What a strange year to return to cycling.
In 2020 I returned to regular and consistent bike riding after spending the last two years as a runner. I returned to bikes with a few new dynamics to manage in my biking life. I’m a father of a toddler now, which means I have a lot less free time to ride. I believe my longest ride of the year was just over three hours, and many of my rides this year occurred at 5 a.m., throttle wide-open, as I counted down the minutes until I had to be home.
Like all cyclists, I saw my riding impacted by COVID-19. My beloved group rides were called off, and there were no races to train for, so I had to find my motivation elsewhere.
What does this mean? The gear and goodies that became my most coveted of 2020 are, to be frank, all over the place. I assume I’m not alone:
iBert Safe-T-Seat mounted to a Craigslist MTB
Who needs pricey carbon fiber? In 2020 my No. 1 rig was a lugged Excel Sports Macalu mountain bike from the 1990s that I purchased for $130 from a guy named Terry in the parking lot behind Guitar Center. Like many purchases that occur in parking lots, this one was the product of a dogged search on Craigslist.com for the perfect bike. In this case, the perfect bike was a size XL (I’m 6-foot-3) beater bike that could accommodate the immortal iBert Safe-T-Seat, one of the more basic front-mounted seats for toddlers.
Like many new parents, I embarked on a dizzying internet search when my infant daughter was old enough for my wife and me to feel comfortable taking her on bike rides. I offer a special ‘thank you’ to all of the bike/child seat innovators out there who have designed the seemingly infinite array of front-end seats, rear-end seats, trailers, tag-along third-wheels, and other methods for transporting junior on a bicycle. This glut of products has led to a familiar situation that greets all new parents who also want to buy things. There are conflicting online opinions in support of and against all of the various designs, with passionate and vocal parents on social media and message boards proclaiming that product X will absolutely and positively kill your child, while product Y is safe. A further scroll on the same thread will reveal another individual offering an equally passionate and steadfast opinion that, no, product Y will actually cause instantaneous death, while product X is safe.
More internet searches produced another familiar parenting dynamic: FOMO-inducing YouTube clips of parents doing activities with their kids that you (and I) will never, ever attempt. In this case, it’s the plethora of bike videos showing gnar-gnar mom and dad ripping North Shore-style singletrack with junior teetering on a top tube baby seat mounted to a full-suspension mountain bike. Look, I understand that sizzle reels showing uber-parents getting rad is supposed to inspire the plebes of the world (I count myself in here) to make a purchase. As a consumer of this content, I can verify that an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy is an unintended consequence.
And that’s why I went with the iBert Safe-T-Seat. Nothing about this product rips or is rad. It is utilitarian and boring — think of it as the Ford Escort of baby bike seats. Yet it has everything you want: a sturdy mount, a thick and secure safety strap, and a plastic shell that can be sprayed down after being coated with ice cream or squeeze pouch contents or boogers. There’s even a quasi steering wheel with a padded Ninja Turtle-like smiling face that my daughter womps like a bongo drum with glee when we cruise around the many bike paths in my town.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered community swimming pools, libraries, and other bastions of parenting sanity, my Craigslist bike and kid seat became one of the most important products in our house. It led to countless mind-clearing rides around the neighborhood, with the rush of wind and sights of the town acting as a quick cure to the afternoon tantrum.
Stages SC2 with SoulCycle branding
Full disclosure: One of the perks of working in bike media is access to cool bike products for long-term testing and/or weeks of riding. In 2020 our friends at Stages Cycling allowed me to test (i.e.: use) this SC2 indoor cycling bike that was branded with stickers from the trendy New York City-based indoor cycling brand SoulCycle. This long-term loaner became integral to my fitness and sanity as a new parent, since my schedule did not always allow me to ride outdoors during the daytime hours.
The SC2 is the workhorse of the Stages line of indoor bikes, and gym rats will undoubtedly recognize it from their local spin class. Stages has since released an array of fancier and more technologically advanced machines, most notably the SB20 Smart Bike, which offers electronic resistance that adjusts to the terrain on Zwift or other virtual cycling platforms.
I have yet to ride the SB20 and indulge in its many bells and whistles, and for now, the basic SC2 is good enough for me. Here’s why: It’s sturdy and heavy-duty, which is important when you’re 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. I have labored away on this bicycle for dozens of hours and coated it in sweat, and I have never felt so much as a slip of the flywheel, or heard a creak in the cranks. And it has allowed me to punish myself in the wee hours of the morning, or late into the night, while being quiet enough not to wake the baby. The bike is nearly silent, thanks to its Gates carbon belt drive system.
I also love that this bike was once located in a SoulCycle studio. In a previous professional life, I lived in New York City and took in exactly one SoulCycle class. It was both hilarious and punishingly hard, and I could not understand why the waiting list to access the class was pages and pages long.
In years past the lowly neck gaiter was an item that I often gave away to friends or family members upon receiving one in a swag bag. In 2020 I became a compulsive hoarder of gaiters, and for obvious reasons. The need to cover one’s face and nose at all times due to COVID-19 placed extra importance on all manners of face masks, including the gaiter. Unlike traditional cloth masks, which can be easily forgotten at home or in the car, the gaiter has the handy set-it-and-forget-it function of putting it around your neck. Once you put your neck gaiter where it’s supposed to go, it will always be with you. This is something I was continually reminded of in 2020 when I stepped into the shower only to realize I had removed my pants and shirt but left my gaiter on. Ooops.
Above are the gaiters that I found in my sock drawer. Yep, that’s a gaiter emblazoned with a blue butterfly that TJ Eisenhart gave me.
Of course, not even the poor neck gaiter was spared the very 2020 storyline of being at the heart of a polarizing and heated online debate. Researchers at Duke University in August published a study on face mask safety that proclaimed flimsy neck gaiters to be all but useless in the fight against COVID-19. Twitter exploded in anger, with two distinct and equally sanctimonious camps of pro- and anti-gaiter. There were cries of ‘fake news,’ and other researchers published counter-studies that said gaiters were fine. In December, the CDC published a study alongside the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that seemed to say that gaiters are about as safe as cloth masks at curbing the spread of the disease. Is the great gaiter debate solved? Can we move on?
Specialized S-Works Vent road shoes
I have been cursed with long and narrow feet that look like those Big Foot short skis that were popular in the early 2000s. Thus, my long and low-volume feet lead me to suffer from a chronic condition I call ‘floppy foot,’ in which my foot flops around inside of ski boots or cycling shoes that are the proper length. This is because most people that wear size 13 shoes have feet that are of correct and normal girth. Alas, I am not so lucky.
Thus, I’ve gravitated toward cycling shoes with boa dials or ratchet systems that allow me to get the snuggest, tightest fit possible. Through trial and error, I’ve discovered that boa systems that feature an angled lacing design do not get shoes tight enough for my liking. I want a closure system that goes straight across the shoe, allowing me to really ratchet those puppies down.
The S-Works Vent road shoes are incredibly lightweight and stiff, and the upper allows for a breathable ride on the hot days. What really attracted me to these shoes, however, was the across-the-foot closure design with the Boat S3 dials. These custom alloy dials allow me to get an extremely tight and secure fit. I have a box filled with roached plastic Boa dials that failed under the monster forces I placed upon them. I’ve give these S3 dials the “Hulk Smash” treatment for several months now, and so far, so good.
Cloth COVID-19 mask with bikes on it
My wife bought me this mask on Etsy and I wear it almost every day. I couldn’t create a list of favorite bike stuff for 2020 and not include this mask. There are a seemingly endless number of artisans on Etsy selling masks emblazoned with bikes.
Pearl Izumi PRO AmFIB shell (hot pink)
I’ve never been a big fan of wearing pink on the bike. Absolutely no judgment here to those fans of pink gear — it’s just not a color I gravitate towards. All that changed this fall when I dug into my collection of cool-weather gear and found the PRO AmFIB shell that Pearl Izumi had sent to our offices last year. Throughout the late summer into the early-winter, this jacket became my go-to. So, what changed? For starters, my dad schedule forced me to ride extremely early in the mornings, often at 5:15 a.m. when it was still pitch black outside. Rolling down a dimly lit street looking like an enormous pink lipstick applicator gave me some peace of mind that cars would indeed see the six-foot rolling ball of cotton candy. And that was just the start. As temperatures cooled, the PRO AmFIB revealed itself to be one of the most versatile soft shell garments that I’ve ever worn. I wouldn’t recommend it for the very coldest rides. But for those shoulder season rides that start cold and end warm, the PRO AmFIB kept me toasty when temperatures were in the high 30s, and comfortable when they rose into the low 60s. It has a dry treatment that makes rain bead up rather than soak through, and a water-resistant zippered pocket meant that my phone stayed dry even when I forgot a plastic case. The jacket bridged the gap between the lightweight windbreaker and the heavy coat, and it’s become a permanent fixture in my ever-changing wardrobe.
Steadyrack wall rack
Like many of you, I used my time at home this year to embark on a plethora of home projects. The biggest one was building out a carport into an extra room, with space for permanent bike storage. When contemplating a wall rack system, I remembered how I had once bent a bladed racing spoke on my road bike when I left it on a traditional wall hook for several weeks on end. I sought out vertical rack systems that took pressure off of the rims and spokes, and I found the Steadyrack. I bought one and installed it, and observed how the rack’s swiveling wheel bar allowed you to store bikes at an angle. So, I bought three more, and now have four bikes squeezed into a fairly tight space. They weren’t cheap at $70 a pop, but so far I consider it money very well spent.
Wahoo Kickr Core
Earlier this year I was moving a different smart trainer in my room when one of the arms swung down and crushed my thumb. It was the most intense pain I have felt in quite some time, and for months afterward my thumbnail was a black and unsightly mess. It was with that memory in mind that I reluctantly took on a Kickr Core to use over the summer. The trainer became my entry point to Zwift riding, and the trainer’s ease of use made that entry point pretty easy (learning the nuances of Zwift, however, was another story). I’m happy to say that I’ve moved this thing dozens of times and have yet to record a single catastrophic injury.
Schwalbe Pro One
I love these tires, and if you’ve ridden them, you likely love them too. They are tough and fat and lightweight and fast, and you can run them at low pressures to make rough roads buttery. Here’s another reason why I love them. I get a lot of flat tires — that’s what happens when you’re big and you ride rough roads. And in today’s world of thru-axles and deep-section road wheels, I occasionally must phone my wife to pick me up due to a lack of the right tool or valve extender. Such an occurrence happened over the summer when I punctured and realized that my valve extender had fallen off. I phone my wife and remembered that she was working. I tried to hitchhike, and nobody would stop (hey, there’s a pandemic going on, so I get it). My last option was to ride the rim home for like six miles over rough terrain. And that’s what I did, and the Schwalbe Pro One tire kept the rim from suffering any dings or dents. And, just to experiment, I inflated the tire once I was back home, and it filled up again.
Earlier this year Strava removed the segment leaderboards for free users and placed the function behind the premium paywall. Like many cyclists, I understood why Strava did this, and thanked the company for the years in which it gave us its most useful function for free. Hey, if you like something, you should be willing to pay for it. And throughout 2020 those pesky Strava leaderboards became one of the most valuable bike things for me. There were no races, no group rides, and seemingly nothing to train for due to COVID-19. While I’ve chided my riding buddies in the past for caring too much about their leaderboard placings, in 2020 I embraced the thrill of chasing KOMs. Again and again, I tried my hardest to achieve KOMs in my community. I unabashedly bent the rules, targeting KOMs that were directionally consistent with the gusting Colorado winds. I trained, rested, repeated all for the self-serving and extremely vain pursuit of achieving Strava greatness. And I loved every friggin’ minute of it.