Kona Process 153

US-based Kona is renowned for producing bikes that suit aggressive riders. Their bikes traditionally have a robust build and geometry, and suspension more suited to going down than up. Even their (fairly limited) cross country range has a few nods to the company's leanings, with travel and angles closer to what you'd expect from a trail bike than most competitors.

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There’s plenty of metal in Kona's catalogue. Their steel and titanium hardtails are famous for their ability to ride trails well above their pay grade, and are built in a way that will survive the apocalypse. Hell, they even have a range of steel road bikes. But carbon is increasingly infiltrating Kona's lineup, including the new Process, which is either a curse on the brand's blue-collar aesthetic, or proof that they are taking on the biggest brands out there.

First released in 2013, the original Process was a rugged, well thought through trail bike with a tried and true rocker-driven single-pivot suspension arrangement. Specced with 160mm a Lyrik fork, big rubber, 66 degree head angle and wide bars, it seemed to anticipate shifts in the market (it did of course have tiny 26 inch wheels - remember them?!). 2014 saw expansion of the Process range to include the 29 inch wheeled Process 111 (with 111 mm of rear travel) and two 650b options (bye bye 26) with the shorter travel Process 134 (with 134 mm of travel), and the 153 (take a guess...). A massaged suspension layout – though still a linkage driven single pivot - was introduced to create a bike that refined everything that people loved about the original. It has always had a certain x factor that had riders commonly describing it as "fun" and "confidence inspiring".

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The Process range received another revamp this year with a return to the suspension aesthetic of the original and the introduction of carbon. The question for me is whether the new take on the much-loved Process 153 retains its mongrel side, but in a more refined and user friendly package.

The bike

I've been riding the new Process 153 CR, which sits below the top spec DL version. There's a lot to like about the $6000 build, and Kona have obviously considered the intended use of this bike and the kind of rider it will appeal to (well, mostly - more on that later). Fat carbon all round for stiffness, and an aluminium chainstay for durability. It has a 160mm Lyrik fork up front, wide enough WTB Asym rims running fat sticky Minion DHFs, four pot SRAM Guide brakes, wide bars, short stem, 170mm Reverb dropper and GX Eagle drivetrain. Out of the box there's nothing that immediately needs replacing. If I was to nickpick, the thin and hard grips won't suit everyone and do little to dull the small bumps transferred through the stout 35mm diameter bars. The DL version adds a grand to the price, which gets you better brakes and X01 drivetrain, nicer hubs and a piggy back shock; certainly worth seriously considering if you can afford that relatively small increase.

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The new Process is a looker. Beefy carbon tubing around the headtube, bottom bracket and check out those beefy seatstays (!), along with aggressive angles that make it look like it's ready lurch forward. Nice internal routing and rubber damping ensures a clean finish and quiet ride. Oversized sealed bearings underline the intended use and bode well for longevity. All manufacturers should take note of the spare derailleur hanger integrated into the cabling cover on the downtube (although the tiny screws holding the cover make for a royal faff to reinstall).

The new (old) rocker-driven-single-pivot suspension design has the advantage of freeing up real estate in the front triangle to create space for a water bottle, whereas the previous model had to opt for the poop-scoop mount. The main pivot has been lifted up to be pretty-much inline with a 32 tooth chainring for increased anti-squat over the previous model, so it ought to pedal better, especially uphill. A press fit bottom bracket adds stiffness (and lower production cost) but might be a bugbear for some buyers. In line with current industry direction, it has boost spacing front and back, and you'll need a tool to remove the rear wheel.

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Geometry is modern - low, long and slack(ish), with a particularly long reach of 475 mm for the large, which is on a par with the new Transition Patrol that makes a point of emphasising the roominess of its cockpit. The stumpy 40 mm stem works well with the reach numbers. Helped by the trunnion mounted shock, standover is at the lower end for bikes in this category at a mere 700 mm.  The seat tube angle has been steepened by 2 degrees to 76.

Going up

Let's be clear - like its predecessors, the new Process is an aggressive trail bike that is happiest when heading towards sea level. However, thanks to the revised suspension and geometry, the entry fee that the previous model charged a rider to get to the top of a run has been significantly reduced. The local climbs I have to endure include long but bike friendly singletrack, short punchy climbs, and horrendous doubletrack.

The suspension behaved sensibly over awkward steps and roots, tucking up predictably without requiring any special techniques. SRAM’s 12 speed GX drivetrain provided welcome gearing for the grind and the steep seat tube helped centre me over the bottom bracket when climbing.

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Despite the long front end and generous suspension, it was possible to limit the front wheel wandering by getting well forward, with the short rear end meaning there was still (usually) enough weight on the rear to keep it from slipping under power. The short rear end also allowed me to attack sharp switchbacks while the rear wheel tracked obediently behind. I gave it some gas up a 3 kilometre grade 3 climb one morning with a fit rider behind me - the chat quickly disappeared as lungs were tested. By the top it was obvious the new Kona Process no longer requires the owner to forsake climbing ability for downhill prowess.

The soft compound Maxxis Minion DHF tyres front and rear provided ample grip on technical rooty climbs, and held onto off camber roots as well as any tyres out there. Of course, this comes at a price in the form of a lot of drag when riding on pavement. There will be no chasing down roadies on the way to the bike park with these things. 

Going down

All that improved climbing ability counts for nothing if it comes at the expense of downhill prowess. And given the Process's pedigree, my expectations were high. Over the last few months I have been able to test it out on a good collection of local trail descents, ranging from the mild to wild. 

Starting out I found that I had to run shock pressure a little higher than I would have liked, initially settling at around 23% to avoid frequent bottom outs. I'm around 90 kgs, and the suspension rate is fairly linear so many riders will benefit from adding volume reducers to increase ramp up at the end of the stroke, while allowing a bit more sag to absorb smaller bumps. Kona’s stock set-up had two volume reducers already installed; I added one more for a total of three (3.5 is the maximum that will fit). The additional reducer definitely helped as I was able to run closer to 30% sag (which is what Kona recommends) for additional small-bump anti-chatter, without inappropriate bottoming. (If this was my own bike I’d hunt around for a 1.5 sized shock token that is needed to be able to run the 3.5 maximum).

Once set up, the bike comes alive and is eager to pop off features and soak up big hits. Pumping into corners and bunny hopping is rewarded with a surprising amount of pep, even catching me off guard on its first outing as I found myself landing a couple of metres ahead of my usual spot on a fast step down. The fun factor has definitely been retained in this iteration, and it just begged to be chucked down silly lines.

Getting the most fun out of the bike does require good technique. Remember those short chainstays and low standover? Well, this makes it a joy to lean the bike over, use your heels to carve into turns and put plenty of trust in the sidelugs of those tyres. Even with flat or off camber corners, if you get your weight over the rear wheel it'll cling to the trail like gum on your shoe. I don’t know if this makes it faster (a longer back end might just follow the lead of the front without any fuss) but it's definitely more entertaining - and that's what the Process is all about, right?

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When things get really dicey, that burly fork, big rubber and decent brakes combine to produce a bike that is as confidence inspiring as anything I've ridden. I had a small question mark over the Guide R brakes, and they do feel a bit softer than the more expensive models but will haul you up with a good yank on the levers. I entered a hellishly steep and loose section way too fast, and should have been ejected over the bars, but the low and slack Process had my back and I rode it out with nothing but a brown stain to show for it.

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On really fast and rough trails the 29er would probably roll faster and the extra length and BB drop would add some stability. That's not a criticism of the mid wheeler as there are plenty of situations where it will outgun the 29er, and it's overall probably a more fun bike. A high spec carbon 29er version has now been launched and I’ve got my fingers crossed one makes it my way...

Conclusion

Earlier iterations of the Kona Process were renowned for their fun factor and downhill temperament that belied the mid-travel numbers. But they were heavy and the suspension was a bit soggy under pedal-power, which made them a bit of a chore to winch uphill. Kona has succeeded in updating the Process in a way that that retains the mongrel but fits it into a more user-friendly package. This is a versatile bike that should appeal to a huge range of riders who ride a variety of trails, including those that demand some white-knuckle moments.

Key Specs

  • Frame: Carbon fibre, with alloy chainstays
  • Rear Travel: 153mm
  • Front Travel: 160mm
  • Shock/Fork: RockShox Deluxe RC/Rock Shox Lyrik
  • Drivetrain/brakes: SRAM Eagle GX/SRAM Guide R
  • Wheels/tyres: Formula hubs-WTB Asym rims/ Maxxis Minions

Price: $5999

Weight: 14.4kg (w/o pedals)

Distributed by: Bikes International


Words: Simon Lawerence

Appeared in print in Issue 89 of the NZ Mountain Biker. Subscribe today.