Top 4 Highlights from the 2015 Sea Otter Classic

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Every year in April, the bike-riding world decamps to the friendly confines of the fabled Laguna Seca racetrack near Monterey, California for the unofficial kickoff to the cycling season that is the Sea Otter Classic. Part new gear show, part festival of cycling, part bike race – if it happens on 2 wheels, there’s a good chance that it will be happening at Sea Otter. Over 4 days, the infield and environs of Laguna Seca host 10,000 athletes and 65,000 fans of bicycles, plus countless purveyors of bikes and gear. Pro and amateur road, cyclocross, cross-country mountain bike, downhill mountain bike, and even dual slalom racing was on the agenda if you wanted to ride or just watch:

But the big draw for most of the folks in attendance is the chance to get up close and personal with the latest and greatest new bikes and gear. We walked countless miles around the massive expo to track down the most interesting new products and trends for 2015 – let us know in the comments which ones you want the most!

1. Updated Shimano XT and Electronic XTR Di2 Components

Shimano is always working on new and better versions of their components, and this year is no different with the introduction of the 8000 series XT drivetrain. XT is the workhorse of the Shimano MTB lineup, and the big news is a move to an 11-speed cassette. But everything about the group has been redesigned, from the shifters to the pedals. We’ll have a more in-depth look later, but XT has 1X, 2X and 3X crank options, along with a wide range 11-40T (or 11-42T for 1X11) rear cassette that fits on a standard freehub body.

And while not exactly brand new, XTR Di2 is still pretty rare, so it was interesting to see it up close and personal (even if the price tag is out of reach for most of us):

2. SRAM 1X road

SRAM‘s big reveal was all about doing more with less. They’ve taken everything that they learned from their XX1/Xo1 1×11 speed mountain bike and CX1 1×11 speed cyclocross drivetrain and applied it to road cycling. In fact they simply re-badged CX1 components as Force 1 (with added options for front chainring gearing) and then added a slightly heavier Rival 1 option below it. The rear (and only) derailleur features a clutch to eliminate chain slap and a straight parallelogram design with offset upper pulley (to accommodate a wide gear range). The mid-length model works with the 11-36 tooth cassette option, while the long-cage design is needed for the massive 10-42 tooth cassette (which also requires wheels with an XD driver body, which may mean a new set of wheels).

Up front, the chainrings feature the patented SRAM “narrow-wide” tooth design that keeps the chain in place without any retaining devices, and are available in the existing 38T, 40T, 42T, 44T, and 46T options, along with new 48T, 50T, 52T and 54T options for a more road-like feel (the 48T & 50T fit compact five-arm 110mm BCD spiders; 52T & 54T fit standard five-arm 130mm BCD spiders).

Sure, it’s not going to be for everyone, but if you’re looking for a simpler setup for your road bike and don’t mind a few compromises (or at least less flexibility) in terms of gearing range, then Force 1 or Rival 1 could be a great option for you. Crit racers, gravel riders, triathletes or people who just hate shifting their front derailleur could also find this new option to be just what they are looking for.

3. 27.5+ and 29+

Another big trend at Sea Otter (pun very much intended) was the prevalence of 27.5+ and 29+ mountain bikes. These mini-fat bikes, or maxi-mountain bikes, were visible at almost every mountain bike-inspired booth. So what exactly are these new wheel standards, and who are they for? We’ll get to the second part in a moment, but think of these as fat bikes for the masses. Whereas fat bikes roll on super-wide 26″ rims with massive 4″+ tires, these bikes roll on anything from 2.8″ to 3.5″ rubber (generally speaking). The wheels on 27.5+ mountain bikes end up measuring out to about the same diameter as 29er tires, albeit with a much wider footprint, while 29+ bikes are more agile fat bikes.

So who are these bikes for? Well, they are simply just fun trail bikes – you’ll pay a slight weight penalty over 27.5″/29″ mountain bikes, but you’ll get tons of traction back in return, along with confidence-inspiring tires that will roll over anything. We’re excited to see more of these bikes in action – especially the new lineup of Charge Cooker mountain bikes, which will be exclusively 27.5+ for the coming model year!

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4. New Gear

The final thing that grabbed our attention at Sea Otter was quite simply all the other new gear on display. Slick X-Sync chainring mounting from SRAM, MIPS technology in helmets from Smith, new shocks from RockShox and Fox, new carbohydrate additive Plus for Nuun, colorful parts from RaceFace, mini-GPS computers from Lezyne, bikepacking gear from Blackburn, new wheels from Easton (in many widths), new enduro helmets form Bell, enormous fat rims from HED, tasty new Rip van Wafels, aero helmets from Kask, and much, much more. If you get a chance to attend Sea Otter in person, don’t pass it up! It’s a fantastic event if you want to ride or just see what’s new in the world of cycling.

Ridden and Reviewed: Giro Empire SLX Shoe

The all-new Giro Empire SLX

The all-new Giro Empire SLX

When we first pulled the Empire SLX out of the box, we kind of didn’t want to wear them. They looked so amazing, with the shiny, opalescent white finish that we were afraid just putting them on our feet would somehow diminish them. But once we put them on our feet, we didn’t want to take them off.

We were already really big fans of the original Giro Empire, and with the all-new SLX, Giro continues to kill it with their shoe game. When Giro first launched the Empire, we’ll admit we had kind of the same reaction as everyone else: “Really? Laces?” But then we actually got to try on a pair, and were sold. The Empire SLX takes that retro-tech with a modern twist approach and steps it up a notch. Or three.

So if you don’t want to read the full review, we’ll sum up it up right now. 5 stars. Amazing fit, super lightweight, great performance and incredible finish quality. Plus, they look absolutely stunning. Like, Sunday best stunning.

If you want to know more, keep reading below.

The Fit

When it comes to fit, we loved the original Empires. They came pretty close to fitting our very low-volume feet, and the laces actually made it much easier to dial in the perfect fit without having to resort to our usual two-insole trick. Plus, the addition of laces meant that you could really customize your shoes by swapping out for different colors, and trying different lacing and tying methods to maximize comfort and adjustability. Last year’s Empire ACC was a little more polarizing around the office, mostly for fit reasons. Giro changed the last and gave the Empire ACC a higher volume fit, with a wider toe box. Obviously, this didn’t work for us, but some coworkers who found the original Empires a little too tight were overjoyed.

Giro even provided us with this handy guide to custom lacing patterns

Giro even provided us with this handy guide to custom lacing patterns

The new Empire SLX seems to split it straight down the middle, and has a fit that works for almost everyone. We had to lace them a little tighter, but didn’t have to go with a second insole, while our friend with wider, higher-volume feet was also able to wear the same pair without any pinching or hot spots. The toe box is pretty straight down the middle too. Our toes don’t feel pinched, but they aren’t swimming around either. It also looks like the spacing of the two sides of the shoe where they lace up has been slightly increased from the original Empire. This might seem like a weird thing to notice, but we’re pretty sure this is part of the secret of the new, more versatile fit. With more space around the tongue, it means that someone like us can lace the shoe tighter without pulling the lacing eyelets all the way together in the middle, while someone with a higher-volume foot gets more breathing room so the laces constrict less.

Basically, Giro seems to have finally really nailed their last shape with the Empire SLX, and created a shoe  that will work for most foot shapes.

 

By increasing the space around the tongue, the Empire SLX decreases hot spots and stress  from the laces

By increasing the space around the tongue, the Empire SLX decreases hot spots and stress from the laces

The Ride

The first time we wore the Empire SLX was on a 75 mile ride. This might seem like a really stupid thing to do with a new shoe, but in our ecstacy over receiving the Empires, we’d left our trusty pair of Bont Vaypor+ at the office. But fortunately, setting up your cleats perfectly on Giro shoes has never been a problem. That’s because Giro has some of the best sole markings for this purpose out there. The numbered grid includes both fore and after hash marks, as well as left/right. This makes it very easy to reproduce your cleat placement, even if you’re comparing them to another shoe.

The Easton EC90 soles provide excellent stiffness during hard efforts

The Easton EC90 soles provide excellent stiffness during hard efforts

During the ride, we didn’t even notice we were wearing a pair of new shoes (aside from the brilliant, magnificent shininess of them), which is actually one of the highest compliments you can give a cycling shoe. We wore them with some pretty thin socks, but never noticed any hot spots or problems. They shoes felt perfectly broken in from minute one. The only thing we did notice was the new, slightly-grippy material the Giro added to the heel irritated our Achilles tendon a little bit, but it was kind of minor, and after a while it went away.

The Empire SLX is also one of the lightest shoes we’ve ever worn—period, and it breathes really well. Even on some of the hotter spring days in North Carolina, it feels very light and airy on the foot, which is excellent. The sole is stiff, and power transmission feels exceptional, with not a bit of flex being felt through the sole, even when we did our annual Functional Threshold Power Test– which will put all of your equipment through the wringer. The low stack height also puts your foot closer to the pedal spindle which improves power transfer, but it may mean some riders will have to lower their saddle a few millimeters to maintain proper bike fit.

Giro really seems to have nailed the all the details, making these shoes among the most comfortable out there

Giro really seems to have nailed the all the details, making these shoes among the most comfortable out there

A big key to rider comfort is retention. If your shoes are too loose, or two tight, it can ruin your ride. With most shoes, that’s an easy on-the-bike fix. With straps, ratchets, and especially BOA dials, tuning the fit mid-ride is incredibly easy. With laces, not so much, since you can’t exactly stop and retie them without getting off the bike. Our best suggestion is to tie them according to the kind of ride you’ll be doing. Doing a hard, short hammer ride, intervals, or crit? Go ahead and lace them up tight to avoid any heel slip and ensure your foot is locked in. For longer rides though, we suggest scrunching your toes while lacing up and tying. This will create a few millimeters of wiggle room, which will give your feet some room to swell during the ride, avoid undue pressure, and keep you more comfortable.

The Empire SLX not only performs well on the bike-- it looks great after the ride, too

The Empire SLX not only performs well on the bike– it looks great after the ride, too

Wrap Up

The Empire SLX is easily one of the best shoes on the market right now, comparable in quality, comfort, and performance to other shoes at and above this price range. Giro has really refined the fit in this third iteration of the shoe, and it seems to fit a broad range of foot types.

Key Points

  • Great Styling
  • Low weight
  • Very stiff sole
  • Low sole stack height
  • Exceptional fit

 

Verdict

If you’re looking for a shoe where great looks that stand out from the crowd meet pro-level race winning Performance and industry-leading comfort, the Empire SLX is the only shoe for you.

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Ridden and Reviewed: Lazer Sports Z1 Helmet

The Z1 in action in Belgium

Testing the Z1 in Belgium

Back in April we got a chance to visit Lazer Sports at their headquarters in Antwerp, Belgium to check out their Lazer Z1 helmet. This brand-new helmet is designed to improve performance, enhance safety, and keep the rider cooler.

We first got a chance to try it out during the Ronde van Vlaanderen Sportif, and have been giving it a longer term test drive over the last few months in a variety of conditions.

About The Z1

When designing the Z1, Lazer created a whole new line of helmets, instead of just improving on previous models. While the helmet retains Lazer’s signature look and the Roll-Sys basket suspension system, it goes in a wholly new direction from previous helmets. Lazer has traditionally focused on making very lightweight helmets, but with the Z1 they looked at ways they could improve on safety and aerodynamics, while still retaining their fabled lightweight.

The biggest safety improvement is the T-Pro design. The T-Pro is an area of the front of the helmet that comes down further to better protect the temples in the event of a fall, and offer better side impact protection. In studying how cyclists fall when they crash, Lazer’s designers realized that the temples, one of the most vulnerable parts of the head, were under-protected by existing helmet designs.

The Z1 also has a redesigned vent layout that helps channel around the head to keep you cool, the Advanced Roll-Sys adjustment system, and an integrated airfoil wing to improve aerodynamics. The back of the helmet also functions as a “glasses garage” for Lazer-brand sunglasses.

The buckle is also compatible with Lazer’s Café Lock, which lets you use your helmet as a (very) temporary bike lock when you make your coffee stop.

 

Out Of The Box

The Z1 comes in three sizes (S, M, and L), and includes a removable aeroshell covering, which snaps on to cover the vents, offering better protection from the cold and rain, and improving aerodynamics. It also comes with a small plastic piece that inserts into the top of the helmet and protects the Roll-Sys adjustment mechanism from mud and grit—an essential for cyclocross season.

 

The Z1 is the lastest evolution in Lazer's line of helmets

The Z1 is the lastest evolution in Lazer’s line of helmets

The Fit

The Lazer Z1 helmet definitely has a more comfortable fit than previous Lazer helmets, and the new Advanced Roll-Sys adjustment system makes it incredibly easy to fine tune and adjust the helmet. Like previous Lazer helmets, however, the fit isn’t for everyone. The shape of the helmet is similar to Giro or Specialized, which means it should fit those with a slightly rounder head a little better. If you have a more oval-shaped head, you might want to look at a different model of helmet.

Lazer's designers hand sculpted the original helmet mold to ensure the perfect fit

Lazer’s designers hand sculpted the original helmet mold to ensure the perfect fit

The Ride

We initially used the Z1 in Belgium, but have also been able to test it here at our offices in North Carolina. Our first impression is that it’s probably one of the lightest helmets we’ve ever used. For the past few years we’ve been riding the Giro Aeon—one of the lightest helmets around, and the Lazer Z1 helmet feels about comparable on the head. It is also noticeably cooler than previous Lazer helmets we’ve tried, with excellent airflow even on the hottest summer days we’ve encountered yet. Sometimes even the lightest helmets can still feel suffocating on really hot, humid days, but the Z1 has the nice combination of being lightweight and having huge vents, which we find provide excellent cooling options.

Fortunately we haven’t had a chance to test the improved safety features of the Z1 yet, but on the head it definitely feels more secure, and like it provides much more coverage. Just looking at the helmet in the mirror, we can see that it covers more parts of the head, especially on the side, which gives us a lot of confidence in it’s ability to protect if the worst should happen. It actually comes down far enough that you can see parts of the helmet in your peripheral vision, which took a little bit of getting used to.

The Aeroshell definitely helped us stay warm in Belgium

The Aeroshell definitely helped us stay warm in Belgium

The removable aeroshell is a nice addition too, since it turns the Z1 into a four-season helmet. On some shorter, faster group rides where overheating hasn’t been much of an issue, we simply snap the shell on to close off the vents and get some free speed. The aeroshell also provided excellent protection in the colder, windier, rainier climes of Belgium, where it  helped keep our heads warm and dry. We’ll definitely be using it over the off-season. Be forewarned though, with the aeroshell covering on, there is basically no airflow through the helmet, and it heats up quickly. If it’s hot out, we’d recommend leaving it at home.

One very small niggle one of our testers did have with the helmet was glasses storage. He likes to take his glasses off while climbing or when it’s really hot, and in other helmets he’s usually able to tuck them neatly into the helmet vents for storage. The Z1 vents though are only designed to hold Lazer-brand sunglasses, so his shades won’t stay in the helmet.

 

The Verdict

The Lazer Z1  is one of our favorite new helmets that we’ve gotten to test, and certainly the most versatile. The improved comfort and safety features alone make it well worth it. The included aeroshell and Roll-Sys protection plate also really add to the value of the helmet by making it much more versatile. In one package you essentially get four different helmets: a lightweight summer/climbing helmet, an aero helmet, a winter helmet, and a ‘cross/MTB helmet. It’s an incredible value for the money, and we highly recommend it.

We saw this at Lazer's headquarters. No idea what it is, but we thought we should share it with the world.

This isn’t the Z1– in fact we have no idea what it is, but we thought we should share it with the world.

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