How Outside Tests Bikes
Yes, it involves nonstop time in the saddle, lots of beer, and plenty of technical jargon
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Those of us who work in the bike industry live in a bubble. We think a season or two ahead, sometimes missing what’s right in front of us. This was evident in the cycling industry’s reluctant acceptance of 29-inch wheels until the past few years and the sluggish development of gravel bikes by major bike companies, which have now taken off like wildfire.
This is why Outside’s 2020 bike test relied so heavily on riders from all walks of life—cycling journalists, hard-charging experts, and intermediate riders—to give us a broader perspective on the bikes you, the reader, might enjoy.
As for me, riding and writing about bikes has been my full-time job for ten years. When I’m not coordinating Outside’s bike test, I’m attending product launches and reviewing the latest bikes, components, and accessories for multiple cycling-media outlets. This year, we wanted to cut through industry groupthink—be it among engineers and product developers at bike companies or among members of the outdoor media—to find the best bikes out there now.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that everyone’s impressions of a product have merit. Regardless of whether you’re a professional athlete or a novice rider, there are valuable takeaways from your experience that help build on the general impressions of the bikes we rode. My goal for this year’s test was to include as many divergent viewpoints as possible. The reason is that there’s no such thing as one “best bike” but rather a best bike for certain types of riders, certain types of terrain, and so on.
This year’s 28-person tester roster included riders of all ability levels. We relied on local cyclists who knew the terrain well to guide us, thus removing one variable from the equation. We strove for an equal balance of male and female testers but had different numbers of testers each day based on availability and riding styles.
Over the course of six days, we tested 40 of the latest bikes from 25 brands, across nine categories, in seven different locations. For mountain bikes, our categories were cross-country, short travel/trail, long travel/enduro, women’s mountain bikes, and e-mountain bikes. On the road, we tested traditional road bikes, gravel/adventure bikes, women’s road bikes, and e-road/gravel bikes.
We attempted to match the bikes we tested to each day’s terrain, with some leeway for testers to naturally gravitate to the bikes they liked best. Not all of our testers rode every bike: some were road or gravel specialists, while others stuck to the trails, but multiple riders spent time on every bike in this test to provide as many viewpoints as possible.
These were long days in the saddle for many. Our riders averaged between five and seven hours on various bikes every day. At the end of each ride, we met and exchanged impressions of the rigs we rode and discussed the finer points of handling and the components we did and didn’t like.
Rather than asking the riders to fill out a rubric, I took notes and listened for common themes. In some instances, riders praised certain bikes universally. Other times testers loved two or more similar models with no clear winner. In these cases, I stepped in to act as the arbitrator, spending additional time testing the competing bikes to select a front-runner in each category.
Outside’s 2020 bike test took place last October on the roads and trails of northwest Arkansas. Local departments of tourism and chambers of commerce provided funding, logistics, and other amenities to bring this year’s test to the region.
Road and gravel testing
We tested road bikes on the winding country roads outside Fayetteville and gravel bikes on the dirt roads surrounding Bentonville. In both areas, we stuck to predetermined test loops, allowing riders to swap bikes and make mechanical adjustments as needed.
Our road loop, which was approximately eight miles long, was quiet and curvy, with one mile-long grinder of a climb on a consistent 13 percent grade and several short kickers thrown in for good measure.
The smooth tarmac route stood in sharp contrast—quite literally—to our gravel course. Growing up in the Flint Hills of Kansas, I’m accustomed to riding serrated, chunky gravel, but I’m here to let you know that the gravel roads of northwest Arkansas are equally unforgiving, which made it an ideal place to test this year’s latest gravel rigs. Our ten-mile course consisted of rolling hills with a mix of potholed asphalt, hard-packed dirt and five miles of loose, golfball-size gravel.
For those unfamiliar with northwest Arkansas, the region is quickly making a name for itself as a mountain biker’s paradise. The rate of trail development is astounding. This is thanks in large part to significant investment in cycling infrastructure by the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame), which has spent $74 million to create approximately 163 miles of paved and unpaved cycling trails throughout the area—with more being added each month.
With so much terrain to choose from, we sampled singletrack in Bentonville, Bella Vista, Rogers, Eureka Springs, Springdale, and Hot Springs. Each locale had its own regional flavors and, as mentioned above, we attempted to pair the bikes we tested with each day’s terrain—enduro-bike testing on the purpose-built downhill trails at Lake Leatherwood in Eureka Springs, e-mountain-bike testing on the flowy yet punchy climbs of the Back 40 trail network in Bella Vista, and so forth.
Outside’s 2020 Bike Test by the Numbers
- 40 bikes
- 28 testers
- 25 brands
- 6 days
- Approximately 3,500 miles ridden
- 7 test locations
- 8 flat tires (a surprisingly low figure, thanks to tubeless tires)
- 1 broken frame
- 7 stitches required
- 17 cases of New Belgium beer consumed