Kona are celebrating their 25th year of bike building, and the Hei Hei Supreme certainly looks like a gift for those after a super-light race or trail speedster.
For only a little more than last year’s Supreme, this big-wheeler flagship now has a full carbon frame, hopped-up Easton wheels, SRAM X0 kit (an upgrade from X9) and Race Face finishing kit. It’s a tempting deal on paper – but how does it perform out there in the hills?
Ride & handling: Speed at expense of stiffness
The Canadian company were one of the first manufacturers to team a super-light frame with a trail-sized cockpit and high-control fork in their game-changing late-’90s Kula hardtail.
Initial impressions promise a similar blisteringly fast but bewitchingly fun performance from the Hei Hei: with the suspension locked in Climb mode (or given a stable pedalling platform in Trail mode) its incredible lightness of being means it leaps out of the blocks as well as most 26in-wheeled racers that we’ve ridden.
The smooth-rolling wheels mean it sustains acceleration much better on rough climbs than small wheels can, and the steep seat angle puts you in a great position for attacking steep trails without looping out. This also means steady-power traction is good, despite the barely there tread of the Maxxis Ikon tyres.
Big bars, low weight and a relatively tall front still make it easy to pop the front wheel up over bigger obstacles when you need to. The butch bars also give a useful sense of security, while your forward-balanced weight means the front tyre naturally hangs in longer than the back when things get slippery.
Roll all these characteristics down the trail and if you’re cruising with smoothly spun gears, it’s a deft and efficiently easy techy-trail dispatcher or rough fire road flyer.
Things become slightly less convincing if you start trying to push the pace, or point the bike in a dramatically different direction to your current one. The low frame weight seems to come at the expense of stiffness, and those Easton wheels are pretty twangy.
The twist between the front and rear of the bike is made more obvious by the big bars, which properly snake the Hei Hei about if you’re giving it some out of the saddle or trying to shove it into tight singletrack corners.
If you stomp a big gear round while heaving the bars you knot it up even more, and it’s got a distinctly soft feel through the pedals – even when locked out. Peak power delivery isn’t helped by suspension that, unless you choke it down with the CTD lever, naturally bounces in time with your pedal strokes.
That in turn makes it more likely to stumble and spit traction on loose or rocky ground, and makes steady spinning attrition rather than sudden sprinting attacks the best climbing tactic for the Hei Hei Supreme.
Frame & equipment: Incredibly light and with upgraded spec
If it’s all about rolling up to the start line on the lightest machine, you won’t find many equals to the Kona tickling the stripy tape before the gun goes off. Even our large (19in) sample only weighed a hair over 25lb at 11.36kg, which makes it lighter than the Specialized Carbon Epic and the Giant Anthem Composite in the same price range – only the Lapierre XR 729 and Cube AMS 100 Super HPC SL 29 outgun it on grams from the bikes that we’ve tested recently.
The big tapered head leads into a smooth headbox with internal gear cabling, before tapering away in geometric section maintubes, which expand again to meet the big asymmetric seat tube and press-fit bottom bracket.
The bottom corner is also reinforced with twin shock mount webs, while a deep kink in the toptube keeps standover clearance reasonable. There are bolt holes for dropper post guides if you want to make your Hei Hei more hardcore.
Kona have also shortened the back end in comparison to last year’s alloy bike, bringing its measurements in line with most of its competitors. But despite Kona’s claims they haven’t left much space between the tyre, the seatstay bridge and the front mech, so running more rugged treads than the semi-slicks fitted as standard involves going for a smaller-volume tyre instead.
The deep but narrow chainstays mean there’s reasonable room alongside the tyre, with a metal plate on the lower corner of the chainstay stopping the chain chewing chunks out of the carbon if it jams.
The chunky, square, one-piece seatstays pivot on small clevis mounts above the dropouts, so the wheel follows Kona’s classic (and simple) low-pivot arc. The alloy linkage’s position has been reworked to slightly change the shock characteristics.
As we mentioned, you’re getting a serious mechanical upgrade on this year’s bike. The SRAM X0 kit includes a few ‘hidden’ down specs – alloy brake levers and lower-grade chain and cassette – but it’s still a very light way to make a bike start and stop.
The EA90XC wheels are some of the lightest alloy 29ers around, while the Maxxis Ikon tyres are our favourite wagon wheel race rubber. The 720mm-wide Turbine bars offer proper trail feel as well, while the Fox Climb Trail Descend fork and shock certainly aren’t short on control either.
With its spacious cockpit, comfortably compliant ride and super-low weight, the Hei Hei is undoubtedly a very efficient high mileage cruiser. Compared to last year’s bike it’s better value too, and much nearer its competitors in component terms.
Unfortunately that same compliance and smooth suspension count against accuracy and power application when you start stomping on the pedals and shoving it hard through corners.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.