Kona first showed the world what they had in store for 2017 back in July
, and their DH flagship, the Operator, has seen a number of changes to bring it inline with the current direction of bikes in this category. As noted previously, the 2017 Operator has moved to slightly larger 27.5" shoes—a move brought on by the needs of World Cup DH racers, Connor Fearon and Tegan Molloy, but there are a number of other subtleties that Kona says the team requested for the updated bike.
Updating the Operator
Kona says that the updated Operator was influenced by geometry changes in other areas of their lineup, notably the Process in this instance, and the reach measurements have grown to match. The XL size has a reach of 485mm, giving it one of the longest front centers of any DH bike on the market. They have also foregone a size small in the 27.5” wheeled Operator, noting that they feel it would be difficult to garner the same benefits from a bike of that size with this geometry. Kona also notes that the bike is overbuilt in order to survive the demands of World Cup racing, and claim that Connor used the same two frames all season long (a practice/faffing about bike, and a race bike).
Kona Operator 27.5 Details
• Intended use: Downhill
• Rear wheel travel: 200mm
• Wheel size: 27.5''
• 63º head angle w/ 200mm fork
• Oversize bearings
• Widely spaced pivots
• 12x157mm rear axle
• MSRP: $3,199 - $7,499 USD (complete) w/ three model options.
When updating the Operator, Kona looked to Aussie downhill phenom, Connor Fearon, to see what he needed. Aside from the jump to the larger wheelsize, they said that Connor was looking for a little more progression from the bike's suspension in order to handle the hits and speeds a little better. On the previous 26” wheeled iteration of the bike the leverage curve became more linear towards the end of the stroke. For 2017 Kona says they have continued the progression from the mid-stroke through to the end of the bike's travel.
Kona also mentioned that the new Operator has been adjusted to limit the amount of chain growth, stating that the suspension can perform better with less influence from the drivetrain —the result can lead to improved traction and stability. The obvious negative is the potential for a more sluggish pedaler, but that’s hardly the primary focus of a DH bike. The rear pivot for the chainstay/seatstay had been moved, a change that Kona’s product manager, Ian Schmitt, said improved braking slightly, with the brake mounts now found beyond the pivot.
The Operator continues its use of large, oversized bearings, with Kona noting that this improves durability, and when combined with the wide spaced pivots makes for an especially stout rear end. In a move that's becoming increasingly common as companies look to increase small bump sensitivity, Kona have incorporated an axle that rolls on two large bearings that are found in the rocker link rather than using a DU bushing in the shock eyelet.
Other details include the use of a 12x157mm thru-axle to secure the rear wheel, which is unlocked from the drive side, releasing a keyed portion on the non-drive side. The 2017 model continues the use of integrated fork bumpers, utilizes a press fit 107 BB and has a tapered, internal headset.
The day I spent with the Operator took place on the trails at Retallack, near Nelson, BC. The morning shuttles consisted of a variety of raw trail with the odd catch-berm thrown in for good measure, a number of jumps and a little bit of pedaling. The trails were moist from a few days of light rain before our arrival, creating 'black gold' - the dirt at Retallack being different to almost anywhere I’ve ridden. Velcro traction would be an understatement, and unless on a section of rock, which at Retallack can be slippery when wet, breaking traction in the woods was not an issue. The afternoon consisted of a mountain top drop and steeper trails with some drier conditions making for more loose riding.
I rode the mid-range Operator DL which retails for $3,999 US. This model comes equipped with primarily SRAM/Rockshox components; a Boxxer RC Coil fork and Kage RC shock, a set of SRAM Guide R brakes and a GX derailleur taking up shifting duties. The cranks are of the Shimano Zee variety and it is fitted with a 10-speed, 11-28 tooth cassette. The cockpit was made up of an assortment of Kona brand bars and stem, and a WTB Volt saddle. The bike is also fitted with some quality Maxxis Minion DHF rubber in the 3C compound wrapped on classic Mavic EX729 rims.
Being a lightweight rider who also happens to be tall (I'm 6'3") can prove challenging at times, and setting up the Operator required a quick swap of the rear spring. The size large comes fitted stock with a 500lb spring, which Kona says is set to cover a rider of about 170lbs. Their medium sized Operator comes with a 450lb spring, which they say should cover riders in the 150lb region. Once we set it to the lighter spring I was able to get adequate sag in the rear. The Boxxer up front was left with the firm spring in place and had time been on our side, I likely would have opted to swap this out. As it turned out, the firm sprung fork was okay, as I do tend to run the front of my bikes firmer than most.
During the first runs on the bike the mostly pre-set damping (external adjustments consist of low-speed compression and rebound on the fork, and rebound on the shock) of the mid range suspension became evident. Through the chatter I tended to find the bike skipping about a little, which was a little unnerving at times given the occasional damp roots, and the bike felt a little over-damped. Berms, compressions and lips were no problem, and the bike liked to propel me forward out of each.
It wasn’t long before squaring up corners and dropping the back end into compressions became the name of the game as I looked for bonus fun on the trails. Breaking loose proved difficult, with a combination of the conditions and the bike's ability to track tending to keep it on rails. The suspension set as it was demanded higher speeds and harder hits—add to this the stout frame, especially through the rear, and you’ve got a bike that begins to show its downhill World Cup influence. The frame is not as forgiving as others, but the result is something that inspires confidence if you’re willing to grab the bull by the horns.
By the time the afternoon and the mountain-top drop rolled around the conditions had dried out some, allowing us to let it hang out more. The bike remained super composed in all situations; steep, loose scree pitches were no issue, and nor were overshooting landings or romping through high speed chatter. To be honest, the only concern was whether or not I would flat on the super sharp shale that is prominent in the area, something that could happen at any moment and to any tire in these conditions.
One day of riding in foreign terrain is by no means equal to a full review, but the time that was spent on the new Operator left me interested in seeing more of what this bike is up for. Initial impressions are that it is a very lively ride, thanks especially to the progressive suspension, but it is very stable when ridden with purpose, and really rewards a take-charge style of riding. The geometry was very comfortable, and my riding position on the bike fely quite neutral, making it easy to get on with from the outset. It seems this would not only be a great option for a racer, but also for the rider looking to have fun in the air and that likes to spend some time on the back wheel.
Visit the high-res gallery for more images from this First Look.