Packing a punchos: Testing the Kona 2019 gravel range on the island of Madeira. Part One.

by Tom Hill 0

Wine, cake, Portugal, not necessarily in that order. I think that was the limit of my knowledge of Madeira when I received the invite to travel there to try out Kona’s current batch of gravel bikes. A little more brain wracking, and I remembered the island has hosted a round or two of the Enduro World Series in the last few years, as well as the Trans Madeira, point-to-point enduro race. There was clearly plenty of riding to be had there, then, but I did wonder whether I’d be spending my time wishing I was on a full suspension machine, rather than drop bars – I needn’t have worried.

Ready for action. What’s the collective noun for a pack of gravel bikes? A groad of gravel?

Day one

Waking up early on my first day proper on the island, I cursed the local’s other drink: punchos is a rum-laced cocktail with enough fruit juice to let you forget the alcohol content after the first couple of swigs. Headache shaken off with a few coffees, we piled into a minibus, leaving our base of Funchal (the island’s capital) and climbing into luscious, dense woodland. As we climbed, the clear skies of sea level were replaced by mist, cloud and rain, clinging to the precipitous ridge lines that give the island such a distinctive feel. Sheets of warm rain blew through as we clambered out of our transport, the only clue to our lofty position being a guardrail above billowing cloud.

A soggy start to Day 1

A brief interlude

Before I go on – while this was a launch by name, there weren’t any Konas here that you won’t have already seen. I rode the Rove LTD on this first day, and the newer Libre DL on day two. Hannah spent some time on all but the Libre last year and her thoughts are here. Kona announced the Libre a few weeks ago and our rundown is here. Scroll down for my first thoughts on the Rove LTD, and my thoughts on the Libre DL will follow soon. In summary though, both were the perfect tools in Madeira for all the reasons that we’ve talked about so many times before. We linked together forest roads and flowing singletrack with quiet back roads and smooth tarmac on bikes that never felt nervous or limiting, while remaining efficient and lively.

Climbing out of the mist on the Rove LTD

Higher into the clouds

Back to the high ridges above Funchal. After rolling along tarmac, spray zipping from tyres we turned abruptly and climbed a rough, broken track. The earth was a deep red, clay-like in colour and consistency. The WTB Byway tyres fitted to the Rove LTD fought for traction, even while seated climbing – smooth pedalling won the day, as I weaved across the track seeking out patches of traction. Legs that had been bent into a plane seat for four hours the day before grumbled at being recruited into something more energetic and even the most breathable of waterproofs felt clammy within seconds in the humid climate.

Levadas make for a great way to traverse across the steep slopes

Fortunately, the climb was short-lived, and we turned to follow the line of an old levada – the Madeiran name for the kind of irrigation channels, ditches and aqueducts, that have been a rich source of gravel riding for me over the years, most recently in the Pyrenees with Mavic earlier this year. The great thing about them, is of course, that they are almost flat, and if you ride with the flow of water, ever so slightly downhill.

Aqueducts carried both us across deep ravines
The skies began to clear as the forest opened out.

We followed the watercourse, a narrow ditch to our right, snaking around the hillside, hugging contours. Exposed roots were wickedly slick, firing wheels offline like whip cracks. It was an engaging and difficult balance – ride tentatively and everything felt so much harder, ride with disregard and you paid the price. We all found a balance though, and pedalled through dark, luscious tunnels, hidden to the outside world. Occasionally, the trees parted, and we could cast our eyes down hundreds of metres below us, the early cloud burning off slowly.

All the greens

We would cross raw, open riverbeds, a trickle of water passing through huge boulders. Where there was a stream today, huge torrents had clearly torn through creating the ravines that typify the landscape of the island. Aqueducts carried our controlled flow across the debris of storms past; our track would somehow intermingle with small villages, the lavada always running, occasionally branching out into the fields that were now at our sides. Not enough kilometres later, we paused for lunch. Three courses, Portuguese time, enjoyed looking out to sea. Espresso in the sun, yes sun, azure skies now cloud free.

Lunch with a view
Kona head designer and bona fide legend, Doug, aka “Dr Dew”.

Best of the best

Gravel riding is in its infancy on Madeira. Even the locals are still scouting out routes, navigating across gradients rather than up and down them.

Cheeky little climb to burn off lunch…

To make the most of our limited time there, and get a real feel for the whole of the island, we loaded up the vans and headed west for a lazy afternoon, gradually descending through more thick forest, before finding more levadas, dusty cliff-top coastal paths and one of the best road descents I’ve ridden, down to the small coastal town of Paul do Mar.

Wider tracks in the afternoon
And passing through small villages/farms

A chunky swell rolled in as we cruised along the seafront, eyes on a cold beer and a dip in the warm Atlantic waters. More punchos, a little bit of sunbathing and drying out soggy bibshorts/improvised swimming trunks and we headed back to Funchal, ready for an early start the next day.

Cliff top fun
Weeeeee!
Descending to the sea
Cheers!

The Rove LTD – first ride thoughts

The Rove LTD

Kona’s Rove is available in two frame materials, and multiple build configurations. This LTD version is the most expensive model in the line up, using Reynolds 853 steel and a carbon fork as the base of a quality build.

Trusty Reynolds tubing.

It uses full SRAM Force1 gearing and braking, WTB 650b wheels, with 47c WTB Byway tyres. As with all the off road drop bar bikes in Kona’s range, the frame reach is a little longer than many bikes, which combined with a relatively slack head angle, gives a longer bike and more stability off road. This is combined with a shorter stem than you’ll often see on gravel bikes, keeping the steering from being ponderously slow.

That paint is even more beautiful in the flesh.

The Rove is probably the most off-road oriented of Kona’s gravel range. While trying to avoid cliches, the position does feel quite “drop bar mountain bike” like. The front end is relatively high, and the wide, flared drops naturally place you in more of a head-up position than racier bikes.

I personally didn’t love the bars, but do love SRAM Force 1.

Given that, the WTB Byway tyres are not an ideal spec choice for the UK. In the dry, they roll and grip well. The nobbles on the edge of the tyre actually also do quite a good job of digging in when cornering in slicker conditions as well (although the transition from the centre slick can be a little scary). But, the tyre just feels like a bit of a compromise too far. The Byway would spin out even when seated climbing through mud, and locked up a little too easily when braking on dusty surfaces. If you are intending on spending most of your time cruising backroads, then the Byways are ideal, for much else, I’d be tempted to swap them out for another option. The wide, 650b clearance is lovely though. I’m constantly surprised at the level of floaty comfort it brings versus, say, a 40c tyre on a 700c wheel.

I found the Byways maybe too compromised for typical UK conditions

That comfort seemed to be amplified by the frame. I’m a sucker for steel, and while even high end Reynolds 853 is never going to be as light as a mid-price aluminium frame, never mind carbon, it brings with it a discernible ride feel that it’s impossible to replicate. Kona has been making frames out of steel for way longer than most bike companies have been in existence, and that experience definitely pays off. The Rove feels planted without being boring or heavy, zingy without being energy sapping or overly flexible.

Carbon forks (and bolt-thru axles both ends)

I found the front end maybe slightly too high for my preferred riding style. I ran the stem slammed, although if I was testing it for longer I’d also have flipped it. Even when riding in the drops, I felt like I wasn’t able to weight the front wheel as much as I like when cornering, meaning it could feel a little vague. This was exacerbated by the conditions/tyres, and I know plenty of other riders (including some on the trip) who were more than happy with the position. On an even more personal point, I prefer wide, but barely flared drops. The bars on all the Kona range are a little too flared out for my preference, making riding on the tops feel a bit awkward. Again so many people that I know get on with the shape, and it is hard to criticise Kona’s choice there.

Elsewhere, I risk sounding like a stuck record when I say I love 1x for offroad, and this bike is no different. If you prefer 2x, the Rove is available in that option, but sadly not in a steel framed version.

1x for the win.

The Rove LTD was so close to being a perfect bike for me, bar some personal niggles. Some of those are addressed with the Libre – particularly the slightly lower position and more all conditions tyres. It’s also great to see large companies like Kona keeping the faith with high-end steel frames. It may have been around longer than other frame materials, but it still competes on every aspect of ride feel.

Disclosure

This trip was paid for by Kona. Thanks also to Visit Madeira for their help and Bikology Madeira for guiding us.

I recorded my routes on Komoot if you’d like to check out exactly where we rode.

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