The craziest thing happened in February. Kona released a new bike, and all the internet warriors...liked it.
That's right, preliminary photos and details of Kona's new 2014 carbon Operator were released, and they were met with a positive, encouraging response from the online community. I was taken aback to see commenters on Pinkbike and other sites lauding the new bike's design, weight, and it's understated graphics. Most interestingly, comments about Kona's being heavy, outdated, statements that "it's still a Kona," and photos of head tubes sheering off were conspicuously absent. The clouds parted. Lions laid down with the lambs. In far off lands, internet warriors put down their keyboards and read stories from yesteryear to their children, put them to bed, and told them they loved them. A new peace came over this war torn land, and olive branches grew out from amongst the thorns.
Kona will be doing a full product launch for the new Operator later in April, and Pinkbike will have an exclusive in-depth look at the new bike in the coming weeks, but to me that's the least interesting part. Those things are all great, sure, but what’s on everyone’s mind isn’t the bike. It’s the transformation of Kona's brand and image that's the most interesting.
So what happened? Where did this come from? How did Kona turn it around? In summary, WTF?
To get to the bottom of this whole thing, I spoke with Chris Mandell, Kona’s Gravity Product Manager. Chris has played a big part in several projects since he joined Kona in 2009, including the Operator, Entourage, Honzo, and Process. He was the natural go-to-guy to help me figure out how a brand like Kona reshapes their product line and their reputation.Okay Chris: name, rank, and serial number:
My name's Chris Mandell, I am the Gravity Product manager at Kona, and I live in Bellingham Washington.Let's start with the obvious. I'm sure when you started at Kona, you were aware of the reputation. Tell us a little bit about the reputation.
I think the reputation is a lot of different things to a lot of people. I think there were a lot of people on the Internet who had Stinkies as they were just getting into mountain biking, and then they outgrew those bikes. New companies came into the market, and they had sexier product lines, and we hadn’t changed the Stinkies in a while. But I think a lot of people have fond memories of hitting their first jump on a Stinky.
Here's the best way to explain the change in people's perception of Kona's. When I started working at Kona, when you went to a downhill race, the guys on Konas didn’t have visors on their helmets, and now when you go to a downhill race the guys on operators have visors on their helmets. And that’s such a little thing, but it’s pretty funny to think about. So what changed at Kona during that period?
When Kona started making cyclocross bikes and kids bikes and urban bikes in the mid 2000's, we got really focused on that side of our product line. About the time I came on in 2009 we realized that we needed to refocus and reinvest on the mountain side of things, and that was recognized by Jake and Dan through the product group, all the way through to the sales groups. We added some fresh blood to a product team that had a lot of experience and knowledge to help those young guys make things happen quickly, to quickly get their ideas into the market. Doug Lafavor (Designer) and Pat White (Product Manager) did a lot to teach myself and the other young blood so that we work effectively with our venders. Another critical element is our QC guy, who we will just call ‘Mo’. He will reprimand me for mentioning him but nothing happens without his oversight. His experience and expertise has been instrumental to bringing new product to life.
Even though it’s not a full suspension bike, the Honzo is really illustrative of what where Jake and Dan are willing to go. The Honzo is a wild bike. It doesn’t have the ability to run a front derailleur. For a company of our size to come out with a bike as nichy as that is risky, and Jake and Dan are definitely receptive to an idea like that. I had the idea for the geometry and the tone of the bike, and one of the sales guys said “yes we can sell that if you make it.”When I think of classic Kona, every mental image includes flower graphics. What happened to those? Where did they go?
Our revamped art department, Eddy Marcelet, Kevin Thornton, and Aaron Hogg, deserve some accolades because those guys really stepped up their game with the look of the new bikes. They've done a really good job of coordinating with the product group, and talking to not only our consumers but also our bikes shops to figure out what everyone wants. That has really helped us not to have flower graphics. Not that I have anything against flower graphics, but some people do.One of the biggest changes was from the Stab, which was around for a decade or so, to the new Operator platform. The new carbon Operator is definitely the boldest bike we've seen from Kona so far. What went into the new Operators?
When I came on board, that was one of the interesting things for me. Jumping on the Stab and riding it, figuring out what was good on that bike and what needed to change, before we stepped into the operator line.
For all of the faults of the Stab, it did have some really redeeming characteristics. But the elevated chainstays had no place on a bike anymore, there wasn’t a need for four bearings in the main pivot, the square toptube didn’t make any sense, the rectangle downtube wasn’t really necessary anymore, etc. There were a whole host of features on that frame that needed updating desperately, but if you looked at the leverage rate curve of that bike, it was f*cking brilliant. It had a really strong leverage rate curve. It was crazy how well that bike rode. The insane thing about that bike is how well it rode without a chain.
When we designed the new bike, we spent an epic amount of time looking at pivot placement and axle path. One of the conclusions that we came to is that axle path is not as important as people have been thinking it is. We believe that the leverage rate curve and the overall geometry of a bike is more important. Most of the time when you’re hitting a square edged hit, with any bike design, ideally you want to be riding as high in your travel as possible so you have as much travel to handle bumps as possible. When you have those big hits, having your bike recover quickly and stay up in the travel is better and more confidence inspiring than having some insane rearward axle path so you can run things over in the last third of your travel.
We lowered the main pivot considerably when we went to the operator, I think it’s 85mm lower, and that was huge on that bike because the stab had so much chain growth, partly because the stab was designed around 44 tooth chain rings. Now that everyone is running 36 tooth chainrings, it has this massive amount of chain growth which made it crazy to corner in.
Little things like that needed to get updated, but you kind of needed to start with a blank slate. The Operator was the first bike I worked on for Kona, and without Doug Lafavor’s help and without his experience I wouldn’t have been able to communicate what the Operator needed to be to replace the Stab, and to get it to market. Kona spends huge amounts of money and a huge chunk of your budget to send riders around the world to compete in the World Cup. Does the downhill bikes inform the design of other bikes in your lineup?
I definitely think it does. I think that downhill bikes are a flagship, and they’re where you put the best of your technology. I think that is starting to be true of enduro racing, and it's going to become more true of enduro racing, but right now the downhill bike is the one that everyone sees as getting pushed closest to it’s limit. And right now downhill is also the most interesting form of cycling to watch. There are people in Bellingham who wake up at four in the morning to watch World Cup downhill live. That doesn’t happen for track racing. That doesn’t happen for cross country mountain biking, either.What else has changed in the design of Kona's new bikes?
We’ve hired a guy named Jack Russell, who originally graduated from Western Washington as an engineer, but went back to school to get his industrial design degree. He’s a lifetime cyclist, and the new carbon operator is the first product coming out of Jack’s computer There will definitely be more in the future, you haven’t seen all the other stuff he’s coming out with. Our athletes, design team, and sales guys are all really excited about what we've got coming-out. I cannot comment on the stuff that has been floating around the internet as the 2014 Operator is our focus right now, but for sure eyebrows will be going up soon. When I was looking up photos for this article, I came across the 2002 Stinky Primo. I ignored the bike back in 2002, but looking at it now, it's sweet. It's got a Z1 with 130mm of travel, a triple crank, Hayes brakes (which were the best thing going at the time), a shortish stem, and it's a five or six inch travel bike with slack enough geometry that you could jump around on it, but you could still pedal it. Basically it looks like a trail bike. It sounds like if you can mix the efficiency and performance of a downhill race bike with the fun of the original Stinky, that's a pretty darn good bike.
That's a really astute point. In 2002, the Stinkies, they were really just trail bikes. That's what people were doing on them. As the freeride thing got bigger we evolved them into freeride bikes, but originally everyone was really just riding trail on it before "trail bikes" were a thing. Today’s 160mm pedaling all mountain bike is more capable than yesterday’s 7 inch travel freeride bike. So you can hit all the same moves and your bike is 10 pounds lighter and you can pedal it efficiently.
The Process is a perfect example. It’s got 12 x 142, it’s got ISCG tabs, it’s got updated geometry in terms of a lower BB and shorter chainstays, but it’s really not that far off from where the Stinky's were in 2002 in terms of geometry and intended use. The leverage rate curve is a little bit more progressive than the Stinky was, the bb height is shorter, and the chainstays are at least 10mm shorter. But those are all refinements that make the bike ride differently and more capably. The intended use is the same.
The model year 2013 Process is a clear descendent from that heritage. The reviews we’ve been getting from that bike have been really positive, and that’s something I’m really proud of. But I’m also looking forward to 2014, because there’s a lot in the pipe that will blow you away.
Thanks for the interview, Chris, and good luck to all the guys at Kona!