Kona Operator DL first ride review£3,799.00

DH bruiser gets updated with 27.5" wheels and aggro geometry

Kona’s Operator DH platform has been around since 2011, but this year it’s been given a serious overhaul, including a move to now de-rigeur 27.5” wheels. I hurled it down some seriously steep trails at Retallack Lodge in the wilds of British Columbia, Canada to see whether this new Operator is extra smooth or a missed connection.

Kona Operator DL highlights

  • Now has 27.5" wheels and aluminium only frame
  • Slacker head angle with lower bottom bracket and increased reach
  • Offers 200mm of travel at either end
  • More progressive rear suspension

The all aluminium frame is certainly built to take the knocks, with 200mm of travel at either end
The all aluminium frame is certainly built to take the knocks, with 200mm of travel at either end

Kona Operator DL spec overview

  • Frame: Kona DH 6061 aluminum butted 200mm travel
  • Fork: RockShox Boxxer RC Coil, 200mm
  • Shock: RockShox Kage RC Coil
  • Shifters: SRAM GX
  • Rear derailleur: SRAM GX
  • Chainset: Shimano Zee
  • Cassette: SRAM PG1030 11-28t 10spd
  • Rims: Mavic EX729
  • Hubs: Formula 110x20mm, 157x12mm
  • Tyres: Maxxis Minion DHF DH 3C 2.5"
  • Brakes: SRAM Guide R 200mm/200mm
  • Stem: Kona Direct Mount
  • Saddle: MTB Volt Sport
  • Bars: Kona DH

The move to mid-sized wheels has, relative to many other brands, been a fairly long time coming for Kona’s dedicated downhill rig. Despite fielding some seriously fast racers at World Cup level — take a bow Antipodean flat-pedal rager Conor Fearon — it's still a pretty small company, so it’s fair to say developing its trail bike range may well have taken priority over the more niche concerns of downhill. However, now it’s here, it’s safe to say it’s taken a load of features from the old bike and added a bit more, namely more reach and a more progressive rear end to dish out the 200mm of rear wheel travel.

The chainstays are now 3mm longer to compensate for the bigger hoops, but they’re still pretty damn tight relative to many at just 423mm. The bike is now also one degree slacker, with the head angle at 63 degrees, while the bottom bracket is lower with a 10mm drop from the axles. Save for the short chainstays, those numbers now put it right in the middle of the competition.

One area where this new model differs is that there’s no carbon fibre option, with all three models on sale using an all-new aluminium frame that’s available in three sizes, ranging from medium to extra large. At 5'8" tall, I tested the middle of the range Operator DL in a size medium.

There's now no carbon option, but the reach has been increased and the suspension made more progressive
There's now no carbon option, but the reach has been increased and the suspension made more progressive

In common with pretty much every shop-bought bike out there, the Operator does struggle to compete when it comes to equipment specification when compared to direct sales rivals such as YT or Canyon. That said, the £3,799 / US$3,999 you need to lay out does get you some workmanlike and functional kit.

Up front a RockShox Boxxer RC fork offers 200mm of coil-sprung travel and at the rear there’s a similarly coil sprung Kage RC shock, both offering external rebound and compression adjustment. SRAM also provides the stop and go kit with Guide R stoppers front and rear, both with 200mm rotors. A SRAM GX shifter moving a matching derailleur across a 10spd 11-28T block, with the notable exception of a Shimano Zee crankset sat in the press-fit bottom bracket, and an MRP G3 steel chain device helps keep everything under control too.

The own brand Kona DH handlebars are less impressive however, feeling horribly backswept and narrow. Count on getting shot of them as soon as possible, unless you’re a big fan of weirdy touring bars.

A SRAM GX 10spd set up provides the transmission
A SRAM GX 10spd set up provides the transmission

The Mavic EX729 rims are well proven, durable items paired to Formula hubs. It’s good to see some totally competent rubber in the form of some Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5” tyres, which both use a reinforced casing plus sticky triple compound tread. The rear hub has a 12x157mm spacing and the rather neat keyed axle means that you don’t need to struggle with a pair of Allen keys to get it undone. It joins a whole load of other neat frame features, such as seriously chunky and broad oversize bearings for the main pivots and an upper shock mount that likewise swings on bearings rather than a bushing.

Kona makes no secret of wanting to design durable bikes that can deal with a pasting day in and day out, a legacy easily visible in the number of old Stabs and Stinkys still being given less than loving treatment in bike parks the world over. That does mean that when it comes to weight, the Operator is less of a ballroom dancer and a bit more of a mosh pit headbanger, tipping the scales at a rather noticeable 18.42kg / 40.6lbs. Still, weights, specs and numbers often fail to accurately reflect the actual ride experience, so I forced myself into doing run after run on Retallack’s prime trails to find out.

Kona Operator DL ride impression

Suitably sorted and pointed downwards, even within the first few corners the bike was starting to inspire confidence. The Maxxis rubber hooks up nicely and the back end is remarkably supple, giving a nicely planted feeling. While the weight was definitely noticeable on flatter trail sections, those dinky chainstays meant it was easy to hop and pop the back end, allowing you to change direction or tweak the back end out at will.

I couldn’t help wishing I’d tried a large frame to see whether the extra 25mm reach made a dramatic difference to high-speed confidence and stability (I suspect it would) but the bike certainly isn’t a nervous wallflower by any means, giving me plenty of confidence when dropping into some particularly gnarly and loose sections, keeping the faith that catch berms on the exit would see me right.

One weak link that became apparent as speeds increased and I was helicoptered (yes, really) higher up in the mountains onto some serious wild terrain was that the Boxxer RC fork started to feel seriously out of depth. Lacking the Charger damper of more expensive brethren, repeated hard hits definitely had it feeling harsh and unsettled, while smaller trail chatter could have the wheel pinging off line fairly easily.

Of course, having to make component compromises will always be an issue with building a bike to a budget, but the supple and nicely progressive back end of the bike threw this into sharp contrast, despite using a similarly mid-spec Kage RC shock. That said, it was still competent enough to leave me happily smashing into rough, rooty and rocky sections with a high degree of confidence. The Guide R stoppers did a very respectable job of wiping off the speed too, though at 65kg cooking brakes isn’t a regular pasttime.

The suspension is nicely progressive, giving great support and traction
The suspension is nicely progressive, giving great support and traction

Kona Operator DL early verdict

Overall, the new Operator is a bundle of fun, with the new rear suspension curve being particularly praiseworthy. Wind it up to speed and it’s hugely competent and confidence inspiring, with a change of direction that belies such a long travel machine.

In this DL spec there are a few component compromises, most notably that mean the front end can feel a bit overwhelmed thanks to a relatively basic damper. On flatter trails, the heft of the bike is definitely noticeable too. If you’ve got deeper pockets the Operator Supreme does cure a lot of those issues with a much higher end build kit, which results in a lower weight making it a much better bet for racers.

However, if you’re after a bike that will handle endless bike park runs or gravity trips in the big mountains while giving you the confidence to send it over those big doubles and not worry about coming up a bit short, then the Operator DL certainly won’t let you down.

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