It’s no secret that bicycle helmet technology has improved dramatically over the past 40 years. Today’s helmets are lighter, more comfortable, and look a radically different than their predecessors. Some of the more recent technological advances aren’t so obvious, though. Since 1996, Stockholm-based MIPS has been working on improving how helmets protect against rotational trauma and angled impacts. In 2014, MIPS partnered with Bell Helmets to bring MIPS technology to a wider audience.
Bell currently offers sixteen MIPS-equipped helmets, which range in price from $60 to $240. With MIPS-equipped helmets available in road, mountain, lifestyle, and gravity models, Bell has something for any type of cyclist. I split my riding between pavement, dirt, and gravel, so I opted to test the company’s Stoker MIPS ($95 MSRP) and Gage MIPS ($195 MSRP) helmets.
From a very early age, I equated bicycles with freedom. With the aid of my two-wheeled companion, I was free to explore the seemingly endless collection of trails and dirt roads that were so plentiful in my youth. At the same time, that freedom instilled in me the importance of self-sufficiency. I learned firsthand that something as simple as a flat tire often meant a very long walk home. It didn’t take me long to figure out that carrying even the barest of necessities could eliminate those unplanned walks home.
As an adult, I’m surprised at how often I encounter stranded riders who are carrying no tools or spares. While they may have cell phones, their mechanical issues can usually be fixed in less time than it takes for them to be rescued by a friend or partner–if they had the necessary equipment. I’m not advocating that riders should be able to overhaul a cup-and-cone bottom bracket in the field, but carrying even a bare bones repair kit can mean the difference between riding and walking home.
After several years of fine tuning and experimentation, I’ve found that having two separate repair kits works best for me. I use a smaller kit for road and gravel riding, and have a second, larger setup for mountain and adventure-type riding. While each kit is a compromise of weight and size, I’ve never had to abandon a ride because I wasn’t carrying the necessary tools or spares. Having tools without knowing how to use them won’t do you much good, though. If you’re not sure how to fix a flat or adjust your bike’s brakes or derailleurs, see if your local bike shop offers maintenance classes or clinics.
Although gravel-specific saddles pretty rare, mountain bike saddles often work well for mixed-terrain riding. Ergon’s SMC4 (pictured above, right) offers a softer overall structure and more cushioning in the seating area. The WTB Volt features a slight whale tail and gentle drop to the nose, providing a platform to push against while not limiting riders to one seating position.
Five Ten‘s sticky-soled shoes are renowned among flat and platform pedal users for their tenacious grip. If you happen to prefer clipless over flats, don’t fret though, because Five Ten offers ten SPD-compatible shoes for both men and women. And in 2016, the company’s top all-mountain shoe–the Kestrel ($180 MSRP)–gets some company in the form of the Kestrel Lace model ($150 MSRP).
As you might expect, the original and new Kestrel Lace models both feature Five Ten’s Stealth® rubber outsoles. While the two shoes’ soles may look similar, the original Kestrel features a dual-compound outsole that utilizes the company’s Stealth® C4™ and Mi6™ formulas (the Kestral Lace is spec’d with the company’s Stealth C4 rubber outsole). Despite the different compounds, both soles have the same dotty pattern for off-the-bike traction, and stitched toe caps for improved durability.
When I tested Crankbrothers’ Candy 3 pedals two years ago, I found them to be good, all-around pedals for off-road use. My only real gripe with the system was dialing in the shoe/pedal interface as the cleats and shoes wore from use. Even with the aid of Crankbrothers’ cleat shims and optional stainless steel Shoe Plates, finding the right blend of support and ease of entry/exit was largely hit or miss. So when Crankbrothers announced their new Candy 7 pedals (MSRP $165 USD) with configurable traction pads, I jumped at the chance to give them a try.
The Candy 7 and 11 pedals’ improvements aren’t limited to the aforementioned traction pads. To address durability issues, the company partnered with bearing giants igus and Enduro to develop a new system designed to excel in the pedals’ low-speed, high-torque environment. New seals were also added to keep water and debris from entering the pedal’s bearings The iconic Candy pedal bodies also get some fine tuning in the form of added ribs for better traction when unclipped, and chamfered edges to reduce rock strikes.
In the first installment of GRAVELBIKE’s absoluteBLACK (aB) review, I covered aB’s 28T oval MTB chainring. Since then, the company began shipping their new oval CX chainrings. Available in conventional and direct-mount versions, absoluteBLACK’s CX rings feature the company’s Patent Pending narrow-wide tooth design. Because the conventional 5-bolt CX ring isn’t compatible with SRAM cranksets that have a hidden 5th bolt, I opted to test the direct-mount version. Over the past few weeks, I’ve logged 300-350 miles with the company’s 40T oval CX chainring on my Salsa Vaya gravel/commuter rig.