2020: The most unrelenting year of our lifetimes? Possibly the case. But there was more to it than Covid bar graphs and election returns.
Existence waits for no man. And so existing is what we did. Which means we rode our bikes and thought about them and lusted after new ones.
Perhaps there were fewer highlights than in better years. Perhaps they’re more ephemeral. Still, we’ll take what we got:
visual metaphor of 2020:
The thing about lockdown is even a little bit feels like a lot. Routines get repetitive. Riding routes go chronically unchanged. Rats in a cage? That’s what we all were.
When they happened, glimpses of faraway regions from the outside world burst with memory and association, which is why watching bike racing felt so luxurious this year. The helicopter shots of 1,000-year-old Italian villages? Long gone is the standard thought: I must visit Sarnano. In its place, the mind-scrambled 2020 mess: Does Sarnano even really exist?
This dynamic reached full flower on a random stage of the oddly mid-summer Tirreno-Adriatico. The peloton was tracing the Adriatic coast when an Astana rider pulled over to replace a flat in a beachside parking lot. Women of all ages looked confident and carefree in their bikinis. Mischievous boys skulked in the background. And then there was the critic. In capturing the vital emotions of 2020, a sculptor couldn’t have posed him better: Sloppy tank-top and flip-flops. Hands on hips, head tilted in disgust at the scene before him. No one has ever looked so impatient.
I watched it unfold on live TV. I couldn’t stop looking at him. That is me, I told myself. His utter exhaustion. His contempt for the circumstances. He is a monument to 2020. He is all of us.
product of the year:
The humble bacon strip feels about as exciting to talk about as valve caps or bar end plugs. Why is it, then, that we’ve fallen so hard for the Dynaplug Micro Pro? Shiny metal mesmerizes us. Maybe that’s it. Or perhaps it’s because it’s made in America to exacting standards (sound familiar?)
The Dynaplug is palm-sized perfection. It looks like it was designed by Apple. Is any other bike widget even remotely as well-honed and beautiful? But its elegance isn’t even the point. Gravel takes us to the far back corners of the universe, and the Dynaplug has unmatched ease-of-use and reliability for saving you from that most common of all fiascos – the sealant-spewing backcountry puncture.
Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World:
Actually, he’s not heavy at all. But Payson McElveen won the one-and-only major league gravel race of 2020 when he slogged through Oklahoma-gone-full-Flanders, aka Mid South, aka the Race Formerly Known as the Land Run.
Granted, turnout wasn’t stellar. The rain beforehand turned the course into a mudfest of biblical proportions. The race occurred in early March, right as Covid was sprinting out of the blocks so plenty of people opted out of travelling to Stillwater. But racers gotta race and Payson reigned supreme in the near-seven hour tractor pull.
When there’s only one real race and you win it, that makes you the world champ. Get the man some rainbow stripes! Heart of gold, moustache for the ages, freakish athleticism…Payson’s an easy one to root for.
Product Category of the Year:
Bike bags. Before gravel became the rage, bags bigger than your fist were for nerds, and by God they only belonged under your saddle. Bigger bags in other places…it was the dreadful stuff of the touring set like those who dreamt about Paris-Brest-Paris (whatever that is.) Back then maybe Ortlieb was cool in a quirky German way. But if you needed to carry more than a tube…just call it day and find a ride home. Duh.
Oh, how gravel changed it all! Saddle bags got bigger. Top tube bags got integrated. Handlebar bags became a status symbol. And big-ass bags velcro’d to the main triangle were roomy enough to house a tux, a boutonniere, and a charcuterie-for-4. A full set of on-bike luggage became standard fare – a badge of courage, almost. How did this happen?
The narrative is clear: Gravel events made sheer distance part of their appeal. 100-mile rides seemed unambitious. Dirty Kanza’s 200-mile standard became the measuring stick. And when you ride that long…an all-new priority is put on the things you carry. You don’t get Sherpas in gravel racing: You schlep it all along yourself. Hence, bags, bags and more bags.
As the trend went bezerk, some unquestionably cool companies came to the fore: Oveja Negra in Salida. Road Runner in Los Angeles. Arundel in Ft Worth. When you’re ready to take the leap into the brave, wild new world of bike bags – these three are the best: The kind of companies who stuff is choice, and whose stickers you’ll put on your laptop. Check them out.
Honorable Mention for Product Category of the Year:
Chain Lube. 2020 brought a blitz of new drivetrain lubricant options, which actually makes good sense: The traditional twin towers of obsession – bike weight and aerodynamics – have dwindled to near-irrelevance.
Bike lightness comes at lower and lower prices nowadays. And if gravel is your thing – weight is a lesser priority, easily sacrificed at the altar of bag-stuffed preparedness.
The story is similar for aero: Sure, sorta-deep rims give you a faint boost. But wing-shaped downtubes and such don’t stir the market anymore. Look how Specialized binned the Venge platform – what more evidence do you need? And, again, if you’re a gravel-first rider where average speed is considerably less than road, aero borders on immaterial. (Please don’t get us started on the horror of tri bars in gravel races.)
Most importantly, when you look at incremental-gain-per-dollar-spent, weight savings and aerodynamics give you the worst ROI because the cost of entry is so high. Conversely, chain lube is the bargain of the century, especially when compared to the stiff prices of ceramic derailleur pulleys and BBs. When you clean the heck out of your drivetrain then apply a high-quality lube, your watts saved per dollar is in a universe of its own.
And no doubt this is why 2020 brought us a slew of new lube– a second formula from Silca, a new and near-affordable option from Ceramic Speed, and something that looks tasty and appropriate for Valentine’s Day from Absolute Black.
This is a smart trend, and you should expect to a whole lot more innovation in the lube space in 2021.
Grimmest Moment of the year for Public Perception of the Sport:
Take yourself back to this year’s Il Lombardia one day classic. The race was high above Lake Como, about ~70km to go, just a few minutes from the legendary Madonna del Ghisallo climb. A critical moment of reckoning was awaiting in one of the true monuments of the sport.
Riding four spots back is Astana team captain Jakob Fuglsang. Let’s stay focused here and not obsess about bygone naughtiness of Astana riders or the specifics of Fuglsang’s decision-making on coaching. Instead, let’s zero in on optics.
Perhaps, as has been alleged, it’s just a bottle of alcohol he’s uncapping. Perhaps, as has been alleged, those wristbands merely have special magnets that absorb it and cool his core temperature on what’s a scorching summer day. But it looks so…unsavory. Just a step or two away from a needle in a vein. What a bad look.
(Spoiler alert: Fuglsang won the race. Solo. Of course.) His victory salute was amusing. Quite a tribute to his wrist band sorcery.
Tech Innovation of the Year:
The most glorious part of riding gravel is the discovery of new roads. It’s like the cycling world got twice as big (and 10 times as friendly) when 43mm knobbies became a thing. Mapping out new loops is an act of joy, and the turn-by-turn navigation made possible by Wahoo and Garmin makes getting lost nigh-impossible.
In 2020 the all-new Strava Route Builder became the glue that really brought it all together. The user interface is crisp and intuitive, and its maps show every possible option under the sun – road, gravel, bike path. It leverages years of Strava member riding data by allowing you to layer heat maps onto your potential routings. What’s popular? What’s not? Indeed, there is wisdom to crowds.
It’s interesting to contemplate what value you get from a $60 annual Strava membership. My days of caring about leaderboards are long lost. I’m older and slower and hardly care about pinning it in "Zone 8." e-Bikes will inevitably eat all the KOMs anyway. And while I’m faintly interested in where my friends are riding, the social feed isn’t meaningful enough to warrant $60/year.
But best-in-class route discovery and creation? There is massive value in that, and it’s the reason why I pay the annual fee. Few things max out my love of cycling like dropping into a new town and using the Route Builder to see all-new terrain. Strava makes it easier than anyone else, which is why its Route Builder is our innovation of the year.
That said, there’s room for improvement in Strava, with no enhancement so urgently needed as a fix for the fact that the Strava social feed posts everyone's indoor activities.
Does anyone have any interest in their friends' "20 minute Classic Rock Ride with Kendall Toole" or their "45 minute Club Bangers Ride with Alex Toussaint?" Dare I ask what a "Whoop" is?
Please, please, please Strava -- create a configurable setting that allows me to suppress specific activities. Most importantly -- indoor activity!
binge watch of the year:
All 5 seasons of Le Bureau des Légendes. It’s a modern-day epic about the French equivalent of the CIA and its spycraft surrounding the Syrian Civil War, ISIS and its dealings with Russia and the US. It’s worth watching for all the reasons the entirety of the internet swooned for it: The high drama, the exceptional cinematography, the exquisite character development, its refusal to indulge in the comic violence of Hollywood and instead using suspense as a deadly weapon.
But there’s more to it than that. I watched it through the lens of who I am: A cyclist. No other sport makes the world seem so approachable and available…Le Bureau is the only remedy I found to shush my hunger for the freedom to travel and explore foreign places.
While the show is based in Paris, it’s relentlessly global. It makes lengthy stays in distant locales like Damascus, Baku, Moscow, Tehran, Phnom Penh and so on. The images of the world are like pages from a catalog of what’s been lost in the lockdown hell of Covid. The French dialogue is like a lullaby. I’ll admit I cried when it was over – my make-believe travels were over.