2013 UPDATE: Kona have now seen fit to move the Explosif into the ultra-niche of 27.5‑inch hardtails; thus I can no longer recommend it as a suitable base for building an expedition bike. Frames of yore (2006–2009), if you can find them, will continue to deal well with off-road adventures, as the article below relates.
Whilst the steel Explosif frame is aimed at the cross-country mountain-biking market, it is not uncommon to see long-distance cycle tourers taking advantage of the increased strength and durability of mountain-bike components, which are naturally more heavy-duty than their road-bike equivalents. We chose the Explosif frame (2007 model) for a number of reasons, not least because we planned to travel in remote corners of the world where tarmac had not yet reached. So far, our expectations have been met, and exceeded in many ways.
We have travelled on flat, blemish-free asphalt, rocky mountain tracks that were little more than river beds, and everything in between. Coupled with the perfectly-suited 100mm-travel Magura Odur suspension forks, the frame’s geometry has made tackling these road conditions a relative breeze. While the set-up might not be optimal for hammering away at the tarmac for hours on end, we’re very rarely covering more than eighty or so kilometres per day, and it’s far more important for us to have bikes which are happy to be taken exploring off the beaten track. For this, the frame is ideal. It hasn’t stopped us covering more than 200km in a single day, either.
We had to make a number of adjustments to the cockpit (the components that dictate the riding position) in the first few weeks due to the nature of the aches and pains that soon surfaced (ideally you’ll test your bike for many weeks before embarking — we didn’t). Each of us have swapped our original handlebars for high and wide riser bars (with bar-ends for variety), and fitted very handy adjustable stems. With 40mm of spacers above the headset, the handlebar position has been raised well above what most riders of this frame would be using. When you’re in the saddle for many hours, however, it’s important to have a riding position that won’t give you back pain. I’ve found the equilibrium and have been riding in comfort for many months.
If you’re into cycling, especially mountain-biking, you’ll know that each frame feels different. The relationship between this unassuming piece of metal and the human sense of touch and balance is a very close and sensitive one. The Explosif is a joy in this department — zippy acceleration, absorbent but not too springy on the bumpier downhills, and a very solid yet forgiving feel overall. As I mounted the bike for the first time before the trip began, I couldn’t believe the quality of the ride, the smooth and tempered feel of the bike, the responsive yet moderated handling — it was like nothing else.
So the frame is sturdy and comfortable enough to meet the needs of the intrepid adventure cyclist. But choosing a touring frame also includes practical considerations. In this department, the Explosif falls a little behind other offerings that are designed with the tourer’s needs in mind — it lacks braze-ons on the seat-stays to accommodate a rear rack, for example, and there are no bottle-mounts on the underside of the down-tube, so you can only mount two standard bottle cages.
However, if you’re serious enough about a frame to be considering the Explosif, you’ll probably be serious enough to be considering a quality pannier rack. Tubus, whose Logo rack we have been using, can supply a mounting kit for attaching their racks to frames that lack the necessary lugs, and we have used this system from the beginning without a problem. The Explosif does in fact have the necessary bolt-holes above the rear drop-outs to attach a rack directly to the frame at this point, which are probably intended for mounting fenders. There are also bottle-cages available that don’t require integrated frame mountings.
The frame fares well otherwise — it has V‑brake bosses to accommodate rim-brakes, which most tourers seem to use, and which we carry as back-up. In the event that you want to fit disc-brakes (as we have done), you should know that in order to both fit the Magura Louise brake caliper and attach the rack to the frame directly, we found it necessary to increase the vertical clearance of the rack by extending the lower mounting point of the rack using parts from Tubus’ rear-axle-mount accessory kit. This required a little experimentation and diversion from the intended use of the various pieces of metal, but the resulting setup works perfectly. There are no rules when building the ride that will take you round the world!
(Note: this was only necessary so that we were able to use the special quick-releases for our Extrawheel trailers, which were not long enough to accommodate the Tubus rear-axle-mount kit which we had originally intended to use to mount the rack. So you’ll only need to do this if you’re fitting a rear Magura Louise disc-brake, a Tubus Logo rack and pulling an Extrawheel trailer. Which would also make you a copy-cat.)
The chunky, machined rear drop-outs are of the sliding variety, which is fairly unusual but carries a couple of benefits for the tourer. Firstly, if you do have a bad-enough crash to bend or snap the drop-out, it can be easily replaced without compromising the frame itself. Secondly (and this might be thinking too far ahead), if you do manage destroy your rear shifting mechanisms for whatever reason, the sliding drop-out system will make the chain-tensioning part of the consequent emergency single-speed conversion much, much easier.
The frame naturally mates well with the full range of mountain-bike componentry that you might be considering if you’ve got this far. See elsewhere on the site for reviews of these shiny pieces of kit.
In conclusion, no frame designed for mountain-biking (especially in today’s market) is likely to be the perfect solution for the cycle-tourer, but the Explosif comes pretty close. We’ve been easily able to remedy the minor shortcomings of a lack of seat-stay rack-mounts and a third bottle-cage mount, and have been riding the frames with pleasure and without a hitch for the duration of our expedition, tackling flat road and mountain trail alike. It’s not for everyone’s cycle tour, but if you’re planning on making similar long-term excursions into the back of beyond, the Kona Explosif comes very highly recommended.
Update: 23 March 2010
No bike is indestructible. Our first Explosif frames suffered 20,000km of fully-loaded abuse on- and off-road before they submitted to the stresses of such use. Both frames developed cracks in the same location — the rear drive-side fork end, where the combined forces of rider, luggage, drivetrain and wheel axle meet. Andy had his frame welded (on the roadside in New Delhi, India) and it continued to ride strong thereafter. I have had a replacement Explosif frame supplied by Kona, but I’m planning to have the original frame repaired for nipping about on.
As countless journeys show, it’s only a matter of time before even the strongest frame fails on long tours — breakages are only to be expected. The choice is therefore mainly one of comfort and functionality, as few frames are built specifically to carry tens of kilograms of kit for thousands of kilometres on all road surfaces. Needless to say, had we been using aluminium frames we’d have been in a right pickle — easy repair capability is why steel can’t be beaten for extended trips.