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James Spender's Gear of the Year 2021: Specialized Aethos, Rapha Classic Winter Jacket, Tailfin rack, Lazer Sphere helmet, coloured hex keys

27 Dec 2021

The kit that's piqued, tickled, stroked and held me this year

Words: James Spender

If last year was the year we couldn’t do anything, this was the year we couldn’t buy anything. ‘Supply Chain Shenanigans’, ‘the Component Crisis’, The Great Where The Hell Is it?

Call it what you will, never has it been so hard to buy brake blocks. And bikes, don’t get me started on bikes, at best the launches of new bikes were delayed, at worst they straight up didn’t happen.

Imagine being a neo-pro and expecting all that lovely lovely new gear for your new team now you made the big time. What’s that? Yes, that is a needle and thread in your welcome pack, because this year you’ll be repairing your own tubulars.

Yet, in amongst the rubble of a world furloughed to its knees there were moments of brilliance. There was Cav at the Tour; the first Women’s Paris-Roubaix (though the less said about the prize money the better); Anna Kiesenhofer surprising everyone at the Olympics; and Sonny Colbrelli finally winning something of note with tubeless tyres. YES tubeless tyres! I always believed in you.

And then, although there was definitely less of it, there was some incredible gear...

Specialized S-Works Aethos 

What’s funny about the Aethos is the way Specialized describes it: ‘We did it… we broke every design, ride, and race rule along the way. And we’re not sorry.’ Hang on, but I’m sorry.

You mean this compact, round tubed bike that wouldn’t look out of place in 2015 is groundbreaking? I’m sorry what now? Oh, the frame weighs 585g? But it’s nearly thirteen grand! I should try riding it and then I’ll see? Well if you insis... wow.

You see, what isn’t funny about this bike is just how insanely good it is. Spesh says it built the Aethos for riders not pros, ie, it built it to be really really light, hence an off-the-peg bells and whistles bike comes in at under 6kg, entirely illegal for the pro ranks.

But Specialized didn’t just make a light bike, it made a bike that, despite not being aero or bothering with trivialities like integrated cables or tubeless-ready wheels, is one of the bikes I have ever ridden.

The Aethos has an industry-leading stiffness-to-weight ratio according to German magazine Tour, and it mixes this into near identikit geometry to its sibling, the Tarmac SL7 (the main differences are 10mm higher stack and 3mm shorter reach for a size 56) and borrows from the 32mm max tyre size playbook. Fat tyres on road bikes are superb, trust me.

But the thing that makes these two things harmonise so well is balance – this is a perfectly balanced frame, and that I’d say is all down to Specialized designer Peter Denk and his teams’ advanced carbon layup. That and the Aethos’s round tubes.

Round tube bikes just ride better, and the Aethos is the round-tube road bike king. Just give me tubeless wheels please.

One23 Coloured Hex set


I’m gonna keep this one short, because what can you say about allen keys that hasn’t already been said? Yet I love this set from One23 the most because alongside being of acceptable tolerance, classic L-shape and with ball-ends* , they are lovely and colourful and don’t cost the earth.

These last three things are important, because (a) ball-ended keys are a must lest I claw my own eyes out when trying to remove the second bottle cage; (b) colourful wrenches are more than just pretty, you naturally learn what colour corresponds to what bolt-size so they become far easier to use; and (c) because last year I spent all my money on booze, so in a market where £70 a set isn’t uncommon, £16.99 is an absolute steal.

I honestly own three sets now, and sometimes I feel like I use them more than my electric toothbrush (which is an Oral B Pro, and which I almost put up for this slot). 

*Because try remove that second bottle cage with a regular square end hex key. And don't get me started on torx bottle cage bolts.  

Lazer Sphere Mips 

For years it was the Lazer Z1, then it was the Genesis, but this year I’ve really taken to Lazer’s Sphere. I’m not sure why, but whatever designers Lazer has for helmets seem to intrinsically know what’s going to appeal to me – me the 12 year old kid who used to hide his helmet in a bush before meeting up with his mates, just because he was worried about looking daft (kids round my way were too cool for helmets and all I’ve ever wanted is to fit in).

What I mean is, terrible as it sounds I am most won-over by a helmets looks. And after all, why not? They all pass the same safety standards, right? So after that, why not judge a lid by its bonded on polycarbonate cover? 

OK, granted, one person’s sartorial lid perfection is another person’s Toad from Mario Kart, so there are a few more objective stats that make this Sphere brilliant.

One, if has Mips, which is the Swedish word for ‘mega-safe’. Two, it has Lazer’s Rollsys fitting system, where a little wheel atop one’s bonce can be twiddled to achieve best fit. Three, it has loads of big vents (like 18). And four, my medium weighs a happy-enough 260-ish grams.

And five, the best bit: you get all this for a penny shy of £135. That’s not cheap cheap, but I’d call this a pro-level helmet at an amateur accessible price-point.

Tailfin pannier racks

For all the 585g, bazillion-pound bikes, this might just be the most frivolous thing in all of cycledom, a carbon fibre pannier rack.

It’s ridiculous, right? Pannier racks were designed to carry bags of beards and real ales through the 1970s, not to sit on any road bike. That’s right, you ‘erd... any road bike. Which is the Tailfin’s genius and why this isn’t the most insane proposition after all. 

Fitting is tool-less and quick, just replace your QR/thru-axle (delete as appropriate) with Tailfin’s own axle then clip the stanchions either side of the axle and the clip the third strut around your seatpost. Then hey presto! You can carry up to 18kg, spread across the two 22-litre pannier bags, anywhere you want.

And I have, I have used the Tailfin rack a lot, both on fancy-pants bikes for one-off A-Bs, where I’ll stay over for the celebratory ‘we did it’ beers, or most recently on my old faithful commuter.


In fact, of all the kit I’ve used this year, I’d say the Tailfin has been the most game changing to my riding, which has taken on a more laid back feel as a pastime and an even more practical role day-to-day.

Substantial tasks like the food shop are now eminently achievable without breaking my back with rucksacks, or buying eggs half a dozen at a time.

Still, £519 is steep, even if the Tailfin Carbon Rack does only weigh 390g and the Super Light bags 600g apiece. But for that I’d say step this way and check out the alloy version, which is a claimed 110g heavier and costs £379 including bags.

And then if you want to carry even more, there Top Trunk option that adds a third top-mounted pack that increases load carrying by a further 9kg/20-litres. And then there’s the AeroPack, more svelte, carbon or alloy, pannier or no panniers. And then there are the Super Durable panniers.

And then… basically there are a lot of Tailfin options, lots of prices, but be assured there is absolutely a Tailfin for you, and you will love it. 

Rapha Classic Winter Gore-Tex Jacket


No, it’s not Windstopper by any other name, Gore-Tex Infinium, which came along in 2018, is a whole new material that’s not technically waterproof but is very much windproof. You could say it stops the wind. But yet here, in this Rapha Classic Winter Gore Tex Jacket, it seems to do so much more.

I’ve been out in decent showers and it has kept me dry – all the seams are taped for one thing, and though I’d choose something else for a proper prolonged deluge, for every other inclement situation I’ve found myself reaching for this fella.

That’s because it does what it says on the tin, but alongside that it’s really, almost weirdly, warm. I say weirdly because this has a thin, shell-like quality, which is nice as an outer layer as it doesn’t feel bulky, and yet it breathes pretty well too, the zips on the chest panels aren’t pockets but vents, and they do a really good job of letting air in without, somehow, turning the jacket into a parachute.

I do have criticisms, however. As my colleague Matthew noted, the white strip up the back stains easily, and there are only two pockets, not three. And honestly you’ll want to try a size smaller than you’re used to, as it comes up a bit big.

But, these criticisms pale into insignificance given how well the jacket stands up to bad weather. I only ever have one cycling jacket on the front door pegs, and for 2021, this has been it.

And it’s orange! Because does black kit in winter really make sense? 

Thanks for reading (what do you mean tl;dr?). Now go for a ride. It's where I'm going. It's where we all should be. 

Specialized, Rapha photographs: Mike Massaro

Everything else: Tapestry/Danny Bird