If I'm honest about it, I'd rather finally do that Nebraskan fat bike Winter Field Test than another Pinkbike Awards article. They're a great way to highlight some standout products, people, and events of the year, sure, but they're also a group decision because it's impossible for all of us to have ridden everything. They do make sense and I'd stand by all (most?) of the picks, but it's much more fun trying to back up my own misguided opinions about what I liked over the last twelve months.
High-End Trail Bikes Are Crazy Good
There have been some really
pricey bikes around these parts lately, as well as more dentist jokes under a single review than any of us need to see over an entire year. One could easily be insulted by some of these price tags, not to mention *insert generic joke about a used dirt bike here. That was the gist of the comment section under our review of Santa Cruz's new Hightower
, a $9,799 USD trail bike whose spec sheet and price tag seem out of alignment. That's a metric shit ton of money, I agree, but the Hightower, as well as the Fuel EX, Genius ST, Yeti SB140, and many others, offer otherworldly performance across a wide variation of trails and terrain. For many riders out there, some of these things might as well be both a downhill and cross-country bike in one slightly overweight and very expensive package.
As someone who's ridden and reviewed countless bikes over the last fifteen years and has nearly double that of mountain biking behind him, I can hardly believe how good they are. Let's forget about which tier bottom bracket the Yeti or Santa Cruz come with and zoom out a bit to look at why these modern trail bikes are so capable and well-rounded.
First, there's a handmade carbon fiber frame with a good warranty and guaranteed backup parts support for many years to come. And since geometry probably isn't going to change drastically again anytime soon, there's a good chance that this very expensive frame will be relevant for much longer than previous Hightowers. And the next version will probably have headset cable routing, so you won't want it anyway... Geometry is the number-one factor here, and these days there are many different versions of good to choose from.
The Hightower comes with sturdy carbon fiber wheels that also have a good warranty, and you'll probably never even have to true them. Its tires are filled with goop that *might* self-seal your slow leak before you even know about it. And while the suspension doesn't have as many dials for you to put in the wrong setting, it'll likely be everything you need and more as long as you get the spring rate right-ish. And how about the wide-range, single-ring drivetrain that uses telepathy rather than cables? Okay, that had some issues but most of them don't, and all of the bikes were near-trouble-free over two weeks of us riding in the Whistler Bike Park. Not even a flat tire. And that's when we weren't pedaling up some of the steepest, trickiest climbs in the world on the very same bikes.
I'm obviously pretty smitten with the Fuel EX that we had in Whistler, but the others were equally impressive in similar or different ways. Going back a bit further, Allied's 120mm-travel BC40
, one of the downco... er, short-travel bikes we had at the Quebec Field Test is a category-bending bike. Allied went pretty hard on how race-focused this thing is in their press materials, and it is most certainly that kind of bike. Thing is, I haven't ridden many so-called race bikes that were this fun.
To be fair, a lot of the rolling terrain around Mount Sainte Anne where I tested it is perfectly suited to the BC40; you'll get as much out of those trails as you put into them, and the Allied carries speed well and loves to be pushed hard through corners. This is a bike for someone who wants to put in that kind of work and is happy to pedal hard if that's what's on the menu, but who also gets just as much out of a proper descent.
Again, I'm not defending the prices, just pointing out the wild range of capabilities; these bikes were a lot of fun in Whistler's rough Garbanzo Zone and they'd also be fun in middle America, which is really something. There's also carbon everything everywhere, wireless drivetrains, and reliability that would have been impossible not too long ago. These hyper-bikes are not perfect, but c'mon, what a time to be a mountain biker... With ten grand to spend.
Would I drop that much on a bicycle? Probably not, but I'm super lucky to be able to ride and appreciate how far they've come, including much less expensive bikes. And I most certainly don't believe the whole 'pricing people out of the sport' argument as absolutely no one needs any of these toys to have fun. I'd agree that prices as a whole have gone up, but it all comes down to priorities and perspectives - there are many capable bikes that will provide you all the smiles at one-eighth of the cost. If that's too much, it's a seller's market but the PB BuySell is still good a good place to find used bikes.
Regardless, I hope we review more bikes in the $3,000 to $6,000 USD range next year while still bringing in a whole bunch of others that I'd never ever dream of buying but definitely want to read about regardless. Value Bikes Are So Good
I know that everyone is all hot and bothered by a certain green bike right now, but there are many other examples where three or four grand, which is still a lot of money, gets you an incredible amount of performance and fun. We had RSD's sturdy Wildcat V3 at the Quebec Field Test
and I'd be happy to ride that chunky monkey pretty much anywhere that isn't a race, and I'd be happy with it for many seasons so long as the $3,999 USD bike proved to be reliable.
Norco's Fluid FS 1 also costs $3,999 USD and I probably don't need to remind you how much we liked it while at our most recent Field Test
. That's where Kazimer and I rode the shit out of those five bikes, and I put a ton more miles on the green Norco before that. It's simple; the geometry does geometry things well, the suspension does suspension things well, and it feels like it'll go just about anywhere. There's also no integrated-this or proprietary-that, it doesn't look like it could shatter if and when I drop it on a pointy rock, and it has a smart build kit that works for how Kazimer and I do bikes regardless of how much travel they have.
My point is that I'm not convinced our sport is too expensive, even if you can spend more than ever on a super fancy bike. On the other hand, our sport costs less than ever to enjoy to your full potential thanks to bikes like the $3,399 USD YT Izzo
, the $1,598 USD Marin Team Marin 1
, or the $1,500 USD Commencal Meta HT AM Origin
. We rode all of those in 2022 and they were awesome, plain and simple. Is a 1,400-gram carbon wheelset nicer than a 2,200-gram wheelset and does it matter? Yes and no, but who cares if you're too busy laughing or trying to hold on to think about that stuff?
But if these things are so good, why should you spend more? Because you've earned your fun tokens and can do whatever you want with them, be that buying an expensive coffee machine, an expensive education, or raising expensive kids. Just know that this ROI is on a sliding scale that ain't in your favor, even if two or three times as much money does get you more refinement, hopefully more reliability, and definitely less weight. Funny thing, though, none of that was on my mind while I was riding these value bikes... 2022 StandoutsThe Contra MC, Digit Datum, Ministry Cycles Psalm 150, and the Pole Vikkelä
Am I allowed to have bikes on this list that I've only ridden for a couple of hours? I was at the Enduro Bike Field Test to host some videos rather than do any testing, but I did get out for a few laps on the wild-looking Contra MC while I was there. This monster comes from the mind of Evan Turpen, a former pro downhill racer and mechanic, and the steel frame uses a dual-link suspension system with an idler pulley
to deliver 164mm of travel that's teamed with a 170mm fork. It also uses a rootbeer paint job to make my heart flutter.
On paper, this is not the bike for me; it's heavy, it weighs a lot, and it's pretty chunky. It also has that idler pulley and idler pulleys sit somewhere between puppy mills and radar guns on the list of things I'm pretty meh about. Then I pedaled it up a steep ass climb and not only did it move along pretty well, but its second chainring was essentially invisible to me. Better yet and not at all surprising, it's an absolute monster on the descents, especially anything steep and rough. I love interesting bikes, but it's even better when they work well.
On my 'I like it but haven't ridden it' list is the Ministry Cycles Psalm 150 Prototype from Chris Currie
. It's not the first frame machined out of a block of aluminum and glued together, but it might be the best looking. The dual-link 29er is still early in the development phase and we've yet to pedal one, but you can learn more about it by listening to this podcast that I did with Currie earlier in the year
You can count on Pole to cause a stir, which is exactly what happened when the Finnish company released the 190mm-travel Vikkelä enduro bike
. It follows the same principles and design as the Voima e-bike, but ditches the motor and keeps all the suspension. Specialized, Giant, Trek, and many others are building very good and very reasonable bikes, so there's plenty of room for a smaller brand to come along and do something dissimilar. Does it ride well? Seb had mixed feelings in his recent review of the Voima, but I'd still like to live with a Vikkelä for a few months as it's so different from what I'd usually ride. I also had a great chat with Leo about his bikes
and why they look the way they do.
Another bike that I haven't ridden but am excited about is Digit's 140mm-travel Datum. Putting a shock inside the top tube isn't a new idea, but the Datum uses its 12" strut as an upper link that you'd usually see on a four-bar layout and a 2:1 ratio. I lifted this from Alicia's review of the Datum in September
: "Essentially, the idea behind the design is that compared to a more conventional dual-link, four-bar design, the upper link assembly is replaced by a strut that's housed in the top tube, and the lower link is placed right behind the bottom bracket. The rear triangle is a single piece, and unlike in many traditional designs that see the upper shock link moving in an arc, the strut is designed so that the rear triangle moves in a straight line relative to the front triangle - a slider, rather than a pivot."
That sounds complicated but the result is a clean-looking, relatively light trail bike that can fit two bottles and uses a weirdo, proprietary shock... In other words, exactly what I'm looking for. That shock is user serviceable at home, custom-tuned for you, and covered by a warranty and service plan, but I do understand why many riders would be wary. The Datum is also a mullet-wheeled bike and I'd prefer a 29er, so it was good to see Digit working on exactly that with the 125mm-travel Ring
. Gravel Suspension
I had to sneak in a gravel suspension fork on the list where Kazimer wouldn't see it, but even I'm a little mad at myself for liking RockShox's tiny-travel Rudy as much as I have. My original plan was to put it on, use it for long enough to say that I didn't like it, then re-install my carbon fork that weighs about a third as much.
Gravel riding has nothing to do with being comfortable and everything to do with rattling myself apart on an absolutely shitty gravel road descent, probably in the cold and pouring rain, and probably after completely imploding near the top of an hour-long climb with an average cadence of about seven. Have I sold you on it? I'll always love sliding around a corner on my mountain bike, but I'm looking for a very different thing when I'm holding onto a curly handlebar, and more comfort has nothing to do with it.
While I expected to keep the Rudy locked out everywhere other than the roughest downhills, it took about a week of riding until I left it open anywhere and everywhere. Not only am I descending drastically quicker, but I can also stay seated and work harder on rolling and flat sections with less worry about a bottomless pothole or rock ending my day. I'm even having more success on technical and rough climbs because I can often carry more momentum into them and maybe smash straight up the middle. Suspension can make your bike better, who knew? The caveat here is that I'm riding a gravel bike in Squamish, BC, where a lot of the terrain is either straight up and down or straight through all the rocks and roots, which is precisely where a bit of front-suspension is a very obvious advantage. It'll also raise your handlebar by a noticeable amount, a pain in the ass with a bike like my BMC that uses silly proprietary headset spacers, and it also makes it look like it should have a set of panniers and a kickstand. Whistler Crankworx 2022
While Crankworx is a bike festival-slash-party for most people who attend, it's mostly a lot of work for anyone doing media things during the event. Photo and video teams have to shoot 37 hours straight while editing for the other 11 hours of the day, race coverage needs to go live now or get posted an hour ago, and brands are busy debuting products and holding press rides every day of the event. Two weeks of riding in Whistler outweighs all that, of course, and this year's festival was one of the best in memory for me. It was a crowded place, especially during Joyride, but I managed to avoid both by doing all the rides I wanted to do and almost none of the work I was supposed to do. I also came home mostly scabless and wanting to ride more than ever, two things that almost never happen after a few weeks in Whistler. My SIM rig and iRacing
I wanted a SIM rig for years but, as an "adult" who's at his best after spending as much time outside as possible, I couldn't convince myself to pull the trigger. Video games? No thank you. I'm pretty sure I'll get addicted, get fat, catch diabetes, and forget to come outside for three months. The idea of a piss bucket beside a SIM rig just wasn't very appealing, and then last winter dumped three or four feet of snow on us, which is three or feet more than I want anything to do with. Being allergic to frozen water, I realized that I needed to do something other than watching Letterkenny on repeat endlessly while Zwifting, so why not pretend to drive race cars?
Racing against fifty other poorly piloted Mazda Miatas is probably the most fun, but trying to consistently lap a GT3 car at even seven-tenths of your own skill level will give you a new appreciation for the people who do it for real. Speaking of real, I use iRacing and have read that the physics and data that go into making the tracks and cars are quite realistic. The surfaces of real tracks are laser scanned
, the tire and fuel models mimic real-world performance, and the cars even use engine sounds recorded from the actual things. I can race on classic US tracks Lime Rock or Road Atlanta, then jet over to Spa or Suzuka by pushing a few buttons. It's a video game, I know, but it sure doesn't feel like it when I'm spinning backward out of the Nurburgring Carousel thanks to too much throttle, or when I drop it the braking zone after that giant bump at the end of the Watkins Glen straight. And you know I've gone overboard with the gear, including an amazing Gomez Sim Industries GXL wheel, too many screens, and maybe a bit of motion.
There are countless tracks and cars to choose from, most of which cost money to access, but the "game" is so difficult that a few should keep you busy for a long time. I just picked up the new BMW M Hybrid V8, which also just debuted IRL to compete in the GTP class of the IMSA series and eventually the FIA World Endurance Championship. Unfortunately, I don't think my brain will ever work quickly enough to process its cornering speed or take advantage of the energy deployment and endless setup options. I might not be able to get around a lap cleanly, but the fact that I can "experience" the M Hybrid V8's driving dynamics and downforce from my home is mind-blowing. And just like bikes, there's so much hardware to learn about and get the most from.
As for worrying if I'd forget about the real world and turn into a fat slob, not so much; when everything is turned on and the volume is at full teenage angst levels, I've got about twenty minutes of driving in me before the noise, shaking, and violence of it all has me feeling like I'm in the bike park but forgot to unlock my suspension. Which is fun, I swear, and I've only had to pee in the bucket a couple of times so far. Podcasts
Another best-of list at the end of the year, another list of my favorite podcasts. Aside from bikes, my life mostly revolves around cars, UFOs or the unexplained, cars, and dogs, so it's not a surprise to see my listening reflect those interests. There are the usual F1 podcasts that get devoured the second they're released, but here are some other good ones worth mentioning. Sam Moore's Car Chat Podcast
is a UK-themed show that sees him talking to designers, drivers, and other media folk, including a recent show with Top Gear's Head of Testing, Ollie Marriage, that was especially relevant and interesting. Dinner with Racers is a long-form chat
hosted by Ryan Eversley and Sean Heckman, with guests like Townsend Bell, Felipe Nasr, Oliver Jarvis, and they've recently had on legends Rene Rast and Andy Priaulx. I also really like The Intercooler show
which sees Dan Prosser and Andrew Frankel having a bit more of a formal one-on-one chat about different topics each week. I find the car stuff interesting on its own, but there are also many things in the automobile world that parallel cycling.
From the ground to the air and water, That UFO Podcast
has been a great show to listen to on dog walks. They have many interesting guests on for long-form chats, but they also do update shows with timely news and information. Black Vault Radio
is where to go for everything FOIA-related, with John Greenewald Jr doing a good job of explaining a complicated subject. For videos, retired F16 pilot Chris Lehto's YouTube channel
has all sorts of great breakdowns and discussions, while Eyes On Cinema has mind-blowing historical interviews
with countless people about things they've seen, from pilots and astronauts to priests, children, and everyday people.
I think that my list of 10 favorites of 2022 may have grown to well over 20 by the time I wrapped things up, but maybe that means there's been a lot to like over the last twelve months. What about you? Thinking back about all things bike-related during the year, what have been some of your standouts and favorites?