While my frame continues to languish in the back of the shop, awaiting action by Trek’s glacially efficient Warranty Department, I got a chance to ride another full-suspension 29er. This time, it was the Kona Hei Hei 2-9, and the venue was the Harlow Lake trails, site of the 2011 12 Hours of Potluck. The main comparisons to this bike will be my normal ride, a 26″ Gary Fisher HiFi and the 29″ Specialized Camber I reviewed a little while ago.
The first thing to get out of the way is that the version of the bike I rode has very little in common with the version you get shipped by Kona. The version I rode belongs to one of the owners of The Bike Shop in Houghton, and has received the full SRAM XX treatment. Really all that remains of the version you can find on Kona’s website is the frame and rear shock. Otherwise, there was a Truvativ Noir bar wearing Ergon GX1 grips and XX shifters. Rear shifting was handled by an XX rear derailleur and the front was “only” an X0 front derailleur. Power was transmitted through XX cranks and an XX Reba fork soaked up the hits up front. The Maxxis Ignitor in the front and Aspen in the rear were mounted on Stan’s ZTR Crest rims. To get enough setback, I was riding my own crankbrothers Cobalt seat post and Bontrager inForm saddle. In short, it was the most expensive bike I have ever ridden. Clearly, the ride should be excellent. So how was it?
This is a super-light bike that looks very good. The raw aluminum finish works well. Everything about the way the bike was built makes it want to get up and go. With the ProPedal off, the Float RP23 is a little active. If you stand up and pedal, you bounce around like crazy. This does translate to a comfortable ride when the trail gets rough, but is very annoying when you’re sprinting out of a corner. When you compare this to the FSR suspension on the Camber, it feels really inefficient. The trade-off is that the Camber bounces you around a little more that the Hei Hei. My HiFi has a Float RPL and I almost always run with ProPedal on. I imagine that riding the Hei Hei with ProPedal on would give you the best of both worlds. (I think it’s worth noting that the Camber uses a RockShox Ario, which doesn’t seem to have any specific platform damping that I can find.) On the extended climb that is part of the Potluck course, the Hei Hei went up exceptionally. However, I wonder how much of that is the insane lightness of everything versus the efficiency of the suspension and geometry.
Descending was adequate. It felt lighter than my HiFi and even a bit lighter than the Camber, but somehow didn’t have the same kind of maneuverability that the Camber did. I don’t know if that came from the short stem, the Noir riser bars or the overall frame geometry, but it felt like I needed a lot more steering input to get the behavior I wanted out of the bike. Big hits were also really, really noisy. I don’t know what was causing the noise – chain slap, suspension linkages, whatever – but it was always a bit disconcerting.
One thing I didn’t really notice until after I had returned the bike to its rightful owner was the fact that pedal strikes are almost non-existent. My XT-level SPD pedals are only 1.5 years old, but look really beat up due to the number of times I clip rocks and roots on the HiFi. There were fewer pedal strikes with the Camber, but in 4 hours of riding, I had but one single strike with the Kona. This is apparently due to the very high bottom bracket, something that doesn’t seem to have any ill effects elsewhere.
The 19″ bike felt a little small with the short stem that was on there, but the standover height was sufficient for my 32″ inseam. I think it would just be a matter of getting the right stem to get a good fit. The other components worked like they ought to, given the price. 2×10 shifting is crisp, precise and, above all, quick. The Avid hydraulics offered plenty of stopping power, but also enough modulation to let you control your speed on descents. The Reba fork was smooth, though I think the remote lockout is more than I need. The Ergon grips would take a lot of getting used to. The “wing” portion added a new pressure point on my palms that started to get irritated after 4 laps of the racecourse. I also miss having options for multiple hand positions. This would be remedied with the Ergon GX2 or GS2 grips, but then you couldn’t use the carbon handlebars. The Maxxis Ignitor was pretty much flawless, and I was suitably impressed with the grip of the Aspen. The Aspen did want to let go under hard braking such that the tail of the bike wanted to whip around to the front, but scrambled up loose climbs, even when I was standing and turning over a stupidly big gear.
At the end of the day, this bike performed like a bike with its price tag ought to perform: Incredibly well. But if you can’t swing $5000 for a full-suspension 29er with the XX treatment, what are you left with? I think the answer is a very capable trail rig that will still carry you through rough racecourses (like the kind we have up here in the UP) or along your favorite marathon course. I know I was fresher and less beat up than my race partner, who was piloting a Specialized Stumpjumper Expert Evo R 29er. My main wish list would be for less bob in the suspension (even with ProPedal off) and steering that was a bit more nimble.
My time on the Hei Hei 2-9 made me rethink my position on buying a Kona a little bit. I had been pretty much anti-Kona before the ride, and now I would consider them. It would be a hard sell over something with a firmer suspension feel, but years of riding a single-pivot with ProPedal have shown me I can adapt to just about anything. If you like the look and can swing the price, I would recommend it for those involved in marathon racing, rougher XC riding or just the all-day epics.