Bikes Equipment Gear Reviews

Kona Sutra Touring Bike: Legacy Review & Detailed Photos

The Kona Sutra has undergone many changes since I wrote this review of the 2012 model after a two-month ride down the U.S. West Coast from Vancouver to Los Angeles. You can find the current version of the Sutra in my list of the all-time best touring bikes.

Catalogue photo of the Kona Sutra 2012 touring bike

For a long-haul road trip it would be foolish to test-ride a bike that didn’t first fit my criteria on paper. The 2012 Sutra did indeed seem well suited to a two-month road tour of a developed nation. It’s been a pleasant surprise to ride and has exceeded my expectations.

The Kona Sutra has been positioned as a premium touring bike, and has been in production for a long time, changing little in design over the last few years. Rather than take a road bike, beef it up and add some racks, Kona’s designers started from the ground up, and it’s easy to see the results.

Put next to my steel Kona Honky Tonk road bike, the tubing is far beefier, particularly the weight-carrying rear triangle; the wheelbase is longer and the bottom bracket lower, the top-tube sloping off towards the seat tube in a style recognisable from Kona’s mountain-bike range — all in all, a very different geometry.

The centre of gravity is nice and low, and that results in a pleasingly stable ride, whether loaded up or not, with the steel frame and fork eating up bumps and uneven road surfaces. It’s an extremely confidence-inspiring and comfortable bicycle to ride.

Build Quality & Components

Off-the-peg touring bikes often come with sub-standard racks, and cyclists often fit aftermarket racks such as those from Tubus. The Sutra’s rear rack, on the other hand, is a stocky-looking thing, rated to 30kg and rigid as can be — so far, so good.

Drive components are sensible and durable choices; Shimano XT rear mech and gearing with a Sora road triple chainring up front, heavy-duty 700c rims with 36 spokes on Shimano cup & cone hubs.

Stock tyres are Continental Contacts; no Marathon XRs, but they don’t make XRs any more. I swapped mine out for Schwalbe Marathon Supremes, which are quicker, lighter and longer-lasting, though pricey.

Braking comes from Avid’s BB7 Road cable disc brakes, whose performance is almost indistinguishable from the hydraulics I’ve previously used.

This choice of brake will undoubtedly offend a proportion of veteran tourers who insist that only V‑brakes are reparable enough in the field to be worth considering. I’ve never used V‑brakes on a tour, which speaks for itself, really. I’d choose the guaranteed stopping power of a disc brake over the potential inconvenience of having to repair a broken one. When hauling a heavy load for several hours a day, control and stopping power are pretty important things.

Kona have designed the frame’s rear dropout section to accept a disc brake caliper in a position that won’t interfere with a rear rack’s mounting — a nice touch.

Cockpit adjustment is never more important than on a touring bike. The default handlebar placement is somewhere between an aggressive road stance and the laid-back upright off-road position — a compromise between riding efficiency and long-term comfort. Kona have stacked the steerer tube high with spacers and added a reversible stem. These oversize components are easy to swap out with alternatives from the diverse mountain-bike market to extend or reduce reach or rise even further. The brake levers have adjustable reach.

The dropped handlebars offer a good range of hand positions and are suitably rigid for swinging front panniers and bar-bags around. Bar-end shifters keep the mechanical parts of braking and shifting separate in the case of accident and repair or replacement; bosses for down-tube shifters are present if that’s your preference. These are thoughtful touches. 

Indeed, it’s the thoughtful touches that have been the pleasant surprise with the Sutra. Dispensing with a quick-release front skewer and seatpost clamp in favour of hex bolts is thoughtful — no worries about a well-worn Brooks saddle going missing, or a front wheel not locked to the frame. A third bottle-cage mount on the underside of the down tube is thoughtful — carry more water on the frame, or substitute a fuel bottle to avoid messy leaks inside panniers. Multiple fork mountings for a front rack is thoughtful — rough roads may well need more ground clearance; panniers vary in their design and effective mounted position. Full-length brake and gear hoses, minimising muck and rust on the cable inners, are thoughtful. Front-fork V‑brake bosses, for the fussy and for last-resort replacements, are thoughtful.


What would I change about this bike? It’s early days yet, but there are a few things, as I can be a fussy bugger. I’d like lower gearing — a smaller granny ring and/or a larger top sprocket on the cassette — to help with the steeper hills.

(UPDATE: I’ve now swapped the stock granny ring for a 24-tooth one (5‑bolt ATB); it took 15 minutes, a 5mm hex wrench and half-turn of the front derailleur’s lower limiting screw. Much better.)

I’d like a longer fender at the back — tourers often come in pairs, and I’d prefer not to have my leading partner’s road spray in my face.

The third bottle-cage mounts could be a little further back — no issues on Ben’s 59cm frame, but on my 56cm frame the front fender catches an average sized bottle’s mouth when steering. 

Very long-term tourers might question the durability of the headset and the modern Shimano 2‑piece crankset/bottom-bracket combo, but it needs pointing out that few (if any) bikes will get round the world in one piece, no matter what setup you choose.

There are a few things that would make the bike more inclined towards developing-world journeys. 

Schrader valves and valve holes over flimsy Prestas (though you could drill your own). A 26-inch wheel option might be an idea, though unlikely to actually happen. As Kona’s workshop guys tell me, wheelsets are so reliable these days that broken rims are less and less of an issue, but that doesn’t solve 700c tyre availability. Square-taper bottom brackets are far easier to find, replace and maintain, accept a wide variety of cranks and need no proprietary tools to be carried. 9‑speed kit still isn’t commonly found outside the developed world, although availability is increasing.

But these are small points, and overall the Kona Sutra has grown into a serious contender in the premium touring bike line-up. It’s a thoughtful bike, stable, comfortable, capable, and with durability a priority. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of them.

The current Sutra specifications can be found on the Kona Bikes website.

Equipment On The Road Scandinavia 2011

Essential Gear for a Deep Winter Cycle Tour

The original version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Geographical.

Blue light invaded my cocoon of flapping fabric. My waking thought was one of despair. The wind, which had made pitching camp so hopeless and miserable the previous evening, hadn’t died. It was thirty degrees below zero.

I lay on my back, remembering how I had stumbled about in the dark tying guylines to bicycle wheels and half-buried panniers in a vain attempt to anchor my three season tent in the deep, sugary snow. I tried to muster the motivation to get up, pack up and hit the road. But motivation was proving hard to come by that morning.

Ice lake biking at Ostersund

With a huge mental effort, I struggled free of the two bulky sleeping bags and into the down jacket I’d used as a pillow. In doing so, I brushed my head against the door of the tent and was engulfed by a cloud of ice crystals. I unzipped the entrance and discovered that snow had filled the porch, burying my stove and pan. I dug the items out, soaking my thin gloves in the process. I needed to keep my gear as dry as possible in order to stay warm but some contact with moisture was unavoidable.

Whilst cooking a comforting breakfast of porridge, I opened a packet of cheese and cut into it. The cheese was frozen solid. I might as well have carried a brick around in my pannier. The porridge froze to the side of the pan, and to my Edwardian explorer’s moustache. Instinctively, I wiped my moustache with my hand. This resulted in a glove covered in porridge. I fumed and tried to wipe the glove on my trousers. Now I had a moustache, a glove and a trouser leg covered in frozen porridge.

It was at about this point that I considered throwing myself in front of the next passing vehicle.

Dashing through the snow

But passing vehicles were few and far between. I was still climbing the steep learning curve of high latitude, low temperature bicycle touring. 19,000 kilometres of pedal-powered adventures elsewhere in the world had been little preparation for Scandinavia’s ice-covered roads in February. I’d already learnt the hard way that down-filled sleeping bags act as giant sweat absorbers, that moist breath leaves pretty ice-crystal patterns on expensive camera lenses, that diesel contains water and freezes, and that standard tent pegs are as much use as chopsticks in snow. I spent many frigid nights wishing I was inside a free-standing, snow-shedding tent equipped with proper ventilation features.

At least I could rely on my down-filled sleeping mattress. Before bedding down, I’d pull two fleece hats over my eyes and don a spare neckwarmer. I had a three litre hydration pack between my knees, a camera battery in my pants, and a stomach full of fatty energy for the long winter night. This ritual became more bearable – even fun – as I grew used to the routine.

Further into my journey, I was hauled in from the cold by a passerby and treated to a warming coffee and a good talking-to. My new friend Anders was a winter outdoor guide and knew all about sleeping outdoors. I departed his home clutching a bag of wide aluminium snow-stakes and never suffered a poor pitch again. A similar chance encounter resulted in a vapour barrier liner to use inside my sleeping bags to help keep the insulation dry, and the knowledge that a heavier synthetic-filled bag would have been a better choice on a trip where it was packed away every morning rather than hung out in the sun.

First camp

My rationale for setting off somewhat under-prepared was that I could get away with making a few mistakes. A bicycle tour invariably takes place on roads and among people. No matter how extreme the conditions, you’re rarely further from help than an outstretched hand on the roadside. And this trip, it turned out, involved a strange fusion of approaches.

Although I did not carry a satellite phone, an emergency beacon or a shotgun, there was plenty in common with polar expeditions. I became obsessed with the delicate balance of exertion, air temperature, clothing, windchill, road gradient, sun, shade, food intake and tiredness, all for the purpose of remaining as dry as possible whilst making progress.

On the other hand, I shopped for food every few days in a supermarket and occasionally feasted on pizza rather than incinerating noodles on my multi-fuel stove. Filling stations sold seasonally-appropriate clothing and equipment, including folding hand saws, collapsible shovels and spare fuel bottles.

I rode the same expedition mountain bike that I’d taken through Africa and Mongolia. It consisted of a steel Kona Explosif frame with heavy duty 26-inch rims, riser bars and an adjustable stem, a Tubus rear rack, and a reliable Shimano XT drivetrain with a wide gear ratio. I’d also made some notable modifications. Flat, wide pedals accommodated the huge winter boots I wore, although the boots failed to keep my toes warm unless I occasionally dismounted for a jog. Studded tyres from Schwalbe proved essential on the hardpack and slick ice. (Salt is ineffective at keeping roads clear below minus 5 degrees Celsius and was therefore not used on the roads I cycled on. This was a relief as salty road spray would have eaten my drivetrain.) An Extrawheel trailer carried my bulky winter kit. And the oil filled hydraulic disc brakes performed wonderfully, even at thirty below.

I flushed the rear wheel’s freehub with degreaser because on a previous escapade the grease inside had solidified, leaving my legs spinning comically while the bike went nowhere. I hadn’t thought to do the same for the gear shifters, which pulled the same trick one particularly cold morning in Scandinavia and left me nudging derailleurs with my feet. As the mercury dropped, my suspension forks became rigid as the internal damping oil grew more viscous. And the saddle – a worn Brooks model that had seen more than a few adventures – did not prove as comfortable as I’d hoped. The leather took on an ice-like quality when perched upon. I kept an eye out in the shops I passed for a saddle cover to relieve my numb behind, to no avail. More than once, as my foot plunged through a thin crust of snow, I fantasised about swapping my bike for skis and a pulk.

I did away with water bottles in favour of a hydration pack that I wore beneath my outer layer. There isn’t much of a market for specialist ice-biking clothes so I took an old ski jacket. It was lined, breathable and snowproof, with plenty of inner pockets for defrosting sandwiches. The jacket was fitted with armpit zips to help sweat vapour escape. Managing moisture required constant attention, and this feature was indispensable. Beneath the jacket I wore a merino wool base layer. This simple combination was sufficient down to about minus 25 degrees Celsius. At lower temperatures I added a fleece mid-layer, pedalled harder, or both. I wore one or two fleece beanies on my head, and reserved my hood and ski goggles for snowy days.

My lower half was served well by a pair of standard padded lycra cycling shorts, over which I wore winter cycling tights and fibre-lined ski salopettes with integral gaiters. On my feet I learned to wear thin silk or polypropylene socks, plastic carrier-bags in lieu of vapour barrier socks, and long woollen ski socks inside my winter boots. This combination kept my boot liners dry and my feet warm. On my hands I wore a pair of silk liners topped with a pair of cheap fleece gloves.

Thanks to the exertion, this system kept my hands toasty warm while riding on all but the coldest and windiest days, when I added a pair of mittens. When any of these accessories became too damp with sweat, I switched to a spare pair of gloves and stuffed the damp items inside my jacket. My body heat dried out damp clothing in a couple of hours.

Before departure I’d scoured dozens of charity shops for a secondhand down jacket and eventually unearthed a suitable one in Edinburgh. I quickly learnt the necessity of dragging my £10 bargain from the rack-top drybag every time I stopped cycling for more than a couple of minutes. Together with a couple of fleece pullovers, it kept me warm throughout the worst of the winter nights as I rode across the Arctic Circle. Even after several weeks I was still shocked at how rapidly my body heat was sucked away when I stopped moving. At these times, preserving my hard-earned heat became my sole concern.

Crossing the Arctic Circle

The acute need for a constant presence of mind was perhaps the greatest difference between this cycle ride and previous travels; a loss of the careless freedom that usually defines long bicycle journeys. However, this feeling was replaced by the challenge and intrigue of operating outdoors in an Arctic winter, which was precisely the experience I had gone looking for.

Equipment Interviews Scandinavia 2011

10 Questions & Answers On Surviving The Scandinavian Arctic On A Bike

Timely or what? The Norwegian Cyclists Association have been in touch about my trip last year to Scandinavia, in which I rode a thousand miles from Oslo through Sweden and Lapland and across the Arctic Circle to Bodø. The following post is an edited version of the interview I did for their magazine På sykkel. It might help us here in London, as we struggle to cope with ten centimetres of wet slush…

Snow road into the mountains

1. First, could you please give us a few facts about yourself; age, location, what kind of work you were doing until you started cycling, and a few of the countries you have visited by bike?

I’m 28 years old, originally from a small village in the English Midlands. I began travelling by bicycle in 2007, two years after finishing university. I had no career at that time, so leaving home to travel was quite easy, as I had very little to lose. Since then, I’ve crossed nearly 40 countries by bicycle, going as far afield as Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, UAE, Mongolia, and of course the Scandinavian Arctic.

I’m currently living in London, where I’ve spent the last year writing a book about my travels. A documentary film has also been produced, and we hope to release it to the public this year. I have two major trips planned for 2012.

2. What was the turning point that made your transition from ‘normal’ to ‘hardcore’ cyclist, and what is your main motivation for cycling today?

I don’t think of myself as a ‘hardcore’ cyclist, although I can see why it looks that way! I guess the transition was in 2007, when I began my first long trip. I had no previous experience of cycle journeys at that time — I just used a cheap bike to get around, and occasionally go mountain-biking in the countryside near my home.

On all of my journeys, the bicycle has always been a tool to do a job. I see cycling as one of the few truly independent and self-sufficient ways of exploring a country. With a bicycle, I can travel at my own pace, cover 2 or 20 or 200km in a day, go where buses and trains can’t reach, and stop whenever I like. I can sleep almost anywhere. And the image of a lone cyclist brings out the best in people along the way. It’s humble and non-threatening, so it also gives me access to the society and culture of a place in a way that other forms of transport rarely can.

3. There are many places with a comfortable climate for cycle-tours – why did you choose to ride through some of the coldest and most desolate parts of Norway during the dark mid-winter?

There are a few reasons for this. The first was that after nearly 20,000km of bicycle travel, I wanted to experiment with how far I could push what I was already doing. I wanted to disprove the assumption that darkness, cold, snow and ice were reasons not to travel by bicycle, and the only way to do so was to give it a try. A handful of other people had already done such journeys, in even more difficult conditions, but I wanted to find out for myself. Scandinavia was close enough to the UK that I could get there quickly and cheaply by bus for the month that I wanted to spend on the trip.

The locals seem to think I'm crazy

4. What was the highlight of this tour? 

The incredible juxtaposition of beauty and hostility that defines such a place in the mid-winter. If you’re outside 24 hours a day and active, you’re fighting a constant battle with nature to stay warm, dry and functional. But you’re doing so in this staggering, inspirational, otherworldy environment. It’s a very unique set of conditions to find yourself in.

The other highlights were, of course, those moments of hospitality from the people I met along the way. Settlements were pretty sparse, and people were quite reserved, which made the encounters all the more memorable.

5. When temperature drops just a few degrees below zero, most cyclists start feeling cold and numb in fingers and toes after 60–75 minutes, and after 90 minutes it gets painful. Yet you manage to go on for four to six hours, day after day. What is your secret – how do you dress?

It’s difficult to say — I pedalled hard enough to generate plenty of body heat, since that’s the only available source of warmth, and the circulation kept my hands warm. I wore big skiing mitts when it was really cold, and when I was getting going in the morning, and a pair of fleece gloves once I had warmed up. However, despite wearing huge boots, I often had problems with cold toes. I found the best thing for that was to get off the bike and jog with it for a few minutes.

6. Most of your days ended in a small cold tent. How did you manage avoiding the discomfort of sweating on the bike, and then almost immediately start freezing when you stopped riding for the day?

I avoided sweating as much as I could. I paid a lot of attention to getting the balance of clothing and exertion right. Because the temperature fluctuated a lot — between ‑33°C and 0°C — I could never forget about it entirely. I wore a skiing jacket which had lots of vents and closures for expelling heat and moisture, and I wore merino wool baselayers underneath, which is a great material for keeping warm while exercising and drawing moisture away from the body and allowing it to evaporate through the jacket’s vents.

Snow coated bike

When I stopped in the evening, the first thing I would do would be to take off the ski jacket and put on a down jacket. This kept in the warmth I’d generated whilst riding.

7. How did you dry your damp/sweaty clothing inside a tent?

I couldn’t! Any sweaty clothing I took off at night would have frozen solid. So avoiding sweat was a top priority. My neckwarmer, for example, was constantly made wet by my breath, so it would always be as stiff as a board in the mornings. Luckily it still did it’s job of keeping the cold air off my face and out of my lungs, even if it was mainly composed of ice for most of the trip!

8. Your blog has lots of good photos. How did you manage to keep the batteries for your camera and computer going for four weeks in the cold?

I charged them whenever I could — in cafes, petrol stations, people’s homes. By day I kept the camera battery in an inside pocket of my tights, against my skin. It was annoying to retrieve it every time I wanted to take a picture, but I suppose it made me more selective with the shots I took. Whether that improved the quality of the pictures I don’t know!

The laptop battery would need to be warmed up before I could use it. Naturally, at the end of a long day and while lying in my sleeping bag, the warmest place was down my pants!

9. Apart for the temperatures and snow, what are the biggest differences bike touring in England versus Norway?

I have very little experience of touring in England. But I’d say what makes Norway special is the amount of wild land and the way in which it is respected, used and enjoyed. In England, the population is far more dense, and every inch of land is owned and used for something, so it’s impossible (at least, it looks impossible) just to wander off into the countryside. Even in national parks, camping is forbidden, and it’s discouraged to stray from marked trails.

The result is that we as a nation are fairly illiterate when it comes to outdoorsmanship, and our concepts of nature and wilderness are narrow and highly institutionalised. I really admire the approach that is taken to the natural landscape in Scandinavia, encouraging responsible enjoyment and stewardship of the countryside.

10. Where are you heading for your next bike trip?

I have two journeys planned this year. The second is still at the ‘ideas’ stage, but the first will be a two-month journey through the Western US, from Canada to Mexico (or thereabouts). It begins in April, and I’ll be telling the story on my website.

Equipment U.S. West Coast 2012

New Year, New Gear — Considerations When Comfortably Roughing It

I have a good working relationship with Mountain Safety Research, better known as MSR, who for several decades have been quietly turning out top-quality equipment for use in the world’s wild places. The little green 2‑man Vaude tent which was my home for so long is now well past its best, and with two significant trips planned for 2012, I decided it was time to replace it with one of MSR’s tried-and-tested offerings.

Wild Camping in Armenia

Craft & DIY Equipment Gear Reviews

The DIY Beer Can Stove Is The Best Camping Stove You’ll Never Buy

Jetboil? Trangia? Primus? I laugh in your faces!

The lightest, cleverest and most practical camping stove I’ve ever seen can be made by hand from a single empty drinks can.

The beer-can stove in action