2017's best products
Join us for a closer look at 2017’s best products, as chosen by our experienced panel of editors and testers. This is our Gear of the Year.
Every year we anticipate a slow down in the pace of mountain bike product development. And every year we are blown away by the quantity and quality of improvements to the kit that we wear and the parts that are bolted to our bikes.
Occasionally we’ll enjoy a bumper harvest. Such as in 2013, when single-ring drivetrains, Forward Geometry and bigger wheels all burst onto the scene. While most years the pace of progress is slower, and improvements are of a more modest, incremental nature.
2017 has definitely been more about evolution, than revolution, but there have been sufficient advances in tyre technology, suspension performance and drivetrain versatility to make this a year to celebrate.
Our suspension has become more supple thanks to the larger volume negative springs introduced by both RockShox and Fox on their forks and shocks. And RockShox has also released the Super Deluxe shock, with its integrated bearing eyelet, which has brought greater sensitivity to more bikes than ever before.
SRAM also took a shot at democratising sophisticated suspension tuning with its Shockwiz data-logging device, while tyre manufacturers expanded their ranges of big volume rubber to the point where wide tyres have become standard equipment on some significant brands for 2018.
As trail speeds continue to grow and riders are hitting ever larger jumps, the need for better protection has increased, and a new wave of full-face helmets have come to market offering greater security along with light weight and improved ventilation for all-day pedalling.
There’s no avoiding e-bikes, either, and while this growing segment may polarise opinion, the need to make stronger, more durable components is proving a bonus for hard-charging riders of regular bikes. Witness SRAM’s Guide RE brakes and Fox’s e-bike optimised 36 fork – both perfectly suited to heavy-duty enduro use.
Finally we’ve seen further erosion of the 2×10 drivetrain, thanks to SRAM’s GX Eagle. With a 500 per cent gear range and significantly more affordable price point than previous releases, it’s arguably the final nail in the coffin for the front derailleur.
mbr’s Gear of the Year
SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain
SRAM GX Eagle first ride review
GX Eagle proves that, when it comes to drivetrains, less is more. While we’ve been huge fans of 1x drivetrains for many years, their restricted gear ranges have kept them from outright domination of the market. With a 10-42t cassette and 420 per cent range, SRAM’s original 1x system couldn’t compete with the 515 per cent range of a typical dual ring alternative. Then Eagle came along and swooped in for the kill, bringing a 500 per cent span along with simplicity, chain security and 12 unique ratios.
To begin with you needed deep pockets to tap into this additional range, with the lower-tier XO1 Eagle drivetrain costing almost £1,000. But this summer the trickle-down became a torrent, and GX Eagle landed in stores priced at just over £400.
Better yet, it lost very little performance in the process. In fact, shifting is still slick, precise and extremely impressive, even under load when accessing the dinner-plate bail-out cog. And, every time we jump on an Eagle-equipped bike we end up shaking our heads at the quality of the shift.
There are other benefits too; the cold-forged cranks actually feel stiffer under power than the carbon XX1 and XO1 designs. And are also available in a stumpy 165mm length too, to give greater ground clearance if you like your bottom brackets dragging in the dirt.
As you’d expect, there is a weight penalty for this massive cost saving. The cranks are around 140g heavier and the cassette adds 90g. Yes, in an ideal world, we’d rather not add a load of unsprung weight to our bikes, but in the absence of any other viable alternative, GX Eagle brings exceptional shifting and an impressive gear range to all the existing benefits of the single-ring drivetrain, and it does it all at a genuinely affordable price point.
Chosen by Danny Milner
Giro Switchblade helmet
Giro Switchblade helmet review
You only need to take a glance – and I would advise against a lingering one if you’re weak of stomach – at our Old Blokes who Should Know Better franchise to see that protecting your head and body is more important than ever. Sure, bikes are more capable, but that only means that riders are going faster, riding steeper and more technical trails, and hitting jumps previously reserved for motocross racers.
We’re all pushing our limits sky high, literally, but helmet manufacturers are stepping up their products to bring greater coverage and extra protection, while also making them versatile enough to pedal around in all day.
At one end of the spectrum there are the lightweight full-face offerings, liberally perforated to maximise airflow on the climbs, but boasting integrated chinbars to safeguard your beautiful visage. Take, for example, the perfect-10 rated Fox Proframe. Then there are the convertible options, above which, in my view, the Giro Switchblade stands head and shoulders.
The Full-Cut moulding covers your ears and the back of your head, feels absolutely secure and instils a real sense of safety and security. It’s rock-solid too, even without cranking up the retention system, and while it gets hot on summer climbs, it’s a viable option for big, burly days in the saddle. Then, clip on the chinbar and you’ve got a great full-face for alpine trips or days in the bike park.
Chosen by Danny Milner
Fox 36 Factory Float RC2 fork
Fox 36 Factory Series 160mm fork review
The Fox 36 offers the best front end control of any suspension fork I’ve ridden. Period, as the Americans would say. The Factory series, with its FIT 4 damper, has the kind of control demanded by professional gravity pinners, with high and low speed compression damping adjustment, as well as rebound, spring rate and spring progression.
So what the hell does this non-pro, semi-gravity, wannabe-pinner want with it? Well, the Factory version offers the best control of any fork for every competent rider, regardless of whether they lay down sick whips or lie down to be sick with a bad hip.
What do I like about the 36? I like how it turns the rockiest of bone-jarring descents into smoothed cobbles. I like the way it takes big hits without the bike coming to a dead stop, and I like the way it stops me going over the bars if I’m a shade too far over the front. I’ve put on a ton of weight in the past year to try and get stronger and faster going downhill, and the 36 is one of the only forks that doesn’t feel like a noodle to me now, actually maintaining steering precision when I’m holding on in gnarly terrain. And despite what you may have read in my opening gambit, it’s easy to set up too: there are thousands of possible set-up permutations, but Fox provides comprehensive set-up advice. My only complaint? I wish the orange colour didn’t clash with my bike.
Chosen by Jamie Darlow
Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5 WT tyre
Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5in WT tyre review
The Minion DHF has always been superb at railing turns and hanging on for grim death, even leant right over. It’s at its best in hardpack and dusty blown-out terrain, but we’re not always that lucky with the weather here in the UK, and, until now, other tyres worked better in the wet and provided a more sensible compromise.
I reckon these new Maxxis Wide Trail models have shifted the goalposts though. Indicative of a wider trend to bigger volume tyres and broader rims, they don’t stretch as much across the sidewalls, so the crown isn’t as square. For me though, it’s the sheer amount of reassuring rubber that gets laid down that excites, along with the way that the new moulding spreads the classic tread pattern out with bigger blocks and extra bite in mixed conditions.
Everywhere from dust, to wet rocks, and deep loam to mud, the wider Minion’s extra chunk predictably amplifies effectiveness, comfort and grip. The 2.5in size feels like a sweet spot too, without being too floaty, isolating and slippery in slop like bigger ‘Plus’ tyres can. The new DHF might resemble its narrower sibling then, but this Wide Trail version pumps up much more than just the width.
Chosen by Mick Kirkman
Smith Squad Chromapop goggle
Three ways to keep crystal clear vision on the trails
Ever heard the expression; where the head goes the body follows? It’s a favourite amongst mountain bike coaches and movement specialists the world over.
It’s the eyes, however, that control the head and nothing quenches a blisteringly hot run faster than a blob of mud or a speck of grit straight to the eyeball.
Glasses are a decent first line of defence, but goggles are better, an added bonus being that they help stabilise open-face helmets. The problem, at least before the Smith Squad arrived, was that you couldn’t stop the dam things from steaming up, especially in damp conditions just when you needed them most.
I tried double-lens snow and moto-cross goggles, but they weren’t much better than the standard ones, and replacement lenses cost more too.
So, if you’re tired of waking up with your eyelids caked shut with grit and grime the day after and epic ride, give the Smith Squad goggles a shot, I think you be impressed.
The latest ChromaPop version brings HD clarity to the trail, but I mostly us the clear lens that is also supplied with all of the Squad goggles, reserving the fancy-pants lens for the rare occasions when the sun actually pops out.
Chosen by Alan Muldoon
Enve M730 Series wheels
Price: from £1,100
First ride on the new ENVE M Series wheels
It’s not often that something comes along that significantly improves your riding experience (we hesitate to use the term ‘game changer’). But Enve’s newly revamped wheel range is, in my view, worthy of that title. Not only is there more choice, but each rim is now stronger and lighter than its predecessor. For more aggressive riding, the M730 is our most wanted. With a 30mm internal width, Enve has designed it around 2.3-2.5in tyres. The effortless speed and appreciable stiffness of the previous M series is still there, but it’s the new puncture protection system that really gets me excited.
Enve has drastically changed its rim profiles to reduce the likelihood of pinch punctures. The M7 rim (and DH specific M9) also has an additional trick up its cross-section in the form of an integrated rim protection strip, aimed at preventing pinch flats plus minimizing any impact damage to the rim. In a world where riders are trying all kinds of tricks to eliminate punctures, it’s refreshing to see a wheel brand tackle the issue head-on.
And whilst there is a trend towards ever cheaper carbon wheels, Enve has stuck rigidly to its goal of making every single part of its rims in Ogden, Utah. Yes, this does make the prices incredibly boutique, but you do get a comprehensive five-year warranty to fall back on, and, like the old Stella Artois slogan, the M730 is ‘Reassuringly Expensive’.
Chosen by James Bracey
Pacenti PDent handlebar and stem
Pacenti PDent handlebar and stem review
Frame manufacturers have finally started extending reach measurements to improve fit and control, and this in turn has allowed stem lengths to shrink, keeping your hands in the same place, but sharpening the steering response. Until Pdent put a crimp in the bulge of its handlebars, 30mm was as short as you could go, but this innovative idea brings the bars 17 per cent closer. If you’ve signed up to the whole longer, lower, slacker geometry movement, and invested in something like a Mojo/Nicolai Geometron or Pole, the PDent could just be your new little friend.
Chosen by Mick Kirkman
SRAM Guide RE brake
SRAM Guide RE disc brake review
(Over)Built to slow down a runaway 20kg e-bike, the Guide RE feels equally at home stopping a fast-ridden enduro model. Stripped of superfluous gadgets and gizmos, the back-to-basics lever allied to a four-piston calliper puts the emphasis on power, and feels all the better for it. Snappy, solid and dependable, the Guide RE delivers extreme stopping power at a bargain price
Chosen by Mick Kirkman
Backcountry Research Mütherload Strap
How to ride without a backpack
A glorified toe-strap? Why not just get a saddlebag? Did you really pay nigh-on twenty quid for that? These are all fair questions and they are hard to argue against, until you try a Müherload Strap for yourself. Whereupon you realise it’s the perfect, honed tool for the job. Doesn’t get covered in tyre-flung filth like a a saddle bag, neither does it impair dropper post and rear tyre clearance. It doesn’t rattle. It doesn’t budge at all in fact (tip: watch the installation video above as a lot of people seem to have their Mütherload Straps incorrectly loaded/installed resulting in a lose fit especially). It doesn’t scrat up your frame. It’s quick and easy to swap between bikes without disturbing the contents, or leaving any mounting hardware on your bike. You can whip it off when it’s jetwash time. It holds everything I need for my local riding (CO2 canister, inner tube, a few zip ties, multitool). Combined with a water bottle and cage it’s meant I’ve hardly ever ridden with a backpack in 2017. And man, has it been liberating. As well losing bulk and restriction from around my upper body it’s meant technical clothing has performed better (more breathable, less bunched up) and I’ve generally felt more… nimble.
Chosen by Benji Haworth
So that was our 2017 Gear of the Year. Here’s to 2018 and another full year ahead of pedalling, prodding and putting on to bring you our favourite products.