Kona’s product manager Chris Mandell talks 29ers, swing-link suspension and the Honzo — “an extension of my personality”…
MBR: Why did you choose a swing-link for the new Satori?
CM: A couple of things went into that decision. Firstly, from a suspension standpoint, mechanically the function is the same. The bike is a single-pivot with a seatstay and a rocker that pushes on the shock. It has the same triangulation characteristics of our other bikes. There are a lot of things that made the engineering side of it a little bit more constrained than some of our other bikes. We had a pretty good idea as we went into the design of that bike, what we wanted the geometry to be. Fitting everything together with that geometry and getting an aggressive standover height, but keeping the weight in a respectable place, led us to think outside the box and look at the swing-link design. That was the culmination of a bunch of different little factors that brought us to using that design. And we wanted to keep you guys on your toes.
One of the things we’ve been looking at with all-mountain bikes is that it’s a bike that is going to get pedalled to the top and then descended. You’re not looking to ride as much of the technical climbing stuff because the weight is a little bit higher. For a 130mm bike, I think that bike pedals really well, but it doesn’t come with a single ring, it comes with a double, and the big ring is designed for the out of the saddle descending, pedalling and the little ring is designed for the sit down and spin. I think when we ride our local areas and we see what people are doing with their bikes, we’ve watched the trend in double cranks go from 22/34 and a bashring to a little more wider spread, lighter set-up and you have guys running more in the big ring and cross-gearing and using that as their trail setup. And spinning up in the little ring.
MBR: So it’s a bit of a fireroad up, singletrack down kind of bike?
CM: Yeah, I mean it’s not that I don’t think you can ride that bike up trails, I certainly do that, and I feel pretty amazed and pretty excited about what that bike is capable of climbing given how much travel it has. But on the all-mountain side of things, when you have to make compromises, you point yourself in that direction.
MBR: What was your approach on the geometry side?
CM: Well, it was a song that you’ve heard a couple of times from me in terms of keeping the head angle slack and keeping the bottom bracket low and the chainstays short. That combination of factors gives you, I think, a pretty capable bike. For general mucking about the 68 head angle is pretty versatile. Obviously we’re using that on the Honzo as well, with a little bit different travel, but that head angle doesn’t get overly floppy with a 29in wheel and I have yet to go over the bars on the Satori and I’ve ridden a couple of rock lines on it that I never thought I would ride a 29er on. The wheel is just more apt to come out of stuff. Specifically thinking back to a ride Kevin Noble and I did; there was a line that neither of us had seen anyone ride. I was standing there with the Satori that was the first time I was like ‘ok, I think this might actually go’. That the bike was able to turn as it was leaving the steep line was pretty impressive to me, and I was taken aback by that. It was cool to tackle a line I’d seen six years ago, but never actually done it.
The other things go along with that too, like we made the top tubes a bit longer. We want the bike to feel pedally but responsive so a little bit longer top tube and keep the stem length below 90mm. As I mentioned before, part of using a swing-link, was getting the top tube a little bit lower and that’s really important for a bike you’re probably going to want to put a dropper post on, and want to have knee clearance.
MBR: So has the whole 29er geometry thing taken a while to evolve or was it pretty straightforward?
CM: I started riding 29ers pretty early on. The Kona guys had all been riding 29ers for a long time. Personally I had ridden my Kula 29er a lot on the North Shore with a suspension fork and a rigid fork, and from that experience I had a pretty good idea what those wheels were capable of with a 71 head angle. For me, taking my experience with downhill, and the Kona guys experience with bikes like the Dawg and the Coiler, and then thinking of what the 29in wheels were capable of and bringing those two worlds together with the lower bottom brackets and the slacker head angles, we really started to see that there was the capability to have a bike that could do everything better than we were currently dealing with.
The other part of the equation that we’d always known on the 29ers was that the chainstay length was critical. As you know, that’s the most delicate, complicated balancing act that you play on a 29er. You have the chainrings in the way, you want to run the biggest tyre you can possibly run and that gets in the way. Then you have the front derailleur and, depending on the bike, the chain guides. So that chainstay yoke area is extremely critical to get right. We worked extremely hard to get the chainstays short on the Satori because we felt that suited the bike and that required a lot of jerrymandering. The lower you make the bottom bracket the more difficult it is to make the chainstays short. You have to delicately balance the appropriate bottom bracket height for a trail bike to be able to pedal, but where’s the appropriate chainstay length for the bike to feel nimble and lively. With the Honzo the original prototypes we had made had 425mm chainstays, because looking at the 2D drawings that appeared to be the shortest we could get and still get the tyre clearance. But when we got the physical prototypes we realised we had more space than we thought we did. So we were able to make a couple of changes to the chainstay yoke and chainstay tubes and get the bike down to 415mm. Having ridden a 425 chainstay and 415 chainstay bike, with all other geometry held constant, the bike rides better with the 415. And the 415 fits that bike and it fits the head angle and the bottom bracket drop.
MBR: What about wheel weight versus wheel strength? Is that another big challenge with 29ers?
CM: Absolutely, without a doubt. And I think there’s another factor in there that I don’t think your readers should think that we ignore, when you’re speccing a bike, you can have price, weight or durability, the task for the person in charge of the bike is to figure out where the best combination of those factors together lies and where that bike is the most applicable.
MBR: The Venn diagram…
CM: Again this is something that I feel pretty strongly about is that this bike is affordable, and out of the box you are going to get seasons of riding out of it. No the wheels aren’t the lightest wheels in the world, but they are appropriate for that bike. They have the 23mm inner rim width, which prevents the tyre rolling on the rim, which is a pretty big thing with higher volume 29er tyres, and 12mmx142mm and 20mm front… 12mmx142mm (rear axle) has been out a while, but you’d be surprised at how limited the wheel selection is with the appropriate rim and durability and weight. It’s not like a 26in QR rear wheel, which is ubiquitous. 12mmx142mm 29er wheels are not ubiquitous. It’s a balancing act, and more and more I think you’re going to see that tubeless is going to be a critical component in getting the weight down and the traction up.
MBR: For Kona, do you think 29er sales will overtake 26in sales in the full-suspension area, and if so in which sectors of travel?
CM: That’s a really big question in the industry right now I feel. I don’t know in terms of sale, but in terms of the product focus we want to give people options and we want them to have the best bike for each category. For some riders the 26in trail bike still makes a lot of sense, for others the 29in wheel is the way to go. Clearly for hardtails and, I would even argue, bikes with less than 115mm of rear travel we’ll probably see 26in going away. But it gets grey in the 130mm region and I think we’ll probably see 26 and 29 coexisting for a while.
MBR: But you’re happy to let consumers decide and dictate the direction, rather than saying this wheel size is for this and that wheel size is for that?
CM: We listen to our consumers, we listen to our test riders and we listen to ourselves. And we have test riders who prefer 26in for 130mm of travel having ridden both. And we have riders who prefer 26in wheels to 29in wheels in certain places. Or maybe the tyre selection… it’s just goes back to the Venn diagram we were talking about, finding the balance. Depending on where you are and your riding style goes one way or another. There’s a load of factors that go into that, and at least at this point right now, we feel we need to have both options available.