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.

Okinawa and the Surly Travelers Check

The Surly Travelers Check in Okinawa

[For additional images, please see photo gallery at the end of the article.]

There is a running joke at the bike shop where I work: whenever I talk about my Surly Travelers Check, a detailed story about how I took the bike to Okinawa is sure to follow. I believe that my fellow employees are also designing a drinking game based upon certain words I have a tendency to repeat. These words include, but are not limited to Okinawa, Japan, and Surly. I had an amazing time, so I cannot tell the story of my trip without repeating the destination and the bike I rode. This means a lot of people are going to get really drunk.

Okinawa, which is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, lies in the East China Sea. It is a subtropical island that has a diverse history including the longest and most deadly battle of World War II. The water is clear and blue, the people are amazing, and the food is unique in Asian cuisine. The cycling is also equally amazing. The variable landscape of the coral island offers plenty of climbs, beautiful coastal flats, and seemingly endless routes and destinations.

The trip was over the new year. Spending time with friends and family. Although the trip lasted for more than two weeks, wet weather and high winds hampered my ability to ride every day. Below is a map of two of my most memorable rides during that trip.

Both rides are mapped from Naha Main Place, a popular mall in the center of the capital, Naha. I chose this starting point as it was close to my home base and I wanted to give all of you, dear readers, a central location from which to start your own rides.

Okinawa Peace Memorial Park Ride

At the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park.
The Okinawa Peace Memorial Park is just off highway 331 in the southern part of the island.

Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum and Park and is 14.2 mi/22.8 km from Naha Main Place. I returned by the same route making this ride a total of 28.2 mi/45.7 km. There are other loop routes back to Naha continuing east on the 331 past the park. Since this was my first ride in Okinawa, and the weather was constantly changing, I decided to return via a route with which I was already familiar.

Starting at Main Place, highway 330 is the closest and most obvious route going south towards the airport. The route is fairly easy, with the only confusing part being the intersection of the 330 and highway 221. It is beset on all sides with a staggering array of pedestrian walkways suspended over the street. It would have made more sense if I stayed on the street, but the lanes are narrow and dangerous. I only had Google Maps to guide me, so I had to do my best and follow the signs to the 221.

Somewhere on the 330 in Naha, Okinawa
Some of the intersections like the 330 to the 221 in Okinawa can be downright confusing.

Once on the 221, the route was a lot easier. The T-shaped transition to highway 331 was a breeze and the military base across the road made for easy reference. The Park is just off the 331 so I followed this road to the southern coast. There wasn’t much to see along this stretch besides freeway and commercial neighborhoods. The entire route is mostly flat. However, the 331 narrows down to a small rural route near the park and has some small climbs.

Once at the park, I took advantage of the refreshment stands and bathrooms. I was able to ride most of it, however bicycles are not allowed in the memorial proper. The park and memorial were the brainchild of Masahide Ota, a former governor and survivor of the Battle of Okinawa. The memorial at the park sits on a cliff above the coast. The view looking southeast is breathtaking. However, it is also here where the names of the many Okinawans, Japanese, and Americans are memorialized. It is a stark reminder that the most horrible things can happen in the most beautiful places.

Nakagusku Castle Loop Ride

The view looking north towards the end of the Nakagusku visitor’s route.

Nakagusuku Castle is approximately 15 mi/24 km from Naha Main Place with the entire loop being 25.4 mi/40.8 km. I began my ride going north on highway 330. The highway has a designated pedestrian/bicycle pathway on the shoulder so it was not necessary to ride in the street the whole way. Until I made my way to highway 146, there wasn’t much to see besides a tunnel and some shiisaa.

The transition to the 146 was a bit trying, and I definitely needed to ride in the street at this point. There is a smaller street which shoots off the 330 through a neighborhood that leads to a overpass intersection with the 146. There were small on-ramps to ride and steps to walk down…I chose the steps to avoid cars as the roads in this area are pretty narrow. See the map above for reference. Once on the 146, I headed west towards the castle. There was a steep climb of about 524 ft/160 m over a short 1.75 mi/2.8 km stretch of winding, narrow road. I stuck to the left-side pedestrian shoulder to avoid traffic. Once I arrived at the castle admissions booth, I purchased a ticket and left my bike in the designated area as they are not allowed on the castle grounds.

Nakagusuku is one of many castles built by the Kingdom of Ryukyu in the 13th century. It is made of coral blocks and contains three main wards. The best thing about this site is that one can see both the east and west coast of the island from here. It is an amazing view and well worth the ride. The other benefit of riding at this time of year meant that there were very few tourists so I had the place almost to myself. It was so quiet, I could hear children playing at the school across the valley.

Getting back to Naha Main Place is easy since it is mostly downhill. I wanted to pay a visit to Taira Cycle on my way back. Continuing the loop, I had to get around Futenma Air Base. The 146 takes you west to the 81 and shortly thereafter, back on the 330. From there, I went north until I exited west for a short ride on the 130 to connect to the famous highway 58 heading south. Taira Cycle is on a street off the 58 to the right about 0.75 mi/1.2 km from the intersection (see map above).

Yoshihiro Taira runs his small shop in the Chatan District of Okinawa, across the highway from Futenma Air Base. He carries mostly Surly and Tokyobike. His shop is full of really awesome made-in-the-USA products as well as Japanese brands like SimWorks. Yoshi stopped working for a few minutes to chat and take pictures of my bike. Definitely worth a visit!

Yours Truly at Taira Cycle in Chatan, Okinawa.

Getting back to Naha Main Place was a simple matter of continuing south along the 58 until a connection on highway 222 took me back to the 330. One note to always remember: highway 58 is the busiest road on the island. It is extremely dangerous. It seemed that I was playing a deadly version of leapfrog with the city buses the whole way south.

Overall, the rides in Okinawa were great. I wish I had spent more time exploring the more rural sections of the island to avoid traffic. But since it was my first time riding a bike there, I wanted to stick to the major roads. If I had any advice it would be to make sure you respect the people who live and work on Okinawa. Okinawan motorists are generally non-aggressive and unlikely to use their horns. So be courteous, smile, and enjoy yourself. There is a lot to see on this island, and going by bike is definitely recommended.