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.

Kona Sutra 650b : a Dank Build

2017 Kona Sutra 650b Conversion

2017 Kona Sutra 650b Conversion

This bike is now featured on Kona Cog Dream Builds!

Image gallery below at end of article.

There’s absolutely no reason to convert a perfectly good touring and adventure bike like the Kona Sutra to something other than what it is. No bicycle is perfect. People have different needs and wants. This bike happened to be a great commuter and touring bike. But I wanted something more. It is a great platform for upgrading. There wasn’t anything preventing me from doing it other than the expense. So over the course of a year, I waited: watching and comparing prices, gathering, mooching, convincing my SO of the need, nay, the destiny of my dear Kona. It must be rebuilt! I ended up with the dankest of dream builds.

I have had this particular Sutra since it debuted in early 2017. I was drawn to the metallic flake paint job and easy-going geometry. When commuting to work, I found it to be extremely comfortable. Out on the trail, it handled very well, making it not only an excellent commuter but a hardy adventure bike. With all the new categories of road/gravel/adventure bikes out there, the Sutra is like a do-it-most bike that seems perfect, albeit just a little too heavy. But that is Kona for you. Their frames are built very well. Steel, though. I will deal with the extra weight if I can have the durability!

Always on a quest to build my a better bike, stock off-the-shelf rides usually don’t last too long in my household. Even though this bike performs really, really well, I wanted to do a few things to it that required some major surgery. I agree that the bike is good the way it is, however, there is always room for improvement.

The Sutra standard (not the LTD) comes with a Shimano Deore mountain triple crankset. My relationships with the many front derailleurs in my life have been awful. Always adjusting, rejecting the new technology like SRAM Yaw and that tooth-pulling new Ultegra FD-8000 derailleur that Shimano dropped on us last year. I decided that the best place to start my Sutra upgrade was to convert the drivetrain to a 1x, and kill the FD with fire (seriously, I think i tossed in into a friends BBQ). I already had a Shimano XT M8000 crankset handy, but I wanted more teeth. I purchased a Wolftooth Components DropStop 38T chainring. Believe it or not, this part of the conversion was the easiest part.

Sutra9153

Shimano XT M8000 crankset with Wolftooth 38T DropStop chainring.

The harder part was getting the rear derailleur and cassette sussed out. I really like the way the Shimano XTR Shadow Plus rear derailleur felt. For me, Shimano has always has had the smoother-shifting feel. Believe me, I realize that something like SRAM Force 1 would have been easier. But to build the dankest, one must be a bit of a nonconformist. Problem was, in order to use the XTR with the Ultegra shifters and the 11-42 cassette, I needed some Batman-style gadgets.

Wolftooth Components, being as clever as they are, had two nifty devices that I could use. The Tanpan pull-adjuster for the Ultegra-to-XTR cable path, and the Goatlink 11 which would allow the normally 11-40 XTR compatible with 11-42. Though it sounds like overkill, it actually works really well. The shifting is smooth and accurate. When routing the inner cable through the Tanpan, it must be really tightly pulled through the pulleys and the cable bolt. Otherwise, the barrel adjusters will have too much slack to tighten the action.

2017 Kona Sutra 650b XTR Goatlink Tanpan detail 2

2017 Kona Sutra 650b XTR, Goatlink, and Tanpan detail

I also wanted wider tires and stiffer wheels. So, again, doing something completely unnecessary, I decided to build some 650b wheels. Both are 32 spokes, cross three, laced to WTB Asym i29 rims. I also put a DT Swiss 350 rear hub in the back wheel.

The handling is pretty nice. Even with the WTB Byway 650×47 tires, the effective diameter is still just short of what they were with the 700s. I need to get smaller cranks. Other than that, the bike handles like a dream. The stiffer wheel gives a great response on the road and the dirt. The wider tire certainly allows for better cornering and comfort as well.

Because I am always upgrading, eventually I want to get some Paul Components Klamper brakes and a new headset (suggestions welcome). I already have some Simworks Honjo brass Turtle 58 fenders that I need to tweak to fit as well. But that is for later. I hope you enjoyed checking out my dank bike. Build list, image gallery and comments below.

Build list (other than standard equipment):