First published in Singletrack Magazine Issue 134.
It’s been a ‘special’ year, for sure, but the sun has continued to come up and bikes have still been ridden. We’ve perhaps not been to as many far-flung places (even in the UK) as usual, but that’s not necessarily been a bad thing and, like riders around the place, we’ve all been learning to love where we live (even more) as we’ve been exploring, both solo and with that curated selection of riding friends.
With less time spent travelling up and down the motorways, and fewer air miles being collected, we’ve often actually had more time to ride and in many cases, an even greater drive to get out and ride. Our 2020 selections of Editors’ Choice Awards have been mostly earned on home turf, where familiarity means those little differences can really shine. Here are the well-deserved winners.
Hannah – Editorial Manager
While some found that 2020 was a year where they had more time than ever to ride, I found that without the regular commute to work I didn’t make much time for pedalling. Yes, there were opportunities I could have grabbed to get out there in the months of glorious weather that we enjoyed, but somehow, overwhelmed by the world, I rarely mustered the energy. Ending the year with a little more back fat than I would like, I’m eying up 2021 and thinking that I probably need to put ‘worry less, ride a bike more’ higher up my list of priorities.
Sonder Camino AL
I know there are going to be squawks from some corners about this being a mountain bike magazine and this not being a mountain bike. But hear me out before you grab your pitchfork. Yes, my first choice of ride would be ‘mountain biking’ down a wriggly trail, a few drops for spice, some rocks and roots to pick a line through. But even without a pandemic I don’t always have time for that. With the office and school closed, this year has seen more rides with my kids in tow and even fewer ‘big days out’. It hardly seems fair to make them, with their rigid bikes and smaller wheels, ride a trail I’m cruising over on inches of rubber and suspension. A gravel bike is a good compromise, bringing my technology closer to their level, and making the trails we can ride together more fun for me. And – stop poking me with that pitchfork! – while a lightweight hardtail with cross-country tyres might give better performance over a wider range of terrain, it probably wouldn’t be for the price of the Camino.
That’s not to say that the Sonder Camino is much of a compromise. Contrary to likely expectations, I do not have a bike journo quiver full of shred sleds and carbon wonder bikes – meaning that the Camino was the bike I was riding both with my kids, and without them. No, I wasn’t going to be joining the rad splinter group of my local ride group, but with an eye on self-preservation and NHS workload, I was happy to be keeping my wheels on the ground. Nimble, precise, lighter than a bike with suspension, and surprisingly comfortable, I had a whale of a time staying on the tail of riders on ‘proper mountain bikes’. Stripped of suspension and wide rubber, there was no room for my brain to drift off to the stresses of the news, I was too busy looking for the smoothest line and processing the moves I was going to make in the metres ahead, or whooping in celebration of a move just made.
In a year of narrowed horizons, the Sonder Camino put a smile on my face, bringing new challenges to familiar trails. But given the opportunity, its capable handling and comfortable ride position would make long journeys into far-off hills a pleasure. If you can’t have a bike for every scenario, having a bike that makes most scenarios fun is the next best thing. The Camino does that, at a price I could actually afford.
Ross – Advertising Sales
Every cloud has a silver lining, and although this year has been incomprehensibly terrible for a lot of people, on a personal level I’ve actually had a pretty good year. No commuting has meant lots of time with the family, but more importantly, more riding. While much of this riding has been on local trails, I’m happy to say that there is nothing within an hour’s (or more!) driving that is better than the trails I can ride from my front door. What they lack in elevation they make up for in steepness and technicality, and can be easily lapped. It also helps that for a big chunk of the year they were in the best condition for years, and with a bit of Autumn graft, they’ll still be running well for the winter.
Brand-X XL 200mm Dropper
For me, dropper posts revolutionised mountain biking. The benefits of having the saddle out of the way for steep, fast and tech descents letting you move the bike around, and all at the press of a lever, speak for themselves.
While the drop has gotten bigger so prices have crept up and up, with some of the big names now costing the best part of £400. This is where the Brand-X XL comes in. With a cost of less than half of the some of the competition (£169.99), the XL offers 200mm of drop in a way more wallet-friendly option. But the budget cost doesn’t mean budget performance.
Launched back in April, the XL wasn’t just a longer drop option of a previous version, but was redesigned with an increased diameter for additional stiffness, a lower stack and reduced overall height.
I’ve had one fitted to my daily driver all through summer and autumn and it’s performed brilliantly. While the lever may not be as good as some and the cable has become a little sticky (upgrading an outer and cable is a really cheap upgrade!), set up is nice and easy with the cable threading back from the post to the lever, and I can’t fault the performance. It’s gone up and down whenever I’ve asked it to and despite numerous crashes and ungracious dismounts the post has remained true with no play or rattles and hasn’t missed a beat.
At half the price of some of the competition you can upgrade two bikes for the price of one, which is what I’ve done. I’ve been so impressed with it, I’ve bought a second one for a new build.
Santa Cruz Megatower
The Megatower is Santa Cruz’s big travel enduro race bike, or Big Day Brawler as they like to put it. Launched last year, I immediately wanted one, but instead went for a different bike, and then another different bike, with neither lasting more than six months. Then at the start of this year I finally bit the bullet and got myself a large Megatower CC frame as a base to build up with test kit.
Since that time, it’s been built up in a few different guises, with air shocks, coil shocks, 160mm forks and 170mm forks, and various other components. But the one thing that has remained constant is the fun factor.
I’ve probably ridden more this year than any other year (albeit a lot of local riding) due to Covid and working from home, and I’ve loved every minute of it aboard the Megatower. I’ve ridden longer bikes, and shorter bikes, slacker bikes and steeper bikes, but every time I get back on the Megatower it just feels right, whether that’s slithering down a steep rooty rut, or loading up into a fast turn, we just ‘get on’.
While it may not be the plushest of rides, the more you push it the more you get back. It’s fast, fun, confident and is great in the turns, and is as happy being pedalled as pushing up and sessioning downhill tracks. As a serial bike changer I get easily distracted and quickly move on to the next thing. The fact that I’ve kept the Megatower, and have no plan of getting rid, speaks volumes.