Ben has been testing a gravel bike in the form of the Kona Sutra ULTD that might make you slow down and enjoy the view.
Whether you want to ride road, gravel, or go on a bike packing adventure, the Kona Sutra ULTD should have you covered with its Cromoly frame and versatile spec list. Ben has been bumbling round the muddy bridleways and back roads of Somerset this winter to see how she goes.
Photos by Dave Price.
Kona Project Two Cromoly fork
SRAM Rival 1 11-speed drive
SRAM Rival 1 brakes
Formula hubs on WTB KOM Light Team i27 TCS 2.0 rims
The Sutra is not the sort of bike I would normally ride or test, but when the guys at Kona offered to send one over for some winter miles, my interest was piqued by the unusual build kit and the classic lines of the Kona Cromoly frame. It was only after a few rides down rocky byways and on forest fire roads that I realised that I had literally been transported back to my MTB roots and my first proper bike, a 1995 Kona Fire Mountain.
I was riding the same sort of trails as I did in the late 90s, and apart from the drop bars and disc brakes, both bikes looked pretty much the same, so I did a bit of Googling and was pleased to find my suspicions confirmed when I compared the geometry charts. This modern iteration of a gravel bike has very similar geometry numbers to a classic Kona MTB which at the time had quite progressive geometry with its low stand over height and relatively long top tube.
This is not a bad thing in any way, it is just really interesting to me that a 2021 gravel bike is probably way more capable off road than my first MTB, given that it has a wide range cassette, powerful disc brakes and bigger, grippier tyres. The Sutra is even 1.5 degrees slacker with its 69.5 degree head angle. How far we have come…
Anyway, back to the present, and the Sutra ULTD is a very versatile bike, a true jack of all trades. The riding position is upright and comfortable for long days in the saddle, thanks in part to the frame design and then thanks to the large stack of headset spacers it came with. For proper adventures, the frame and fork are covered in bolts for water bottles, luggage and a variety of other accessories that mean you could take this off on some serious expeditions. In fact, if the apocalypse was coming, then the Sutra ULTD might be a good option to escape to the hills on.
Its off road credentials are boosted by the 29 inch WTB KOM Light Team i27 rims laced to Formula hubs and shod with high volume and grippy-for-gravel Maxxis Rekon Race tyres. It also has a Tranz X dropper post should you wish to terrify yourself on proper single track or anything steep. The post is activated with the left brake lever and gears are handled by the right lever of the SRAM Rival 1 disc brake set.
There is plenty of choice on sizing with 6 options from 48cm going up in 2cm increments to 58cm, with all sizes featuring low stand overs. This means that you have some leeway depending on your preference on riding position. You can be more upright, or more stretched out and racy if you like.
The 445mm chain stays give plenty of mud and tyre clearance out back and space to fit a full set of mud guards for winter duties. The long rear centre also means that this bike works well with a pannier and rack as with shorter bikes your heel can often hit the pannier. I spent a lot of time using the Kona as a commuter, lugging my laptop and kit to and from work and it felt really solid, even with a heavy load.
This is no feathery light race bike, and you can certainly feel this on the climbs compared to the other gravel bikes I have ridden in the past year. A bike like the Sutra is more about the journey and enjoying being outside on the open roads. That’s not to say that you can’t cover some serious miles on it, but it is not a bike that ever encourages you to go hard or race some roadie up the local climb.
Even with a pannier on board, I found the 11-42 tooth SRAM cassette and 36t X-Sync chainring to give me enough gears to spin away comfortably. If you were doing longer, steeper off-road adventures with camping gear, then you may wish to consider a double chain ring to avoid getting off and walking though.
Off road grip can be a limiting factor on a gravel bike, but where the Sutra concedes some rolling speed, it gains some traction as the Maxxis cross country MTB tyres have considerably more bite than any gravel or cross over tyres that I have ridden before. I was happy running the tyres at about 25 psi where I felt I had a good balance between grip and puncture protection for my 80kg body weight.
I liked the upright riding position and when combined with the Cromoly Project 2 fork and comfy bar tape, it meant that all-day missions were despatched in relative comfort.
On a couple of occasions, the dropper post and disc brakes tricked me into riding some wild bridleways a bit too fast and basically scaring the crap out of myself. I think this is a good thing, and I didn’t ever crash the purple Prism-painted Kona, but as soon as you get going you are quickly reminded why MTBs have moved on so much since the 90s.
On flat out road descents you can certainly feel and hear the added rolling resistance of the wide tyres, but as I said, this bike is more about the journey, and maybe by slowing down a bit on the hills you might actually enjoy the view. When speeds do pick up, you can be confident in the SRAM Rival 1 disc brakes with their 160mm rotors which were very dependable and had a nice lever feel that firmed up the harder you pulled them.
With the saddle down, you can muck about trying to drift gravel turns as if back in the days of Repack. Once you get used to curly handle bars it can be flicked about the trails in quite a fun manner, the weight helping it to feel more planted than lighter, carbon offerings that are more focused on speed. With modern, high volume tyres it is hard to really feel the qualities of the Kona Cromoly frame, apart from saying that this bike never felt harsh even on rocky sections of bridleway.
Whilst there were times when I was blasting fire roads when I was reminded of the Nukeproof Digger that I reviewed back in summer 2018, the unique spec and huge luggage capacity means that I don’t have much to directly compare it to.
What do we think?
If the Zombie apocalypse is coming and you need to pack your life and escape to the hills, then the Kona Sutra ULTD would be my bike of choice.
Jack of all trades and hard to define
Classic lines and skinny Cromoly tubeset
Slow down and enjoy the journey
Could Do Better:
A bit slow on the road
You can check out the Kona Sutra ULTD on Kona’s website here.
Read all our other bike tests on our Bike Reviews page here.