Bikes and Tech

VeloNews Awards 2019: Gear of the year

We rode the bikes, scrutinized the new innovations, and tested all the cool gear. Here are our awards for the best bikes and tech of 2019.

Bike of the year: Trek Domane

Fast, light, comfortable, versatile. 

Did we actually choose an endurance bike as our bike of the year? We did. Not long ago we would have laughed at such a choice. Yet, here we are, a bike racing magazine, bestowing an endurance bike with our top honor as the best bike of 2019. That’s because the Trek Domane combines everything today’s road cyclist needs: speed, comfort, versatility, and integration with a purpose.

Yes, we honored Trek (along with Cervélo and Specialized) last year with our bike of the year award. But Trek has done it again with the new Domane, and for that the Wisconsin-based brand deserves our praise.

The endurance category has weathered many growing pains, and this year’s crop of all-day rigs indicate the bikes have come of age. There’s no better example of this than the Domane, which takes the IsoSpeed Decoupler system to its next logical step. By transferring the simple but effective pivot system off the seat tube and placing it on the top tube (just as Trek did with its aero racer, the Madone), Trek is now able to offer adjustable compliance consistently across frame sizes.

More consistent compliance is only the beginning. The Domane’s details are what bring it to the top of the list. For starters, Trek borrowed design elements from its aero bikes and all-around climbers (and even gravel bikes) to create an endurance bike that comes very close to being a sleek amalgamation of all categories. The bike’s profile looks traditional but the tube shapes are anything but: They feature aerodynamic shaping where it makes sense.

The down tube hides clever storage integration. Flip the lever that hides beneath your water bottle cage, and a panel removes from the down tube, revealing a hollow chamber inside. A specially designed tool pouch tucks neatly inside, and a multitool integrates into the panel. It’s a slick execution of an idea other manufacturers have toyed with for several years. This one actually functions well, and, perhaps more importantly, sleekly integrates into the frame.

Finally, Trek has responded to the evolution of road riding by allowing clearance for 38-mm wide tires. That means if you dabble in gravel, the Domane can handle it. To be clear, you’d want a dedicated gravel bike for the chunky stuff, but if you routinely hit a few dirt roads in between your favorite sections of tarmac, the Domane tackles it handily.

In all, the Domane responds with uncommon vigor to the demands of modern road riding. Bravo, Trek.

Honorable mention: Revel Rascal

Efficient pedaling platform meets bottomless travel

You may not have heard of Revel Bikes yet. Founder Adam Miller launched the company at the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival earlier this year, and has consistently received rave reviews for both of the brand’s new models: the long-travel Rail and the shorter-travel 29er, the Rascal.

The latter has wowed us on our home trails. With just 130 millimeters of rear travel, it feels plush and bottomless, even on trails where it seems too stiff  (like some of the rockiest terrain at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park).

In order to accomplish that bottomless feel, usually a bike sacrifices climbing prowess. Not so with the Rascal; its remarkable anti-squat makes it feel uncommonly competent even on technical climbs and big pushes up and over chunder. This bike feels like it was designed by really smart people who actually ride. And as it turns out, that’s exactly what it is.

Trend of the year: E-bikes arrive

Photo: BMC

Recreational riding and mobility get an electronic jump

If you live or have traveled in Europe, you know that e-bikes are everywhere. The technology is firmly accepted as a category, rapidly growing in popularity, and not going away anytime soon. Americans are just catching up to the trend, having tasted the convenience of e-bike commuters and, to a lesser extent, the capabilities of e-MTB.

Now e-Road has arrived on American shores with the likes of Specialized’s Creo Turbo SL, BMC’s Alpenchallenge Amp Road One (above), Wilier’s Cento1 Hybrid, and Trek’s Domane+. With it comes a new churn of opinions about where e-bikes do and do not belong—and whether e-road can ignite a new type of bike racing.

But before those conversations take place, e-road’s arrival has big implications for scores of riders whose days of keeping up with the group ride may be behind them. Those stunning views from the top of a mountain pass are suddenly attainable again.

While the influence of e-road on the micro-mobility conversation are less substantial, it’s certain that more people on bikes equals more sway in the court of public opinion. Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see whether e-road bikes help more people find a transportation alternative to the automobile, and what that might mean for bicycling in the United States.

The “future is now” award: Specialized Turbo RapidAir tires

Tubeless road gets serious, and contends on the world stage

Roadies have been slow to embrace tubeless tires, and for good reason. Historically, the tires were often difficult to mount and were heavier than clincher models. While they offered exceptional road feel and low rolling resistance, their ability to seal flats was limited to small punctures.

Now, those days are numbered.

Specialized’s Turbo RapidAir tires buck a few tubeless trends. While most tubeless tires are made from several layers of butyl-impregnated fabrics, the RapidAir tires feature just two layers where the tire contacts the ground. It’s a patent-pending system that cuts weight drastically and improves suppleness. The sidewalls are reinforced to increase cornering control and durability.

The tires have clearly impressed those pro teams on Specialized gear. Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) won a Giro d’Italia stage on tubeless tires (before being relegated), and several of his teammates used tubeless setups at the 2019 Tour de France. That’s a significant step forward among riders and teams who have long embraced heavier tubular tires.

The trend toward lighter, faster tubeless tires has begun, and Specialized (along with Vittoria and Hutchinson) has led the way.

Evolution indoors award: Wahoo

Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

The most complete suite of hardware for your software rides

When you think about indoor riding, Zwift likely comes to mind first. But no other company has so enthusiastically—and so quickly—revolutionized the way we ride year-round than Wahoo.

While Wahoo wasn’t the first name in the smart trainer game, it has quickly become the most popular in the U.S. That’s largely due to the “ecosystem” the company has created, which includes the Kickr Climb (a device that raises and lowers the front end of your bike), the Headwind (a smart fan that mimics wind), and several smart trainer options.

Wahoo has recently bolstered its indoor dominance with a standalone indoor bicycle that incorporates all the elements of the ecosystem components into one unit.

Shoes of the year: Giro Imperial and Specialized S-Works Exos

New materials and construction methods make for happy feet

Specialized’s S-Works Exos shoes didn’t look fantastic out of the box. (Is that toebox baggy?) But after the first ride, we stopped caring about looks; these are some of the most comfortable shoes we’ve ever worn. They’re also incredibly light: 140 grams per shoe (size 42) with a Boa dial.

The Dyneema fabric that covers most of the foot is responsible for the exceptional hold and wraparound feel, and provide that stunning weight savings. Dyneema is often called one of the strongest materials in the world, and after a full season of riding, travel, and general abuse, the fabric shows no signs of stretching or damage.

Giro took a different approach to achieve a combination of comfort, light weight, and durability with its Imperial. Like the Exos, Giro uses a rather incredible material to construct the upper. The single-seam Synchwire fabric is cut from a single piece, and mated to a Teijin monofilament mesh to encourage venting. The Synchwire itself is a thermobonded film that also helps encourage venting.

Out of the box, the Imperials look amazing. Like the Exos, they’re also exceptionally comfortable thanks to the material and dual Boa dials.

Both pairs of shoes push footwear forward, mating feathery weights without sacrificing a comfortable fit or exceptional stability. That’s why both Specialized and Giro can lay claim to the best shoes of the year.

Stiff competition award: Shimano XT 1×12 vs SRAM Eagle 1×12

The competition for 1X supremacy heats up

For several years, SRAM has dominated the 1X drivetrain category. Meanwhile, Shimano reigned supreme just about everywhere else. Now, as single chainring drivetrains become more common on mountain, gravel, and ’cross bikes, the competition is heating up.

SRAM released its Eagle eTap AXS wireless system at the beginning of 2019. Shimano released its 12-speed mountain bike drivetrains earlier this year, and then followed that with the launch of its gravel-specific GRX drivetrain that is chock full of both 2X and 1X options.

SRAM still has a solid hold on mountain bike 1X drivetrains, but Shimano has entered the 1X realm full-force, and its new XT 1×12 drivetrain is poised to become a dominant force.

The difference between the two drivetrains largely boils down to actuation. While SRAM’s Eagle drivetrains feature a positive lever feel and a definitive gear change sensation, Shimano’s XT drivetrain feels smoother, with less of a positive snap between gears. Now that Eagle eTap AXS is available, SRAM has an electronic ace in its back pocket.

Both company’s drivetrains work wonderfully; which you should choose largely boils down to preference. That’s a good indication that these excellent drivetrain options will likely bring about even better innovations in the future.

Here to stay award: Gravel bicycles

Photo: Moots

The category continues to flourish, offering versatility that opens up more terrain

Congratulations, gravel riders. It seems you won’t suffer the same fate as fat bikers circa 2013. Gravel has grown leaps and bounds over a very short period of time to become perhaps the most exciting segment of cycling—confirming it’s no fad. Gravel’s the real deal.

Not surprisingly, the epicenter of gravel is in the United States, where road racing has severely contracted, and road riders find themselves looking for places to ride farther away from cars. It has since spread quickly to Europe and beyond, largely because it offers a sense of adventure and opens up a wider swath of terrain to those who might have otherwise been limited to paved surfaces.

If you’ve been hesitating buying that new gravel bike, waiting to see if the segment would stick around or falter like five-inch tires, rest assured the gravel category will continue to grow. There’s a healthy race scene, too, and a community of gravel riders seeking out new routes and new adventures. It’s safe to say time and technology are on your side. Gravel, as a category, isn’t going anywhere but farther down the dusty road.

Bike stoke award: Sedona MTB festival

Desert riding, smaller crowds, and open arms for all riders

A striking number of women attend the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival every year, a first indication that this place is special. The second indication? Look around: red rocks everywhere, red dirt, desert breezes, good food and smiling faces. This upstart festival is an ideal model for bike gatherings now and in the future.

Sure, not every festival needs to be in the desert. But festival organizer Mike Raney of Over the Edge Sports in Sedona has melded a few key components that other organizers should note. For starters, the festival is fairly small, keeping lines and crowds to a minimum. While it has certainly grown over the years, Raney has limited the festival size on purpose.  Attendees don’t lose the sense of a festival celebrating mountain biking, rather than sales and long lines.

And Raney made another conscious decision to welcome everyone, not just standard bro culture mountain bikers. Vida MTB Series has a strong presence at the festival, offering women’s riding clinics and group rides. There are yoga sessions every morning, too.

All that on top of a beer garden, live music, and some of the best trails in the world make the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival a can’t miss event — and a blueprint for other organizers to follow. Make people feel welcome and they’ll show up in droves.