Long-term updates of the pandemic reviews, 2020 & 2021

Over the past pandemic-infested couple of years, I bought a number of items which I wanted to test and review, but was prevented from doing so properly due to lockdown, quarantine, and just general movement restrictions. Lately, things have improved and loosened a bit, and I’m now able to resume normal programming somewhat, so I figured now would be a good time to revisit these products.

REVELATE DESIGNS MAG-TANK TOP TUBE BAG

I ordered this online from REI, hoping it would arrive in time for my plan to challenge the 200 km Subic-Masinloc-Subic audax in late March 2020. Not only did the audax ride not push through, this thing also got stuck in cargo forwarding limbo for months. It was a minor miracle it finally arrived at my door, to be honest.

With outdoor riding out of the question for most of 2020, I mainly used the Mag-Tank as a “bento box” feed bag while on longer rides on the indoor trainer. That was a legitimately half-baked testing situation, as I couldn’t find out how water-resistant the bag was in case you got caught in a sudden downpour. I also couldn’t test if that fancy magnetic-clasped top flap would catch rushing air from the front of your handlebars and open involuntarily.

After some saddle time outdoors, some of it in the rain, I can confirm that both items are non-concerns. The Mag-Tank is never gonna get any water ingress unless you deliberately ride around with the flap open, and the flap is secure enough to keep closed even at higher speeds and situations with greater incoming air velocity.

The only caveat with Revelate Design’s product is how the top tube strap’s rubbery material will leave marks on your top tube’s paint. The white “TCX” letters emblazoned on my top tube now have little brown dots corresponding to the pattern on the Mag-Tank’s top tube strap, and they are never gonna go away unless I have Hyro’s frame repainted. If you want this bag, but don’t feel like staining your frame’s paint job, do wrap your top tube with some clear frame protection.

I hardly ever ride without it, these days. Highly recommended, and well worth the price.

CUSTOM WHEELSET: H PLUS SON THE HYDRA RIMS + NOVATEC D791SB/D792SB HUBS + PILLAR SPOKES

I had always planned on getting a second wheelset built up for Hyro, with a pair of Shimano’s discontinued-but-brand-new CX75 hubs burning a hole in my parts bin for years now. Lacing those into something rideable would require rims, spokes, and a great wheel builder from Tryon in Makati, which unfortuantely was inundated with bike maintenance jobs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I spotted and eventually bought this wheelset second-hand for a very attractive price. Since then, this has become my go-to for outdoor riding. It came with axle parts for the Novatec hubs to convert between through-axle and quick-release fitment, which was the first thing I did. This switchable nature is a great bit of future-proofing should I get a newer frame in the coming years. It doesn’t hurt that H Plus Son’s The Hydra rims are tubeless-ready, too, although they predate the ETRTO/ISO tubeless standard by three or four years.

There isn’t a huge weight saving over Hyro’s stock Giant S-X2s, mainly because these wheels have 32 spokes instead of the 28 on the stock set. Even so, they’re a useful ~300 g lighter, and the Novatec freehub is quite a bit noisier than the Joytech unit Giant uses, without becoming annoying. They don’t feel too different to ride from the heavier S-X2s, but they do look quite a bit fancier and roll on cartridge bearings instead of the cup-and-cone arrangement. All credit to Gran Trail Cycles Makati’s wheel builders too as these have stayed true and kept their spoke tension well.

Some of the black anodizing and white letter decals have gotten dinged from hanging off my wall in storage, but overall this was a good buy. In the future, I might even be inclined to finally bite the bullet and go tubeless with these, just for funzies.

And yes, those CX75 hubs are still in storage.

LOOK X-TRACK PEDALS

After one too many problems with Shimano’s pedals working themselves out of good preload adjustment, I went with their French rival’s offering. While Look is an established player in road cycling clipless pedals, they’re not as successful on the mountain bike side, and they made their X-Track pedal lineup compatible with Shimano SPD cleats.

The one downside to the X-Tracks is the tension adjustment of the clipless mechanism. Unlike Shimano’s adjustment bolt, which stops your 3 mm hex key at defined detents, Look’s adjustment is harder to dial in correctly if you don’t pay close attention. I spent quite a lot of trial and error here. There are detents, but they’re so soft, they might as well not exist.

Otherwise, it’s been all very, very good, even with this cheapest model in the lineup. The rotating assembly uses a bushing and two cartridge bearings, meaning there is no preload adjustment to faff about. Despite less physical size, the actual pedal platform that meets the sole of your shoe is noticeably bigger than any Shimano SPD pedal I’ve tried, and the foot support on these feels the closest to a road bike pedal in my experience.

They just work well – and Look’s own bundled X-Track cleats aren’t too shabby, either. Highly recommended.

4IIII PRECISION POWER METER (SHIMANO 105 FC-R7000)

Along with the Wahoo KICKR SNAP smart trainer, this thing has been transformative. Not only is this one of the most affordable power meter options on the market, it’s also very well reviewed and offers great accuracy down to +/-1%. Setup and maintenance are equally easy and hassle-free, requiring only the occasional zero offset and battery swap, and 4iiii’s companion app couldn’t be simpler to use. Battery life has been quite good: since receiving the power meter at the end of March, I’ve burned through one CR2032 button cell and I’m now halfway through a second.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. It will only ever measure power generated by a rider’s left leg, so it’s never going to offer left leg/right leg power balance. As an entry-level power meter, though, especially in this Shimano 105 R7000 crank arm guise, it’s cheap enough for its shortcomings to not matter very much at all.

Speaking of which…

SHIMANO 105 FC-R7000 CRANKSET

This was the final piece of the 11-speed drivetrain upgrade on Hyro, arriving a whole two and a half years after everything else.

In hindsight, I should have upgraded sooner. The R7000 crank does work better with the peculiarities of disc-braked road bikes, its chainline sitting a smidge more outboard compared to older Shimano cranks, and that means it partners with modern 11-speed front derailleurs better and gives crisper shifting. You can still drop chains if you’re not careful, but those mishaps are fewer and farther between.

Even though I consider this the best crankset Shimano makes (I have no love for the lighter, but more flawed two-piece bonded construction of Ultegra and Dura-Ace cranks), five months on, I am still at odds with how it looks. Admittedly, road cycling is a sport that glamorizes vanity as much as it glorifies suffering. Older cranks with five-arm crank spiders have a classic, much more timeless appearance to them. Shimano seems to have thrown all that out the window with 105 R7000 in favor of better rigidity and power transfer.

Somehow I’ve avoided unintended rubbing of my shoes on this thing, which is nice – it lets it avoid getting uglier than it already is.

Jumping new hoops

Hyro on his stock 35 mm Schwalbe Super Swan knobby mud tires.

Hyro, my Giant TCX cyclocross bike, promised quiver-killing versatility years before gravel bikes became a trend. As per the UCI cyclocross regulations it’s built to, the 2014 TCX chassis can swallow a knobby, mud-plugging 33 mm tire with loads of space to spare; Giant’s PR materials officially state a 40 mm tire width limit, enough to float over gravel roads. The same frame can take 28 mm slicks and go on long road rides – something I’ve done time and time again.

That said, those promises are predicated on owning multiple wheelsets. While the TCX can accommodate many kinds of tires for all sorts of situations, having to swap them on and off just one wheelset will get old quickly. At the very least, a bike like Hyro needs two wheelsets to bring out his potential: one wheelset for road, and another for gravel riding, for example. That same potential was also brought into question by the bike industry, after three years of waffling about, finally settling on closed dropouts and 12 mm through-axles as a wheel installation method for road bikes with disc brakes.

Note the CenterLock brake rotor spline and internal-cam QR skewers on the CX75 hubs.

Originally, my plan for a second wheelset for Hyro involved Shimano’s CX75 hubs, which I’ve had in storage for a long time. These can be considered a straight upgrade item I could use with my existing rims, as they are also drilled for 28 spokes. These sport labyrinth seals for their angular contact “cup-and-cone” bearings – a good step up from Hyro’s stock hubs.

The problem with the CX75 hubs is that there is no way for them to work with a more modern disc-braked bike which has through-axles. With open dropouts nowhere near as widespread as they used to be, a wheelset built on these is effectively a dead end.

I was mulling over the parts I wanted for my desired wheelset, before and during COVID19 lockdown, when I came across a for-sale ad as I was absentmindedly browsing a local road cycling Facebook group. It’s as if someone read my mind: put up for sale was the exact item I was looking for.

Details blurred to protect seller’s identity.

I’ve heard great things about H Plus Son and its lineup of aluminum rims. The Archetype and TB14 rims, in particular, are part of many a wheel build. I would have gone for the Archetype had the company not announced the Hydra rim, which was essentially an Archetype rim shorn of its braking track, made slightly wider, and has tubeless tire compatibility baked in.

I met with the seller, made the transaction, and went home with a new-to-me, pre-loved wheelset. Gracias, se├▒or!

Color, tubeless compatibility, and disc rotor fitment aside, this wheelset is very different from the stock Giant S-X2 hoops. For starters, these Hydra rims are drilled for 32 spokes instead of 28.

Each wheel sports a SRAM Centerline 160 mm brake rotor. These were supposedly made to keep the braking surface as straight as possible and resist warping.

With H Plus Son’s The Hydra rims on the outside, the 32 J-bend spokes are then laced, by the wheelbuilders of Gran Trail Cycles, to Novatec hubs – the D791SB up front, and the D792SB at the back. The latter has an 11-speed Shimano HG freehub body.

Straight off, these wheels were set up for fitment into a bike with closed dropouts and through-axles. Part of the seller’s bundle was a zip-lock bag with axle parts and end caps to convert the hubs to open-dropout use and quick-release (QR) skewers. That was the first thing I did.

Converting the rear hub is equivalent to taking it apart for servicing and bearing replacement. You use two wrenches to loosen the threaded end cap from the non-drive side of the axle, then take it apart from the sides. The four-pawl freehub body comes along for the ride.

With the freehub body removed, you can see the ratcheted inside of the hub shell, where the pawls catch to transfer your leg power to the wheels and into the ground. At the bottom sits one of the four cartridge bearings – this one a “6902RS” bearing.

Take the freehub body and seat it into the hub shell, then thread the QR axle through the hub and screw on the QR end cap on the non-drive side – job done. Don’t forget the grease and the QR skewer!

Converting the front hub is even easier: just pull off the two end caps from each end of the hub, and slide the QR end caps in. No axle tomfoolery needed.

One last preparation to do before making these wheels roadworthy is installing rim tape. I used Stan’s No Tubes tubeless rim tape for this job, making this a tubeless-ready wheelset in case I decide the technology is mature enough. For gearing, I went with another Shimano CS-HG700-11 cassette, and I mounted my tires on.

The wheelset I ended up with turned out better than my original plan in a number of ways. While it has eight total added spokes and foregoes CenterLock rotors in favor of six-bolt rotor fitment, it already has future-proof hubs so I can use it on a more modern road bike, and I saved quite a bit of money by going second-hand. While it’s no lightweight, I was able to weigh new and old front wheels back-to back with a luggage scale, with the new front wheel coming out 250 grams lighter.

What happens to the stock S-X2 wheelset? I’ll keep it, mainly for indoor training. I have a bunch of old tires I can use while slaving away on the turbo trainer is the most feasible and logical way to keep me riding.

Hobbled hubs?

As a bike ridden in all weather conditions, Hyro, my pet Giant TCX, has generally done himself proud. The cyclocross lineage means the bike just laps it up and asks for more, despite my previous reservations surrounding its press-fit BB86 bottom bracket shell.

One problem has crept up with increasingly worrying regularity though: the stock S-X2 wheelset’s hubs have weather sealing that’s gone south pretty quickly this past year.

The weather seals on the rear hub are still in relatively good shape.

The S-X2 hubs are relatively simple items, relying on a cup-and-cone system of loose bearings that allow for easy adjustment. The design is such that Shimano employs it on pretty much all of its hubs.

Around the ends of the hubs’ axles resides a pair of rubber cones that acts as the weather sealing for the bearings. This is where things go funky, and where it’s obvious that costs were cut. It is much too easy to make the edges of these seals sink into the innards of the bearing races, actually aiding water ingress instead of hindering it as they are meant to. In addition, the longevity of the rubber material used is itself a little questionable, as the seals’ edges now have cuts and divots along them.

The cone-shaped rubber weather seals get deformed and sink into the hubs like this from time to time. When this happens, the chances of water ingress increase greatly, washing out the inside grease and causing premature damage to the internals.

On the S-X2 hubs or any other design (Shimano’s included) that relies on loose ball bearings, the hubs themselves are wear items, as they contain the bearing races that the ball bearings run and spin in. Abandoning their maintenance leaves you with pitted races, making for rough-spinning and gritty-feeling wheels.┬áSpending a little more on hubs usually gets you better bearing seals…or a move from loose bearings to cartridge bearings, which are easier to maintain because the hub shell and its parts are no longer subject to bearing-related wear.

Currently I don’t have the tools nor the knowledge to service these hubs; I have only one size of cone wrench, and it doesn’t really fit the locknuts so well. (There are four sizes that are most often used, and even then, the migration to cartridge bearings means these wrenches are slowly going out of fashion.) Now that I’ve highlighted the weaknesses of the S-X2 hubs, I figure I might as well replace them with something else, and have the wheelset subsequently rebuilt, before they terminally fail on me and paralyze Hyro.