I’m running mine with an old Porcelain Rocket tote bag and it works a treat, along with a light mounted using a Problem Solver fixture to one of the rack’s legs.
Pairing it to an OMM Elkhorn, as in these photos, gains you some extra cargo cage mounts, though it does mean the overall setup is a little on the heavy side, and it can be touch awkward to remove my front wheel due to the way through thru axle interfaces with the rack – only an issue when I’m dismantling my bike to put it inside a bus. Still, it’s definitely a more confidence-inspiring setup than my venerable Wald and Nitto M18 setup, which I’ve moved over to my son Sage’s bike for school and perhaps pooch-hauling duties.
The only downside to baskets, in my opinion, is that they are relatively heavy, slowing the front end steering down. It is, however, something that you can get used to, and I think the practicality outweighs the loss in performance. Plus, basket setups look pretty darn charming too!
RonsBikes Fabs Abs (Who’s Handsome?)
375 grams / Made in USA / $106.66 at Ron’s Bikes
Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to visit the legendary Nutmeg Country and ride with Nutmeg ambassador Ronnie himself. Not only was I sent off with a slice of artisanal pizza on a handcrafted, three-day loop of his beloved Eastern Nutmeg Country, but I also loaded up with his signature Fabs Abs. I chose a delightful shade of burgundy, and I have to say, I’m not sure if I’ve owned such a handsome bag – it’s garnered compliments across the land. What’s more, it nestles perfectly under my Jones H-Bar Bend, resting atop the truss fork as if the two were made for each other.
Back in the UK, I used it mostly to stash my waterproofs and a stack of marmite sandwiches, be it on a day ride or an overnighter. The bag is refreshingly low-tech to use and easy to maintain, giving me the impression that it will likely outlive me, or at last be an heirloom I will pass onto Sage. I especially love the burrito-style closure, and the tulip motif really sets it off.
There’s not much more to say about it. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and lends your bike a little extra style, a la Ronnie and Nutmeg Country!
Ombraz sunglasses (Who Needs Arms?)
TBD grams / Made in China / $160 at Ombraz
I kind of gave up on sunglasses for a while. I’d lose them or step on them, or scratch them so badly they probably did more harm than good. At most, I’d buy affordable options like Suncloud or Goodr, just because I’m increasingly aware of the need to protect my eyes as I get older. But I always lamented when they broke or went astray. Never did I dare stray into the world of $100+ sunnies!
Then, a good friend gave me a set of Ombraz’ to try. With their novel, armless design, they’re always around my neck – kind of like having your glasses attached to a pair of Croakies, but without the delicate bits. In use, I find they stay perfectly in place while I’m riding, even on trails, and also quick and easy to pull on and off my nose if I need to, often to take quick photos. Because they’re always around my neck, even I can’t lose them, and I can flat pack them away when not needed – generally in my hip bag or the front pocket of my shorts. Ombraz tout their lenses as being scratch resistant – I’ve certainly scuffed them a little, but I tend to be hard on gear, so no real judgement there. The only downside, for me, is that they can steam up on a hot climb, and they dangle down when I lean over to tie my shoelaces – I tend to swivel them around behind my neck to keep them out of the way. I still think $160 is a lot to spend on sunglasses, but it’s now over six months since I was gifted them, and that’s something of a record for me. I know Logan and Virginia are already fans, as are a number of friends of mine, so I guess I’ve now joined the Ombraz bandwagon!
I also read that Ombraz plant 20 mangrove trees for every pair sold, as well as being apart of other environmental initiative. I have the Teton model and whilst I’m not sure I could pull them off, I love the look of the Classics with the polarised yellow lenses. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, that’s a Randi Joe Flip Up Wool Cap, which has also appeared in a past Editor’s Dozen of mine, and is just perfect for keeps ears toasty on winter rides!
Tribulus Endover (Still Going Strong)
455 grams / Made in USA / $215 at Tribulus
I’ve run my OG Endover on a number of trips over the years, most recently on the iconic White Rim tour through Utah’s remarkable Canyonlands. In fact, all four of us on the trip were running Endovers, so I’ve included a few photos here of other bags in action.
The Tribulus Endover is a bit of an unsung hero in the front bag world. It’s top opening, which I love, and extremely light, to the point that I can leave on a bike 24/7 and barely notice the added weight. Best of all, it’s super capacious, making it a great winter camping option when you need to throw in a whole tonne of layers, or a big bag of tortillas, or your RC car, or… It’s not the quickest and easiest to remove but it does handle the rigours of proper off-roading really well, with all manner of mounting points, depending on how bumpy things are going to get. Official sizing is 18-25L – all I know is that it’s massive! There’s also a smaller, Mini Endover available for those with drop bars or less real estate between bars and tyres, which I’ve been trying recently. Note that Jones fans are out of luck though, at last those with the H-Bar Loop, as they don’t play so well together.
Made in New Mexico where I used to live – and from where I’m writing this post – it feels good to be supporting a local business. As well as working in one of my favourite bike shops, Tribulus owner Nathan Meyerson is involved in repairing bikes for kids under the Santa Fe chapter of the initiative Free Bikes 4 Kids. You can read my original review here. Five years later, I’m still running the same (now sun-faded) purple bag. Thanks Nathan!
Internal drivetrains (They Never Skip a Beat)
It’s testament to the reliability of internal drivetrains that after I left my Jones Plus in a very dusty New Mexican storage container for four years, the Rohloff “started” without skipping a beat – though it does now need an oil change. I forget how old this particular hub is – getting on for a couple of decades? – as it’s been on so many bikes, including Thorns, Surlys, a Tumbleweed, and this Jones Plus.
Riding it again has reminded me of how much I love internal drivetrains, especially on a dirt-road tour or for commuting around around town. Shifting clumps of gears at once is extra welcome at traffic lights or with a heavy payload, and being in the ‘right’ gear can really help reduce stress on knees. Also, if you need to transport your bike in a bus or plane, as I invariably do, there’s no need to worry about damaging a dangling derailleur or adjusting knocked gears. The internal diretrain-astute may notice I’m running one of Cinq’s index thumb shifters, which is set up to shift up on the right and downshift on the left. I haven’t put enough miles on the system to report in on it yet, and as it’s no longer available, perhaps it’s not of interest anyway. Still, my impressions are that it’s more prone to “catching” between shifts and you can’t jump multiple gears at once, but it’s certainly an interesting option for those who are Gripshift adverse.
Talking of internal drivetrains and being Gripshift adverse, I recently had the chance to take a short test ride on the soon-to-be-released Priority 600HXT, which features the new Smart Pinion system. While electronic shifting is still a little at odds with the simplicity of how I view bikepacking bikes – holistically, at least – consider me intrigued, as it really did shift well, even under load. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to try one out for a longer period of time.
Stooge Moto bars (The Alt Rider’s MTB bar)
340 grams / Made in Taiwan / £72 at Stooge
Readers may know that I tend to defer to Jones H-bars these days, mostly because my Jones is the bike I ride the most, and the two pair especially well together. However, when I recently invested in a modern hardtail, it was the Stooge Motos that really tied it all together for me, providing a cockpit that’s both comfortable and shreddy! Numbers-wise, they sport a 17-degree backsweep and a 38mm rise, enough to take the pressure of my wrists, with a rise that puts me in a great trail riding position. At 800mm, they’re amply wide, too. In fact, any wider in Bristol and I’d be taking the skin off my knuckles!
Logan is also a Stooge Moto bar fan, and you can read more about them – and other favourite alt bars in this post.
Modern Hardtails (Finally!)
Talking of hartdails… I guess I’ve been a bit of rigid bike holdout over the last few years. I mean, just look at all the pictures of Jones bikes and Surly Pugsleys in this post!
In fact, I can barely remember when I last owned a hardtail – most likely, it was my On-One Inbred with a 100mm Reba fork, back in the day. This year, I decided to venture into the world of modern, progressive hardtails, choosing a Merida Big Trail and a 140mm Fox 34 as my starting point, which I wrote a little about in this post.
The intention, for me, isn’t to replace my Jones, rather to provide an alternative for the bigger trails I’ve been enjoying riding in Oaxaca and the UK – a bike with a slack head angle and a long front centre for descending confidence, teamed to a steep seat tube angle for techy climbs. And, I have to say, this set of numbers have proved to be a winning combination for me. Whilst I can’t claim it matches my Jones for all-day comfort, it’s super fun for local trail rides, as well as the odd overnighter and weekend bikepacking trip of a more rowdy persuasion. It’s given me a definite boost in speed, which is handy as many of my friends in the UK ride full-sussers, and I always get jostled around trying to chase them on my rigid setup.
Whilst this Merida has been an excellent foray for me, and I love the way it rides, I now have a pretty good idea of the kind of reach, seat angle, and head angle that I’m after, so look forward to exploring other options in 2024!
Extra Stocking Fillers
Like last year, I’m going to be a little sneaky here and add a couple of stocking fillers. I’m throwing in a couple of Jones’s Schrader Valves ($25), to tie in with the wheels at the top of this post. For those who favour wide rims, they make a whole lot of sense – easy to clean, durable, and good for setting up your tyres tubeless in an auto shop. The only downside that I can see is that I can’t use them with my favourite OneUp pump, which happened to feature in my 2022 editor’s pick – see the grid below.
Finally, there’s my flower cycling cap that I wear almost always, except to bed. Yes, it’s just a cap, but gosh, doesn’t it look good!? Officially called the Larons Tulips and Holly Cap ($20), here’s my buddy Vish modelling it, who I had the good fortune of biking with on a number of occasions this summer, along with the rest of the Woods Cyclery posse. Thanks for the rides and smiles, Vish!
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