Interviewed by Vernon Felton and Seb Kemp
Filmed and Edited by Dan Barham
In 2013, Kona debuted their Process all-mountain model, which earned rave reviews. For 2014, it’s gone. Tossed out. Replaced.
Which begs the question: Why?
We went to Kona looking for answers. What we learned was surprising. Kona replaced that model with three new Process bike lines–one in 29er and two in 650b–all of them bearing a very different frame than last year’s model. Here’s they story of why that’s the case. More importantly, this is a look inside the mindset of this iconoclastic brand from the Pacific Northwest.
The Big Picture
There was a time when Kona Bicycles led the field when it came to forward-thinking design; that was around the mid-nineties when Kona's top tubes were slung low (a radical design that was actually a big deal), they had dialed in the straight-rake Project Two fork and their bikes had simple, mountain bike-friendly geometry that translated well on the trail.
Then there was a time when Kona was associated with bikes that could withstand the apocalypse and possessed stout designs that seemed so simple that they could almost be considered dumb. This was the era of the Stinky and Coiler (monumentally head-scratching names) and the Clump team.
More recently there was a period where Kona tried to inject a little 'magic' into their full-suspension designs, and the cyclocross and urban markets seemed to be their primary focus. In short, if Kona dropped off your radar, it's completely understandable. However, if you aren't at least paying attention to what Kona is doing right now, you might be missing out on something big.
Kona has released some great bikes in the last few years, albeit with less fanfare than typically employed by most companiues: the Honzo, Entourage and Process have been solid favorites that feature smart, elementary design. The 2013 Kona Process DL even won over the heart of one tester at the 2013 Bible Of Bike Tests.
That tester was me and what I liked so much about the 2013 Process DL was how refreshingly straightforward it was and how the bike did exactly what it promised on the tin.
So, you can imagine how surprised I was to find out that, while I was testing the 2013 Process, Kona was already a long way into the process (sorry for the pun) of utterly redesigning that bike for 2014.
Understanding the Process
What Happened To The 2013 Process?
"To the general public if you compare the 2013 and 2014 Process bikes you can't see the connections but they are there." (all quotations by Kona Product Manager, Chris Mandell)
One of the interesting traits of the 2013 Process was that the bikes used 60-millimeter stems across all sizes and had a fairly long front end. From small to XL they all had a longer top tube that grew based on the size of the bike, yet all were paired with that 60-millimeter stem. For 2014 Kona has pushed that concept a little further: long front ends now paired, with 40-millimeter stems. Why?
Longer stems are flexier, result in slow steering and place a rider in a poor position for riding challenging terrain. Why then do so many bikes sport long stems? For years, they've being used as a Band-Aid solution for riders looking to find the fit they require on frames that are designed with front ends that are perhaps too short.
"The longer top tube is our attempt to get the rider in a more aggressive position, a position where they are going to feel more confident controlling their bike."
The Kona Process has a relatively slack head-angle (66.5-degree on the 153 or 68-degree on the 111 and 134) and longer top tube for aggressive and dynamic riding. The short stem and short chain stays (425mm on both the 134 and 153 and 430mm on the 111) compliment each other to keep the rider balanced between the wheels, encouraging the pilot to commit their weight to the front wheel, so as to generate traction. All these numbers play together to retain the 'reach' measurement that riders require while seated or standing and don't compromise handling.
An Evolution Or A Revolution?
One myth is that short stems, longer top tubes and "aggressive geometry" are just for downhillers or young, brave men. The benefits are wider reaching than many people recognize.
"I think a lot of riders that think of themselves as a pure cross-country rider or not a particularly confident descender benefit more from these attributes than a more skilled rider. If you put an average rider on a more capable bike they are going to feel more confident. Give them a bike that is stiff, more responsive and that it feels like it will run everything over will allow riders the ability to ride sections of trail better."
There will no doubt be some riders who look at the radically short stem on the Process and immediately discredit it as being not "their thing".
"We recognize that constraint as an issue. We are doing something that other people aren't doing. However, how many riders do we all know that have sized up a frame size, bought the one that is too big for them–just so they can run a shorter stem? Getting riders who aren't comfortable with shorter stems to overcome that is one of things that people in the media or people in the industry need to work towards."
Of course, simply throwing a short stem at every bike, regardless of the geometry, isn't going to work either. Some bikes are still so short in the top tube, that slapping on a stubby stem effectively turns the bike into something with the fit and feel of a unicycle. What Kona has managed to do is give riders the reach they require, while centering them on the bike—all of which helps to improve rider stability.
The Static Fit Of A Dynamic Activity
Bikes with long front-centers aren't an entirely new idea. Gary Fisher was pioneering this fifteen years ago with his Genesis Geometry concept. So why are we still arguing about geometry? Why is this trend really just starting to take off with other mainstream bike builders?
The answer is that it's been hard to pull mountain bike geometry out of the world of road bike and simple 'fit' geometry. A lot of manufacturers, riders and even shop employees have been transfixed with the idea of how a bike 'fits' when a consumer straddles the bike on the showroom floor. Mountain biking, however, is a dynamic activity that requires a lot of rider input to work. Or to put that more simply: mountain bikers don't stay in a fixed position while on the trail; we move around and move the bike beneath us. The position that might feel ideal while hovering over the bike at your local bike shop might actually be hindering your ability to ride off-road with confidence. That is not to say that dynamic geometry has to come at the cost of fit geometry; how we come to that final fit geometry just needs to be looked at in relation to how you actually ride that bike on the trail.
Geomery is very confusing and it isn't as marketable as a shiny switch on your handlebar or a suspension design that is explained through clever diagrams and impressive acronyms. Geometry just isn't that glamorous or sexy. Nor is dialing in a bike's geometry a simple case of changing one measurement and considering it done. There's a whole lot more to the matrix of geometry and how each angle and dimension interacts with one another to create a distinct difference in ride feel.
"You can make a bike that has a longer top tube, to use a shorter stem, but if you don't address the chainstay issue, you will end up with a trail bike that has a wheelbase that’s longer than a downhill bike. And that happens. [All the time] You are trading off handling characteristics. You can't just throw a 66-degree head angle on a bike that previously had a 68-degree head angle and expect to be able to monster truck everything; because now your front wheel is an inch further out and that you can't get weight on the wheel because you have a 90-millimeter stem."
Kona was one of the few companies in the nineties that were making some smart and radically subtle frame shapes (low top tubes, long front center and shorter rear ends). It seems for 2014 things have gone full-circle because the Process bikes are low, long and tight.
"We felt for trail bikes the low top tube was super critical to really be able to ride aggressively and allow smaller riders stand over the bike. At the start of the design process Jack Russell, our designer, drew a line from the top of the headtube to the drop out and we decided that our suspension would exist under that line."
By using dropper posts (different length seat posts and travel) Kona was able to maintain a very low top tube across all frame sizes. This means that a shorter rider with a small inseam (pay attention ladies) will get great benefits and larger riders don't have to settle for a top tube that is as high as a goalpost. It's a radical design feature, which isn't just conceptual, on the trail it is very noticeable as it allows a greater range of lateral movement (particularly necessary for cornering and maintaining balance over technical terrain).
"The other thing we wanted to do when we designed the suspension linkage was to be true to what Kona has done for years and being successful with, which is a single pivot with a linkage that pushes on the shock so we can get the leverage curve and geometry we want, and a properly angulated linkage system so we have big bearings and durable pivots."
Packaging a suspension system underneath this radical, low top tube and under these constraints wasn't easy but this was the parameters Kona chose for the Process.
The essential point about the Process's suspension is that it has a consistent, progressive leverage curve. Kona felt that, rather than designing the suspension and bike around having complex curves and varying axle paths, they wanted to keep it simple and allow the shock unit to do the work. Air shocks are progressive by nature, so by coupling an air shock with a straightforward leverage curve, it’s possible to allow the unit to do the damping and leave the rider with a very predictable ride quality. Some suspension designs are designed specifically to behave very differently at different points in their travel, in order to provide better pedaling performance. Kona argues that modern air shocks are reliable and advanced enough that the same or similar results can be created through shock tuning itself.
Kona calls this new suspension platform the “Rocker Independent Suspension”, and while the low-slung, rear swingarm and yoke might look radically different from anything you’ve seen from Kona to date, it’s still essentially a very simple, single-pivot design. The layout and design makes it stiff (the rocker is an alloy and carbon composite design that keeps weight down and strength high) and all three Process bikes share the same configuration, just with different length shocks in order to alter the amount of travel that each bike has.
Suspension: “Simple” Doesn’t Mean Stupid
So, is this an indicator that Kona, which has been characterized in some circles as having a simple-minded, tough-as-nails approach to design, is evolving into a different kind of bike company? Well, for starters, Kona makes a fair argument that a design that seems “simple” isn’t in actually “dumb”. We, at Bike, have gone on record as fans of the Kona models that embody that design ethos (again, we were big fans of the 2013 Process DL).The new 2014 design continues to hew to Kona’s belief that suspension designs should be simple, reliable and durable. But there are some new design touches that raise the bar here for Kona.
"Kona have done a really good job through the years of pushing the envelope but staying true to themselves…but as we step in 2014 we have really tried to do a lot more detail work and bring a lot of new stuff to the table. I don't think that this despite not looking like a Kona isn't a Kona."
From our experience of riding the piss out of the 2014 Process bikes, we can confidently say the following: this bike retains the Kona characteristics of building tough, stiff, reliable and stout bikes. Kona has spec’ed full bearings and thru-axle systems on the frame. The 2013 Process used decent-sized bearings, but for 2014 Kona made them even bigger. The pivot hardware uses a 12-point, 8-millimeter allen key interface, which means it should outlast intended abuse, ham-fisted mechanics and trailside overhauls if required. There is also a lifetime warranty on the bikes.
And Now For the Reviews
We were fortunate enough to wrangle and test all three of the brand new Process bikes. So, for the last six weeks I have subjected these bikes to the most comprehensive and demanding test cycle I've ever managed to put a bike through.
In six weeks I have ridden over 1000 kilometers (Ed Note: That’s 626 miles for us Americans) and descended over 45,000 meters (for Yanks, that’s 147,637.8 feet) of vertical between the three bikes. If you’re wondering why I’m quoting feet descended (as opposed to feet climbed), it’s because most of that vertical was self-propelled, but occasionally I've used chairlifts or shuttles to gain extra mileage.
Three Flavors of Process for 2014
First up, we should explain that there are three bikes in the 2014 Process lineup, the Process 111, 134, and 153 (The numbers refer to the amount of rear wheel travel).
By the way, the parts spec and frame colors you see here are not to spec–we got our hands on early bikes that were production-ready, but not clad in stock garb. Our goal was to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each Process model and dressing the bikes with identical components gave us a more apples to apples basis for comparison. In short, don’t get hung up by the fact that the aesthetics and components shown here differ from what you might see in the catalog, website or your local shop. Okay, back to the story then….
The 111 is a 29" wheel bike, while the Process 134 and 153 have 27.5" wheels. All three bikes share the same DNA, attitude and ride characteristics, but Kona feel that offering different wheel and travel options allows a rider to choose the appropriate bike for his or her local terrain or style of riding. This is a smart move as too often if you want a short travel 29er, you are restricted to looking into the cross-country category, but we all know that just because terrain differs, it doesn't mean that riders won't want to make the most of it.
By riding each of the bikes for a substantial amount of time I've been able to appreciate each model’s distinct character, and while I don't have a favorite I now know exactly which one I would personally choose, given my local terrain and how I like to ride. However, having all three has meant I could choose the exact bike for the day's ride without having to readjust my riding style to suit the bike. Lucky git, I know.
This bike has big wheels, but has the handling of a small bike. I don't mean little bike, I mean BMX bike handling. People who discredit 29ers as being sluggish, slow turning, wagons for buff fire roads and sit-up-and-beg riders really haven't experienced enough 29ers to know that not all big wheelers are equal. 29ers really shouldn't be tarred with the same brush and the Process 111 doesn't even belong on the same canvas. This bike is the bike that would make me want a big wheeled bike in my garage again. Why? Because I almost didn't realize it was a 29er.
My very first shake down on this bike was on a jumpy little trail full of hips, berms and roller-gaps. Not 29er territory. Or so I thought. The Process 111 is capable of being turned inside out in the way that very few bike are. Not just 29ers, I mean any bike.
The low top tube, tight rear end (430 millimeters/16.9 inches) and roomy cockpit makes the bike insanely maneuverable, whether in the air or on the ground. Some bikes are hobby horses, some are monster trucks, but the Process 111 is like a circus gymnast – compliant and sublimely adept.
In fact, when I was handed the Process 134 for a lap on the same trail on the same day I didn't immediately gel with that bike in the same way as I did with the 111 (A little fettling with bar height and roll later changed that).
This bike, more than any other 29er I've ridden, begs for its pilot to play on the trail. If you are the kind of rider that loves to pump, manual, wheelie and hop then you will love this bike (the same can be said for the whole Process range). I would speculate that these characteristics will also result in less capable riders feeling well planted, stable and secure.
So what is the 111? Is it a cross-country bike with the nature of a dual slalom bike? Or is it an all-mountain bike with the manners of a dainty trail/XC bike? I think what you should be asking yourself is “What kind of rider am I?”
I have never wanted to ride my bike as much as I did when I rode the 134. It was bizarre, I'd leave the house with the intention of knocking out a quick solo loop or meeting with some friends for a mission, but would always return later than planned because I'd want to keep riding. I even finished a short XC race and felt the need to go and add on some miles.
Actually, let's backtrack. I didn't need to, I wanted to. I really, really wanted to.
I love mountain biking and I spend a lot of time riding just so I can function as a human being because I'm addicted to the hormones my body must produce when I ride, however I know when it's time to go home. Not so with the 134. This bike was such easy going fun and I felt so at home on it, that I always tagged on more ride than I planned to.
Again, this bike is incredibly playful and confirmed to me that riding is just about clowning around.
The Process 134 is very frolicsome. It loves to pop, shuffle and clown around. That low and long top tube allows ample room up front for body English as well as generating confidence to be able to really get onto and over the front wheel. This helps provide great traction up front while the short rear end (425 millimeters or 16.73 inches) allows ample distribution of weight onto the rear tire.
It's worth noting that our test bikes all came equipped almost identically with Fox 34 forks, Stan's ZTR Flow EX rims, Maxxis tires (High Roller 2 and Ardent in EXO casing), KS LEV dropper posts and SRAM XX1 drivetrains. A solid build for sure and having matching builds allowed me to isolate and compare the ride characteristics between each bike. The Process 134 we had came with a Fox Float X CTD rear shock, a shock I hadn't spent time on up to this point, but was impressed by how the unit helped make the 134 millimeters of rear wheel travel feel like a lot more. Stock Process models aren't offered with this unit so no comment can be made on if the performance of the Process is entirely accountable to the shock unit.
This bike sits tidily in the trail bike category. Actually, this bike might sit atop the trail bike category. It's nimble and lithe across the ground, pedals very well uphill, is extremely playful, weighs a lot less than many carbon offerings but appears to be tough enough to outlast an army of Stinkys. In short, very impressive.
This bike loves to dive, plough and jump into trouble. Its desire for depravity seems to know no bounds. This is the bike that felt like a best friend, accomplice and partner in crime. It got me in trouble, but gave me a helping hand when I needed it. The Process 134 pushed the performance of the Fox 34 fork, but the 153 utterly outrode it. I've not missed a beefy 20-millimeter, through-axle fork as much as I have on this bike.
153 millimeters of rear wheel travel, a cigarette paper more than the rest of its kind, but let's compare them as if they had the same critical measurements. Whereas some similar-travel bikes don't feel like they give you the full one-fifty, the Process 153 feels like it gives you a lot more than advertised. The travel feels predictable; there's no spikes or wallows or moments of second guessing. Hit a lump in the trail and the suspension gobbles it up. Preload off a lip in the trail and the bike poises itself for the inevitable launch into space. It's intuitive, which might seems like an empty-headed proclamation, but not all bikes are wired so viscerally.
The increased traction of 153 over the 134 is noticeable. Whereas the 134 takes you to a sweet spot on the trail and gets you on the edge – an exciting, thrilling place – the 153 plonks you right behind enemy lines, presses a rifle in your hand and demands that you raise your game. It's a deafeningly, electrifying place at first but then…well, you slide right into character. It's a familiar place really; it's where you always wanted to be. You aren't just being tied to the back of a raging bull, you are given an opportunity to be the matador. It's a comfortable place, even throughout the chaos you find yourself in control, calm and assertive.
In short, the Process bikes are all strong contenders for class winners. I don't want to hand them back to Kona. There's a lot of good bikes out there right now, but the Kona goes into the exclusive club where only great bikes party.