- Kona Jake
No, you're right, this isn't a mountain bike. And it's not a road bike either. The Jake is a cyclocross bike, which means that you get a mix of road bike aero riding position, narrow tyres and associated speed with a dash of MTB ruggedness. And for something that's designed very specifically for one slightly obscure form of cycle sport, it's remarkably versatile...
Frames don't come much more straightforward than this. The Jake's made from butted 7005 aluminium tubing throughout and apart from the reinforced head tube ends there's pretty much no tube manipulation, curving or odd sections anywhere. That's not a criticism - with just two chainrings and narrow tyres there's not really any need to do anything too clever to fit everything in at the back, and we've never had cause to complain about simple straight tubes up front either.
While some purist 'cross frames are bereft of braze-ons (some don't even have bottle bosses as they're only meant to be ridden for an hour at a time), the Jake has the full complement. Two sets of bottle bosses plus rack and mudguard eyes at the back and mudguard eyes on the steel Project 2 fork open up all sorts of winter road/touring/commuter possibilities. You don't get a disc mount though, although we can't see that worrying too many people.
We were mildly disappointed to see the seat clamping slot around the back of the seat tube rather than the front as on Kona's MTBs - this is a bike intended for off-road, after all. Geometry is a 72.5degree head angle, 73degree seat and a 22.5in top tube on the "58cm" test bike.
As befits a bike that straddles the worlds of road and dirt, the component spec on the Jake is drawn from both. The most obvious road-esque parts are the Easton drop bars, 700C wheels and twin chainset. MTBish bits include the stem, SDG saddle and knobbly tyres. Oh, and the cantilever brakes in a retro kind of way.
The tyres are only mountain bike-like in that they've got knobs on, though. Compared to even the smallest MTB tyres the Nokian Ravagozzi Crosses are tiny. Well, they're quite big in outside diameter terms but they claim to be just 35mm wide. And they're not even that wide, coming in more like 32, or an inch and a quarter in old money. There's not a great deal of height in the casing to make up volume either, and they take a healthy 50-80psi. Wheels are Deore front and Shimano FH-3300 rear (that's roughly equivalent quality to Deore but in road bike 130mm over-locknut spacing).
Traditional cyclocross spec includes bar-end shifters mounted in the ends of the drops, but most contemporary 'crossers have gone for road bike integrated shifter/brake levers. Shimano Sora units do the job here. Unlike Shimano's higher-end STI levers the Soras don't have an "inner" brake lever to upshift - there's a Campy Ergopower-style thumb trigger instead. Downshifts are achieved by pushing the brake lever blade inwards. The levers drive a Tiagra rear mech across an eight-speed 12-25 cassette and a Sora front over a tidy ISIS drive Truvativ Elita chainset with 39 and 48 tooth rings.
Brakes are Avid Shorty 4 cantis, which seem to be pretty much standard issue on 'cross bikes, possibly because there isn't all that much else in the way of cantis out there. The arms are (as you might expect from the name) shorter than old MTB cantis - they don't need to be so long to clear the tyre and making them shorter makes them work more happily with the lower cable pull of drop bar levers.
It's all good, solid if unexciting stuff. We'd be the first to admit that a lot of equivalently-priced MTBs offer you a fair bit more for the money (suspension forks, discs) but it's a reasonable spec compared to other 'cross bikes. This is, after all, something of a niche item - there aren't all that many of them out there and compared to MTBs or road bikes economies of scale are a little lacking.
The briefest of glances at the Kona's hair's-breadth tyres, rigid forks and drop bars leads you to suspect that you're in for an interesting ride. And the Jake doesn't disappoint. The first surprise, though, is how unscary it is. We were half-expecting it to be terrifying, but compared to a road bike this is long and relaxed. By MTB standards, though, it's very flighty. You don't get many mountain bikes with 72.5degree head angles, and if you actually want to slow down with any conviction you need to be riding on the dropped bit of the bars which puts your hands pretty much directly above the front wheel and a long way down which takes some getting used to. But the bars themselves are pretty wide, the handling, while fast, doesn't spring any nasty surprises and we didn't hit our leading foot with the front wheel, which is nice.
The second surprise was comfort. Nothing about the Jake suggests a cushy ride. The tyres are narrow and hard, there's not much seatpost sticking out, it's a chunky frame with a rigid chromoly fork... But somehow it's not at all shabby. We had a bit of a sore back after a 65 mile mixed road/off-road ride but that's more down to the riding position than the bumps. Obviously you get bounced about a fair bit on off-road descents but a firm but relaxed approach keeps things in control.
While the riding position will be somewhat alien to seasoned MTBers, it's not as extreme as all that. The stem's quite short and angled, positioning the flat top of the bars in a sort of "slightly short MTB" place and the lever hoods an efficient stretch away. After years of one-position MTB bars we quickly got used to the myriad range of places to put your hands on the Easton drops. Riding on the hoods and standing up on the climbs makes you feel like Armstrong, while getting down on the drops for the descents makes you go all a bit early-90s Tomac. And if that's not a winning combination we don't know what is.
In some ways we're testing the whole idea of cyclocross bikes as much as this particular one here, and we have to say it makes a lot of sense to us. It's never going to compete with an MTB in techy singletrack, but you can manouevre it down most things at your own pace. And when the trail opens up it's unstoppable. The Jake eats fireroads and if you find yourself in a headwind you're laughing. It's great on the road too. The Nokian tyres roll quietly and while they're never going to be as quick as 23mm slicks they're miles easier going than 2.3in knobblies. They're pretty grippy, too. This is a fantastic mud bike, with the super-narrow tyres slicing through the gunge and finding traction in the most unlikely places. Their small volume is obviously a limitation on rockier ground but with a healthy amount of air in the tyres we only pinch-flatted once. And that was only because we had to overtake a bunch of FS MTBs hogging the smooth line...
There's no doubt that the Jake is designed for racing - the close-ratio block and 39/48 chainrings tell you all you need to know about its intentions - but Kona's thoughtful inclusion of a healthy selection of braze-ons make it splendidly adaptable and with a bit of judicious chainset and BB choice you could always put a triple on it. An easier mod would be a wider range cassette - a 12-30 or so would extend the range of climbable hills considerably at the expense of efficiency on flatter ground. Your call.
It's a great exploring bike, letting you easily charge around the lanes and try out any interesting-looking trails. It offers most of the good things about road bikes in a mountain biker-friendly package and it'll do a lot of stuff well - put slicks on it and it's a road bike, put a rack on it and it's a tourer, put mudguards and lights on and it's a fast commuter. Yes, an MTB could do all these things as well but the Jake does them better and retains a surprising degree of off-road capability. And of course if you've been riding MTBs for years and you're looking for a new challenge (but a singlespeed doesn't appeal) then look no further...
Kona's Jake isn't for everyone and while it does a lot of things well it's no match for an MTB on challenging trails. But the beauty of it is that more mundane trails become challenging, a boon for those of us who don't live somewhere with miles of technical singletrack on our doorsteps. We don't think we'd have one as an only bike, but if you're looking for an addition to your stable, this is a prime contender. And its versatility means it's easy to justify to yourself...