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Kona Libre CR Review by Dustin Marsh

I’ve been throwing down both long and short rides on the Kona Libre CR gravel bike this year. I had daily 16 mile round trip commutes and weekend parties on the bike up to 250 miles. All those rides added up to almost 900 miles total over the review period, which provided lots of opportunities to see how free I could get with this carbon fiber, curly-fry-bar, skinny tired adventuremobile. 

Before I get ahead of myself, anyone interested in the Libre line should pay close attention to the size charts before purchasing. This bike was intended for review by Shannon, but he was too short to make the 54cm frame work. I happen to slip neatly into the range of typical 56cm road frames, so I was next in line to the WTB SL8 throne. I almost high centered the first time I threw a leg over the Polar Silver paint job. This bike is HUGE! Leading the frame is a massively tall and- dare I say girthy headtube, perched atop a full carbon fork with a 700cx45 WTB Riddler filling the space in the middle. About the only thing small is the 80mm stem, but that props up a set of handlebars that can only be described in terms of wingspans. A long top tube, short stem, and wide bars sound just like the revolution hitting the mountain bike world. 

One of my favorite rides on this bike was a particularly hellish route created by myself to find as many hills and sketchy gravel roads as possible on the way to and from a friends house while she did a 24 hour trail run. This one person race was named “Stump to Stump” because she had to touch the stump in her yard between each lap. After taking a midnight lap with her and eating delicious food cooked over a campfire, I slept on their couch for a couple hours before riding off into the sunrise. My goal on this ride was to avoid stopping to fill up water as much as possible to minimize my interactions with “the general public”. Thanks to the 6 sets of bottle cage bosses and a hydration pack, I was able to make it all the way there and back with only two water fills. Nutrition was handled with pocket pizza and eating all the deerflies that were drafting me. When I arrived home after a 251 mile weekend, I was greeted with a bowl of brats and cold beers. I was able to drink one beer before I switched back to water, but a six pack of brats went down before I realized I was eating.

Shortly after receiving the bike, I noticed the rear Sram Rival disc brake was howling wildly and refusing to stop- or even stop the bike for that matter.

We contacted Kona about this, as it was a leaky caliper and needed to be replaced and repaired. We heard back right away with an option to take the bike to a shop 1.5 hours by highway away. I replied that it was inconvenient to spend my free weekend days that are my only time to get in big rides driving back and forth to a shop to have a bike repaired. I suggested Stache Bike and Adventure in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where I live, as Nic is an excellent wrench. A frustrating loop of delays and miscommunication led to a one-brake bike for 3 weeks while I tried to get a solution sorted out. Eventually I was given the all-clear to have Nic at Stache order the part, and he had the bike stopping quickly and quietly just in time for my next big adventure.

Feeling inclined to test the gear range and fully functional brakes on some hills, I “signed up” for the (virtual) inaugural Gravel Drama 200. This course consists of 175 miles of big hills and scenic gravel in the Driftless areas (steep hills!) of Wisconsin and Minnesota. While I was able to climb almost everything, I was standing up and grunting to turn the 42 tooth cassette with a 40 tooth chainring. For half loaded all day rides, this was a tolerable gear range, but on loaded trips or for bikepacking, I would absolutely be swapping the chainring out for something a few teeth smaller. Ideally I would set the bike up with a 2×11 drivetrain, allowing for deeper gearing ranges and closer shift steps, which matters when a ride stretches out all day. A few steep downhill switchbacks on gravel had me testing the limits of dual 160mm brake rotors with hydraulic road brakes clamping down. I found that the brakes were far more powerful than the grip of the tires, and modulation was excellent. I do have an image burned in my mind of looking off the backside of a steep switchback where I finally stopped with one tire on the road and one in the bushes. Sometimes I ride too hard, and occasionally I need a fresh chamois. My bad.

My personal stable of adventure ready bikes goes from a new carbon Beargrease “Persephone” with full mounts, ready to hit the easy button on any terrain, to a 2015 school bus yellow Salsa Fargo “Ms. Frizzle” supercommuter with full mounts, 2.1” 29er tires, and capable of handling most everything with a smoothness that only a cushy steel frame with a straight steerer and quick releases can offer, to the Mistress, my 2014 hot rod red Salsa Warbird- set up smooth and fast with 3 bottle mounts, a firm but comfortable aluminum frame with a lovely tapered full carbon fork that keeps the chatter down, and crazy-light slick 38mm skinwall tires. The Libre was a perfect fit between the Warbird and Fargo, sporting full rack and fender mounts, top tube bosses for tank bags, but lacking three pack bosses on the fork. I would’ve appreciated a little more compliance on the front end- the massive headtube holding a beefy carbon steerer, coupled with stiff carbon fork blades, and an adorably narrow road spaced through axle, all worked exactly as designed to allow total control of the front wheel. Connecting that to a stiff bottom bracket with a burly downtube leads to a slight imbalance from the firmly planted front to the cushyness of the rear end. I’ve always wanted a fast drop bar bike with just slightly wider tires than my Warbird allows. The 6mm difference in tire width was more substantial than I thought, and vastly improved the way road noise was absorbed. After many 100+ mile partially loaded rides with very little discomfort, I was sold on the sub-niche of “fast loaded” adventure bikes.

As a recovering weight weenie, I couldn’t resist weighing the Libre to see how it compares. With tubes installed and no pedals, the bike was 21lb 12oz, almost the same as my Warbird came stock with another derailleur, and a metal frame. Curious how the quality of the carbon frame looked on the inside, I removed the plastic access panel at the bottom bracket. The inside of the tubes looked like they were ready to paint and display, with no seams or rough edges. The one thing missing in the downtube was cable management to keep rattles down. This diagnosed the rattle I had heard occasionally, which could then be remedied with a few well placed zip ties. A neat housing guide did keep the bottom bracket nice and tidy, while still allowing relatively easy access for threading housing up to the well integrated ports near the headtube.

The Libre CR we tested with snappy SRAM Rival 1 shifting and brakes and aluminum house branded cockpit components sells for $2999 USD. $1000 more gets the Libre DL model with 650Bx47 rubber on Easton aluminum wheels, 2×11 Shimano GRX 800 series group, Easton carbon bar, a Race Face seatpost, and a gorgeous coppery rust paint job. A frame only option is available for $1999 which includes the same carbon Verso fork and Kona Race Light Carbon frame with through axles. For the rest of us, there is an aluminum frame Libre AL featuring the same carbon fork with a Sram Apex 1×11 drivetrain rolling on 700c wheels, TRP mechanical disk brakes, and an attractive $1799 price point.

Sending the Kona home was tough. I truly enjoyed my time on this bike. My wishlist to improve this adventure crusher was almost completely checked off by the upgrades on the DL model, and if one of those were to pop up for sale locally, I would add it to my stable in a heartbeat. While there is a global pandemic affecting a large portion of the bike industry, it was still a little disappointing that customer support was so difficult to come by. That issue was resolved eventually, but the frustration was enough to bring the flaming danger gnomes of Antioch rating down to 3.99/5

3.99 out of 5 flaming gnomes

Check out more bikes, and especially the beautiful paint of the DL model at Konaworld.com

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2 Responses to Kona Libre CR Review by Dustin Marsh

  1. Erv Spanks September 1, 2020 at 5:05 pm #

    Fantastic review good Sir! Good to see you rode it like ya stole it!

    Cheers!

  2. KJ September 2, 2020 at 1:04 pm #

    Great review Dustin!

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