Hold on – isn’t the head tube way too long for a gravel bike? Kona approaches the gravel concept from a mountain-bike perspective and introduces two new gravel bikes: the Kona Libre and Kona Rove LTD. We took both bikes to Madeira and Porto Santo and gave it some proper gravel!
We all know that gravel bikes are currently the hottest topic of the road-bike sector, yet it’s mainly the classic road brands that are building bikes you can take off-road. In other words, they’re making road-bikes fit for gravel. But Kona – a historic brand with strong mountain biking DNA – are approaching the gravel segment from a different angle: they’re making mountain bikes more road-friendly.
Kona’s background also means their idea of gravel is slightly different from most other manufacturers, because in the U.S even a classic mountain-bike trail could fit the “gravel” narrative. Their take on this: if a bike is good enough to rip through challenging mountain bike trails it should work flawlessly on dusty gravel paths too.
To gravel or not to gravel?
The location we chose for our test totally suits this philosophy. Madeira is lush and mountainous – there aren’t many flat spots on the island but in return, you’re immersed in an incredible spectacle of natural beauty, which reminds us just a bit of Indonesia. But hold on a second, isn’t the definition of gravelling “riding up and down dusty gravel paths”? On our drive from the airport to the hotel, we came across very little dust and even fewer ups and downs.
Considering Kona’s roots, it’s hardly surprising that the geometries of the Libre and Rove LTD remind us more of mountain bikes than road racers – a long head tube, long seat tube and a short stem are mainly responsible for this. If you’re used to riding road bikes, the geometry feels unusual and maybe even a little weird. The riding position is shorter, more upright and not as stretched as you might be used to. At first, it feels as if the bike doesn’t match your body, and you end up thinking it’s too small. But it’s not. It’s intentional, exactly as it should be. Oh well, let’s believe it then.
Day 1, bike 1: Madeira on the Kona Libre
In Madeira, you get three seasons in a day – sun, rain and fog alternate endlessly and make for lots of mud on the trails. We set off at an altitude of around 600 m and take a narrow forest path – well, not strictly a path but rather a softly beaten track.
The Shimano Ultegra RX 2×11 groupset with 105 cranks and huge WTB 650B tubeless wheels deliver the acceleration and traction you need on muddy terrain. The Kona Verso carbon fork combined with the long head tube and 90 mm stem promise better balance and more control. The components are rock-solid and reveal the purpose of this bike – it’s function over form,durability and not aesthetics. If you’re planning to embark on an adventure there’s plenty of room for bags and bottle-cages on the frame and fork. Today however we don’t need any of it.
Kona also offers the Libre in a DL-version which costs € 3,999 and is specced with a SRAM Force 1×11 drivetrain. This might be the better option if you spend most of your time on challenging terrain with lots of ups and downs and don’t want to shift between chainrings all the time – in this case, a 1x setup is way more fun.
Frame Kona Race Light Carbon
Fork Kona Verso Carbon Touring
Wheelset WTB KOM i25 TCS 650B, 27.5”
Cranks Shimano 105
Groupset Shimano Ultegra/105 2x11spd
Brakes Shimano 105 Flatmount 160 mm vorne/160 mm hinten
Seatpost Kona Thumb w/Offset
Cockpit Kona Road-Lenker/Kona Road Deluxe-Vorbau
Tires WTB Byway TCS 650 x 47C
Saddle WTB SL8 Pro
Weight 8.8 kg
Price € 3,199
|Top tube||534 mm||558 mm||572 mm||588 mm||608 mm|
|Chainstays||440 mm||440 mm||440 mm||440 mm||440 mm|
|Wheelbase||1042 mm||1052 mm||1058 mm||1068 mm||1084 mm|
|BB Drop||75 mm||75 mm||72 mm||72 mm||70 mm|
|Stack||575 mm||590 mm||610 mm||630 mm||660 mm|
|Reach||378 mm||383 mm||386 mm||389 mm||394 mm|
The riding position of the Kona Libre feels both different and unusual at the same time – and yet it’s comfortable and confidence-inspiring. However, after a short time, you’ll get used to it and become one with the bike. Whether you’re cornering, climbing or jumping, the Libre will happily take anything you throw at it. Straight away you recognise the strong MTB genes in its DNA. The carbon fork has good lateral stiffness – we’re impressed. The internal cable routing doesn’t make a noise, not even when things get really rough – not a whisper.
The Kona Libre is the ideal choice for mountain bikers who want a bike with dropper-bars but don’t want to lose the familiar riding characteristics of a mountain bike. Racing cyclists, on the other hand, won’t find the Libre sporty enough, especially when riding on the road at higher speeds.
Once we hit dry terrain we turn it up a notch and push the Libre a bit harder –and that’s exactly when we start noticing the drawbacks of the geometry. The compact riding position and high front-end clearly affect the agility and liveliness of the bike. Plus, the low-profile tires don’t always deliver the sort of traction you need when heading full blast into a steep climb with slippery patches. However, what really bothers us is that you can’t get enough weight over the rear wheel when you need it, though we have to admit that we were riding on a full-on mountain biking trail… so we might be being a bit too harsh.
As we approach the coast the forest starts thinning out. A few hundred meters below us the waves crash onto the shore. The steep descent takes us straight to the Atlantic and reminds us of a typical alpine road. Could we have done this on a more conventional gravel bike? Yes, but the outstanding trail performance of the Libre leaves a big grin on our face.
The Libre is not your classic gravel bike – or at least not the sort with racing DNA that lets you meander off the tarmac. Instead the Libre takes it up a notch, capable of more than just rough roads and loose gravel paths and impressing its rider on challenging terrain. You might have to get used to the unusual geometry, but once you do you’ll learn to appreciate its comfortable riding position. When the road flattens out and the pace gets faster the Libre is too much mountain bike and not enough road bike – it clearly lacks agility, liveliness and speed.
- Superb off-road handling
- Robust and tough
- Comfortable riding position
- Kona components are solid but standard fare
- Lacks liveliness and feels too tame on the tarmac
More Info: konaworld.com
Day 2, bike 2: Porto Santo on the Kona Rove LTD.
The next morning we head to the port of Funchal where we take a ferry to Porto Santo. After almost two and a half hours at sea, we arrive at the barren, largely treeless island Christopher Columbus once called home, though we have to admit it reminds us of Mont Ventoux. We very much suspect this place might suit the more classical definition of gravel.
Today we’re testing the Kona Rove LTD on 42 km² of stunning wasteland. A gracefully sparkling reddish-brown Reynolds 853 tube set with big 650B wheels and a massive thru-axle carbon fork await us in Porto Santo. The spec includes some of Kona’s in-house components and a full SRAM Force 1×11 groupset. Well, let’s do this!
Frame Reynolds 853 Cromoly
Fork Kona Full Carbon Flatmount CX Race Disc
Wheelset WTB Asym i23 TCS 650B, 27.5”
Cranks SRAM Force 1
Groupset SRAM Force 1 11spd
Brakes SRAM Force 1 160 mm vorne/160 mm hinten
Seatpost Kona Thumb w/Offset
Cockpit Kona Road-Lenker/Kona Road-Vorbau
Tires WTB Horizon Road Plus TCS 650 x 47C
Saddle WTB Volt Comp
Weight 10.9 kg
Price € 3,999
|Top tube||515 mm||531 mm||546 mm||536 mm||579 mm||599 mm|
|Chainstays||435 mm||435 mm||435 mm||435 mm||435 mm||435 mm|
|Wheelbase||1011 mm||1023 mm||1032 mm||1043 mm||1050 mm||1064 mm|
|BB Drop||74 mm||74 mm||72 mm||72 mm||70 mm||70 mm|
|Stack||530 mm||550 mm||570 mm||590 mm||610 mm||630 mm|
|Reach||373 mm||378 mm||383 mm||388 mm||392 mm||400 mm|
Tear it up!
At first glance, the Rove LTD reminds us more of a classic long-distance tourer rather than a thoroughbred gravel rig. The thin tubing, numerous mounting points for bags and bottle cages as well as the chunky tires reveal the intentions of Kona’s steel racer. But how does it perform off-road? Does the Rove LTD deserve a gravel-badge at all? Right away we remove some of the spacers under the stem to achieve a more aggressive and stretched riding position – we just can’t hide our urge and predilection for agile bikes, though we should add that with the short 90 mm stem, the riding position isn’t too stretched in the first place.
Compared to the Libre, the Rove LTD is much more road bike than mountain bike. However, we would recommend swapping the stem for a slightly longer one.
But let’s take the Rove for a ride! After a crisp climb on the finest tarmac, we abandon the shimmering-black “feel-good strip” and head for more typical gravel terrain. Gravel roads with a sea view as far as the eye can see – a superb and promising sight indeed. Right away the Rove LTD challenges us: “Smash it!”, it screams. Ok, if that’s what you want… let’s go for it! A second later we’re blasting through the gravel, scrubbing over rocks and sand on an (almost) 11 kg steel-rocket. We feel in control at all times and always manage to transfer to the ground. Nothing bounces around, nothing jitters, nothing clutters. The lowered cockpit and wide drops make for an aggressive riding position but we never get the unsettling feeling that things are getting out of hand. It was worth removing the spacers and it feels like this is the stuff the Rove LTD was built for!
Just like the Libre, the WTB Horizon tires fitted to the Rove sometimes reach their limits. On loose terrain, the slick profile doesn’t always deliver the traction you need. Unfortunately this affects the off-road credentials and fun-factor of the Rove. We would recommend a set of knobblier tires to make up for this. However, on rough tarmac and sharp cobbles the tires offer a good amount of comfort — that large volume and tubeless setup lets us run pleasantly low tire pressures. You’ll have to do a bit of tinkering to find the right air pressure to suit for your weight, riding style and terrain, but once you do, these tyres offer a silky smooth ride.
Towards the end of our test ride, we blast across a golf course (we have permission apparently) and head towards the airport. Because this time we’re getting on a plane to head back to Madeira. To be honest with you, the flight and landing were a lot rougher than a full day riding gravel aboard the Rove LTD #nevergofullaero
The Rove LTD loves long distances, gravel tracks and demanding terrain. Despite the steel frame and progressive geometry that goes beyond the usual gravel and racing standards, the handling is nimble and sporty. The harmony of the steel Reynolds tubing and stiff carbon fork provides great acceleration. This superb package offers countless possibilities as a commuting bike, touring companion and even a racey gravel-rig. The Rove LTD is an attractive option for those who want to do it all and also love embarking on adventures from time to time.
- Superb handling on gravel
- Sporty and agile
- Good power transfer
- Countless mounting options for bags and bottle cages
- Kona components are solid but not exactly pretty
More Info: konaworld.com
This article is from GRAN FONDO issue #011
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Words: Stefan Trocha Photos: Joonas Vinnari, Henry James, Stefan Trocha