Kona Big Honzo DL: Long-term Review
As the popularity of multi-day mountain biking soars to new levels, many bike manufacturers have set out to build bikepacking-specific models, aiming to split the difference between a touring bike and a mountain bike. Kona has made no such effort within their Honzo hardtails. The Honzos were built to be fun and capable trail bikes, with no apparent consideration toward the idea of carrying more than a single water bottle. Yet, by refusing to compromise on trail handling, Kona has by accident created an outstandingly comfortable and capable bikepacking machine – the Big Honzo DL…
The Honzo first appeared as a frame-only Kona side-project in 2012. A small but passionate contingent at Kona designed this bike to be a cross-country hardtail that defied geometry conventions to make a more playful bike. It was the sort of all-fun bike they wanted to ride. Despite its secret xc ambitions, the Honzo marked, in some ways, a revival of the ‘freeride hardtails’ that were so common around the turn of the millennium, when full-suspension bikes were still expensive, heavy, and generally mediocre, except that now 29er wheels and better suspension greatly improved the ride quality compared to those old over-built 26ers.
Over the years, the Honzo has earned a cult following, while more and more people came to view 29ers as something other than fat-tired road bikes, designed for something more than cross-country racing and long outings on two-track roads.
For 2017, Kona has expanded the Honzo line, with steel, titanium, carbon and aluminum 29er options, and the aluminum 27.5+ specific model – the Big Honzo DL – tested here. The geometry has been updated for 2017 in step with their wildly popular Process full-suspension trail bike line-up, with top tube/reach measurements lengthened across all sizes – an increase of 9mm for size S, 15mm for M and L, and a whopping 25mm longer reach for size XL to broaden the fit range.
The Big Honzo DL, rather than a simple wheel swap from 29er to 27.5+ in the regular Honzo frame, is built from the ground up around the plus sized wheels. Though countless companies are now marketing bikes as interchangeably 29 or 27.5+, the plus-sized tires do not quite blow up to the same diameter as a 29×2.2” tire – they’re still about 20mm shorter in diameter. So, the Big Honzo is designed to achieve the same bottom bracket height despite its slightly smaller wheels. It has a 55mm bottom bracket drop compared to the Honzo’s 65mm drop. (Yes, the latest 148mm-spaced Honzo frames can clear 27.5×2.8” tires, but that would result in a disastrously low bottom bracket. Most likely, the Big Honzo would do better as a 29er than the Honzo would do as a 27+ bike, for those who want bike to do both.) Otherwise, it shares its numbers with the rest of the Honzo series, most notable for its ultra-short 415mm chainstays, long reach, and steep seat tube angle.
I test rode a Big Honzo DL with a small number of component swaps. Since I took a brand-new bike directly onto a two-week trip on the Colorado Trail, I didn’t want to take any risks with the contact points: I immediately swapped the grips and saddle for my trusted favourites. Also, it was on this bike that we’d be testing the new Porcelain Rocket Albert dropper-compatible seat pack, so for the sake of playing it safe, we swapped out the dropper from the stock single-bolt 100mm KS eTen to a fancier 150mm KS Lev Integra with its more reassuring two-bolt clamp. As such, I’m not armed to speak about the stock dropper post, which is arguably a pretty important component spec – you’ll have to forgive that omission. It’s worth noting that popular feedback on single-bolt dropper posts is not great.
In my initial set up, I also added a volume spacer to the Rock Shox Yari fork, for a slightly more progressive feel, and swapped out the tubes for some WTB tubeless valves and a few ounces of Stan’s sealant. I was pleased to discover the WTB Scraper i40 rims came taped for tubeless straight from the factory.
In general, though, I think the Big Honzo DL is relatively unique in that its frame geometry stands out to the degree that it overshadows its build kit, wheel size, or even frame material. So, while I specifically rode the plus-tired “DL” bike, I think it’s fair to make some generalizations about all the Honzo models, whether the more budget-conscious Big Honzo, the carbon superbike Honzo Trail DL, or the still-classic chromoly frameset. But first, some details on this specific model…
Though the Honzo is available in a number of frame materials, the plus-tired Big Honzo line is only available in 6061 aluminum. The frame features a tapered head-tube that uses an internal headset for low stack height, Boost 148mm rear thru-axle spacing, internal cable routing for dropper and rear derailleur, and external brake hose routing. There are provisions for a single water bottle cage on the inside of the frame triangle. Kona has foregone any front-derailleur compatibility for the sake of short chainstays and huge tire clearance – that means 1x only.
- Frame Kona 6061 Aluminum Butted
- Fork RockShox Yari Solo Air 120mm Tapered 110mm Spacing
- Color Matte Green
- Highlights Internal dropper routing; 148x12mm Thru-axle rear
- Rear Der SRAM GX
- Cassette SRAM PG1130 11-42t 11spd
- Chain SRAM PC1110
- Crankset RaceFace Aeffect SL
- Chainring 30t Narrow/Wide
- Shifter SRAM NX
- Brakes & Rotors Shimano Deore (centerlock) FR 180m/R 160mm
- Bottom Bracket Shimano PF92
- Headset FSA No.57B
- Stem Kona XC/BC 35
- Handlebar Kona XC/BC 35
- Grips Kona Race Light LOG
- Seatpost KS Eten Integra 31.6mm w/Shim for 34.9 ST
- Saddle WTB Volt Sport
- Rims WTB Scraper i40
- Front Hub Shimano Deore 110x15mm
- Rear Hub Shimano Deore 148x12mm
- Tires Schwalbe Nobby Nic TLE 27.5×2.8″
Many people will be disappointed to see a press-fit bottom bracket employed on Big Honzo frames. While it is true that, on most bikes, a press-fit BBs have a bad reputation for creaking, and offers few performance benefits compared to threaded bottom bracket shells, the BB92 standard used here offers a significantly wider bottom bracket shell than any other standard. This allows for the chainstay yoke welds to be pushed wider for that impressive combination of plus-tire clearance and ultra-short chainstays. Though I only heard a handful faint creaks emanating from the bottom bracket region over a thousand-miles test, I’m also not too keen on press-fit BBs. But I get it: in this case, BB92 is a solution to a real design constraint. And, as you read on, you’ll see why I’ll choose the Big Honzo DL’s progressive, new-school geometry over a thread-in bottom bracket ten times out of ten. The trade-off is worth it.
Despite its ‘DL’ stamp – short for Kona’s old Dee-Lux marker for the fancier build options – the Big Honzo DL’s build remains low on bling. Instead the parts spec combines blue-collar quality and reliability where it counts with cost-cutting where it can be done without sacrificing durability.
A Sram NX 1×11 drivetrain is disguised behind a GX rear derailleur, as is common practice in the bike industry. The NX’s shifting performance wasn’t quite as tack sharp as what I’ve come to expect from mid-level Shimano products, though it proved completely reliable, requiring little more than an occasional turn of the barrel-adjuster over the duration of the test period.
The NX cassette mounts on a standard freehub body, in this case Boost-spaced Shimano Deore hubs, offering a range of 11-42, rather than Sram’s more typical 10-42. Those wishing to upgrade to a larger range will not be able to swap to other Sram 11-speed cassette models without swapping to an XD-driver-equipped rear wheel, but I imagine Shimano’s new 11-46 11-speed cassette will mate fine with the NX/GX transmission. I found the stock 11-42 matched with its 30T chain ring totally adequate for loaded riding on the Colorado Trail.
More exciting are the Rock Shox Yari 120mm fork, WTB i40 tubeless-ready rims, Schwalbe Nobby Nic 2.8” tubeless-ready tires, and Race Face Aeffect SL cinch (i.e. direct-mount chainring). These big-ticket items are quality, no-frills performers. The tire/rim combo easily aired up tubeless, and the Nobby Nics proved impressive over a wide range of conditions. Though lacking some of the Pike’s tunability, Rock Shox’s Yari offers the same burly platform at a mid-level price range. Adding a single volume token for a more progressive stroke, I was able to get very close to the same feel I’d strive for in a much, much fancier fork.
Although the Big Honzos come speced with 2.8” plus tires, I also spent time on the bike running aggressive 3.0” Terrene Chunk tires. Clearance was ample for 3.0s. Having spent thousands of hours rolling on 3” tires, it was not terribly surprising that I preferred the wider format, even if I loved the Schwalbe tread. But, I learned a lot about the industry’s apparent preference for 2.8” tires: they seem great for the new convert.
The sweet spot on 2.8s is at a higher pressure where it’s a lot easier to avoid rim strikes. Since most plus-curious consumers will have their first plus experience on a demo bike equipped with tubes, this means a lot less pinch-flats to give a bad first impression, and you get a nice taste for the added stability, speed, and suspension afforded by big rubber. By the time a new plus-bike owner wears out their first tires, I suggest trying out some three-point-Os. And tubeless is absolutely mandatory for either tire width.
The Big Honzo’s build is rounded out with Shimano Deore brakes and Shimano Center-Lock rotors. While the brakes perform admirably, the Center-Lock rotors were a real nuisance when it came time to pack the bike for a flight or a bus ride, as I never carry the large, specialty tools needed to remove these rotors for safe travel. In the end, I left them on and risked damaged rotors.
I’ve done my fair share of complaining about the bike industry’s chronic overuse of too-long crank arms. By the end of a long day, while using flat pedals, my feet have, on bikes with extremely common geometry, shifted so far back that only the tips of my toes extend past the pedal spindles. Or else, I might stand up for a spell, even on a flattest dirt road, to give my body a rest. I’ve done this because it felt easier, of course. Ride enough miles and you don’t need a watt-meter to tell you when you’re getting more pedal power for the same effort. A related frustration comes from exhausting myself on climbs by pulling on the handlebar, trying to lever myself against something to resist the force of my pedaling.
What does this have to do with the Kona Big Honzo DL? In short, this the first 175mm crank-equipped bike I’ve spent time on where I never once did these things. The secret is completely within its geometry.
The short rear, long front-center, and low bottom bracket height have inspired people I’ve spoken to wax on about “long, low, slack” enduro geometry. It is a combination usually considered “aggressive” with a strong bias toward descending. The equation, however, is a bit more complicated than that.
Logan was right to attribute the laziness of the Salsa Woodsmoke – which has comparably short chainstays, long top tube, and the same head angle – on steep climbs to some these factors, but there are other very important factors at play. Namely, the down sides Logan noticed can be totally mitigated by tuning other aspects of a bike’s geometry in concert with those three variables.
To start, however, I’d counter that the Honzos are not even particularly slack. Their 68° head angle, the variable most often used to measure ‘slackness’, is pretty average these days. Well, actually, a 68° head angle has been very common on 26” wheeled bikes for decades. It was only with the advent of 29ers that 71° head angles came to be seen as common for hardtail bikes. Why? I can only guess. Perhaps due to their common rim size, designers borrowed frame geometry from road bikes when 29er wheels came along.
Admittedly, steering handling depends on more than head angle. The Rock Shox Yari’s 51mm offset, the short 40mm stem and 750mm wide handlebar add up to down-right snappy steering of the sort you might expect from a bike with more XC pedigree. There have been moments where I might have even considered accusing it of being twitchy, but given my comfort descending the Big Honzo DL at moderate speeds, I’ll let it go at ‘neutral feeling’ – basically everything I’d hope for in a hard tail.
More important to the Big Honzo’s climbing prowess are the short, 415mm chainstays, and its unusually steep 75° seat tube angle. The short stays make for an exceedingly precise bike. Climbing or descending, the rear wheel followed my feet with millimetric accuracy. The danger of tucking the rear wheel so far forward is, if too much of a rider’s weight ends up over the rear wheel and too little over the front wheel, steering can feel lazy and unwieldy while climbing. A steep seat angle puts the saddle, and therefore the rider’s centre of gravity, further forward on the bike. I experienced none of sloppy climbing one might worry about with supposed ‘descent-biased’ geometry. You see, “slack” is perhaps not the best word for this bike.
Beyond mitigating the sternward centre of gravity shift from such short chainstays, Kona’s use of a steep seat tube resulted in the most comfortable seated pedaling position I’ve found anywhere. Too low a seat tube angle, puts riders behind the pedals, and can encourage a lower cadence and therefore require more forceful pedaling, which can be hard on knees and undoubtedly leaves me feeling more worn out after a day of pedaling. Conversely, I found no down side to sitting further over the pedals on the Big Honzo. In fact, on most climbs, I remained comfortably balanced on the saddle and never wasted energy pulling back on the handlebar like on most other bikes I’ve spent as much time on. Staying on top of the pedals just felt biomechanically more efficient.
On the steepest climbs, rather than getting out of the saddle to keep powering down on the pedals, I’d place a sit bone right on the very nose of my saddle, and crank up hills that I’d have certainly walked on my Krampus. With my weight still mostly supported on the saddle, it’s enough to keep rear wheel traction while avoiding the huge added effort of climbing out of the saddle.
All else equal, sliding forward in the cockpit will make it feel more cramped. This is why the reach measurement on the Honzos look so long. It’s not that the top tube is actually much longer than on many other hard tails out there, it’s just that the ‘reach’ component – which gives a measurement to the part of the top tube forward of the bottom bracket – takes up a larger fraction. If you don’t follow, don’t worry: these are all sort of virtual measurements used to express various nuances of bike geometry. The point is that if you’re into comparing geometry charts you shouldn’t be alarmed by the massive reach measurements. The Big Honzo fits like other bikes out there. A small is still a small and a large still large.
As usual, at 6’2”, I fit squarely in between size L and XL. This time, I went for the L, but I wonder if I might actually be slightly happier on an XL, as is usually the case. I eventually swapped the stock 40mm stem for a 50mm, and my hands felt a little happier for it.
While I’m at it, a note on comparing Seat Tube Angles.
Seat tube angle seems like a pretty straight-forward unit to compare on hard tails right? It’s just the angle of the seat tube from horizontal. Ninety degrees would be vertical, while most bike are mostly somewhere between 71°, on a BMX cruiser-inspired bike like a Jones Plus, and 80° on ultra-aerodynamic time trial or triathalon powerhouses. Except, because so many seat tubes have curves in them these days, it is deceptively complicated, and all too easy to go around comparing apples to oranges.
Let’s leave straight seat tubes aside for a moment – those are simple. Most seat tube angles listed in geometry charts for curved tubes measure the angle of an invisible line traced between the center of the bottom bracket, and the middle of the top of the seat tube. The angle at which the seat post protrudes from the frame is irrelevant to this measurement. Where a chart lists “effective seat tube”, it might measure the angle of an invisible line traced between the center of the BB and the center of the seat post at the point where it is level with the top of the head tube. This is a closer reflection of what’s relevant, but still doesn’t really give the full story of where your saddle will end up, and still doesn’t tell you the angle of the seat post itself.
On the Kona Honzo DL, the 75° angle reflects the first angle – from BB to top of seat tube. The effective seat tube angle is about 73.5°, while the seat post protrudes from the frame at about 73.4° (based on my best measuring ability). Comparing the first number to the Salsa Woodsmoke’s listed 73.4° angle, for example, makes them seem not so dissimilar. Yet, the sharp bend in the Woodsmoke’s seat tube puts the saddle way further back over the rear axle than that of the Honzo. Only by comparing the actual seat post angles could we begin to see this in the geometry charts. Yet that angle is never listed.
Sticking with this example, it’s important to note that Salsa lists the Woodsmoke’s geometry based on using a rigid fork, while Kona lists the geometry with the stock 120mm suspension fork unsagged. Unsagged, the Woodsmoke’s angles would be roughly 2° slacker. So, despite some seemingly similar numbers on the geo charts, the two bikes have wildly different geometry when carefully compared. I’ve experience the difference first hand when my Krampus, which I love as a rigid bike, transformed into an unwieldy and uncomfortable climber with the addition of a 100mm Manitou Magnum suspension fork.
The only value that actually matters in all this, of course, is the horizontal distance between the pedals at power stroke and where you sit. This can be adjusted by using different length crank arms and by sliding the saddle forward and back on its rails. Seat tube angles can help give you a rough idea of this measurement while just looking at a geometry chart, but be careful when making comparisons between models.
Long, low, slack? I’d call the Big Honzo not particularly slack and not as long as the reach implies (though still designed around a 35-50mm stem length). But it is low. So low, in fact, that this became my biggest gripe with the geometry.
A low bottom bracket height feels great when railing through smooth, swoopy turns. It makes it feel like you’re in the bike, as opposed to on it. Long, low, and slack has come into vogue – for descent-biased bikes – for good reasons. The downside can be frequent pedal strikes on slow, technical climbs. This is especially the case on loaded bikes, as one gives up some flexibility to time pedaling or roll through obstacles on a heavier bike.
The Big Honzo’s spritely geometry and traction afforded by plus tires lend themselves so well to technical climbing that I found myself cranking up steep climbs that I’d have previously walked. Usually, my climbing ability is limited by my fitness, and the powerful riding position on the Kona significantly extends my climbing stamina. This is great. But, it makes it all the more frustrating when I must come off the bike because of a pedal strike, and whether loaded or unloaded this happens frequently on raw, backcountry trails. You could blame this on my technique, but no matter one’s baseline skill set, frequent pedal strikes are going to tax anyone’s abilities once the trail gets sufficiently rough. Isn’t this an issue that hardtails are meant to avoid?
The Big Honzo DL’s 175mm Race Face Aeffect cranks and low-engagement Shimano Deore hub, while very reliable, conspire to ensure that pedal strikes happen all too frequently on technical trails where this bike otherwise shines. If I were to build a Big Honzo frame up from scratch, I would without a doubt use 170mm cranks, and prioritize a higher engagement freehub on my budget. A rear hub with less than 10° clicks, as opposed to the Deore’s 22.5° clicks, would make a world of difference for ratcheting the pedals through rough ground without risking pedal-to-ground contact or stalling out.
On flat roads, of course, the low bottom bracket is great. It’s part of the recipe that makes the Big Honzo so comfortable. You may be thinking that if this bike excels on steep climbs and gnarly descents, then it may be less suited to mellower terrain than a bike with more traditional geometry. But that is a false dichotomy. The only thing that might prevent me from choosing this bike for a months-long dirt road tour is the lack of gear capacity within its very small front triangle. (And, on such a trip, I might leave the dropper post behind in favour of a rigid post and a much larger seat pack.) The riding comfort I found on climbs, does indeed carry over onto flat and even paved roads that usually leave me sorest of all.
In fact, were I ever to endeavor to race the Tour Divide, the Honzo CR Race would be near the top of my list. That steep seat tube angle would undoubtedly be well suited to riding with aero bars, much as it is on time trial bikes where this combo is common.
The Big Honzo DL has been an inspiring descender, too. The short stays make the bike easy to hop, pop, and flick, and encouraged me to ride more playfully that I might usually with a loaded bike. This being a hard tail with a mere 120mm of suspension, there’s a definite speed limit on rough descents. That’s expected of any short travel hard tail. But it is nimble enough to avoid obstacles rather than barreling through them.
Those short stays also mean that when you stand out of the saddle to descend, you’re already toward the back of the bike, with a lot of confidence-inspiring top tube between you and your front wheel. The seat, however, is also still right there between your legs. With a slacker seat angle and a BB further forward, one sort of ends up in front of the saddle when stood up on the pedals. Not so much on the Honzo. Fortunately, the dropper post negates any concern that might arise from trying to rip down a trail with a seat still mostly in the way. Duh. Dropper posts exist to solve this problem.
- Nearly everything related to its geometry makes the Big Honzo just a really good bike: It’s comfortable; Efficient riding position; Climbs really well; Confidence-inspiring descender (for a hard tail); Also does flat well; Fun, playful, nimble
- Rock Shox Yari fork and Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires stand out as great components
- Light overall weight thanks to hydroformed aluminum frame
- Internal routing for cables but external for hoses, which is clean but low-faff
- Relatively low bottom bracket height conspires with long crank arms and low-engagement hub for annoying pedal strikes
- NX shifting could be snappier
- Center-lock rotors are an annoyance to remove for travel
- Press-fit bottom bracket
- Small front triangle means limited frame bag space
- Limited braze-ons for one bottle cage only
- Size tested Large
- Weight TBA
- Place of manufacture (frame) Taiwan
- Price $2,399
- Contact KonaWorld.com
Kona seems reluctant to call any of the Honzo hardtails cross-country bikes, instead preferring the moniker of “trail hardtail”. But, I think this has more to do with the fact that the term “cross-country” has been sullied, for most recreational cyclists out there, by the focus on racing. Somewhere along the line, the industry forgot that a cross-country bike should be able function competently everywhere – steep up, steep down, all day, gravel paths, or deep in the tech-gnar – in favour of expert-only portals to the VO2max pain-cave. The Big Honzo and Big Honzo DL are throwbacks to the go-anywhere recreational bikes from the dawn of mountain biking. It’s a bike with no racing niche. This being 2016, you need just a mountain bike with smart, progressive geometry that will make the most of your abilities and let you ride.
To quote some classic Star Trek wisdom, “it is possible to make no mistakes and still lose”. Many of the largest bike companies out there are ‘making no mistakes’. Sure, they’re keeping up with the times on geometry, but they’re also taking no risks, sticking to what are perceived as “safe” numbers. Kona’s design team has earned my utmost respect by bypassing an unfortunately common formula that puts more emphasis on marketing than on engineering. Looking at the numbers, few people would guess that the Big Honzo is an absolute champion climber. But, there’s an honesty to moving efficiently over challenging terrain that does not tolerate any marketing bull shit. Kona has played their hand.
The DL’s build offers no frills but proved reliable over more than a thousand miles of singletrack riding on the Colorado Trail, and the North Shore’s burly downhills. That I spent so little time worrying about components suggests that Kona has done well at the balancing act between making a bike that people will love, and hitting a price point. Besides, the Big Honzo’s precise and intuitive handling, and its powerful riding position, make it far greater than the sum of its parts. If you’ve heard people say they’d rather ride a $2500 mountain bike from 2016 than a $10,000 bike from 2008, this the bike they are talking about.
Disclosure: The Kona Big Honzo DL was loaned to us for this review.