Wil’s Top 5 Products Of 2017 – The Singletrack Editors’ Choice Awards

by Wil Barrett 0

This feature was originally published in Singletrack Issue 116


Over the last year, our writers have tested a bucketful of bikes, a barn load of clothing and gear, and attended a bookcase full of cycling events. Which of these, though, have tickled their fancies enough to warrant the bestowing of a coveted Singletrack Editors’ Choice Award?

Wil – Technical Editor

Having recently clocked up 12 months of living in the UK, you could say my priorities for mountain biking have shifted just a tad since I moved over from Australia. No longer am I running semi-slick tyres and resin brake pads, and it feels like an age since I last cleaned a bike just using an air compressor to blow off the dust. Instead, I’ve started to take a lot more notice of things like mud clearance, and last winter I learned about wearing ‘mid-layers’ – a form of garment I’d not encountered before. Oh, how times have changed.

While I still enjoy longer cross-country outings, most of my rides have become shorter and punchier given the sawtooth elevation profile that comes with the winch-and-plummet trails that are typical of the Calder Valley. The descents are steep and technical, and more often than not, slippery and loose too.

Orange Stage 5

Wil loves the honest design.

Introduced earlier in 2017, the Stage 5 stepped into the Orange line-up as a new school 135mm travel 29er. Replacing the old Five 29, the Stage 5 is still made in Halifax from heat-treated alloy, and it still features the classic single pivot suspension design. Subtle changes to the geometry have, however, transformed this into one of the fastest and most capable trail bikes I have ridden all year.

We first tested the Stage 5 alongside two other 29ers back in Issue 113. But although each bike impressed, it was the Stage 5 that I’ve kept riding since. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it’s such a captivating bike. According to the marketing machine, the Stage 5 really shouldn’t be this good – it isn’t made of carbon, it doesn’t have a complex multi-pivot suspension design, and there’s nothing proprietary about it at all. But that’s its schtick, and I quite like not having loads of bearings to worry about. I’ve also grown to appreciate the incredible mud clearance afforded by that elevated monocoque swingarm. All that aside, it’s just blisteringly quick. The long wheelbase keeps it steady at speed, and it offers a flattering degree of control for a bike in this travel bracket. No, it isn’t the lightest bike, nor is it the quietest or the smoothest. But I love the honest design and the way the Stage 5 delivers you on-trail feedback so you always know exactly what the front and rear tyres are doing at all times. It is very analogue, and there’s something thoroughly addictive about that.

Alpinestars Paragon Bib Shorts

Pockets and protection built in.

From the outside, Alpinestars Paragon Bib Shorts look like any other padded mountain bike bib shorts. They’ve got a thick, multi-density chamois for all-day riding comfort, while a hybrid construction combining Lycra and lightweight 3D mesh fabric panels delivers a close-fitting, but breathable liner that’s designed to be worn underneath baggy shorts.

Where the Paragons differ from regular bibs, however, is in their integrated protection. Designed to fit inside a sleeve on the back, the Paragons come with a rectangular, CE-certified back protector that’s rated to the EN1621-2 motorcycle standard. Made by SAS-TEC from viscoelastic soft foam, the protector is flexible and generously ventilated so you soon forget it’s even there. Encounter a hard impact during a crash though, and the protector is designed to absorb that force before it makes its way to your spine. Further protection is provided by flexible foam pads that cover the crucial bony area on the outside of each thigh – you know, that spot that normally cops all the bruises.

The Paragon Bib Shorts also allow you to ride pack-less. You can tuck a 1.5L hydration bladder in with the back protector, and stretchy mesh rear pockets will accommodate the essentials – great if your jersey doesn’t have pockets. Need to ride with a pack? Just take out the protector and slide it into your backpack instead. Either way, it’s great having the added peace of mind. And while I’m far from being a radcore shredder, it’s hard to argue against riding with armour when it’s this unobtrusive.

RockShox Reverb 1x Remote

A great ergonomic improvement.

Like Hannah, one of my top product picks for 2017 is to do with dropper posts. In this case, it’s a remote lever designed specifically for the most popular dropper post on the market – the RockShox Reverb. First introduced seven years ago, there are now over a million Reverbs in circulation around the globe. RockShox is up to its third generation, though most of the key updates have largely been internal. During that time, the design of the original push-style plunger remote has remained unchanged. It’s worked well, but as other brands such as KS and Specialized have introduced dedicated 1x remotes the old Reverb plunger was starting to look a little dated. And so earlier this year RockShox introduced a new option: the Reverb 1x Remote.

Available on its own separately or with new generation Reverbs, the 1x Remote mounts underneath the left-hand grip where a front shifter would normally sit. You can mount it via its own clamp, or it’ll integrate with SRAM brake levers via the tidy MatchMaker X system. With a long paddle for activating the dropper post, it’s got a lovely feel that requires less force to engage than the old plunger. The paddle shape mimics that of a shift lever, and the action is identical too. That makes it vastly more intuitive to use, leaving you to dedicate more brainpower to focusing on the trail ahead. It’s pricey at £89, but with such a drastic improvement in ergonomics, it’s an upgrade that comes highly recommended.

Maxxis Shorty EXO 3C MaxxTerra 27.5×2.5” WT Tyres

Also suitable for non-apocalyptic conditions.

With a legion of dedicated followers in the UK, the Shorty has surely been on the scene long enough to earn the cringeworthy ‘venerable’ label. Using an open mid-spike tread profile, the Shorty isn’t a full-blown mud tyre, but it’ll handle some pretty hideous trail surfaces while remaining a versatile and predictable tyre for non-apocalyptic conditions too.

Available in 26in, 27.5in and 29in diameters, the Shorty can be had in a 2.3in wide size or the newer 2.5in WT width that I’ve been testing. The WT bit stands for Wide Trail, and it represents the latest 2.5in and 2.6in wide tyres from Maxxis that have been optimised for use with rims that measure 30–35mm wide internally. That means it isn’t quite into plus territory, and is about as big as you can fit in a regular frame and fork.

Although tyres are no doubt application specific, it’s the Shorty I’ll most often choose to run up front if I know I’m facing questionable conditions where traction will be at a premium. And if things are particularly grim, I’ll run it on the back too. At 955g it isn’t a light or quick tyre, and I wouldn’t recommend it for long cross-country slogs or anything that involves climbing with fervour – it will crush your soul. Instead, the Shorty places all of its available eggs in the ‘shit-on-a-blanket-grip’ basket, providing dependable traction in the kind of steep, loose and slippery conditions that see most other tyres throwing in the towel.

Kona Hei Hei DL

Lets you get away with far more than a 100mm travel bike really should.

Bellingham-based Kona has a reputation for being a brand that always forges its own path, particularly when it comes to the spectrum of riding that a bike of a given amount of rear travel is capable of. Case in point, the Hei Hei DL.

By definition, the Hei Hei DL is a full-suspension cross-country bike. It’s got 100mm of rear travel, rolls on 29in wheels and shares the same carbon fibre frame as the Hei Hei Race models. Where things get interesting though is in the parts strapped to it. For the Hei Hei DL, Kona has spiced things up by fitting a bigger 120mm travel fork to slacken off the angles. There’s a wider bar, a shorter stem and a dropper post for added trail credentials, while wide rims and fatter rubber increase wheel stability and boost traction levels. It all adds weight of course, and that won’t please the spandex set. However, those few spec changes have expanded the Hei Hei DL’s capabilities exponentially, turning it into a speedy, lightweight trail bike that gorges on technical singletrack. It’s got a sprightly and enthusiastic personality that makes it a pleasure to thread through tight trails, but it was on the descents where I was regularly left gobsmacked at just how fast I could pinball it downhill. Really, this is a bike that lets you get away with far more than a 100mm travel bike really should, and that makes it stand out as one of the most competent – and fun – bikes of 2017.

Make sure you check out all our Singletrack Editor’ Choice 2017 winners here.

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