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Big in All the Right Ways: a Review of the Kona Sutra ULTD 29er Touring Bike

I’m going to nerd out here. Fair warning. When I see a bike like the Kona Sutra ULTD hit the internet, I feel mixed emotions. Part of that has to do with my love of the now-dead “adventure” category Specialized launched a few years back, beginning with the AWOL. I had some good memories on that bike and it feels like eons ago. If you remember, this was around the time people started calling bicycle touring “bikepacking”.

The AWOL was a touring bike in the sense that it had rack mounts, clearances for, at the time, big tires and it came specced in both its Poler and Trans-Continental limited-edition build kits with racks and panniers. Sounds like a touring bike to me! While this isn’t an article about the AWOL, I can’t help but see the face-value similarities between it and the Sutra Unlimited, or ULTD for short.

Now, the AWOL came out in 2014, and in these past six years, a lot has changed in the touring or bikepacking world for me but one thing remains constant: I love fat tire tourers, and the Sutra ULTD really impressed me. It pulled at all the heartstrings…

So What is the Sutra ULTD?

In the Kona lineage, the Sutra ULTD rests in the Sutra family, alongside the popular Sutra LTD. If its predecessors were 10s, the ULTD goes to 11. It’s the next evolutionary leap in Kona’s drop bar permutations. We see this often with the brand. Take the ESD for example, which rose from the Honzo evolutionary muck. Oftentimes, Kona gets a whiff of something good or perhaps smokes something really good, and after a lot of PR&D, they make a bike that falls within the catalog, yet stands on its own. This is one of those times.

I’ve never ridden the Sutra or Sutra LTD but luckily Morgan has reviewed the latter and everyone loves Morgan’s reviews, so check it out if you haven’t already!

At face value (its real value is $2599), the Sutra ULTD appears to be another big tire “adventure” bike, with a dropper, some bosses for cargo, and some MTB tires. While those first impressions aren’t wrong, there’s a lot of pointers the Sutra ULTD has picked up from MTB design.

A longer top tube means the Sutra ULTD takes a shorter stem. A higher head tube means you’ll be very comfortable in the drops, and a dropper post means… well, duh. This bike is a true-to-form touring bike but it picked up a lot of MTB genes in its evolutionary process.

Build Spec

Rolling on a steel chassis, with a steel Kona Project Two touring fork, a TranzX +RAD Internally-routed dropper, a Kona cockpit with wide bars, a shorty stem, a hodgepodge SRAM drop bar/MTB drivetrain, and flat-mount brakes with 160mm rotors, the ULTD is specced as you’d expect in 2020/2021. Just about any “adventure” platform comes specced with a dropper nowadays huh? The frameset rolls on WTB KOM Light Team i27 TCS 2.0 29er wheels with Maxxis Recon Race EXO TR 29×2.25″ tires. All this, on a size 58cm came in just shy of 30lbs.

One spec SNAFU I’d point out is the gearing is not at all wide enough to do a fully-loaded tour anywhere with elevation. Sure, you could go to a 28t front chainring but even 28×42 is not nearly spinny enough for steep terrain. You could rebuild the shifter and derailleur with various hack kits to fit a 50t cassette but the specced hubs don’t use an XD driver. Oh and while I didn’t notice any braking shortcomings, I hate flat-mount brakes on bikes like this. Leave them on the 28mm tire road bikes, please.

One cool note about the TranzX +RAD dropper is you can change the travel distance on it, so if you do want to run it with a saddle pack or a rear rack, you can adjust its travel up to 30mm (5mm steps) so there won’t be interference between your saddle/pack/tire. Oh and Kona set up the dummy left SRAM shifter to actuate it! Cooooooool!

That Fork!

Steel forks give me all the feels. Watching them flex over ruts, feeling them move when cranking hard, and not worrying when the bike crashes into rocks. It’ll happen. The Kona Project Two touring fork is the icing on this red velvet cake of a bike. It’s got a 430mm A-T-C, 55mm offset, cargo/bottle bosses a go-go, fender/rack mounts, and a neat-o lil hole for your favorite dynamo lamp mount. I’m not even mad at the oversized head tube with its cute lil legs. Well done, Kona!

Frame Detailing

The ULTD does not fuck around when it comes to getting the job done, elegantly. Yet it is void of ostentation, painful gimmicks, and unnecessary visual noise. You’ll find no passive suspension here because you don’t need that crap when you can fit a CHONK tire. Duh. A slightly sloping top tube accentuates the massive front triangle – perfect for a custom bolt-on frame bag! – on this size 58cm I reviewed, and aside from a few subtle branding hits, there is nothing that really screams “KONA!” on this one.

Scream? More like a soft whisper in your ear…

What is most impressive on the ULTD is its beautiful chainstay yoke, which accommodates plenty of rubber. Kona specced it with 2.25″ tires but I bet you could cram a 2.4″ in there pending side knobs. Most importantly, if you live in a wet environment or plan on taking this bike on a tour in one, you’ll be stoked to see this clearance. That means yes, you can run full fenders!

The rear derailleur hanger is replaceable, which is also a very modern approach for steel frames and one that is not without controversy. (Hell, I had Merckx SLX frames with the original hanger…) While I didn’t bend it during this review process, it is very common to bend and break these things, especially when shipping. Not to mention is Kona going to make this part for the next 10+ years? If you buy a ULTD, buy a few extras… 

The cable routing is external, making for a less “clean” yet more utilitarian appearance; it’s way easier to pack a bike up with external cables if you plan on traveling to do a tour. Kona even builds the ULTD with re-usable cable ties. A beautiful head badge, timeless, sparkly paint job, and bosses a-plenty mean this bike looks great on its own, void of bags or cargo apparatus.

Geometrically Speaking

I touched on this briefly but this bike works so well due to its modern fit and geometry. There is no reason. None. Nada. For a bike like this to abide by the typical 100+mm stem mantra. It’s not a freaking road bike. Ok, ignore the curly bars! Lengthening the top tube allows you to ride a shorter stem. For a 58cm bike, which in my experience typically comes with a 560-570mm top tube, the ULTD has a whopping 613mm. This longer top tube, with a shorter, 50mm stem, gives you the same-ish reach as a 575mm TT with a 100mm stem.

I’m 6’2″ with a 36″ inseam and long arms.

So why do this? Well, for a few reasons. The first of which is when you put big ol’ tires on a bike like this, the likelihood of toe overlap is high. A longer top tube puts the front wheel further away from your feet. This is especially helpful if you have fenders too. Another benefit comes down to the bicycle’s steering behaviors. In my experience, it’s easier to control the front end of a bike with a MTBish geo when the stem is a lil shorty. The ULTD has a mechanical trail of +/-81mm with +/-27mm of wheel flop and on the 58cm bike I reviewed, the front-center number is a whopping 688mm. If your hands were closer to the front hub due to a longer stem, cornering – even unloaded – would result in a lot of unwanted diving. Kind of like what downhill bikes do at slow speeds.

Yet this is only part of the story. In order for a bike with these front end numbers to really shine as a proper all-rounder, you have to evaluate the rear end of the bike as well. The ULTD has 445mm chainstays and a 303mm BB height or 72mm of BB drop, as specced. Not the usual tukked and low numbers romanticized these days, rather Kona erred on stability here. All of these figures add up to an 1123mm wheelbase!

This is a big bike but in the right ways for a tourer. Don’t get it twisted though, the ULTD is not a pig!

The ULTD is a Rippah

Looking at the parts spec, the geometry, the weight, and stance, you might think this bike is meant for slow and long rides. Now, of course, it is, but in all honesty, how often do you ride your touring bike fully-loaded? And when it’s not loaded up for a tour, does it just sit in a corner, unridden? No. Of course not. We ride our touring bikes on gravel, hardpack, pavement, bike paths, and yes, singletrack. A good tourer is just as fun to ride unloaded as it is loaded and boy is the ULTD fun to ride!

While I didn’t load it and take it touring, the ULTD was more than enjoyable standing in for my gravel and rigid MTBs. Having ridden plenty of chubby gravel bikes in my day, I can honestly say this bike outperformed my expectations. With each ride, I fell even more in love with its ride quality and experience. Look, it’s not a gravel racer. You’ve got the Sutra and Sutra LTD for that. If anything, I would consider the ULTD to be more of an MTB than a gravel bike. Perhaps that’s because I ride my MTBs more than anything these days and when I hop on a drop-bar bike that has similar sensations, I tend to take note.

What I’m trying to say here is don’t expect this thing to zip up pavement or hardpack climbs, or to sit mid-pack on a Sunday morning group ride (when those happen again) but when you point it downhill on dirt, it will leave the carbon, 110mm stemmed, gravel bikes in the dust.

The ULTD is a demon on the trails – that’s a good thing – it really pushes through corners, over washboard roads, and digs its claws deep into the dirt.

The Maxxis Recon Race tires aren’t the lightest or the knobbiest but they’re a damn perfect pairing for the ULTD on our Santa Fe dirt, offering the sweet spot between grip and slip.

The riding position is very comfortable while riding trails or descending 4×4 roads, especially with the dropper down. I prefer to keep the post up and my hands on the tops when descending hardpack or pavement as I like to steer with my hips on the saddle and it feels better to be on top of the bike, rather than down in the bike.

TL;DR

Throughout this review period, I spent a lot of time pedaling uphill on this bike, and with each pedal stroke, I always attempted to evaluate the ULTD in order to find some sort of critique. To be honest, I can’t. If a 30lb bike is too heavy for you, cool, there are lots of carbon or titanium options out there. If you don’t like the short stem and wide bars, rad! That’s ok too, get a Sutra LTD. If you don’t tour and don’t plan on it, will the ULTD still be a good trail companion? You bet.

The way I see it, bikes like this are a lure to sink a hook in people who don’t own a proper mountain bike to eventually see their merits. Wide bars, short stems, big tires, 1x drivetrains, dropper posts. Sounds like a MTB, huh?

I was hoping putting these words down would help me determine what it is I like about the ULTD so much and I think I did just that. It’s not fast on the ups but it rips on the downs. It ain’t a weight weenie bike but neither are rigid MTBs and best of all, when you get tired of pedaling your local roads and trails, load it up and ride out to new ones…

The Kona Sutra ULTD retails for $2599 USD complete as shown or for $599 USD as a frameset. Throw your leg over one at your local Kona dealer and check out more information at Kona.