As the end of this altogether bizarre and confusing year approaches, there are some items that stand out has having been hugely helpful in making the journey through what felt a lot like chaos. Since bikes are at the heart of just about everything I do, it's little wonder that bike-related items should occupy a large part of my picks, but they're not the only things that I enjoyed this year.
In no particular order, but maybe starting with the one that's brought me the most joy, here's my list:
1. My home-built full suspension bike. Priceless ;)
I've been building frames for a little over a decade, but I only felt like taking on the challenge of building a full suspension frame last year, and I finished it at the beginning of this one. The design is as simple as it gets: single pivot, no linkage. I had spent months refining designs–many of which did involve other links to tune leverage ratios–but finally decided that if I was going to build a frame with my limited machining capabilities, it would be better to stick to something simple. I also reasoned that this would help me establish a baseline for how the simplest of the simple could ride.
I'm happy to report that the simplest of the simple rides extremely well, and after months of playing with shock tune, changing shocks, and swapping parts, I've found various setups that feel great. I see the limitations of the design, and plan to experiment with solutions in version 2, but for now I can say with confidence that this one doesn't suck. Far from it really: it's the only bike I've wanted to ride all summer, and it's given me the opportunity to explore how I ride, and how the bike affects that.
2. King Cages. From $16.
Years ago I rode alloy cages because that's what I had. As a mountain biker at the time, I grew familiar with the sound of my water bottle landing on the ground when the cage inevitably broke and flew off the bike, still holding the bottle in its grasp.
After years of using a hydration pack on my mountain bike, I was introduced to King Cages. These simple, inexpensive (especially the stainless steel versions) cages completely revolutionized my mountain biking experience (and took a place on every one of my other bikes too). No longer did I have to wear a hydration pack if I didn't want to lose a bottle, and no longer did I have to worry about broken cages. While I know that this isn't a new product, it's one that I can't help be greatly appreciate every single time I use it, and to me that's the mark of a truly worthwhile piece of equipment. 12 stars out of 5, and bow on top just for kicks.
3. Chris King Bearings. Various prices.
One more product that's not-new in 2020, but is noteworthy because it almost always gets better each year is a Chris King bearing. This year, when overhauling my Chris King hubs, I was once again impressed by how smoothly they run after nearly a decade of hard use. In a world where it seems like everything is built to be thrown away after only a little use, it's reassuring to use a product like Chris King's bearings that, given a little care now and then, will last longer than most of us will keep a bike.
Kudos to the folks at Chris King for designing and manufacturing parts that stand the test of time!
4. Wolf Tooth B-Rad Mini Roll-Top Bag From $34.95.
Some years ago, I designed and sewed a small bag that would allow me to store a tube, mini tool, small pump, and other incidentals in one of my trusty King Cages. I used the bag for a long time (still have one on one of my bikes, in fact), but shortly after I felt like I had finally made a version that was good enough to offer them to others, the fine folks at Wolf Tooth launched their B-Rad Roll Top bags, and I decided that a better product had arrived. Fast forward to this year, I finally got one for myself, and I simply love it.
The roll-top closure allows you to adjust how tightly-packed the items inside are so the contents of the bag don't bounce around, and the fabric is tough and very water resistant (the seams don't appear to be sealed though, so I wouldn't consider it waterproof.
I have the Mini Roll-Top, and it's small, but big enough for the things I always want with me: a tube, very small mini pump, multi-tool, and a couple of extra quick links. It also fits perfectly in the bottom of the front triangle of my full-suspension bike.
I have the mounting plate mounted on the two bottle bosses that I brazed-on in that part of the triangle for this purpose, but you can also use the bag without any mount by simply wrapping the large, grippy strap around a tube.
One interesting note is that Wolf Tooth says that you must use the mounting plate in conjunction with a B-Rad mount, but I've found no issues in mounting it directly to a set of water bottle bosses. There must be some reason not to do this, but I haven't yet found it.
5. Instant Pot Duo. Usually available somewhere from around $60.
Here's one of those trends to which I was a late arrival (which, come to think of it, is about when I arrive at just about every trend that I end up following...), but am glad I got on board with.
I don't know how many times I found myself talking with friends (obviously in previous years, back when I talked with humans rather than typing at them), and having them tell me about what they were briefly cooking in their Instant Pot that would have taken hours to cook in any other way. So it was that eventually I broke down, and got one myself. And this year, when I've heard about so many people stockpiling cans of beans and the like, I've been over here with my Instant Pot cooking beans, and all sorts of other things that tend to take a while, quickly and easily!
I still enjoy cooking in other ways, but having the Instant Pot around to make quick work of many of the items (like beans, some grains, and some meats) that would previously have limited the menu I would consider for a same-day meal has really opened up the possibilities, and is much appreciated.
When I first saw these things years ago I thought they might just be the dumbest gimmick I had seen in at least 5 minutes. Fast forward to now, and they're one of my favorite cold-weather items! I've used the synthetic version, and still use it on occasion, but since Buff released a wool version, I'm all over it.
These are basically just long tubes, but you can put them on and double them over to create a great little skullcap, and because of their shape, you get to decide how much coverage you want, making them super-versatile. I take them on early or end of season bikepacking trips, and I also use them all the time in the winter to keep my head and ears warm. These are one of those products that I'm happy to have been wrong about!