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Bikes Equipment

Kona Sutra 2014 Preview

UPDATE: My full review of the 2014 Sutra is now online and supersedes this preview. Check it out here.

In 2012 I took a cross-section of the best and most popular mid-range road touring bikes and singled out the Kona Sutra as the one I wanted to take on a long-term test for my ride down the U.S. West Coast.

sutra

I had a good working relationship with the Kona crew and suggested a few tweaks that would optimize a future incarnation, some of which were suggested by blog readers.

Behold the 2013 Sutra, which incorporated all of these changes and made the Sutra a nigh-on perfect mid-range road touring bike. (With the possible exception of the front rack.)

2013 Kona Sutra

So I was intrigued when, at Eurobike last month (that’s the big bicycle industry trade show on this side of the Atlantic), Kona unveiled their 2014 model:

Kona Sutra 2014

Which, as many readers have already noted, seems to look a bit different.

And this is because it is a bit different. In particular, all the big bits have changed. The frame that I was so fond of has been changed entirely for one inspired by last year’s cyclocross-inspired dirt-road-racing success story the Rove, as have both of the racks. And the paint job seems to have been chosen with desert camouflage applications in mind. (Not that the paint job matters, or is anything other than a matter of taste.)

Now, tourers are a conservative bunch. They spend ages figuring out what works, and get unhappy when it changes. Quite understandably, then, people who’d been waiting for the 2014 Kona Sutra were a little bemused. So they emailed me, because I’d written the definitive review of the bike’s previous incarnation and they wanted to know what I thought.

Here’s what I think:

I haven’t ridden this new bike yet. So anything I say at this point is conjecture. And conjecture is pretty worthless when compared to informed, experienced advice.

So I am going to ride the bike and let you know what I think. But in the meantime let’s take an objective peek at what’s actually changed (not just what looks at a glance like it’s changed):

2014 Sutra 2013 Sutra
FRAME MATERIAL Kona Cromoly Kona Cromoly Butted
SIZES 47, 49, 53, 56, 59, 61cm 49, 53, 56, 59, 61cm
FORK Kona Project Two Touring Kona Project Two Touring
CRANKARMS Shimano Deore Shimano Deore
CHAINRINGS 26/36/48t 26/36/48t
B/B Shimano BB51 Shimano BB51
CHAIN KMC HG53 KMC HG53
FREEWHEEL Shimano Deore 11–32t 9 spd Shimano Deore 11–32t 9 spd
F/D Shimano Deore Shimano Deore
R/D Shimano Deore SLX Shimano LX Trekking
SHIFTERS Shimano BarCon Shimano BarCon
BRAKE CALIPERS Hayes CX Expert Hayes CX5
FRONT BRAKE ROTOR Hayes L Series 160mm Hayes V6 160mm
REAR BRAKE ROTOR Hayes L Series 160mm Hayes V6 160mm
BRAKE LEVERS Tektro RL340 Tektro RL340
HEADSET TH 848 TH 848
HANDLEBAR Kona Deluxe Road Bar Kona Deluxe Road Bar
STEM Kona XC/Road Kona XC/Road Deluxe
SEATPOST Kona Double Clamp w/Offset Kona Double Clamp w/Offset
SEAT CLAMP Kona Clamp Kona Clamp
GRIPS Kona Cork Tape Kona Cork Tape
SADDLE WTB Rocket V Comp WTB Rocket V Comp
FRONT HUB Shimano Deore Shimano Deore
REAR HUB Shimano Deore Shimano Deore
SPOKES Sandvik Stainless 14g Sandvik Stainless 14g
RIMS WTB Freedom Ryder 21 WTB Freedom Ryder 21
FRONT TIRE Continental Contact 700x32C Continental Contact 700x32C
REAR TIRE Continental Contact 700x32C Continental Contact 700x32C
PAINT COLOR Matt Raw Steel w/Sand Tint Blue w/Gold & White
EXTRAS Pannier Racks, Fenders Pannier Racks, Fenders

What’s actually, changed then?

Well, if it’s not highlighted in the table above, it hasn’t changed (or it doesn’t matter).

And everything highlighted in blue (rear derailleur, brake calipers & rotors) represents a component for which the only change is the name given to it by its manufacturer.

SLX is just Shimano’s new name for LX.

CX Expert is just Hayes’ new name for CX 5.

Manufacturers do this kind of thing because the industry is an arms race and it’s important to give the impression things are improving year on year, even if the difference is negligible. It’s how these companies stay afloat in a competitive market. Nothing more. Derailleurs still move chains between sprockets. Brakes still stop wheels turning.

In other words: almost nothing has changed on the Kona Sutra between 2013 and 2014.

Except for the rows highlighted in orange and green. Let’s take a closer look at the ones in green, highlighted as such because they represent upgrades over the 2013 model:

  • There’s an extra frame size for 2014 — 47cm; addressing recent revelations that small people go touring too.
  • The pannier racks have been changed for models from Blackburn’s range — most significantly the front rack for the well-established FL1 low-rider, but also the rear rack for Blackburn’s TRX‑1 Ultimate Touring Rack. Since the old front rack was arguably the 2013 Sutra’s biggest weakness, this sounds like a welcome upgrade, though I cannot yet speak from experience. Pannier compatibility with the FL1 seems to be a topic of ongoing discussion, but it’s worth noting that this kind of fettling does come with the territory.

Which just leaves the Sutra 2014’s new frame as the sole remaining point of discussion.

At which point, since I haven’t yet ridden it myself, I’d like to hand over to the guy who actually designed the bike. Here’s his email to me last week:

“One of the biggest pieces of feedback we received regarding the previous iterations of the Sutra had to do with the tire clearance. On the previous models it was relatively limited. Moving to the Rove frame allows the user to run 40C tires with fenders which is much better suited for loaded touring in our opinion. The bike comes stock with the same Conti 32C tires which are a good compromise between traction, puncture resistance and rolling resistance. The ability to run 40C tires can’t be understated though, especially as the weight of the rider/gear increases.

 

“The slightly higher bottom bracket could be viewed as a detraction by some users. I can say that for my purposes the bike rides very well with a load in excess of 50lbs front/rear. I’ve gone on two week trips with my better half (I end up carrying the weight) and have not felt any speed wobble or instability when the bike is loaded down.

 

“The most notable boon to the change in frame geometry comes when the bike has no weight on it. It behaves much like a well-balanced and stable cyclocross bike. Slightly quicker handling and more fun on singletrack/gravel than the Sutra of yore. The increased dimensions of the HT [head tube] (44mm ZS) also contribute to the stability and precision of the frame. When loaded on the front there is significantly less flex from the HT/Fork interface.”

My take? Firstly, let’s remember that Kona have a hard-earned (and well-earned) reputation for thoughtful and sometimes eccentric bike design. They have that reputation to defend, and so they won’t take bike design decisions lightly, especially given the Sutra’s booming popularity.

And so it seems that the 2014 Sutra has simply developed into a touring bike that’ll come into its own when heading off on unsealed roads — off the beaten track. And while it might look at a glance like a rather different bike, it really isn’t, as we can see above.

The 2013 Sutra was a world-class road tourer that was built sturdily enough to be taken off-road (as I did in the Californian Lost Coast last year).

For 2014, I’d speculate that Kona have taken the Sutra a step further towards a more exploratory style of touring, focussing specifically on improving the performance of the bike under off-road circumstances, with a better-suited frame geometry and with increased tyre clearance for fatter expedition tyres.

The jury is still out. But regardless of what happens when I get one to take out for a spin, I have no doubt that the new Sutra remains a quality bike built for adventurous bicycle travellers by an experienced bunch of bike builders, and that — changes aside — it will continue to take you wherever you wish to ride it, which, let’s face it, is a rather more important consideration.

My full, detailed review of the Kona Sutra 2014 is now online. Read it here.

[DFR:GearReviewPriceComparison?compset_id=52673]

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Bikes Equipment Gear Reviews

Folding Touring: A Review Of The Tern Link P24h

I visited Tern, the folding bike manufacturer, in Taiwan last year as part of a tour of the nation’s bike industry. I got in touch later to see if I could test their folding touring bike. Tern’s UK distributor loaned me the bike described here for a few months in order that I could do so.

Tern Link P24h: Complete loaded bike

Over the years I’ve become a lot less of a fundamentalist about this thing called cycle touring. And one principle I cut loose a while back was that these journeys should be conducted entirely by pedal power — the ‘cycle every inch’ mentality. There are many reasons your might want to combine cycling with trains, buses, hitching and the like. Perhaps time is limited. Perhaps there’s an itinerary to keep to. Perhaps particular regions are more interesting than others. Whatever.

The problem is that every break from riding involves detatching panniers, unthreading pedals, removing wheels, getting covered in filth, arguing with drivers and conductors, nicking cardboard boxes from behind bike shops, and other such delights. The more developed the country, incidentally, the greater the fuss.

So what if it were possible to eliminate all this and happily skip around a continent, hopping on and off any kind of transport while simultaneously enjoying all that’s wonderful about cycle touring?

It’s been at the back of my mind for years, but I hadn’t experienced it until I got my hands on Tern Bicycles’ Link P24h.

Tern Link P24h: Riding

Folding bikes have been around for decades, of course. Today’s Brompton is simply the current generation. But they were never really built for touring. Tiny little wheels make every crack and pothole feel like a trench. They’re twitchy. The handlebars flex. Gear ratios are fine on the flats, but try pottering up a steep country lane with a pair of panniers and a tent on the back. They simply don’t deliver quality of ride you’ll get from the most popular touring bikes.

What’s interesting about Tern’s bike is that, while acknowledging that every folding bike is a series of compromises, it was nevertheless built to be a tourer. It has the bigger 20-inch wheels, proper luggage racks, wide gearing, fenders and bottle cages, touring components, and plenty of other thoughtful inclusions.

But I wanted to see if the bike was as good in reality as it was on paper. So I took one around the UK with my storytelling events, seeing new cities, and getting as much touring done in between as possible.

Tern Link P24h: Waiting for the train

Because of the scattered locations and dates of the events, I needed to hook into the public transport network regularly. This would have been as good as impossible with a full-size touring bike, what with the state of the rail system we’re blessed with in the UK (don’t get me started).

But, crucially, the Link P24h fitted the British rail operators’ definition of a folding bike (which is at least one thing they seem able to agree on). So no ‘cycle reservations’ to make. No cramped bicycle compartments to occupy. No travel bans on peak-time trains to work around. Nothing to think about at all, in fact, except for what British train passengers usually think about (in between asking themselves if a one-way second-class off-peak ticket across a small island nation should ever really cost over £200).

Tern Link P24h: On the train 1

And when it came to taking a ferry over to the Isle of Arran for some wild-bivvying on a day off between gigs? Oh, hello there, foot passenger; that’ll just be a fiver…

Arran wild camp sunrise

Although I hadn’t considered it before, I also really liked the fact that I could carry the bike inside with me on the couple of occasions I was unceremoniously stuck in a hotel room for the night. If you’re regularly Couchsurfing or hostelling on a tour, this is an extremely convenient plus-point.

And, if you’re wondering it it fits inside a tent, here’s pictorial evidence of a time I took the Link 24H to bed:

Unusual bedfellows

(That’s the awning of a 1‑man tent. Panniers, too.)

Riding the bike, obviously, is as important a consideration as carting it around. And I live in Cumbria, which features some of the most challenging road riding in England. The country’s steepest paved road is at the top of my neighbouring valley. (It’s a 32% grade. For comparison, San Francisco’s steepest is 34%.)

This is where compact folding bikes commonly suffer. Tiny 16″ wheels get you from A to B, but there’s a reason full-size wheels are almost twice the diameter: comfort and rolling ease. Engineering compromises mean narrow gear ratios in comparison with full-size bikes, which is OK in London, but not in Cumbria or Scotland or the Alps and with 20kg of luggage on board. And shorter wheelbases often mean problems with heel clearance when bigger panniers are involved.

So Tern’s designers got clever. First, they took a tried and tested (important) 3‑speed Sturmey Archer rear hub and stuck an 8‑speed cassette and derailleur on top of it, resulting in a 24-speed bike with a single front chainring. Then they fitted 20″ wheels instead of diddly 16″ ones (and you can feel the difference). They designed and fitted a rear rack, the Traveller Rack, specifically for putting full-size panniers on a folding bike, without your heels getting in the way and without affecting the fold. Finally, they added a front rack for small panniers and a KLICKfix bracket for any compatible basket or bar-bag you might wish to use.

Basically, they built a tourer.

Tern Link P24h: Riding

And so I pottered happily up and down the Lakeland lanes between Oxenholme and home-sweet-holme in comfort, with boxes of books and DVDs as well as my usual touring and camping gear, and without once climbing out of the saddle to push, nor breaking more of a sweat than I wanted to. Even light off-road was met with confidence-inspiring capability.

Tern Link P24h: Off-road

Tern’s designers also brought in innovations from their Biologic arm, which focuses on components and accessories. There’s a dynamo in the front hub (though you’d never know it from the effect it has on the ride), and it powers a built-in front light and optionally a rechargeable power pack, the ReeCharge, that’ll keep anything USB-compatible powered up all day. That includes your GPS-enabled smartphone.

Tern Link P24h: Pedal-powered GPS & front light

According to Tern, their newest hub (called the Joule 3) is comparable to the industry-leading Schmidt in terms of efficiency, but at a fraction of the price. A big claim, but it appears to be well-founded, as my Reecharge unit has remained fully charged despite plenty of GPS (and MP3) use.

Tern Link P24h: Reecharge power pack

So if you’re silly enough to be touring at night, or you’re on your way into a big city at the end of a day, you’ll be seen and your batteries will never run out. More cleverly, you can run your smartphone or GPS all day on pedal power too. For short tours with pre-planned routes, that makes a lot of sense. (Personally, I prefer to pedal-power a pair of speakers and an MP3 player so I can have a soundtrack to my ride, but each to their own.)

Tern Link P24h: Dynamo-powered navigation

I’ve also been using Biologic’s Tour Bag, which is an Ortlieb-esque bar-bag with a bit more room that attaches to a KLICKfix adapter on the frame (not the bars). The result adds 10kg extra capacity without affecting the steering — in fact, it neatly counterbalances a pair of rear panniers. It also has small pockets lining its interior for organising things more neatly; something I always missed with the Ortlieb Ultimate 5.

Tern Link P24h: Tour Bag KLICKfix attachment

Other things I like about this bike include a multi-tool built into one end of the handlebars for quick adjustments, a very capable specially-designed multi-tool for every common adjustment on the bike (invaluable, as some of the moving parts do need occasional tightening), ergonomic grips which are some of the most comfortable I’ve ever used, a generous three bottle-cage mounts on the modest frame, a seat-post with a fricken’ tyre pump hidden inside it (genius), a solid choice of V‑brakes, proper fenders, and the perfect choice of touring tyres (Schwalbe Marathon Supreme).

Now I’ve had a bit of practice, I can fold and unfold it in about 15 seconds (a particularly big hit with the ladies, I can assure you). And I can take it into coffee shops, rather than always choosing the window seat and glancing sideways in paranoia every couple of minutes.

And I do like the fact that I can take my bike kayaking (or, to use the technical term, FoldBikeRafting), though it probably wasn’t designed with that in mind.

FoldBikeRafting 2

The bike isn’t perfect. For one thing, it simply isn’t as comfortable to ride on bumpier roads as a full-size tourer, because big wheels always roll nicer. The long steerer tube and handlebars flex a little, whereas full-size frames respond with precision. And you’ll probably want to replace the harsh saddle and slightly flimsy folding pedals with your own preferred ones. But none of this is a deal-breaker for the kind of short-to-medium-term touring I’m imagining this bike being used for. In fact, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed riding it.

One thing I always arrange with manufacturers is to feedback on their stuff; partly to force myself to remain critical despite something being free or loaned, and partly because I prefer two-way relationships when working with companies on the commercial end of things. I want to help make Tern’s bike better, because I like riding good bikes and I assume lots of other people do too.

I was sent a 2012 model of the Link P24h, and after a month I wrote back to Tern about the type of kickstand, the rack size and position, the durability of the magnetic couplings when folded, suggested drop-bar or bar-end options, and raised some concerns about a slipping chain. I also mentioned conservativism amongst tourers when it came to new ideas such as the 3‑speed/8‑speed hub combo.

Tern Link P24h: 24-speed gearing system

Tern’s CEO’s response was reassuring; many of the ideas were already incorporated for the (current) 2013 model of the Link P24h, and others were on the drawing board for next season. The rear Traveller Rack is due to be upgraded again for stability under even heavier loads, bar-ends are on the way for a variety of hand positions, the kickstand will be replaced with one more effective under top-heavy loads, and the occasional chain-slipping (a perennial issue for many folders with short chainlines, apparently) is being tweaked. He also mentioned a secretive new folding touring offering for next year, which is a tiny bit exciting.

Tern Link P24h: with Crosso Twist panniers

And so, in between events, I spent an unusually sunny February on the kind of off-the-cuff bike travel that it would be wonderful to spend a summer doing in, say, Europe, where there’s a very good case for picking a few areas to explore intimately rather than trying to blast across the continent in a single season.

I’m really impressed with the Tern team and their dedication to producing folding bikes for all niches, including touring. Given the raft of compromises inherent in any folding bike, I guess the acid test is whether I’d accept them and buy the P24h and its luggage options myself. Don’t get me wrong; if I wanted to cycle long-term across multiple continents, I’d stick with my Sutra. But if I was heading off for a few weeks exploring Europe, for example, and I wanted ultimate flexibility with where I went and how, I wouldn’t hesitate to ride off atop a Tern Link P24h.

Tern Link P24h: Added a Brooks

(With my Brooks on it, of course.)

The Tern Link P24h has been superseded by the improved Link D8. Check it out on Tern’s website.

Categories
Bikes Equipment Gear Reviews

Kona Sutra 2013 Touring Bike: First Look

Kona have just announced their bike line-up for the 2013 season. While I don’t usually post on product launches, Kona have supported my adventures for half a decade, and last week they reminded me why I’m glad to be working with them (aside from getting to ride their bikes for free).

I wrote a detailed review of the 2012 Sutra touring bike after riding it from Vancouver to San Francisco in the spring. In the review, I pointed out a couple of big improvements I’d like to see made to this very capable long-term expedition tourer. Several other owners echoed these sentiments in the comments, and I sent the feedback to Kona’s designers in BC, Canada.

2013 Kona Sutra

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Bikes Equipment Gear Reviews

Kona Sutra Touring Bike: Long Term Road Test & Review

UPDATE: In April 2014 I published my review of the 2014 Sutra, which supersedes this model. Click here to read it.

Full disclosure: Kona supplied me with their flagship Sutra touring bicycle for my U.S. West Coast ride in 2012. In return, I agreed to supply feedback (good or bad), photographs, an objective write-up here on my blog, and a video review (coming soon). Thus my opinions about the Sutra are published in absolute honesty; I’m not obliged to endorse the bike unless I feel it deserves it.

I wouldn’t test anything that didn’t fit my criteria on paper first. The Sutra did indeed fit my criteria on paper for this, primarily a road tour of a developed nation. It’s been a pleasant surprise to ride and has exceeded my expectations.

Kona Sutra 2012 Touring Bike