Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

The touring world is changing, no doubt about it. Steel frames are still the norm for obvious reasons, but disc brakes are now widely accepted and people are venturing far and wide with component choices that only a few years ago may have been considered imprudent.

One group doing this is the young and adventurous among us, arguably oblivious to their equipment’s lack of serviceability. Under these pioneers, bikes go into the wild with sometimes ugly, yet highly functional home-hacked solutions that get the job done. They are out there for the pure experience, pushing the boundaries of equipment that only a few years ago was considered cutting-edge technology.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

Another side of this coin is people at bike companies, with access to the newest stuff before it hits the market, building custom bikes to their own specs to push the limits. It’s not uncommon to see mountain drivetrains on road frames, tires that are too big to pass safety standards, and so on. These bikes, however, rarely make it past the engineers’ and product managers’ personal collections.

When product managers spec bikes, they are held to account by bean counters making sure bikes will sell through – and that means sticking to tradition and not taking chances. I love it when companies have the guts to spec a bike in a way that’s pointed at radness rather than tradition. When I see a production bike deviate from industry norms in this way, my eyes light up; the Kona Sutra LTD is one of those bikes.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

Enabling Weirdness

The touring mantra of 9-speed drivetrains, 26” wheels, and cantilever brakes – in the name of worldwide serviceability – is one that bikepackers are willing to deviate from. Is this a symptom of our convenient global economy, with easy access to almost anything at the click of a button? Or is it a move toward trusting high performance equipment even if it means the possibility of getting stuck for a few days?

Either way, the build spec on the Sutra LTD is a big departure from the conservative, anywhere-serviceable tendencies of long distance bike tourers. Hydraulic brakes, integrated shift levers, and bleeding edge drivetrain technology are not the traditional arena of touring bikes.

Mountain bike technology is spilling over into the drop bar world, and this is really what makes the Sutra LTD a possibility. Kona started out as a mountain bike company and they still do that job extremely well. When you consider the minds that the Sutra LTD has been borne from, its spec really makes sense – yet it is rare that a bike spec’d “as the designers actually ride it” makes it to market.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

Where’s It Coming From?

The Sutra has been a disc brake touring bike with a mid-length chainstay for over a decade. Over the years I don’t doubt that traditionalists have balked at that chainstay length – claiming it is too short for touring – but as touring bikes head further from paved roads, that number now seems pretty sensible.

The Sutra name and sturdy steel frame indicate its touring roots. The dirt drops, tall head tube, and long front center scream bikepacking. But the group is very much mountain bike, with a 10-42 1x drivetrain and hydraulic shift levers. The result is a touring bike that renounces touring tradition, though you can still get a Sutra with a triple if that’s your thing.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

Fit and Geometry

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always ended up at one extreme of the traditional road geometry chart (the one with the steeper head angle), but it has always irked me that bikes seemed to be designed around an ideal medium and adapted to the smaller and larger sizes.

There is a point to this design philosophy: keep the wheelbase under control at one end of the size range, and keep toe overlap under control at the other. I just can’t help but think those compromises may not necessarily serve the rider’s needs on bikes that are being ridden on mixed surfaces.

Thus, one of the things I really like about the Sutra, and where you can see Kona’s mountain bike DNA in it, is that the head angle and fork offset stay consistent across the size range. Consistent across the Sutra’s geometry chart is a 71º head angle, 50mm fork offset, and 72mm bb drop.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

Design is Always a Compromise

The one thing I will say about this bike is it tends to ride very stiff without a load, something you will find in most bikes that can handle fully loaded touring. There was recently a fairly lively conversation on the site about the ride qualities of differing steel tubesets, some people claiming that bikes like the Surly LHT ride too stiff. Obviously the tubing choices on that bike lean toward stability with a load (how else do you create the most venerable touring bike on the market?) and that is also the case with the Sutra.

However, unlike the LHT, the Sutra retains an element of fun, of shredability, that a bike like the LHT doesn’t quite hit. The Sutra frames are designed around long front centres and short stems, which suits a dirt drop setup. With its wide bar and short stem, the Sutra’s stiff tubeset pays off when you get in deep. On rock-strewn gravel and technical singletrack, the Sutra handles like a mountain bike.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

About that Spec

Given the burliness of the frame, the 47mm Schwalbe Marathon Mondials were an excellent spec choice: bombproof Marathon reliability, and relatively fast rolling on pavement given their excellent traction on varying surfaces. The only thing you can knock them for is their weight (at almost 900 grams a tire), but this is a tire you’d tour with and not even consider carrying a spare.

Aired down to 30 psi or so, the Mondials are surprisingly confidence inspiring on terrain more suited to knobby tires, their stiff sidewalls allowing low pressures without becoming squirmy. And while the lawyers probably aren’t happy about it, the Sutra will swallow up to a 29×2.0 and some 2.1s, which is just the ticket for those whose loaded adventures tend toward singletrack. Adding to this, the WTB Frequency i23 rims are great for tubeless setups.

Touring bikes do have this in common with mountain bikes: you need low gears to deal with extended climbs, period. The Rival 1 group is the trickle-down of SRAM’s Force CX1, making use of their 10-42 cassette to let you get that low gear. The flip side is that you don’t get a lot of total gear range out of a single ring, especially compared to a triple.

If this is meant to be a touring bike (which the tubeset would indicate), you need to choose your chainring carefully. The stock 36 tooth ring is in my opinion a bit big for loaded riding at 23 gear inches, but the Race Face direct mount crank allows for a wide variety of aftermarket options here.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

That Paint!

That powdery matte blue. The Sutra’s paint has a depth rarely seen in production bikes, shifting hue as the light changes around it. Because of this, I’ve included a variety of shots from different lighting conditions, but I still don’t know if I’ve done it justice. If you can get down to a Kona dealer to see this thing in person, do it.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

What Would I Change?

There’s always some amount of “what would I change” with a review bike, and here are my thoughts on that. First, and easiest: as mentioned above, I would put a smaller ring like a 30 or a 32 on that direct mount crank.

Next, while Kona’s short stem and wide bar bring a level of function that I know adds to its stability on mixed surfaces, I found the shape of the OEM dirt drop didn’t quite hit the mark. I wasn’t quite able to get the shift levers into a position that worked for riding on the hoods while also being able to comfortably reach the brakes from the drops. The Rival levers do have a 3-position reach adjust, but the curve of the drop is a bit too tight for my liking.

Finally, while I love the performance of the hydraulic brakes and the SRAM levers feel great, I would actually feel better taking this thing on an extended trip if it had mechanical discs. Out of the box, hydraulic brakes are great, but after a while, pistons get sticky and setup gets more finicky.

Throwing Touring Tradition out the Window with the Kona Sutra LTD – Morgan Taylor

Conclusions?

Kona’s bikes are not the flashiest on the market, but they represent a great value on the shop floor, and the Sutra LTD is no exception. The LTD’s very reasonable $1999 USD price tag is achieved by putting the money in places that create a really solid foundation: direct mount crank, Rival 11 with hydraulic brakes, and tubeless friendly WTB rims with folding Marathons.

With the spec on the LTD I want it to ride more lively unloaded, because this is exactly the kind of bike I want to ride on a daily basis. (As a side note, Kona’s Rove has that lighter tubeset, and a slightly shorter rear end, but doesn’t come with this spec.) Still, the intended purpose of this frame holds its touring roots, and it’ll be a solid companion on your long distance trip.

I feel that a touring bike should be spec’d in a way that makes it ready to go adventuring without having to replace “showroom” parts like crap tires, and the Sutra LTD hits this mark – as long as you’re not a retro-grouch.

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  • Man, I wish I could review bikes like you, Morgan! ;-)

    • Awwww, thanks man!

      • Rider_X

        Agreed, great job Morgman! Did you get a chance to front load it? From the pictures and description it looks very similar in form and geometry to the AWOL and I would assume similar handling. There is definitely some convergence in design. Either way looks like a ripping ride for some serious adventures. If you still have the bike handy you should get in on some of the Vancouver Island backcountry epics I am planning this year.

        • I didn’t front load it, but I’ve got some Tubus and Ortlieb stuff on the way so if the Kona ship doesn’t sail before that other one arrives, we’ll see.

          Keep me in the loop on Van Isle rides. I love spending time on the coast and definitely want to explore out that way!

  • Jon B.

    That first photo… <3

    • Joshua Alley

      As a Sutra Ltd owner of a couple months, I love it. Its my favorite bike yet. I find myself riding it unloaded often in place of my Major Jake CX. It’s quickly taking up ride time over other bikes that I am now thinking of selling off. It really is that good. Looks that good too.

      • Chris Underwood

        The exact thing happened to me with my 2014 Sutra (triple ring, etc) vs my 2013 Jake the Snake. The ‘cross bike sat and rotted. It got sold, and has been transformed into a Precept 130.

        • Joshua Alley

          I’ve got a Honzo, myself. Good bikes.

    • You’re right; I had the CAD number in mind while I was writing this. Fixed now. Both the Sutra LTD and the AWOL Comp have good things going for them. Tough choice!

      • Jon B.

        I finally pulled the proverbial trigger and bought an Awol Comp on Wednesday. Kona’s achilles heal is their dealer network, @ least in the bay area. The local shops didnt even know what a Sutra was.

        • Brian

          I’ve spoken to 4 shops in the Bay Area and none of them stock either Sutra model, but they all did tell me that the LTD is readily available for order. I hate blindly ordering a bike based on geo charts and little else, so my search continues.

  • Forrest Cobb

    Photos #12 and #36 are so good. Thanks for another killer writeup!

  • Andy Moore

    All my bikes since 1995 have had Kona head badges. Those MTB roots shine through so playfully.

  • Jonathan McCurdy

    One of my friend’s and a big part of the Tempe bike community got one of these for the car4bike trade New Belgium does every year. I had the pleasure of attempting to ride his size 62 cm bike for a spin around the dirt one evening, and can honestly say, it’s got spryness that defies its weight. Though I was able to score a Vaya Travel a couple years ago for about the same price, if I had to choose between the two today, I can’t honestly say which I’d pick, even with the benefits of S&S couplers.

    • Alex Steadman

      I was going to post about riding with someone who has this bike, and that’s him. I was on my Wolverine so it could have looked like a disc “adventure” frameset shootout.

  • Logan N. Everly

    What bag is that, peeps?

    • Chris Valente

      pretty sure that was John’s collab with Porcelain Rocket.

    • Porcelain Rocket Charlene

  • Alex Rhino

    27.5×2.3 able?

    • Not a chance. I tried an XC-tread Conti 29×2.2 and it rubbed out back. Front was fine.

      • Seth

        He said 27.5. Where was it rubbing? the 27.5 should ease it up quite a bit

        • It rubbed on the chainstays. There is a bit more room in the crimp 20mm back, but I still don’t think a 27.5×2.3 would fit.

          • Alex Rhino

            Thank you. By chance have you reviewed a Salsa Vaya, Specialized AWOL or something similar? I live in a truck and will be moving so I need to turn a MTB and touring/commuter into a bike that can do both alright.

          • If you want to run those tires, the Velo Orange Piolet has the clearance. AWOL is probably the closest thing on the market to the Sutra, so tire clearance is still an issue if you really want 2.3s. The Vaya is has even less, and toe overlap in smaller sizes. How hung up are you on a drop bar? Mountain bikes make good urban rippers!

          • Alex Rhino

            Bummer. I have looked at the Velo Orange Piolet and then got sidetracked looking Crust bikes and thought about the fargo but got scared with the weight. Unfortunately I am very hung up on drop bars. I fit between cars in cities better with them. I know I want too many things out of a bike but Im trying to see how close I can get.

          • Daniel Drott

            Look in to Genesis Vagabond, it got clearance up to about 2,2.
            Plus it looks the part.

          • Alex Rhino

            OOOOOH nice! If I go to Europe this year I’ll check them out.

          • Ray Day

            Also worth checking out is the new Rawland bikes they’re releasing this spring. They got clearance for 3″ rubber if you really wanted it.

          • Alex Rhino

            Very nice! Thank you!

    • Igoriokas

      Just received my 2017 Kona Sutra LTD.
      No way 2.3 tire to fit in, even on 27.5
      I think 27.5×2.1 is max.
      The tire gap between the chain stays is about 55mm, 27.5″ even goes into a bit narrower space than 29″.

      • You must have a blue 2016 model, because the orange 2017 bike fits a 27.5×2.8 no problem.

  • Chris Underwood

    I would oh so love to ride in that area – looks simply lovely!

    • Welcome to BC! Product shots were done in North Vancouver; riding shots in the Selkirk mountains of the Kootenays.

  • geoff.tewierik

    Nice review.

    An older version of this popped up locally this week, hopefully someone gets on it, as it was a bargain at $AU400

    I reckon I see a March Calendar pic in this collection too.

  • Lee Vilinsky

    Awesome review. We’ve got some Sutra Ltd.’s in the shop and it’s definitely my favorite bike on the floor.

    One other thing that most people won’t notice: 73mm bottom bracket shell. This means incompatibility with road cranks (I personally prefer the narrower Q). And, I’m a bit perplexed why Kona couldn’t make the clearance just a little bit wider (say, 29×2.1″) in the rear since they’re using the 73mm shell. Oh well!

  • DamagedSurfer

    I appreciate this post as I’m definitely not a ‘traditional’ tourer myself. This Kona offering is killer in blue. I’m stoked to see companies producing these bikes. When older riders look at me skeptically, I just tell them I don’t bring the kitchen sink when I tour. I’m capable of going as far as them, to as many places, and in fact probably capable of riding longer since I’m not carrying an extra 50 pounds on racks. I guess it carries over from my UL hiking/minimalist post college world traveling days. I still want a bike to feel like a bike even when I’m riding on tour. Case in point is that I’ve built up an Awol frame with Ultegra 6800 50/34 with a Deore XT 36 in the rear. Works for me. May not for you. And that’s fine. I agree about mech discs as well. As noted in this review, you may have to wait a few days for parts. But that’s only if you’re really traveling off the beaten path. And if something goes wrong with a more ‘traditional’ setup, you’re probably screwed for a few days anyway. Big deal. Drink a beer. Go for a hike. A lot of my favorite trip stories have occurred after something has unexpectedly gone wrong.

    • I think there are a lot of people with you on going lighter with touring. Suspended bikepacking bags have allow people to tour much more like backpacking, which also means reduced volume.

      My wife and I are building new bikes for an extended trip right now, with a full set of bikepacking bags in addition to front panniers on lowriders. We are going with 650b wheels, which as you note may mean some unplanned beer drinking and hiking – and we’re OK with that.

      • Natalie Pitts

        What bikes did you and your wife pick? Always interested in smaller wheel frames or conversions.

        • Soma Wolverine!

          • DamagedSurfer

            Hi Morgan, thanks for the reply. I’m still experimenting with my favorite bikepacking/touring set up. Currently I’m digging the front rack with smaller volume panniers, a 13L Sea to Summit drybag attached to top of the rack, a custom framebag, and a 13L seatbag. Long story short, my dirt tourer selection came down to a Wolverine or an Awol. The Wolverine has a more bespoke frame, but I didn’t dig the ride as much. I instantly bonded with the Awol. Through a good friend, who is also a manager at my LBS, I was able to score a Comp frame that used the Reynolds 725/520. (I guess the newer Awols use 4130, which isn’t a bad thing, just different). You can’t go wrong with either frame.

            Best of luck on your build and your trip.

      • Mark Reimer

        Big fan of that combo personally as well. I’m running a nitto campee rack up front with panniers and either a Wald basket or Ozette bag. If I still need to carry more, it’s easy enough to stuff a frame bag or saddle bag onto my Atlantis to round it out. 38’s and fenders, or knobby 2.1’s. I’m loving that more and more brands are putting such versatile bikes like these out lately.

  • Jamie McKeon

    Definitely the same vibe as the AWOL, which is great to see from KONA. More versatile bombproof touring/gravel/everything bikes on the market is awesome.

  • EdmundFoster

    i want dis

  • Gordon

    Noticed on the KONA website this is available as a frame only, which I am excited about. Do you know the approximate frame weight of a large? Is tire clearance one of the major differences between the Sutra and the Rove as they both seem to have similarities? Thanks for the writeup and love hearing that people are using this as a go to bike, which is also attractive to me!

    • No idea on the weight, but it’s not especially light. I’d say the biggest difference is the tubeset. The Sutra uses heavier tubes to make it more stable when loaded up with bags. The Rove has a shorter rear end at 435 vs 445, so that will also make its handling a bit snappier. I think you are right that the Rove doesn’t fit as much tire, putting it in the light rando / gravel category more than the Sutra’s touring / bikepacking bias.

  • Brian

    Great review! Any idea how long that stem is? I’m considering picking one of these up but haven’t been able to find a store with them on the floor, so I’m doing what I can to figure out the sizing.

    • It’s a 70, and the bars are quite wide, 46+ at the hoods. If I were to ride this bike with my normal 44 drop bar I would have to go to an 80 or a 90.

      • Brian

        Interesting! I guess that’s one way for Kona to show off their mountain bike roots.

        • The AWOL has a 70 on the L as well. These bikes are designed around long front centres and short stems.

          • Brian

            The more you know!

  • Max

    Dude, you’re opinion on this bike is spot on! I believe the Kona Rove ST is the same frameset, which, in 2014 I saw being used by a hardcore tourer (pulling a Bob trailer) coming off the Dempster highway in the Northwest Territories. Since then, I can’t help but think it is the perfect bike – maybe not as versatile as the Surly Straggler, but a much better package altogether. I agree with you on the hydraulic discs – I would be stoked for them to be mechanical. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the bars when I tested one. That being said, thanks for giving this bike some love – most bike shops don’t carry them but I think they are deserving. Now, when are you going to put some miles on a Kona Roadhouse and let us know how good that one is?!

    • The Rove ST has similar roots, in fact it inspired the current iteration of the Sutra, but it is a different bike altogether. Lighter tubing, and a shorter rear end. For BOB touring, where not much weight is on the frame (I’ve done a fair amount of it), it sounds perfect. Roadhouse was on the menu as well, looks nice!

  • Gary Chastain

    Wish they had that bike a couple years ago, bought a Kona Rove and built one up to tour (fully loaded) with. Mountain X9, BB7s and 42s.

  • Vinay Nair

    Probably worth mentioning the Marin Lombard Elite in the same breath. Comes stock with mechanical disks, a 2×10 MTB drivetrain, carbon fork, and gravel tries. At half the price!

    • By the numbers, the Lombard is more like the Kona Rove. But, it’s aluminum. Not sure where the half price thing comes from (I see $1429 US) but the steel Rove is $1599 US and the (admittedly downspec) aluminum model is $899. Steel is key!

  • Gordon

    Can the Sutra be run single speed?

    • If you use a tensioner or magic gear, yes. The frame doesn’t have sliding dropouts.

  • Would love to see the new WTB Horizon Road Plus on this sick machine.

    • I think the bike could handle it with the 72mm bb drop. It does fit 700×47 just fine, though.

  • Andreas De Koster

    I read another review saying that the bike was great but the rear triangle was tight. I think they wanted to put a mountain bike wheelset on. Would you consider the rear triangle too small or just right?

    • It really depends what you want to do with the bike: what your mix of road and off-road looks like, and whether you idealize the perfect bike for a single trip or more of an all-rounder. The WTB i23 rims are mountain bike rims, and the frame has room for a 2.0, possibly a 2.1 depending on the tire. In my opinion that’s plenty for gravel roads and singletrack, but bikepacking seems to be trending toward larger volume tires.

  • Gianluca Marucci

    Morgan, thanks for the review! this is the bike I have been eyeing for a while to sit next to my trail MTB. coming from MTB I actually like the 1x drivetrain and hydraulic brakes, as well as the long top tube and short stem. I am actually planning to get a frame and custom build the bike, can I ask you how long is the stem on the bike? I would probably start with that, and possibly a Salsa woodchipper bar. thanks

    • To be clear, I have no problem with 1x and hydro brakes. My mountain bikes have them. But for an extended mixed surface trip (which we are actually planning right now), I’m more comfortable with cable brakes and want more gear range than a 1×11 provides. The new 1×12 gets there with the range, but it’s just a bit too new for me to ride on this year’s trip. It’s the ongoing process of finding balance between performance and serviceability for your purpose. I was on the large Sutra and it had a 70 stem.

      • Gianluca Marucci

        Morgan, thanks. and agree that is a balance, and it might be different to each of us. thanks for the info on the stem, I will send you a picture of the bike, once I have built it.

  • Sébastien Ena

    Hi Morgan, I just wanted to know if you are aware of the weight of the Sutra Ltd in his native version.
    Do you think the Sutra would be adapted to the bikepack race of 2300 km I intend to particpate (“French Divide”crossing France, in August) ? I own a Kona Jake The Snake 2015 and I hesitate to do the race with it.

    • I would definitely want to be riding steel or carbon for a ride like that. The Sutra would certainly be suitable, though personally I would choose a bike that fit my long term purposes and also suited a single event, rather than thinking of the bike specifically for the event.

      • Sébastien Ena

        Thanks Morgan. Anyway, I had to cancel my race beacause of Achille’s tendinitis.

        • Bummer… I was just in Italy for the 100 dB singlespeed mountain bike ride and one of the couples there did the French Divide race. It sounded brutal due to the extreme heat but they still loved it. Hopefully, you’ll get to do it at a later date.

          • Sébastien Ena

            Lucky I am, I did the French Divide last summer after having recovered from my tendinitis just before the date of the event. It was an amazing experience and the Sutra was great for such a ride ! I made some changes of equipment. I put a RaceFace Next SL crankset and lighter wheels (Asterion Edition One at the rear, ZTR Crest Notube with Son28 dynohub at the front). Unfortunately, I had to give up at 250 km from the finish line.

  • Israel Magalit

    Excellent review! Thanks for posting!

  • I’ve had my ’17 Sutra LTD for a few weeks now. The bike is truly a hoot! Granted, on a mountain bike you can go just about anywhere but something about this bike makes you feel like you can go anywhere fast and with a smile on your face. I’ve left most of it stock but set it up tubeless, switched from a 36 chainring to a 32 (it’s damn steep in the Swiss Alps) and put on a King headset (I won it at SingleSpeed Worlds in Ireland because I knew who raced NASCAR #43). I like the saddle a lot more than I expected and the WTB Riddler tires ride really nicely and give more traction than their profile would lead you to believe. An actual bikepacking trip will probably have to wait till spring but a Specialized Pizza rack fits on it for grocery store runs and the rest of the time I’m riding with my own brand SpoK Werks Quickie bag on the bars.

  • Hagen Kluge

    Hi Morgan. Just wondering which saddle that is.

    • It’s a Fizik Arione. Got it super cheap because it was pink!

  • hokietrax

    Any chance you guys are going to revisit with the 2018 model? Apparently they’ve at least tweaked it to allow up to ~2.2″ tires. Not sure what else they’ve done. But I’m surely teetering on the edge of grabbing it now.

    • I’ve ridden both the 2017 and 2018 models. The 2017 still has QR dropouts and IS brake mounts, and fits up to a 29×2.3″ knobby (and will squeeze some 27.5×2.8s on a ~35mm rim). The 2018 has the same clearance but has flat mount brakes, 12×100 and 12×142 through axles, and full housing routing for the rear derailleur. The Sutra LTD is still kind of an outlier in the market in that it’s really a mountain bike with drop bars, and if you’re into that, it’s a good choice and a good value.