The best bikes, the hottest gear and the prime riding spots from the last 12 months
In 2015 we’ve been all over the planet to bring you the best singletrack in the world, from a 20-minute downhill flow trail in Austria to slick rock riding in Utah and hike-a-biking in the Highlands.
This year we’ve also been riding the UK’s best trail centres, sampling the newest, oldest and quirkiest man-made trail hubs in the country. We began at the beginning with Coed y Brenin, which was the UK’s first trail centre when it opened back in the 90s.
We retraced the footsteps of our first visit and discovered how Coed y Brenin has changed since then, and how the creation of enduro trails and rocky McMoab-style lines will open a new chapter in its long history.
Ben Lomond proved to be one of our favourite natural rides of the year, and certainly the most dramatic. It’s the most popular Munro, meaning you have to get up early to beat the trail traffic if you want to ride it clean — but the spectacular sunrise will make getting up at silly o’clock all the more worth it. Then you get the descent: 30 minutes of bedrock to dance over, waterbars to bunnyhop and switchbacks to flick round. Bliss.
Not many of us had thought of riding in Slovenia, until mbr photographer Roo Fowler headed there this summer to discover an Alpine wonderland that really does have it all. We’re talking natural loamy mountain trails, underground mineshaft singletrack (yes, really) and Europe’s longest flow trail just across the border in Austria: 20 minutes of bliss.
Plus-size wheels came out of nowhere, softtail hardtails made a comeback, and a camping and walking shop made the year’s best bike…
Not heard of Calibre? Neither had we until this year, because it’s the own-brand of Go Outdoors, a camping, walking and outdoorsy retailer. Amazingly then, it has managed to create the best £1,000 full-suspension bike we’ve ever ridden: it’s the first bike at this price we’ve ever been able to turn up to any trail on and genuinely ride at full gas, rather than just hanging on for survival.
That’s because the spec is amazing: RockShox Sektor fork and Monarch shock, Shimano drivetrain, brakes and wheels and even great WTB tyres. More importantly, though, the way this bike rides is spot-on, it’s solid and stiff, predictable in every situation and makes you feel fast and confident.
So what does this mean for the big brands? They should be quaking in their boots — out of nowhere a relatively unknown brand has designed a bike with incredible attention to detail and blown the tried and tested competition out of the water.
Fat bikes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Plus-sized bikes really showed us they could deliver something different. The concept is that our standard wheel sizes (650b and 29in) grow outwards to allow for wider tyres, anything up to 3in. This inevitably makes the wheel taller too, but crucially it opens up a whole new world of grip and low-psi riding. Most manufacturers have a Plus bike of some sort now — in last month’s test we were fans of the Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Comp 6Fattie.
The hardtail proved it’s here to stay in 2015. First there was BMC’s Teamelite, with a seatstay elastomer damper, meaning the back end of the bike flexed as you rode. Then there was the Trek Procaliber, with its flexy seat tube dishing out 11mm of movement.
And finally the Trek Stache 9 29+ came along with Plus-sized tyres and dialled geometry. Add those newbies to the amazing Whyte 901 and there’s every reason to believe the hardtail is as relevant today as it was in the 80s.
When Shimano and Fox fought back against SRAM
SRAM got the jump on its rivals when it launched its 1×11 drivetrain in 2012, but this year Shimano hit back with a groupset that looks set to become our new favourite: XT 2016. XT is now 11-speed and you can run it with a single, double or a triple chainset, but the really big news is the choice of two XT cassettes. There’s an 11-40t similar to the current XTR, and a new, wider-range 11-42t, making XT as versatile as SRAM.
There is a range of other improvements over old XT too. Shimano’s Dynamic Chain Engagement design has trickled down from top-end XTR, and uses a hooked leading edge on the cassette and chainring teeth to effectively stop the chain dropping off when it’s rough. Then there’s an improved Shadow Plus rear mech that now has its clutch tension adjuster on the outside where you can easily access it.
Shimano’s key advantage, however, is its price: the new XT cassette is just £79.99, compared with SRAM GX at £115, X1 at £240, X01 at £300 and XX1 at a whopping £338.
Fox Float 34
Fox had been in the Climb-Trail-Descend doldrums for years, but in 2015 it decided to do something about it — and produced a trail fork that worked really, really well.
First it introduced a new chassis, lopping around 200g (wheel size dependent) off the old 34. Then it dropped the price to £749, which still sounds expensive but is slightly cheaper than its main competitor, the RockShox Pike. Most importantly, though, with CTD gone and replaced by conventional compression settings, and with the help of the latest generation FIT 4 damper, the 34’s performance is now excellent.
Bottles, bumbags and bibshorts
Enduro racing continues to drive bike design, riding gear and of course fashion, so in 2015 the hydration pack was out and other forms of storage were in. We saw Fabric’s funky new cage-free bottle and more bikes than ever with bottle cages — Lapierre redesigned its bikes for 2016, bolting the shock to the top tube instead of the down tube just to make way for a cage.
Meanwhile Scott joined the Specialized SWAT party and added pockets to its mtb bibshorts, and Osprey and Camelbak produced bumbags for mountain bikers that are surprisingly brilliant.