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Will Strickson's Gear of the Year 2021: Basso Palta II, Met Manta Mips helmet, SunGod Airas, fun commuting bikes and good albums

30 Dec 2021

The bikes and kit that made 2021 actually alright in some respects

Words: Will Strickson

'2021 will you think about me, I could wait a year but I couldn't wait three,' sang Ezra Koenig on Vampire Weekend's song '2021'. Well, the year has gone by insanely fast but the enduring pandemic feels like it's lasted forever and I haven't had a single thought about Vampire Weekend until now.

I only started at Cyclist at the tail end of 2020 so I was but a rabbit in the headlights in January, whereas now... I'm still a rabbit in the headlights but I've had a hell of a lot of fun writing about all things cycling and testing out some exciting new kit.

While the world rued a lack of freedom, being able to cycling for 'work' was truly a blessing and one that culminated in my first trips to proper mountains for the launches of the Basso Palta II – more on that soon – in the Dolomites and Lapierre's latest collection of Xelius SL road bikes in the Maritime Alps.

These are just some of the products that I did think about a lot in 2021.

Basso Palta II

You never forget your firsts: first words, first ride, first time watching Tour de France, first time falling sideways into a ditch when you can't unclip from your pedals quick enough. In September I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Basso's new Palta II gravel bike in Alta Badia and both trip and bike were unbelievable fun.

I was also recently reunited with the bike in the UK to review it for Cyclist issue 122 and – spoilers – it's still good.

It takes the best of both worlds from road and gravel and combines them for a thrill-seeker's paradise that flies both on and off-road with a stiff frame, aggressive – but more comfortable than its predecessor – geometry and plenty of #gravelspecific features.

As well as getting excellent Instagram fodder, riding up climbs like Passo Pordoi and Passo Gardena as well as the inumerable number of scenic gravel routes in this climate on a bike like this was the perfect way to escape the doom.

And for the record, 'baked beans'.

Met Manta Mips

Sometimes you get a 'wow' moment when you least expect it.

I knew what the Met Manta Mips aero helmet offered from writing up the launch so when I received the sleek, lightweight lid through the door it was nice but I wasn't shocked. That was until I put it on.

This is the most comfortable thing I've ever put on my head and I've got a really comfy New York Giants woolly hat. The padding is insanely soft, it fits so nicely and the few air vents prevent any chance of overheating while keeping out the rain – essential for our weather.

It also features a Fidlock magnetic buckle that is more satisfying than those videos of pressure washing dirty patios and sharp knifes cutting sand blocks combined.

SunGod Airas

Sunglasses are tricky in 2021. We all looked on a bit unsure as lenses got larger and larger but as time goes on it's clear that the big boys are the only way to go. And looking at old pictures proves that beyond doubt.

British brand SunGod are masters at getting glasses right aesthetically and the Airas, its first frameless pair, are no different.

They look good, they're comfy, they keep all the allergens out of my sensitive eyes and you can make them into a go-to for every occasion by getting the photochromic lenses that can be easily subbed in.

It doesn't stop there, if you're not a frameless fan the Airas can be purchased with a frame along the bottom – also fully replaceable and switchable – and whisper it but I think they actually look better.

Fun commuting bikes

Maybe commuting isn't the best word here considering I've been working from home all year – apart from three days only one of which I cycled to – but that's what we're sticking with.

I've had the pleasure of testing two bikes this year that brought immeasurable joy to cycling through London, firstly the Steed Thoroughbred singlespeed bike pictured above.

Although it's a very new brand, the Thoroughbred thoroughly impressed me with its punchiness, comfort and agility. Riding it was pure joy, even while taking on every speed bump and pothole that the north of the capital has to offer.

Then there was this, the LeMond Prolog e-bike. I initially featured this in my very first In the Drops and a full review is on its way in the new year but to give it away, I could ride this every day for the rest of my life.

Greg has produced this incredibly lightweight electric bike from a new technique that apparently can lower the cost of carbon fibre production by 50% and is 'almost failure proof'.

As a result, it absolutely flies even without the Mahle electric assist on when it is on you just want to push it even more. It's a great confidence booster and makes light work of commuting, which is also helped by the integrated lights.

Albums of the year

If you've read either of my In the Drops pieces, you'll know that I've been putting a playlist together of new music that I like.

I thought then it might be fitting to do a similar thing here, especially because most of the highlights that I'd recommend from this year are listed above.

While I absolutely can't claim to have listened to everything that was released this year but I can say which were my personal favourites. So here are five of my favourite albums of 2021, there's no order and it's not definitive because art isn't a competition.

Faye Webster – I Know I'm Funny Haha

Best way to get through home working in a global pandemic. Listen to Faye Webster. Her calm voice coupled with a wealth of sliding guitars, lush supporting instrumentation and laid back drum beats instantly transports you to a beach in a far away land.

I Know I'm Funny Haha shows a maturing from her previous album – also spectacular – and is a lot more refined, witty and has a lot more positive #vibes as evidence by the lyrics of the lead single, 'You make me want to cry, in a good way.'

Dijon – Absolutely

The first time I'd ever heard of or listened to Dijon was when his debut album Absolutely was released in early November but it's been my go-to ever since.

It's a pretty short album with the 12 songs only lasting half an hour but each song is so filled with lush instrumentation, soulful vocals and catchy melodies that it's easy to get lost in them.

Growing with every listen, it's incredibly addictive – maybe due in part to that short length – so repeat listens are necessary and welcomed.

James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart

James Blake is a talent. His voice is beautiful, he's a ridiculously skilled producer and his musicianship is second to none.

Friends That Break Your Heart is pretty much just showing off. Blake delicately approaches sensitive emotions and insecurities with a host of the best sadboi songs you'll ever hear and features from SZA, JID, SwaVay and Monica Martin are seamless to the record's overall feel.

It's also a testament to the man that he can make music like this and fill it with earworms that aren't cheesy in any way and you won't begrudge getting stuck in your head.

Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic

Bruno Mars is an incredibly talented man. Anderson .Paak is an incredibly talented man. Put them together and you get easily one of the best albums of the last few years.

Silk Sonic sees the duo come together for a collection of songs straight out the 70s filled with insane musicianship, perfect harmonies and funny lyrics. It would be equally at home on BBC Radio 1 and 2 as Magic and Smooth.

It's completely lighthearted but doesn't feel like a comedy album nor does it feel inauthentic, it's just great fun.

You don't get this kind of music done to this level in this day and age, so make the most of it.

Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under

There's a reason Sam Fender's known as the geordie Bruce Springsteen. The Boss's influence runs right through everything he does, musically and lyrically, but the aptly named Fender is a sensation in his own rights.

Seventeen Going Under is a complete hit, catching all the right levels of nostalgia and emotion of growing up as a working class lad from the North East.

If you're a Tiktok fan you've no doubt heard a line from the title track, 'I was far too scared to hit him, but I would hit him in a heartbeat now,' but the more you listen to that song the pearls you hear, it's a 10/10 and not close to a nine.

How he can get away with singing about the DWP and pull it off is baffling.

I was also lucky enough to see him play at Alexandra Palace and it was one of my favourite moments of the year.

That's it from me, see you again in 2022.