Reportage

Morgan’s Kona Unit Basketpacker: The Bike I Almost Sold

Sometimes a bike is worth more than the sum of its parts. You know, that feeling of home that isn’t just about having your favourite bars and saddle in the right place. My Kona Unit began life as a $999 single speed complete – a heck of a good value, and a bike I never knew I’d come to love so much.

Last year I almost sold this bike. I actually bought another 27.5+ bike to replace it. A really nice custom-built bike with parts at least as nice as the stuff on my beloved Unit, with a dream dynamo system and up-to-date axle standards. I bought John’s desert tan 44 Bikes Ute. And then I sold it – the 44, that is.

There was seriously nothing wrong with the Unit. As a project it had been going on for three years (now almost four) and, like many long term projects, not a stone was left unturned. All that remains from the original complete is the seat clamp and, surprisingly, the original stem. Even the frame has been swapped.

Build Inspiration

This bike’s original intent comes out of the three-month trip Stephanie and I did on our Soma Wolverines in 2016. We came out of that trip stoked on those bikes, but well aware through our time on the Great Divide route that 2.1” tires left something to be desired on a traveling bike.

While we weren’t focused on singletrack travel, we enjoyed being off the beaten path and the occasional foray into more remote terrain. Riding sections of the Divide in Montana with the DFL crew left us wanting to ride the Canadian section of that route (revisit this gallery for confirmation); riding sections of the still-in-progress Oregon Timber Trail we did a lot of pushing in deep sand.

When we came back from that trip, we concluded that the next bikes we would build would be capable of traveling over rougher terrain. Stephanie already had her Surly Wednesday and, ever since I reviewed the Kona Sutra LTD, I’d been eyeing the Unit. The 2017 Unit complete which this bike started as was Kona’s first to fit 27.5+ tires and also my first Unit.

Fit and a Frame Swap

Wait – my first? Yep. For years I reviewed mountain bikes and consistently rode Large frames. I wasn’t particularly picky about reach numbers because most bikes were in the same range. In a way I would say I blindly ordered a Large frame because that’s what I’ve always ridden.

Well, that was great for a flat bar fit, but Jones bars change your position a lot. I know lots of folks are happy with just swapping a Jones onto the bike they normally ride with a flat bar – or even a drop bar – but for me it doesn’t work. My back gets all cranked up and unhappy if I can’t get my bars far enough out and my saddle far enough back.

With the original Large frame I ended up with a 100mm stem to get the reach I needed on the Jones, and while it was still a totally fun and capable trail bike, I wanted to stabilize the handling, make my front bag or basket more easily accessible, and to be honest, pull the aesthetics of the front end in a more modern direction.

The XL frame has a 656mm top tube, 483mm reach, which is in line with Large-framed aggressive mountain bikes today but is still long for an XC bike. I ride a 70mm stem (yep, the one that came with the complete bike) with the Jones bar. Kona’s updated 2020 Unit is a 475mm reach in the Large, but you can read on below as to why that bike doesn’t work for me.

Living the Basket Life

In the years since building Stephanie’s Wednesday and my Unit, they’ve become our default traveling bikes. Our Wolverines happily settled into their new lives as fendered commuter and local adventure bikes, but the 27.5+ bikes just have something about them when it comes to traveling, even on pavement. I liken them to a dependable truck, capable of taking you deep into the woods but just as happy cruising the highway to get you to the fire road or the singletrack.

It is on this bike that I got my first Wald 137 basket and, let me tell ya, I leaned way into it. In my world the 137 is only used with a basket bag. These baskets and the bags that a bunch of our small maker friends produce for them are a symbiotic relationship, like when algae and fungus come together to make lichen.

The first basket bag I got was the Monkey Wrench bag from Porcelain Rocket. Stephanie got a Swift Sugarloaf. I now have an Outer Shell basket bag which is great for camera carrying, and have replaced the original sewn Porcelain Rocket bag with their welded and waterproof Meanwhile. We live the life. It is a good life.

This Bike Wasn’t Meant For Fenders

In my world, fenders are a must and I love getting weird with Sim Works Honjo fenders. The only accommodation for fenders on the frame is a threaded hole in the seat stay bridge. No dropout eyelets, and nothing at the chainstay yoke. I had a pair of these Axiom fender adapters for QR road bikes in the parts bin and figured they’d work. I had to drill them out to fit under the slider bolt but they worked out perfectly.

The second, way bigger bodge, is at the chainstay. I had initially thought that I would drill and tap or riv-nut a hole in the yoke. There’s lots of room for it. Problem is, I don’t own a tap set and the friends whose shops I normally do this kind of work in were buried in other projects at the time. So, I pulled out one of the gigantic zip ties I’d been hoarding, test fit and drilled a hole in it, and put a bolt through it. I was going to drill the aforementioned hole when the zip tie broke… problem is, it hasn’t. So there it is in all its glory. Years later.

The fork does have dropout eyelets and a hole through the crown. I’m picky about my fender lines, and the Problem Solvers Fender Flute is a great product for achieving better fender fit on bikes with suspension-corrected forks. Like with Stephanie’s Wednesday, I mounted the rack to the Fender Flute and the fender directly to the rack. It’s a really nice setup.

So Why Replace the Bike?

After a couple years with the bike, I think I was feeling itchy. I get to ride a lot of cool bikes and I knew there was other stuff out there I wanted to try.

I talked myself into wanting a replacement because of things like the rear end being a smidge long (it’s adjustable from 442-455), the 135mm rear end limiting tire clearance at the chain, and my desire to experience how my own ideas about geometry play out on a bike like this. None of these things limited the fun and capability of the bike, but, you know how it goes.

I bought John’s 44 and immediately lent the Unit to a friend for a couple months. He’d had a bad crash mountain biking, was doing well with recovery but couldn’t ride a drop bar, and was looking into options. The 44 is a great bike too, much nicer in many ways than the Unit, but there was a huge deal breaker that the geometry chart didn’t really make clear.

If you’re playing “Morgan Taylor Review Bingo” you know I can’t get very far without mentioning my saddle position needs and seat tube angles. Well, the 44 has a beautiful curved seat tube. I knew curved seat tubes meant steeper effective seat angles, but now I know that the difference can be much greater than I expected!

On this particular bike (admittedly custom built for John, and not for myself) it meant the saddle position is 40mm forward of where it would be on a straight seat tube of the same angle. I am barely able to get my saddle back far enough on the Unit, and so, apart from a seat post with an offset of 40+mm, the 44 was simply not going to work.

For what it’s worth, the new generation of Unit has a 75º seat angle as well, and yes, I’m picky. I literally do sleep better at night when my bikes fit properly. I could go custom and Kris at 44 offered to work with me on something, but for the time being I decided to stick with the bike that had done me no wrong, and sold the 44 to the friend who had borrowed the Unit.

Parts and Parts and Parts

I usually comment on parts spec in my reviews, and while this isn’t really a review, it’s still a story about how all these parts ended up here over the time it took the bike to shake down – every one of them for good reason. Every part has a story behind it and every part I removed (including the original frame) also has a story that continues.

Jones Loop carbon H-Bar and ESI Super Chunky grips. When we put this bar on Stephanie’s Wolverine I was super jealous. The carbon version is half the weight of the Ti or aluminum ones, yet has noticeable flex that very few bars actually achieve. People probably regret asking me about this bar because I get really excited talking about it. As mentioned above, I feel like Jones and other super sweepy bars ride best on longer reach bikes, which is why I went to an XL frame.

Paul Klampers and XT RT-86 Rotors. Carrying forward a choice we made on our Wolverines and were completely happy with, Paul Klampers got the call, purple ones no less, with Shimano XT IceTech rotors. I bought a bulk pack of SRAM metallic pads which mesh really nicely with the XT rotors and make maintenance easy (and more affordable) since we collectively have five sets of Klampers now.

DT 350 hubs laced to WTB Scraper i40 rims. With DT 240 hubs on our Wolverines and a DT 350 in one of our other spare wheelsets, the wheels on our plus bikes make for five bikes in the house with DT star ratchets. If I’m building custom wheels from the ground up, I like using these hubs, and having a bunch of them means freehubs and star ratchets can be shared and swapped easily.

WTB Ranger Tough 27.5+ tires. Over the years I’ve had a number of other tires on this bike, including 29×2.1 and 2.2, but I always find myself coming back to the WTB Ranger Tough, either in 2.8 or 3.0. On the 40mm rims the 2.8s measured 67mm and the 3.0s measure 71, so they come in slightly smaller than claimed, but that helps with chain clearance on this bike that still has a 135 rear end. I run the 3.0s at 17/20 psi for day to day use, and 20/23ish for loaded riding.

Sim Works Flat 65 fenders. While the initial idea of these bikes was off-road traveling, we quickly found they weren’t nearly as useful here in the PNW without fenders. When Sim Works announced they were going to bring in the Honjo H95 shape as the Flat 65, we immediately put them on both of our 27.5+ bikes.

While the 65mm fenders are a bit narrower than the overall width of the tires, they still do a perfectly acceptable job of keeping us dry because the sides of your tire aren’t usually throwing water anyway. A slight bend of the stays keeps them away from the knobs and the flat fender profile is very versatile. We just got the new Sim Works Flat 80 fenders so that’s the next step with these bikes.

SRAM X01 1×11 group. The shifter, derailleur, and cranks, are something I got for review way back in 2013. While SRAM’s higher end groups are more expensive to begin with, the longevity of this group has been incredible. The shifter and derailleur are still as crisp and smooth as day one, which is not usually the case with GX or NX stuff after even a year.

After wearing out the original X01 cassette I’m now on my second GX-level XG-1150, the least expensive 10-42 option. I originally bought the Chromag chainring to convert Stephanie’s old mountain bike from 2×10 to a 1x; it was one of the first 28T direct mounts on the market. I also have a 29” wheelset with the matching X0 hubs and Teravail Sparwoods that I occasionally swap onto this bike.

Rawland Demiporteur V1 rack and Problem Solvers Fender Flute. Adding bags to a bike affects its handling. I like the way a front-loaded bike rides but am always looking to optimize rack fit. On suspension corrected mountain bike forks I have found that a Problem Solvers Fender Flute allows a rack to be mounted much lower and further back than if they were mounted at the crown. The tombstone on the rack is only about 10mm from the lower headset cup.

Frame Swap. When I first swapped the frame I lamented giving up the steeply sloped top tube of the Large bike – it looked more “mountain bike” than hybrid – but I quickly got used to the new look once the XL 52hz frame bag went in. I sold the Large frame to my friend Terry, who still has it to this day. He rides it single speed, mostly on trails, with a 29×3 front and 27.5×3 rear, and an eclectic parts bin build that makes me happy. It’s weird and I love it.

Little Things. The Chris King headset is also from the 2013 build that the drivetrain came from, now in its third frame. Worth noting is the external lower cup raised the front end a touch, slackening the head and seat tube angles by about a half-degree, to 68.5º and 73.5º respectively.

The light green Kona decal on the bottom of the down tube was printed by a friend as the original logos are dark blue and didn’t stand out much. I like the splash of colour. There’s still more to talk about but I’ll round out this section by noting that my extra-pepp Safety Pizza spends time on all my bikes, usually the one I’m riding most at the time.

Bags and Bags and Bags

We love bike bags! While my affinity for good fenders is a constant joke in our social circle, the bags are where the fun variety comes in. In short, this bike as you see it is the culmination of the way we now set our bikes up for traveling. As I mentioned before the Wald 137 basket went on pretty soon after I built the bike and never came back off.

Porcelain Rocket’s Meanwhile basket bag is commuting and traveling perfection, particularly in the wet and cold winters here in the Pacific Northwest. The Porcelain Rocket 52hz frame bag is a perfect spot for stuff you don’t want to get wet, and having a frame bag means you can leave your tools and tube in there and never worry about them.

On the basket sit two Swift Industries Sidekick bags which, in my opinion, are the best thing to happen to the 137 since all those cool people started making custom-fit bags for them. I leave a multi-tool and my Dynaplug in one side, and a water bottle or a thermos rides in the other side. I don’t usually like leaving sewn bags on a bike that sees all-weather duty, but these dry out quickly and are so convenient.

I also have somehow got away with Stephanie’s custom Jones Loop bag that Scott sewed up. That’s where my phone and keys and other stuff ends up. For camping or bigger days or coffee outside before work I put the Swift Zeitgeist on the back, on a Carradice Bagperson QR. This particular coyote cordura Zeitgeist was the Swift Campout 2018 special edition and it’s pretty special to me too.

Where To Next?

I bought this bike in the fall of 2016, but all that’s left is the seat clamp and, surprisingly, the original stem. Even the frame has been swapped. There really is nothing left to do but occasionally swap parts around like adult Lego. I guess that’s why I got itchy about replacing it, but in the end it stuck around.

Of course, there are some moves on the go. I picked up an older SON dynamo, the one that’s like a Campbell’s soup can, from a veteran randonneur, and need to lace that into a rim. Dynamo systems are really great for all-year bikes – it’s so nice to have lights without needing to charge them.

Next, like I’d mentioned, I’ve got the Sim Works Flat 80 fenders to go on. And, since this photo set was shot, I’ve swapped the brakes for the black Klampers that came with the 44, with the idea that Stephanie’s Wednesday would get the purple ones. Those are now on my Pugsley, but I assure you that’s temporary. (Thank you and sorry, Stephanie!)

I think the best part about this bike is how it’s weathered the storm, how it really is the traveling bike I was hoping for, but also year round commuter and adventurer I never even expected it to be. In a way, this bike represents all of what I’ve learned about the types of bikes I like to ride and build, and I still like riding it and tinkering with it.