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.

Kona Sutra Redux: A New Build

Effy and her Kona Sutra
Effy and her Kona Sutra

[For more images, please see the gallery at the end of the article]

The legend of the Kona Sutra is that it is a great platform upon which can be built many different types of bicycles: touring, gravel, adventure, or even a rigid mountain bike. It has been my favorite for quite some time. It offers plenty of tire clearance (Max. 29 x 2.25 / 650b x 2.6), compact geometry that allows for more maneuverability, and excellent Chromoly steel construction. For those looking to build a bike that meets their exact needs or satisfy a few at once, this is a great option.

Due to the warm reception of my Kona Sutra Dream Build that I completed last year, I had a request to customize another one. Of course, I jumped at the chance: who wouldn’t want to give back to the community an opportunity to ride an amazing bike? It has been almost two years since I built my Sutra, and I have gained quite a bit more bike-building experience during that time. I was eager to put this new knowledge to the test on this new bike.

I was asked to do a similar build to mine, except different. Effy wasn’t very specific about the nature of the build, only that she wanted the same Simworks accessories: Honjo Fenders, Rhonda stem, and Beatnik seat post. Getting the bike to look good was not a problem. That left me to change up the drive train and the wheels.

DT Swiss 350 hub as seen through the valve hole.
DT Swiss 350 hub as seen through the valve hole.

I started, as I am wont to do, with a custom wheel build. I used what I believe are some of the best hubs for this type of bike: the venerable DT Swiss 350. These hubs are remarkable. They are sturdy, easy to service, and the star ratchet is upgradeable for better engagement on the dirt. I laced them to 32-hole WTB i29 ASYM rims. They are a reasonable price and quite reliable. Effy is not super tall, so she agreed to lower the whole bike by using 650b wheels instead of 700c. This has the advantage of bringing the bottom bracket down for a little bit more stability. She also liked the gum wall look of the WTB Byway 650b x 47 tires.

Effy Sutra derailleur detail
SRAM Apex derailleur detail

The drivetrain, like mine, would be a 38-tooth single-front chainring with an 11-speed, 11- to 42-tooth rear cassette. Having had this ratio on my own Sutra for a while now, I have found that it is perfect for city commuting and light adventure and gravel riding. There is plenty of bottom end for climbing. Since no one will be racing these bikes in stages, the top end is just high enough for those early morning Cat-6 commuter showdowns. The major difference between Effy’s and my drivetrain would be hers is mostly SRAM.

When I was first working on my build, the SRAM Apex was not available, and SRAM Force 1 was way too expensive. In order to have STI shifters and an XT derailleur, I had to add a pull adjuster in order to make the system work. Not so for Effy’s bike. The Apex was a nice, cost-effective solution that achieves the same result. No pull adjusters needed! I did, however, stay with the Shimano XT crankset and Wolftooth chainring as I like the look better than the Apex cranks.

Effy's Sutra in its resting place.
Effy’s Sutra in its resting place.

Like my Sutra, I chose the Simworks by Honjo Turtle 58 fenders in black. These fenders do not come pre-drilled, allowing for an exact fit on whatever bike they are installed. With all the other black parts on this build, I thought it would be a nicer look than the brass ones I used on my own bike. After these were drilled and fitted, I wrapped the bars in Brooks leather bar tape to match the B17 saddle that came with the bike.

Effy riding her new Kona Sutra
Effy riding her new Kona Sutra

Effy was pleased with the final product. The fit was right and the bike looks great. The possibilities that this bike offers are, for Effy, unlimited. Sure, she is not going to blaze down singletrack trails. But if she finds herself on gravel, fire roads, or tarmac, she will be able to ride comfortably. Hopefully she will get a lot of good years out of it. Please check out the gallery below for more shots of this awesome build.

Surly Travelers Check Update: the Gravelers Check

Surly Travelers Gravelers Check
The Surly Gravelers Check at Power Lines, Mission Canyon Catway in Santa Barbara, CA

[Image gallery at the end of the article.]

I spent a considerable amount of time building my Surly Travelers Check. I completed the initial build last April. Since then I have ridden it on the roads in two countries. I amassed quite the trove of feedback on the original build. This mostly came in the form of teeth-clenching gripes I kept muttering to myself while climbing the steep hills in Okinawa. I realized that I would like to not only make some improvements to the drivetrain, but I also wanted to expand the bike’s overall use…meaning dirt and gravel.

I wanted to keep the bike as simple as possible when I bought the frame. Being a travel bike, I needed to make sure that I could get it repaired in foreign countries. The original build featured a simple 2×9 drivetrain featuring a Shimano XT RD-M772 rear derailleur and a Shimano Sora FD-3300 front derailleur over an FSA Vero 2x square-taper crankset. Using a pair of Dura Ace barcon shifters, the friction front actuation worked out well. It was simple to adjust, and I had endless trim. However, I found the need for a little more finesse on the rear. Nine speeds is fine on flatter roads, however, when faced with super steep hills, it makes for less efficient climbing. Plus, the Sunrace 9-speed 11-40t cassette never really got along with the indexed rear shifter. They spoke different languages, I guess.

Overall, the bike did its job and got me where I needed to go on that trip. Okinawa is mostly asphalt and has beautiful flats along the coast and some very challenging climbs inland. When I returned, I decided to upgrade to an 11-speed drivetrain. This required replacing the rear derailleur with a Shimano XT RD786 11-speed rear derailleur (with a Shimano XT 11-40t cassette), new FSA N10/11-speed chainrings (46/34t), Microshift SL-M11 shifters, and chain. Expanding the bike’s use on gravel and dirt necessitated the need for larger tires. I also wanted a bit more effective diameter and a softer ride. I ended up choosing the Panaracer Graveling 700×38 over the Panaracer 700x32s that I used in Okinawa.

Always expecting the unexpected, I also added a Kinekt 2.1 Body Float seat post. It is a light, parallelogram-actuated, coil-spring saddle solution that a colleague of mine uses on his hardtail mountain bike. Rather than suspending the bike, it suspends the rider, offering equivalent ride comfort in a smaller travel range.

To test the newly-christened Surly Gravelers Check, I thought I might try to ride it on some fire roads behind Santa Barbara. So I chose the Mission Canyon Catway (see map below).

Not the best idea…

It was a gnarly ride that, based on more feedback acquired from more teeth-clenching gripes, required a much different bike. I made the mistake of starting via the Tunnel Connector Trail, which was very steep and full of loose rock and fine dirt. However, when I got to the catway, the ride was much easier. I had fun, took some pictures, survived the descent, and learned a lot. Here are my takeaways from this adventure:

  1. The trails behind Santa Barbara are very steep in some places and have a lot of loose rock. The 700×38 Gravelkings, even at 25 psi were not aggressive enough for the loose, rocky conditions. More aggressive tubeless tires would have been better.
  2. The geometry of the Traveler’s check is not suited for the the steepness of the descents. It was difficult to get my weight over the back tire enough to keep myself from pitching forward. A slacker head tube angle would have been safer.
  3. My gear ratio was definitely not suited for all the climbing. My lowest being 34-40. It was a struggle, and I had to dismount a few times, but I made it. I think if I had a wider low-end range on a 1x setup, I would have been fine. I also had trouble getting out of the saddle, if I did, the rear wheel lost traction.
  4. On the flatter parts, the bike performed well. If I found the right line, I could clip along at a decent speed. The bike was a bit wobbly, and a lower bottom bracket would have helped stabilize the bike. The Gravelers Check has a 62mm bottom bracket drop. For this type of riding, a drop of 85mm like that of the Specialized Diverge would be better.

I have a good feeling that the Gravelers Check will eventually live up to its name. It’s a good, solid bike that looks pretty dank and goes just about anywhere. I just have to remind myself that it has its limitations. For travel, it will continue to be amazing. For gravel, dirt, and small climbs, I think it will do fine. For heavier trail work, I will build another bike. The upgrade to 11 speeds was a good decision. I have yet to find the true do-everything bicycle. This one comes close. I can travel with it. I can ride dirt trails with it, provided they are no too gnarly.