'A gravel bike so good I actually bought myself one' - Joe Baker's Gear of the Year 2023

Bikes that increased the amount I ride, to kit that genuinely changed how I dress for rides - my top picks of the year

Specialized tarmac sl8 being ridden on road
(Image credit: Specialized)

Gear of the Year, for me at least, goes far beyond simply listing products that I have rated highly over the past year. I have had the privilege of testing a multitude of kit across all price points, but my gear of the year picks have to go a step further than a high star rating.

My top products for 2023 fall into one of two camps: products that are just so good I have kept going back to them, and products that actually changed my habits thanks to their brilliance.

For instance, Specialized's Prime Alpha Jacket genuinely changed my usual layering tactics for riding in a range of whether - the Le Col Bib Shorts II's on the other hand, just remained at the top of my clothing pile all year round.

On the bike side of things, two machines really stood out to me. Most obviously, the Cannondale Topstone Carbon 3. I loved that bike's handling so much on test that I put my money where my mouth was and bought one in exactly the same spec (though I wish I had bought it at its current bargain price!).

When it comes to road bikes, there was one clear winner - even considering the hype. The Specialized S-works Tarmac SL8 is the best race bike I have tested to date, and it's going to take some topping...

Specialized S-works Tarmac SL8

Specialized Tarmac SL8 road bike

(Image credit: Future)

The Tarmac SL8 was by far the most anticipated new bike release of 2023, and with it came a whole host of both scepticism and anticipation - did it live up to it? Absolutely. I truly believe Specialized has turned over a new leaf in bike design with the new Tarmac.

Let’s be frank, Specialized is great at marketing, there wouldn’t have been so much hype around the bike if they weren’t. I saw it as my duty then to try as hard as I possibly good to pick wholes in Specialized’s claims, but I really struggled to do so.

The bike rides unbelievably well, both from a geometry standpoint, and how the bike accelerates. It’s lively, composed, and just a joy to throw around on technical descents. The thing that really baffles me though, is how they have managed to come up with a machine that climbs as well as any bike I have tested this year, thanks to supreme weight and stiffness, yet roll so well at higher speeds on the flat.

While I’m not sure I am the biggest fan of the ‘Speed sniffer’ head tube shape, I can easily overlook that thanks to the bike's handling, which truly made me want to ride more, even going into the colder months. And for a fair-weather like myself, that’s pretty good going.

Specialized Prime Alpha Jacket

Specialized Prime Alpha Jacket being worn on bike

(Image credit: Future)

I have taken this jacket on almost every single ride I have been on since August - yes August! The reason for that - this jacket provides perhaps the best warmth-to-pocket-estate ratio for any piece of kit I have ever tested.

That makes it perfect for the cafe, which for better or for worse, is where I almost always end up after a ride these days!

This is a truly versatile jacket, so much so, that when I ditched the bike for a week of trekking in the Swiss and Italian Alps, this is one of the first things I packed - albeit as an underlayer.

It isn’t the cheapest jacket in the world, but its quality provides great value and comfort.

Cannondale Topstone Carbon 3

Cannondale topstone carbon three on pink background

(Image credit: Richard Butcher )

Of all the gravel bikes I have tested in the last twelve months, there was one that stuck with me. So much so, that after reviewing, and reluctantly giving back the Cannondale Topstone Carbon 3, I actually put my money where my mouth was, and bought one myself.

I fell in love with the Topstone thanks to its brilliant ride quality. The geometry, alongside the ‘Kingpin’ rear suspension system, made the bike feel much more capable than its 45mm tyre clearance (47mm with 650b wheels) might suggest.

On the trails, the bike felt lightweight and nimble, and it pushed me to keep tackling less and less appropriate terrain, which did result in some small jump lines (no, the Topstone was not harmed in the making of this review!).

Despite the bike's almost dainty feel on the trails, it has also stood up to one hell of a beating too - most memorably, in my first ever gravel race. The Topstone was my steed of choice for the TRAKA 360, a 365km gravel race around Girona. A grueling 17-hour ride was made rather more comfortable thanks to the bike's ‘suspension’, and it didn’t put a foot wrong - top marks.

Le Col Pro Bib Shorts II

Le col pro bib short II close up

(Image credit: Future)

Kit, in particular bib shorts, is a very personal choice, which inherently makes them tricky to review. I have reviewed pricey kit that I just don’t get on with - however, the same cannot be said for these shorts.

No they aren’t cheap, but they are great quality. I have ridden literally thousands of kilometers in these shorts (and their predecessors) over the last couple of years, with no discomfort. And that’s including a 1000-mile mid-summer bike packing trip from Munich to Florence - no mean feat.

After testing various different bib shorts this year, none have come close to the Le Col Pro Bib Short II's!

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