Conventional, but not necessarily correct wisdom suggests 29ers should be the preserve of long-distance truckers designed to bang out miles as efficiently as possible, while their smaller-wheeled brethren are best for aggressive flickable fun. There are a growing number of bikes bucking the trend, with Kona's Honzo joining its full suspension cousin, the Process 111, in the winch-up, point-down-and-hold-on 29er format.
Frame and equipment: configured for downhill highs
That winch and drop mentality perfectly describes what the Honzo is about. Pedal away to the top, then drop the saddle and hoon back down, in as much control as you can muster.
The Honzo is no race bike – climbing is far from its forte, with the 14kg (30.9lb) weight conspiring against you when you want to accelerate up hills. If you’re used to a longer travel full suss bike this may not be an issue, but if you’ve come from a cross-country race machine then beware.
A Revelation fork is an excellent choice at this price range
There’s scope to shed weight, whether from the finishing kit or by going tubeless with the wheels, but the chromoly steel frame will never be light. The kinked seat tube exacerbates this weight problem. While the advertised figure of 74.5 degrees is reasonably steep, it’s an effective steepness based on the saddle at a prescribed height. The tube is kinked to shorten the seat stays, so the higher the saddle, the slacker the effective seat tube angle, bringing your weight backwards and compromising the position of the hips over the bottom bracket.
Kona has opted for a 1x10 drivetrain, with a 32-tooth ring and 11-36 cassette. In most cases this is enough to muscle the bike up climbs, especially if most of your riding is trail centre based. For extra spinny-ness a range expander cog could be fitted, but as with many 2015 bikes there’s no option to fit a front derailleur. The Honzo lacks the necessary cable stops, no doubt due to the kinked seat tube and super-short chain stays.
Shimano Deore gears are solid performers though, especially with the Shadow+ clutch-controlled rear derailleur. Brakes are also from the Deore stable, and we’re more than accustomed to their budget price but heavy price tag performance. If you find that you want extra security for the chain, the Honzo has mounts ready to take a chain guide.
A stumpy stem and wide bars make it more fun than pig wrestling
Shimano Deore hubs are laced into WTB ST i23 TCS rims. Their width is reasonable, giving a good profile to the 2.4in front and 2.25in rear Maxxis Ardent treads, which come with the decent EXO sidewalls, but slightly plastic compound. Running the setup tubeless would shave grams, and the extra width of the front tyre is welcome over the 2.25in version, which can feel a bit nervous when mounted on the front in the wet.
Finishing kit on the Honzo is a solid package mainly consisting of Kona branded bits and pieces, with Shimano running and stopping gear, save for the Race Face Evolve cranks.
Ride and handling: nimble, stiff and confident
While you’re unlikely to be best friends with the Honzo on the ascents, all climbs must come to an end – and it’s at this point the bike really starts to shine.
The compromise of the bent seat tube is that the chain stays are 415mm long – this is short, very short for a 29er. Bringing the back wheel in helps the bike cut nimbly through twisty single track, and with your weight already nice and far back popping the front wheel up into a manual is pretty simple – bang on a shorter stem (stock is 60mm) and this would become even easier. This back end is also plenty stiff enough, partly thanks to the short chain stays but also the forward-thinking 142x12mm axle that holds it all together.
The kinked seat tube means short stays and so a nimble experience going downhill – but your weight can get shifted further back than you'd like on the ascents
The dropouts are adjustable too, so your wheelbase can be lengthened by approximately 15mm for a touch more high-speed stability. The other benefit is that you can easily run the Honzo single speed, which is ideal in winter or if you’ve smashed your mech off a rock mid-ride.
Up front you’ve got a 635mm top tube (Large) – this relatively roomy top tube gives you plenty of space to move about over the bike, which is handy as on a hardtail you end up using a bit more body language to muscle the bike over and around trail obstacles.
The top tube is heavily dropped too, giving you masses of standover to safeguard your tenderest regions on steeper terrain should things go pear shaped. The seat tube sticks around 100mm above the top tube, and as such is heavily braced. Despite the kink in the seat tube, we were still able to drop the seat post far enough down into it to get the saddle out of the way.
A dropper post would be a welcome sight
Dropping the seatpost is something we found we did far more often with the Honzo than other hard tails. It’s a bike that encourages you to drop it into a more aggressive stance. As such, the first thing we’d do is fit a dropper post – fortunately routing both stealth and external is catered for.
The 68-degree head angle is reasonably slack for a 29er with a standard offset fork. It gives handling that is confident on all but the steepest of descents, but keeps things lively on more gentle twisty trails. While riding in the attack position you find yourself over the fork, and given the rigid back end you do end up riding the fork a lot. RockShox’ Revelation might lack the burliness of its bigger brother the Pike, but the 120mm of Solo Air dampened travel is well controlled and you’d have to be pushing on hard before the extra stiffness from a Pike would be appreciated.
Hard rock club: the Honzo is ready to take on rough stuff
The skinny steel tubes don’t necessarily scream stiffness when compared to a heavily hydroformed alloy counterpart, but we never found front end stiffness lacking even when muscling through with the 760mm Kona branded bars.
Ultimately the Honzo richly rewards the effort you put in on the climbs. Yes, the back end batters you a bit, but pick your lines and when the trail descends you find yourself popping off things you’d not seen before. A few choice upgrades (dropper post, going tubeless) and you’ll have a bike that’s ready to tackle pretty much anything. You just have to remember how much fun it is as you slog up the fire road.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.