Every year we put 50 bicycles through the paces to determine the best models. At the 2019 test in Grand Junction, Colorado, our crew tried a massive range of new soft goods and accessories, too. Here’s the gear that stood out.
LEM Flow Mountain Bike Helmet ($80)
Some 20 people rode with this lid, and it proved the sleeper of the test. The Flow has all the hallmarks of a helmet twice its price or more: a microadjust dial-fit system with multiple settings to customize to the rear of the skull, cushy padding, an adjustable visor that even accommodates goggles, and trim, lie-flat webbing straps for comfort. And not only did testers rave about the comfortable fit and airy feel, but everyone commented on just how good it looks. I don’t know of a better helmet out there at this price. We were also impressed with the LEM Gavia Road helmet ($110), which is only slightly more expensive but, thanks to a removable visor, does double duty on pavement and dirt.
Osprey Siskin 12 Pack ($110)
The Cortez, Colorado, pack company revamped its hydration line for 2019, modernizing some of our old favorites, like the Raptor and the Raven. But Osprey also added several interesting and less expensive models. My top pick is the Siskin 12 (the Salida 12 for women), a pleasantly simple panel loader with one large compartment, three interior organization pockets, and a kangaroo-style compression front pouch. Even fully loaded, the pack carries light and dry, thanks to a screen of mesh strung over the ridged-foam back panel. The included 2.5-liter Hydraulics reservoir, which fits in a dedicated zip pocket, is one of my favorite designs, both for the ease of turning on and off water flow as well as the magnet that keeps the hose attached to the sternum strap. The zippered hipbelt pouches are also indispensable, making it easy to keep tools, food, and a camera close at hand. Testers also raved over the Seral ($85) and the Savu ($55), which pack many of the same features as the Siskin into, respectively, reservoir- and bottle-equipped lumbar packs.
Bontrager Ion 200 RT/Flare R Light Set ($115)
Think of these as the tiniest insurance policy you’ll ever purchase. Each light packs a high-power Cree LED (200-lumen white light up front and 90-lumen red in the rear) that’s visiblemore than a mile away, giving motorists plenty of notice and time to avoid you. They are fully weather sealed, charge via micro USBs, and clip to a bar or post easily by way of a built-in rubber belt. The beams even automatically adjust to changing conditions, for instance going solid when you hit a tunnel and then returning to blinking back in daylight. And after the battery is drained, there’s still a 30-minute battery-save mode that keeps the lights shining till you’re hopefully safely off the street. Other than the LEM Flow helmet, this light is the only other gear we tested that received praise from every tester.
Fizik Tempo Powerstrap R5 Shoes ($119)
If you’re willing to spend a small fortune, it’s easy to get a cycling shoe that feels comfortable, transfers power efficiently, and looks good. Not so much if you’re working on a budget. Leave it to Fizik, the Italian manufacturer of some of the most refined and costliest cycling shoes, to find the happy middle ground. With a Microtex upper and a carbon-reinforced nylon outsole, the Powerstrap isn’t built from the techiest of materials, yet it feels plenty supple and breathable (thanks to all those perforations), and the sole is reasonably stiff but forgiving on all-day rides. The hook and loop closure starts from the big toe and wraps up to cradle the whole foot; this eliminates hot spots but also looks incredibly refined. There aren’t as many microadjustment as with a Boa closure, and the fit is definitely on the narrow side. I also subbed in high-quality insoles for the cheapies included, but these are niggles at this price. Mostly, I’m just thrilled to have a pair of road cleats that not only perform well and cost a fraction of the competition but still look great.
Shimano AM701 Mountain Bike Shoes ($130)
Even though these mountain cleats elicited countless jokes about their “orthopedic” looks, I couldn’t resist the comfortable fit. The midsole of the low-cut, sneaker-style lace-up is plenty stiff for a few hours of riding, the traction outsole dealt with hike-a-bike like a seasoned approach shoe, the toe bumper laughed off kicked-up rocks, and the neoprene cuff kept out sand and grit. Plus, like all Shimanos, the AM701 has proven exceedingly durable, looking almost like new after half a year of hard use. As for the style, just get it muddy on your first ride.
Giro Chrono Expert Wind Vest ($80)
On some level, I feel like a wind vest is a wind vest is just another a wind vest. They’re light, they’re packable, and you should always have one stuffed away for when the weather turns. The Chrono Expert ticks all the mandatory boxes—windproof and water-resistant yet just 3.5 ounces, cut trim so as not to flap in the wind, and packable down to the size of a peach—but it ups the ante with serious visibility. What looks like a subdued, purple-blue digi-camo or black pattern in daylight turns into a crazy iridescent blaze when light strikes it after dark. Protection from both the elements and unsuspecting cars—what could be better?
Ashmei KOM Jersey ($179) and Cycle Bib Short ($194)
A newcomer to U.S. shores, the British apparel company Ashmei is crafting high-end cycling kit on par with premium brands including Assos and Castelli. The KOM Jersey is cut from an exceptionally lightweight merino-polyester blend, which feels soft on the skin and keeps surprisingly dry courtesy of carbon particles woven into the fabric. The bib short has a woven microfiber material, as opposed to a standard knit, for a super-stretchy but compressive fit. The laser-cut legs stay in place without constrictive grippers, the flat back straps are so light and well tailored that they virtually disappear, and the thick pad is forgiving over long distances. Somehow, though, this kit doesn’t bind up or feel overly serious like a lot of road gear.
Assos Trail Cargo Shorts ($149), Trail Liner Shorts ($139), and Trail SS Jersey ($119)
It was news when Assos, the Swiss brand of eye-wateringly expensive and perfectly-built cycling apparel, entered the mountain market a few years back. Though that debut was mostly what you’d expect: tight-fitting gear focused on roadies with hardtails. The fact that the company has entered the trail space and, more specifically, is offering a bibless version of its base-layer shorts, speaks to how important the dirt market has become. All of which is to say: I’m thrilled that I can get the most comfortable and refined pad available and it isn’t off-the-charts expensive. The baggy Cargo shorts and SS jersey are still a bit too Euro styled for the U.S. market, though it’s impossible to argue with the trim cuts and effective, proprietary fabrics that make the pieces move with you and keep you comfortable. I wear the Liner shorts for almost all of my noncompetitive dirt riding, while the Cargo shorts and SS jersey have become my gravel uniform.
Pearl Izumi Blvd Merino T-Shirt ($80) and Vista Short ($110)
Cycling apparel has gotten supertechy and very expensive, catering to the racer crowds. Meanwhile, Pearl Izumi has kept on plugging away at good-looking, hyperfunctional, and not too expensive gear for the rest of us. The Blvd tee is exactly what it claims to be: a lightweight wool T-shirt that’s cut long in the back and trimmer and longer in the arms for coverage. The Vista short, built from a stretch poly with a soft hand and nice knee-length inseam (neither hipster tight, nor hipster dumpy), is just as comfortable for walking around town as it is in the saddle. There are still plenty of smart technology nods: a high-cut waist and ergonomic patterning for saddle fit, a zip rear pocket big enough for the largest phone, and demure reflective stripes. And though the two faux pockets at first put me off, I have to admit, they dress these shorts up enough for an après barhop or museum visit.