Kona Big Kahuna Review

In late 2004, the Trek Demo Van showed up at Lebanon Hills while I was riding there and I took the opportunity to ride a Gary Fisher Paragon.  I was completely in love.  It felt faster than my Fisher Wahoo and I loved the handling.  I asked the Demo Guy what happened to the bikes at the end of the year and he told me that a shop in Wisconsin ended up with them.  I called the shop at the end of the demo season but all the Paragons were already claimed.  I was pretty bummed.

Not long after we moved to the U.P., the Trek Demo Van came here too.  I rode a Fisher Rig (a singlespeed) and a full-suspension SuperCaliber.  I had fun with the Rig, but didn’t feel like it really needed a saddle.  I was either standing to pedal or standing so I didn’t get beat up by our rocky trails.  The SuperCaliber was just incredibly fast.  I had a blast.

One more visit of the Demo Van and I got a chance to ride a Fisher Superfly. I was chasing after a guy much faster than me and not having any problems keeping up.  I had an easier time riding that than the Trek Top Fuel I had just taken out.  Both were more fun to ride than the Fisher HiFi I had (though I did find that the suspension on the Top Fuel was a little overly active for my tastes).

What’s the common thread to all of those bikes?  They all had 29″ wheels.  Back when very few manufacturers offered a 29″ platform, I was loving the ride.  I just couldn’t justify the cost of the few 29″ full suspension bikes that were available and wasn’t sure I was ready to give up the plush ride of my HiFi for a 29″ hardtail.  I still took every chance I got to ride a 29″ bike.  Consider my demos of the Specialized Camber and Kona Hei Hei 2-9 for example.When I finally decided that I was abandoning Trek for a brand sold by my LBS, I was focusing on 29ers.  Almost no companies had a trail or race-oriented 29er that was anywhere near my price range.  Norco only had the Shinobi, Marin hadn’t released their Quad XC 29er yet.  Neither had Scott released their 29″ Spark.  I had really enjoyed my ride on the Hei Hei 2-9, but was feeling a little stretched to make that happen.

Then the owner of the LBS handed me the keys to a Jamis Dakota D29 pro and told me to go have fun.  Who am I to argue with 29″ of carbon XC goodness?

Well, the ride was okay.  It was clearly fast.  I could see it would make a great race bike.  But somehow, I couldn’t see myself just riding it for fun.  It wasn’t a fear of crashing it or anything like that.  I just wasn’t fired up about it.  So I took it back and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Then he pointed to a green Kona Big Kahuna and said, “What about that?  We can work out a good deal on that one.”  I loaded it up and took it off to Swedetown with my wife.  We rode almost all of the same trails I had ridden with the Jamis, but the experience was completely different.  I’m not sure I can put my finger on why that might be.  In this whole process of picking out a new bike, I had largely been thinking about a hardtail 29er as my “other” bike and a yet-to-be purchased full-suspension 29er as the primary steed.  About halfway through the ride that day, I realized something that caught me off-guard: If I bought that Big Kahuna, I wouldn’t ride any other bikes.  I liked it that much.

When I rolled it back into the shop the next day, I just said, “Yes, please!” It just needed a brake bleed and a little bit longer stem so that I could stretch out a bit more.  I was a tad concerned about the Maxxis Aspens that were mounted on the Easton wheels, especially with a trip to Copper Harbor on the horizon.  Even so, I swiped my plastic and took my bike home.

The bike was largely stock.  A Kona-branded cockpit up front was mated to a Kona seatpost and a Kona-edition WTB Valcon saddle.  The drivetrain and shifty bits are all various SRAM stuff, mainly X-7 (except for an upgraded X-0 rear derailleur — I’m not sure why it was on there to begin with).  Avid Elixir 5 brakes make the bike stop and a RockShox Recon fork keeps you from being rattled to death.

I’ve had an opportunity to ride in the Big Kahuna in a variety of trail conditions over the last 2 months.  I rode the Pilgrim River Trails in Houghton, which are mostly flat and all about the big ring.  I rode almost everything in the main Tech Trails system, from the climby sections to the rocky, rooty technical stuff.  I raced Copper Harbor on it.  I spent 2 hours dinking around on the flowy Swedetown trails.  And after all that, I have exactly two complaints.

First, when the trails get at all wet, the Aspens are pretty useless.  That’s probably not news to most people, but there it is.  That’s a pretty cheap upgrade though.  And in the end, no two people have exactly the same opinions on tires.  I put at Specialized Captain on the front, but haven’t done anything about the rear yet.

Second, I’m still struggling a bit with the fit.  The o° rise stem makes me feel like I’m leaning forward on the handlebars too much and I can’t find a really comfortable place on the WTB saddle.  But really, those are also pretty cheap fixes, as soon as I can get to a Specialized dealer for a Body Geometry fitting.

That’s it.  Really.  I can’t point at anything else on the bike and say, “I don’t like that,” or “That just doesn’t work for me.”

Let me go one step farther: The Big Kahuna has completely reinvigorated my passion for mountain biking.  Trails that had become boring and old hat are suddenly new again.  I’m having to learn a completely new riding style after piloting nothing but 26″ full suspension bikes for the last 5 years.  I have to start picking my lines better, which suddenly makes the trails a different place.  Hill climbing is a blast without a shock sucking up your efforts (and are even better with the fork locked out).  The Race Light frame seems just flexy enough to combine with the 29″ wheels to let you rip the downhills.  The shifting is snappy and the brakes work a lot better than my old BB7’s.  Having a 3×10 setup means you can always find the perfect gear.  It has a quicker steering feel than the Hei Hei and more like the Camber, whether the geometry numbers supports that feel or not.  And when you’re down with the ride and just looking at the bike, it looks great just sitting there.

I can sum up my praises of this bike in three basic ways:

  1. Our area used to be Trek’s second biggest market for full-suspension bikes, yet I don’t find myself missing my 26″ full suspension bike at all.
  2. I suddenly want to fill my garage with Kona bikes and my closet with Kona shirts.
  3. I am almost sad cyclocross season is here.  Almost.

I am already dreaming about riding the Big Kahuna in my local races next year and really getting a bead on how to handle it on our trails. 2012 is going to be a fun year on fat tires.

The only question left is: What do I do with all the 26″ tires hanging out in my basement?

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