First Impressions: Kona Shonky Complete

Just add dirt ... and pedals

The dirt jumper’s glory days are behind us, and it’s hard to point to exactly why. Maybe the kids who were supposed to take the reins opted instead for BMX bikes or fixies or fidget spinners. Maybe Danny MacAskill’s videos eclipsed those of Jeff Lenosky, Aaron Chase and John Cowan. But there was a time when dirt-jump bikes (which the kids now just call hardtails) were a staple in nearly every brand’s lineup. And no brand carried the torch better than Kona. Their boxy aluminum frames proudly bore cartoonish fonts spelling out cartoonish names like “ROAST,” “SCRAP” and “STUFF.” They had knobby tires, front brakes and derailleurs. Sometimes two derailleurs. Then came BLK MRKT Bikes, with their minimalist design, techy geometry and steel frames. The hardtail scene diverged, some sticking with big-boned aluminum, and some with slender steel. Kona stepped into the latter group in 2008 with the very first Shonky, and it eventually became the brand’s flagship ripper. I rode one myself for a good six years. But lately, the Kona Shonky has been offered exclusively as a frameset. The only riders committed enough to want a high-end steel dirt jumper from Kona had to be committed enough to build it up themselves. But Kona saw something changing. Public pumptracks are springing up all over the world, often alongside public dirt jump parks. The scene is coming farther out of the woods than it ever has, and it seems like a good time for the category to make a comeback too. So, today, the Shonky is getting all dressed up again.

Embossed logo Shonky
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

And it looks good. Both sexy and subdued, down to the embossed metal model name on the toptube. Outside the frame itself, the Manitou Circus Expert front end has an admirable reputation as a burly if not especially high-tech dirt-jump fork. It’s got wide WTB rims and Maxxis DTH tires. There’s also the BMX-style 48-spline tubular steel crank and the good-enough hydraulic Tektro brake. All that is bolted to the exact same boutique-level Shonky that’s been available as frame-only.

CNC'd chainstay yoke
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

A true tapered, internal-cup head tube, CNC-machined chainstay yoke and sliding dropouts make for a frame worth a Dream Build video. But more important is the often-overlooked feature that this bike is available in two sizes. Marin, Specialized, Scott and even Trek can’t say that. At a time when geometry is such a hot topic, making just one size frame sends a message that a brand just isn’t ready to commit to the category. The whole package adds up to $1,400. That’s a pretty good deal, though there are vanishingly few bikes to compare it to, especially with a comparable frame. 

Sliding dropout
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

I’m still recovering from a broken leg, which I happened to sustain at my dirt jumps. But I’m healthy enough to rip around the street and at my not-out-of-the-woods pumptrack. And riding this Shonky brought me back, though I had to get a little creative first. In its stock setup, the sliding dropouts are slid all the way back at almost 420 millimeters. Simple enough to fix. I pulled a link out of the chain, but even after slamming the dropouts all the way forward (which is where I wanted them) I ended up with too little chain left over to reach. So, I dug into my stack of single-speed cogs, swapped the 14 for a 13 and got just enough room. That was more like it. The Shonky became natural at manuals, though it takes a bit of a yank to get it into the spot. Depending on your style, a higher-rise bar would shift the bias back to make it more rear-wheel happy and more forgiving when coming in for a landing, but the stock low-and-wide setup is perfect for aggressive attacks at the track. 

Kona Shonky Saddle
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

Speaking of aggressive, as accurately as I could measure it, the head angle was about a half-degree steeper than the claimed 69 degrees. It would seem like splitting hairs, but while every other category of mountain bike has experimented with slacker head angles, the hardtail scene has stayed pretty much locked at 69 for a decade. To a most-while mountain biker, it already feels a little steep.

The good news is, you pretty much set up the fork not to dive until you’re landing, and even then, only to take the edge off. The Circus Expert makes it easy, but you have to be careful about it. It’s important to rely as much as possible on the ABS low-speed compression damper. The air spring is plenty tough, and is even helped out by a coil spring inside the chamber, but if you ramp it up enough to be supportive enough to hit steep, high-speed lips, the force will overpower the rebound damping, and you’ll get a bit of a pogo stick.

Circus ABS
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

Relying on the ABS knob and letting out some pressure will keep the action calmer and quieter. Not perfectly calm and quiet, but keep in mind the Circus Expert is almost half the price of the RockShox Pike DJ and far less than half the price of the Fox 831. If that’s the experience you’re looking for, that’s why Kona has offered the Shonky as a frameset for so long. It absolutely deserves to be built up with a $1,000 fork if you’re picky enough to need one.

But if you’re not, there is probably no better bike on the market than the Kona Shonky. It’s a bit of a cheat to say that, because again, there aren’t all that many bikes on the market. But that proves how rad it is that the Kona Shonky is back. The brand that brought this category to the masses is still bringing it.

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