Touring Bike Trail Trial: Sutra’s Not Dead

Kona 650b at Romero Canyon trail.
Kona 650b at Romero Canyon trail.

[Image gallery at the end of the article.]

I have often asked myself life’s deepest, most meaningful questions in the search for more knowledge: How far can I ride a touring bike on a singletrack trail? Will road plus tires even work on singletrack? When do I get to use the stuff I learned in Algebra 2? Who invented liquid soap, and why? I grew ever more pensive. As I carried my bike over some of the more difficult parts of Romero Canyon Trail, I tried to keep my mind off of my bad decisions…and the flies from the inside of my nose.

The Kona Sutra pictured above is certainly a capable bike. It is even able, with some difficulty, to make it on a trail, provided there aren’t that many loose rocks and dirt. Having converted the bike to 650b last year, the bottom bracket is nice and low, offering the stability of a gravel bike, with the load-carrying capacity of a touring bike. However, the bike, as pictured, is about 35 pounds (15.8 kg)…it’s really heavy. Too heavy to have a good time going up the trail. There were several washouts and debris flows over which I had to shoulder this beast. Once at the top, though, it looked great. So why do it? Research.

Yours Truly with the Kona Sutra at the beginning of the ride.
Yours Truly with the Kona Sutra near the beginning of the ride.

Research, Dear Reader, sounds like an excuse. But it is actually a reason. Not a great reason, but there it is.

Being without a purpose-built mountain bike, I thought it might be a good idea to test out the Sutra on a surface other than asphalt or gravel. The handling and the tire choice were my main focus here. Touring and adventure bikes are usually seen as the best option for an all-in-one bike. However, like a fancy SUV, just because it looks capable, doesn’t mean that it is. I have done quite a bit of touring in my life, and I can tell you that the Kona Sutra is perfect for that. Asphalt and gravel…no problem. Beyond that, I wanted to know what the limitations were for this particular build. Thus, like a Patagonia-Lululemon-wearing-Montecito mom about to drive her G-wagon in the dirt, so did I set out to get some scratches on my exterior.

The wheels of my Sutra are shod with WTB Byway 650b road plus tires. I often get some questions about the capability of these tires from other gravel or adventure cyclists. Some of them want a tire with a little more bite than the WTB Horizons, but not as knobby as the Sendero. I usually recommend running the Teravail Cannonball if they want a little more tread. These seem to be a good go-between. But since I get the Byway question most often, I decided to take my life in my hands and push them to their limits. I had them on there anyway, so there’s that.

What I found after riding the Romero Canyon fire road and singletrack, is that that the WTB Byway is barely capable of handling loose, rocky trail conditions. Loose dirt about half an inch deep was also a problem. There just isn’t enough bite, especially going uphill. Even with decent bike-handling skills, and tire pressure at 20 psi, the tires slid out from under me way too often. Turns out, there is a reason why knobby tires exist: to make trail riding way less scary.

Kona Sutra 650b rocking it on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA
Kona Sutra 650b rocking it on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA

The Kona Sutra itself, despite the tires and the overall weight, handled well. There were some slight mishaps involving the too-low-for-this-use bottom bracket and the toeverlap. These problems became more manageable once I slowed down a little and found the right lines. Once on level ground, or even going downhill, the bike seemed to roll over almost everything. There were sections that were rutted and filled with cobble-sized rocks that seemed to pose little problems. Did I get some air on the way down? Why yes…yes I did.

I’m sure that without the Swift Zeitgeist saddlebag and the brass Honjo fenders to weigh me down, I would have had a lot easier time getting to the top of the trail. Again, I was trying to see if I could make it to the top, not how fast or how easily. Imagine those guys who go out with their 4×4 Jeeps, attempting to traverse huge gaps and rocks, just to see if they can. They stop often, look at where they are stuck, etc. That’s what this was like, except I didn’t have a spotter with me. I just went for it and made it from the trailhead all the way to East Camino Cielo. Slowly. It took me about four hours (with rest stops and photos). There were a lot of other bikers who passed me on the way up and asked me how it was going when they were on the way back down.

Kona Sutra 650b resting on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA
Kona Sutra 650b resting on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA

I would have been happier on a bike with suspension and a dropper post. But I don’t have one of those. I’m not that type of guy. This fact became obvious as my back and knees began to hurt from all the rigid-bike-on-a-trail-Spanish-Inquisition torture. It was even more apparent when one group of bikers passed me by, and one of them said to the rest of his buddies, “those are the tires that are leaving those smooth-ass tracks! Crazy!”

My nonconformist cycling style leaves little room for caring. Here is a summary of my research. Drink it in:

  1. Road plus tires like the WTB Byway are not recommended for riding singletrack, loose-rock, and loose dirt trails…on purpose. They can be forced to work if you find yourself there by accident. I highly recommend the WTB Sendero, or Teravail Rutland tires, set up tubeless, inflated to around 20 psi for this kind of trail work.
  2. The Kona Sutra is a seriously rugged bike. Geometry and handling on trails are exceptional. Just go slower than you would on a mountain bike and you will do fine.
  3. Having the right gear ratio is tantamount. The base model Sutra comes with a touring-traditional triple chainring, that would work well. The LTD model comes with a single chainring…having at least a 42-tooth cog in the rear is a must. Anything less would be difficult.
  4. Honjo fenders from Simworks are well-built and can handle this type of riding without rattling. This is only if they are properly installed with more robust M4 bolts and nylon locknuts. The OEM fasteners are not strong enough. Drill bigger holes.
  5. With the lower bottom bracket, using platform pedals, for me, was a must. I had to get off the bike too often to make clipless pedals work.

To sum up: for all the Kona Sutra owners out there, you have an awesome bike. Push it to its limits. Just be sure to use the right tires for the terrain and be safe.

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