As I have mentioned lately, I am getting used to a new bike that I borrowed from a friend. My MTB, a 2013 Orbea Alma H20, tragically ended its useful life with a broken seat stay about a month ago. The borrowed bike, a 2013 Kona Big Unit, has been a blessing as I wouldn’t be able to do the upcoming races without it, but there have been some changes that I have had to get used to in making the switch. What follows is a breakdown of the differences between the two and my opinion of those differences. Although both are 29’er mountain bikes, they are far from the same. I’ll try to toe the line between explaining things so the layman can understand, hopefully without boring the avid cyclist with details.
For reference, here are a couple pics. First, my old ride, the Orbea Alma, setup with gravel tires for Trans Iowa last year, and my substitute ride, the Kona Big Unit setup pretty much how I’ll ride it on the OT100 and Wolf Creek 12HR races.
The single (see what I did there!) biggest difference between these two machines is the gearing. The Orbea had a triple crankset upfront and nine speed cassette in the rear for plenty of gearing options when climbing hills or zipping along on the flat sections. The Kona? One gear. One simple chain ring and a solitary cog mean that the climbs are more intense and the flat sections are sometimes slower. This completely changes the way
you can ride, potentially slowing you down on both the hills and the flats, but in the end I haven’t been that much slower. I find that without gears I am reduced to the minimum and left with no choice, I buck up and climb a bit harder than I would have geared. Comparatively, with gears I would just down shift because I could. It was easier. The drawback to the extra effort I end up using on the SS is that I can dig too deep too fast in a ride if I don’t rein in my exertion. I have had this happen a couple times and it is no fun. It won’t be an option for the OT100, so the plan is to swap out the cog with an easier gear. I’ll be slower, but it should be a more manageable output for 100 miles.
After the difference in gearing, the next big thing I noticed right away was the bars and stem. The Kona has handle bars that are 4.5″ wider than the Orbea and the stem is significantly shorter.
The wider bars are to give you a better lever when cranking up hills with only one gear. It just makes sense for climbing when you’re out of the saddle. With your hands spread out farther, you have a much stronger position with which to use your whole body to pull the bars from side to side while cranking down on the pedals. The shorter stem with the longer bars makes sense too for steering. If a longer stem was used with a longer bar,
you would have to move the bars farther to turn when descending, creating the feeling of a big lumbering beast. Imagine driving a bus with it’s huge steering wheel. Add a shorter stem and you get a faster reaction when steering, making the steering more like a sports car. At first, I hated this new setup. I felt like I had to really watch trees on either side of the trail because I was used to 2.25″ more clearance on both sides and the short stem made the steering feel too twitchy for me. Soon I got used to it and I am really liking the added power I can put to the system with my upper body on those long bars. Another advantage I have been told about is that with a wider bar, your chest is opened up more, making it easier to breathe. I’m not completely sold on that idea as the bars on the Orbea weren’t so small that my chest felt compressed when I rode. The interesting thing to do would be to swap out for wider bars on the same rig, wear a heart rate monitor and see if there was a marked difference climbing between the two setups. Maybe I will try that one day.
As I have continued to ride the Kona, I have also noticed the differences of the fork and frame as compared to the Orbea. The Kona has a carbon Niner fork vs the steel Salsa fork I had been running. The carbon is much stiffer, which does several things.
First off, you will hear people say that carbon eliminates vibration really well, despite its stiffness. I cannot say that I agree when comparing to the steel fork. The steel was very compliant and I never had an issue with vibrations in my hands or soreness. With the carbon I immediately noticed the vibrations and have had to get used to my hands getting some numbness and soreness in my palms. On the plus side, the stiffer carbon fork has made me much more confident on descents as I feel like I am feeling the terrain better. I think the steel fork was flexing so much that the feel of the trail was lost. It is certainly a give and take. In that same vein, the Kona, being a SS is built with a very strong rear triangle to transfer power well and stand up to much more torque for the long haul. The Orbea had a very compliant rear triangle, which was great for giving a cushy ride, but I feel like I lost a lot of power with the flexion in the frame. Once again, give and take.
Overall I must say that I am very pleased with the Kona thus far. I am enjoying the SS life and I love the sporty feel the steering, frame and fork give. Of course I am giving up a bit of comfort for those attributes, but so far I feel like it has been a good trade. When you add in the simplicity of not shifting gears and the reliability of not worrying about bashing a derailleur on something, it is a wonderful experience where you can just submerse yourself in the ride and enjoy the woods. And that’s the way MTB’ing was intended to be.