Cyclocross events are some of the most social of the racing calendar and present the ideal opportunity to retain fitness in the off season if you can't face being a slave to the turbo trainer. While pared down tourers and mountain bikes are equally welcome at most events, 'cross specific machines are lighter and have the competitive edge.
Given the season is comparatively short, 'cross bikes are often regarded as second mounts that need to be very adaptable, frequently doubling as winter trainers, commuters and/or light tourers. Kona's Jake the Snake is such a bike and is sold at the magic £1,000 price point.
Frame: In-house iron
Kona's Jake The Snake, sitting in the middle of the Canadian marque's cyclocross family, has been a very familiar sight at race meets for some years. The revered Easton Ultralight frameset has been replaced for 2008 by beefy in-house 7005 pipes. Attention to detail doesn't appear to have suffered as a result. Its TIG welds are consistent, though the bead pattern is more 'workman-like' than some competitors, and the electric blue livery and retro graphics are very attractive. The top-tube profile is designed with shouldering in mind - great for cyclocross - and the frame has four-point carrier fixings, which lends it to winter training, commuting and even a spot of light touring.
The rear triangle is hour-glass shaped, which helps with mud clearance and allows you to fit bigger tyres. Having a lofty bottom bracket means extra ground clearance - a real boon when riding with longer cranks. However, given Kona's mounatin bike heritage, it was disappointing to find a rear-facing seat collar slot - straight in the firing line of water and ingress thrown up by the rear tyre.
Carbon forks barely raise an eyebrow these days, and carbon blades wth alloy steerers strike a good balance between weight and reliability. The annoying but obligatory 'lawyers' tabs might stop your front wheel falling out if your skewer isn't done up properly, but can prove frustrating and cost valuable seconds in the event of a mid-race puncture.
Ride: no slouch and copes well with technical sections
Kona knows a thing or two about building sweet-handling machines and it quickly becomes apparent why Jake remains so popular on the cyclocross circuit. While not enjoying the same compliance as last year's Easton framed model, nor the raw acceleration of the Focus Mares Cross, it's still no slouch.
Pushed hard, the big Maxxis tyres soak up trail buzz very effectively, although you would never be fooled into thinking it was a more compliant steel frameset. The lofty bottom bracket and 172.5mm cranks come into their own as the turns became more and more aggressive; no matter how reckless the cornering, a pedal never grounded nor was a shimmy provoked on lumpy descents. These characteristics bode well for laden work, although if you're used to a tourer then you'll be more aware of vibration on poorer road surfaces.
Equipment: user friendly choices
The Kona has the benchmark Shimano 105 transmission with its predictably reliable shifting offering crisper changes, especially under load - a mis-timed shift can mean the difference between winning and losing. However, while 105 provides 10-speed gearing, 9-speed offers better mud clearance and so it could be argued that Tiagra is actually preferable when it comes to cyclocross.
The Isis two-piece crank is plenty stiff and the venerable M505 pedals, though not the lightest nor the most efficient at shedding mud, are a nice touch that should give a few seasons' reliable service. The Kona boasts strong braking, and auxiliary brake levers are a nice touch, offering a familiar position for anyone making the transition from mountain bikes. As well as making tricky, technical situations less daunting, they also provide a more relaxed position when pottering along towpaths or on off season training runs.
For 2008 Kona has replaced the previous model's Easton EA30 kit in favour of some nicely finished FSA parts. The four-bolt stem has the edge in terms of stiffness over other bikes' two-bolt offerings, holding the bars in a vice-like grip, and the seatpost gives a good balance between strength and low weight. Kona branded cork tape offers excellent purchase with good shock absorption but it wasn't as easy to keep clean as competitor bikes. Saddles are a deeply personal matter and while Kona's WTB Street Smart might not be the lightest around, it makes up for it in comfort.
Wheels: solid performers but bling enough to attract tea leafs
The Kona's Aksiums are Mavic's entry-level road racing wheels, and the 20-spoke, radially laced front wheel undoubtedly contributes to the bike's sprightly climbing, while the large barrel shaped hubs have a very mountain bike feel about them. The bearings seem particularly smooth and have been unaffected by regular excursions through streams. They draw admiring looks too, which might massage your ego on race day but they're a bit flamboyant for commuting - bike thieves could be sorely tempted, so invest in a less conspicuous pair if the Jake's to double as a working bike.
The Maxxis Raze tyres give good performance through mud and don't clog in the way some more aggressive profiles can. On tarmac they lose out marginally to narrower rubber but give a swifter turn of speed than might be expected and might prove a good choice for foul weather runs.
Verdict: Still super-versatile and cheaper too
Kona has stuck to what it knows and that's no bad thing; sensible economies and in-house products have brought the price down by £100 on last year's model and it has to be one of the most versatile 'crossers around.