Every year, when the time for one of these rolls around, I find myself looking for the themes. Am I more of a gravel guy? Less of a Serious Cyclist? Someone who has somehow stumbled on a sustainable niche, writing weird tangents on the internet? Or maybe: all of the above, but if so, does any of it really matter, in the grand scheme of things?
In the end, where I’ve landed this year is that it’s not up to me to judge the usefulness of what I’m about to tell you because somehow, improbably enough, you have decided that you care enough about what you’re reading here that you’ll give us your support. This time last year, none of our job security was assured. We were out of a job, either by our choice or someone else’s. We could have all scattered to the winds, to write about bikes for other people or do soulless PR or never write another word again. But, by some miracle – a miracle which includes a little bit of each person reading this – we didn’t. So I feel a responsibility to put some of myself into this list; to stop questioning whether any of it matters and just trust that it did.
My riding stats this year: a bit more than last year, and still probably not enough. My types of riding: a bit more gravel and MTB, a bit less road – apart from that uncharacteristic spurt at the start of the year – and a lot more cargo trike on the school run. How am I doing? Better, I think. I love my colleagues. I love our audience. Some days I have writer’s block and some days the words flow out like a prism struck by the sun. Bikes continue to be pretty great; lives, including mine and probably yours, are made better because of them.
Big picture, that’s a few of my favourite things.
And now, onto some specifics.
Specialized Jett 20
There’s a lot of pressure in buying a bike for a loved one, and I feel that pressure only amplifies if you know a bit about bikes. There’s a lot more to consider beyond colour and size: you know how good bikes and bike riding can be, and your choice could make or break that for another person. So when my eldest daughter grew out of her first ‘big girl’ bike and needed to move not just into the next size up but gears as well, I felt a hefty responsibility to get it right.
After assessing the 20” bikes available on the market, I was able to eliminate the majority. Suspension seemed like a lot of weight added for largely cosmetic purposes. Disc brakes would’ve been nice, but weren’t essential. I wanted something light, functional, and thoughtful, which had been designed by people who knew what they were doing and weren’t just slapping adult-sized components on an awkward-riding frame. The Specialized Jett ticked more of those boxes than any competitors.
There are a lot of neat features that suggest that this is a bike that will grow with her and make a good hand-me-down for her little sister: things like cranks drilled for two lengths, kid-sized and easily-reach-tweaked brake levers, fast rolling Pathfinder tyres (the same tread pattern as on Dad’s bike!), lots of scope for adjustment, and a seat that looks a bit like a Specialized Power. But the real proof was in whether she’d like it, which she does. No, actually, that’s wrong. She loves it.
Price: AU $670 / US $500 / €400
Velocio Line SE Wind Vest
I’m more of a vest guy than a jacket guy – always have been. For most conditions I ride in (at least everything except the coldest or wettest days) I find a good vest paired with arm warmers to be easier to regulate temperature with, and pack down smaller. A few years ago in a list like this I expressed my enduring love for the Rapha Brevet Insulated Vest, which I still feel to be a near-perfect piece of clothing, but as my riding has shifted from cooler early morning/late afternoon commutes to working-from-home lunchtime rides, I find myself reaching for my other favourite vest more.
This handsome blue pinstripe number is an old version of the Velocio Line SE Wind Vest that I originally got about eight years ago, and while I haven’t tried the current version, I can’t see much possible scope for improvement.
The cut, for starters, is superb; no flappy fabric, no awkward bunching. The collar is luxurious, cut a bit higher than normal, with a slightly fleecy lining that makes you feel cosy even when the weather’s not. The pockets are perfectly placed and non-saggy, and the two-way zipper allows easy access to the layer beneath. It’s not cheap, but seeing as I can attest to it performing as well as new after what must be hundreds of wash cycles by now, I can’t possibly complain.
Price: AU $192 / US $159 / €149.95
Google Pixel 7A
Before heading off to the Tour de France this year, I realised it was finally time to replace my beleaguered old Google Pixel 2XL, which had been dying a slow death over the past couple of years. I struggle adapting to new technology, so it was pretty clear that I would need to stick with the Pixel family of phones to minimise the shock of transferring to a new device during the most intense work period of my year. I didn’t want a huge curved screen or a stylus; I just wanted something that worked and didn’t cost a ridiculous amount, either up front or if I smash a screen.
I ended up with a Pixel 7A, the ‘budget’ line of Google’s range which basically packs the features of the previous generation’s flagship into a smaller, cheaper package. There’s all sorts of Google cleverness in the apps in particular, but the real game-changer for my work was the native Recorder app – which automatically generates a pretty decent transcript as soon as you’ve finished the recording, and lets you scrub through for highlights. When you’re sticking your phone in front of dozens of riders’ mouths in the hunt for quotable quotes, it makes a huge difference to be able to use said quotes immediately rather than battling shit internet connectivity uploading them to Otter or Trint. There’s also real-time translation tools, which are handy if you don’t speak French, along with a good camera and features that tidy up photos.
My companions for most of that Tour de France, Jonny and Caley, are both iPhone users, and I think they both struggled to understand why I’d go for anything else – until I showed them a couple of the Pixel’s tricks. For what I need of it, it’s perfect.
(Bonus work/life hack that I could’ve included but didn’t because it felt a bit silly: If you ever find yourself in a Tour de France press room condemned to vile coffee, pack a squeezy tube of sweetened condensed milk. It will instantly transform your cursed long black into a somewhat tolerable milky boi. Bonus bonus: phone expertly modelled in the feature image by Sparrow, a mildly mad rescue cat who is also a new (and mostly positive) addition to our life this year.)
Price: AU $749 / US $499 / €509 (for the phone, not for sweetened condensed milk)
A medication as a ‘favourite thing?’ Yeah, I agree, that doesn’t really make much sense – but it has made a measurable change to my life in 2023, so I think it makes the cut. Also: I’m very obviously not a doctor, but this is less a shout-out for a specific medication and more a stand-in for the act of trying to better your mental health.
As anybody who’s read some of my more personal essays could probably guess, I’ve been on a journey trying to make my head happier for a long time. I would identify as having had depression, or something like it, for the majority of my adulthood – not always or even often truly debilitating, but more like the weather in my brain being constantly overcast with occasional storms, paired with a creeping sense that some things weighed more heavily on me than they perhaps should.
I was eventually diagnosed and started medication about five years back, and after a bit of trial and error I settled on a niche little antidepressant called Agomelatine. For years, that was enough, until mid-this year when for one reason or another it clearly wasn’t cutting it anymore. After wallowing for a few weeks I decided that this wasn’t something that I should just try to tough out, and that I needed to change things up. My GP asked the usual questions, I gave slightly sanitised versions of the answers so I didn’t scare either him or myself, and we both agreed that I seemed pretty depressed. After asking if I wanted to go back on Zoloft – spoiler: I did not – he suggested I try Escitalopram (also known by the fun and flirty name of Lexapro) instead.
The first couple of weeks were not a positive experience. I didn’t have the brain zaps of Zoloft but my head felt cloudy, like there was a big roadblock in the way of me being able to focus on any task I put my mind to. So I tried to give myself the space and grace to let it kick in – took a couple of day naps, rode a little bit more. Eventually, the clouds started to part. Ta-da! Sunshine!
I’ve accepted that there’s always going to be some degree of baked-in glumness in my composition, but I’m also now more patient, less highly-strung, more focused, less prone to wallowing. If it felt like dark waves were about to crash down on me in the past, I now feel like my little white pill each morning hands me a life-vest; that I’m better equipped to handle the waves. There’s some comfort in that, I think.
Will my specific medication work for you? Possibly, but also, quite possibly not. What will help is being honest about how you’re feeling, and seeking help if you think you need it, whether in the form of counselling, medication, exercise, or companionship. You deserve to be happy, dear reader, even if – especially if – you don’t always feel that you do.
In that spirit, no product links here, but rather, mental health support resources:
ZTTO derailleur hanger alignment gauge
I know, I know: there are better derailleur hanger alignment gauges than this one. There are probably cheaper derailleur hanger tools than this, too. But I don’t think there is a better one available for less – and as someone who has never owned one until about a month ago and tolerated sub-par shifting that entire time, this very quickly became one of my most indispensable tools.
In the first week of ownership, I noticeably improved the shifting performance of four (!) bikes in the garage, covering the full stylistic scope ranging from my Chisel to my CAADX to my daughter’s Jett. It was easy, and it was quick, and it solved things in a more repeatable way than swearily twiddling barrel adjusters and hoping for the best.
There are people out there that work on bikes enough that a better tool like this is absolutely worth the spend, and I love that those products (and people!) exist. But I also really, really like that there are decent products for not much money that improve the cycling lives of those who use them.
(A side note on AliExpress: there are some inherent risks in buying from the commerce giant, with widespread counterfeiting and IP theft. With a careful eye, though, that hasn’t been my experience; I have positive stories to tell of product purchases including a Sensah groupset, a budget 3D-printed saddle, outrageously cheap titanium bottle cages, and, most importantly, a $12 porteur rack that helps with my small shopping trips.)
Price: Varies wildly, but shop around and you should be able to find one haphazardly delivered for <AU $30
Ritchey Outback Breakaway
According to the saying I’ve just made up, “for every bike, there is a season.” Or, when I look back over the past years I’ve put lists like this together, maybe that should more accurately read that for every bike, there’s a year. There was the road bike year (2018), the cargo bike year (2019), the Crusty Old CX Bike That Helped Me Survive The Pandemic (2021), and my triumphant return to mountain bikes (2022). While all of these bikes are still dearly loved and in my regular rotation, 2023 has been the year when I’ve fallen in love with my Ritchey Outback Breakaway all over again.
I first got this bike way back in 2020, initially for a review at The Old Place, falling for it so hard that I sold the Specialized Diverge I owned at the time just so I could justify keeping the Outback in the garage. Over the years since, I’ve progressively dialled it in – a change of wheels here, a change of tyres there – with each change slightly altering its character and revealing new depths of loveliness. The bike has survived a few flights in its little suitcase, cruised around some Norwegian fjords, been speckled with red dust on the Fleurieu Peninsula, and traversed most of my local loops more times than I can count.
The latest evolution of my Outback has been a summer tyre swap to S-Works Pathfinders (themselves superb: 700×42 mm, measuring up closer to 45 mm on my Parcours Alta wheels). These tyres are fast and smooth-rolling, and the perfect match for the ride genre I’m enjoying the most right now – sunset explorations of the streets, gravel trails, bike paths, and cobbled laneways of Melbourne’s leafy east. In years past this would be the terrain of my utilitarian old CAADX, but the plush, plump tyres and gorgeous ride quality of the Outback have me increasingly reaching for it instead.
As I wrote in my initial review of the bike almost three years ago, the tranquility this bike brings me is cheap therapy. The longer I have it, the better the cost/benefit ratio gets.
Price: AU $4,199 / US $2,399 / €2,399 (frameset + suitcase)
Some bonus music
I always tacked a music ‘favourite things’ onto the end of my lists at The Old Place, and I’m not inclined to stop now. This year, the albums that made an impression were:
There Will Be Fireworks: Summer Moon
Arooj Aftab: Vulture Prince
Tim Hecker: No Highs
Blanck Mass: Animated Violence Mild
Ragana: Desolation’s Flower
Kangding Ray: Wann Kommst Du Meine Wunden Küssen soundtrack
This is the fifth in our annual Favourite Things series. Want some Caley Fretz feelings on skis and saddles? How about James Huang with some picks of unfussy stuff that just works? Or Joe Lindsey with some lovely travel pants? OK, fine, or Dave Rome with some tools (and other stuff)? We wrap up later this week with Ronan Mc Laughlin; can’t imagine there’ll be any aero gear in there. Thanks for reading, and for caring.
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