Road Test: Kona Libre DL

Dec 21, 2020
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Kona’s adventure bike selection runs deep and wide. Floating down the middle of that mighty river is the Libre line of dropbar bikes, including the carbon dreamboat you see here, the Libre DL. Well appointed with a sparkly paint job and some plump 650b tires, this bike is ready for adventure and admiration.

The Libre has a very modern look with a short seat tube, a tall head tube, and a short stem. Kona positions the Libre between the more road-oriented Rove and the Sutra touring bike. Looking at the geometry side by side, these bikes are more similar than expected with only half a degree and a few millimeters separating them. While the knobby-tired Sutra LTD has more mountain bike DNA than the Rove or the Libre, all of these bikes carry well-established geometry. In other words, while it might look like a mountain bike frame, the Libre is quite traditional.

The frame is well stocked with mounting points. Front and rear rack and fender mounts are present along with three bottle mounts inside the main frame, one under the down tube, a bento box mount on the top tube, and a pair of triple mounts on the fork. The triple mounts are very low, low enough to cause some contact between the thru-axle lever and the cargo cage, but in my case the ratcheting lever still worked without having to remove the cage.

Cable routing is all internal, and the sloping top tube and a spare cable port mean an internally routed dropper seatpost is an option. The neat and tidy cable routing made bag mounting easy and bike washing a breeze, although the cables are loose in the frame and need to be pulled taut to prevent rattles on rough terrain.

The Libre was a perfect pandemic partner. Because group rides were out and my own idea of route planning is loose and sloppy, the Libre was often the first bike I would grab when heading out for a ride. With its massive bottle capacity, I could stay out longer, and the 47mm tires rolled decently fast on pavement but dealt well with gravel roads and trail detours.

The frame is stiff but not overly harsh. Some of that feeling can be attributed to the tires, but I’ve ridden enough carbon frames to know this one has a good balance of stiffness when pedaling and a little flex to take the edge off. The 650b wheels spin up quickly and respond well to changes in speed and direction. I converted the tires to tubeless with the included valves. After a week of the tires losing air overnight, something settled and I didn’t experience any flats in hundreds of miles of mixed terrain, including beat-up city streets, glass-strewn urban shortcuts, and long days on rocky, unpaved roads.

With the addition of a few cargo cages on the fork and a suite of bikepacking bags, I was ready for a light and fast overnight or even longer with careful packing and regular resupply. There are plenty of mounts to go with racks for a heavier touring setup, but I would opt for a more traditional touring bike for that type of work. The Libre is light and fast; fully loaded riding lends itself to a heavier, more stable frame.

The Shimano GRX gearing was spot-on for adventure with the double crank working like the transfer case in a 4x4. The 48T big ring was for road use while the 31T small ring took over for off-road riding. Matched up to the 11–34T cassette, the gear range only got too steep when I found myself trying to crank up some terrible singletrack climb, which seems like a fine place to put the limits of this bike. Compared to the 1x11 drivetrains on other Kona adventure bikes, the GRX 2x11 provides more gearing at either end of the range, improving versatility on both road and dirt.

I’ve been on 1x drivetrains on all my bikes for at least a year, and it was a joy to be back on a double. The front shifting is that good. Quiet and quick, it only took part of a ride to pull up those front-shifter reflexes that had lain dormant in my brain. The rear derailer has a switchable clutch to reduce chainslap in rough terrain, and you can turn it off for easier wheel removal.

The GRX hydraulic brakes are powerful, quiet, and modulate perfectly. The hoods are nicely shaped and match up well with the carbon Easton adventure bar. This was my first experience on GRX, and I’m impressed. Shimano was not quick to market with this gravel/adventure group, but the results are worth it. Complaints? You’ll need a different derailer to run the larger 11–40T or 11–42T cassettes for a 1x drivetrain change — the stock derailer maxes out at 34T. The aesthetics leave me cold, but they’re a decent match for the modern lines of the Libre.

I left the stock tires and wheels on for the entire test, but I would love to try this bike with a 700c x 45mm setup. I’ve been riding big 650b wheels on bikes like this for a few years. I like them for the liveliness they bring, but for longer rides I miss the way the bigger wheels carry momentum. If the Libre were to stay in my stable, I’d spring for a set of light 700c wheels with some 40mm-ish tires for most days and a set of 650b x 2.0in. knobbies for the rough stuff. But the Libre is still a blast to ride just about anywhere with the stock wheels and tires.

One aspect of this bike that you can only appreciate in person is the paint. Depending on the angle, the paint is either a sparkly metallic purple or a golden rust color, and often both colors can be seen at once. It isn’t very obvious from 30 feet away, but the closer you get, the better it looks. And although a purple and gold bike might sound over the top, the hues somehow remain understated. Don’t get me wrong, this bike will attract some attention, but it’s more classy than flashy.

A few words about the sizing. I am 5’11” and usually ride 56–58cm road bikes and size large mountain bikes. The Libre is sized like a mountain bike but uses road bike sizes, so this 54cm had a 588mm top tube. It would make more sense to just use T-shirt sizing for these bikes as the next size up is a 55cm but with 20mm more reach, putting it closer to a traditional 60cm frame. The tall headtube made an upright position easy without rider stems or lots of spacers, but it could feel cramped on long days. On the flip side, the upright position felt much more secure when pointing the front wheel down a rutted-out, bad-idea shortcut.

In a lot of ways, this bike strikes me as a modern interpretation of a randonneur bike, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s light, comfortable, and has the capability to handle both rough terrain and the gear needed to stay out all day or all month. With the addition of a $1,799 aluminum model, the Libre lineup has the price range and ride experience to be a great first adventure bike or a proper ride/race/ramble machine for even the most experienced of riders. 

Editor’s note: Just after Eric wrote this review, Kona released the 2021 Libre with new pricing and built kits as well as new sizing. The 54cm Libre that Eric tested here is now considered a 56cm, per Kona’s 2021 sizing. Moreover, the 2021 Libre CR, with 650b wheels and a 2x GRX drivetrain, is the most similar to the bike tested here, albeit with a 46/30T crank for lower gearing and alloy components instead of carbon. (It’s also more affordable at $2,799.)

Kona Libre DL

Price: $3,999

Sizes available: 46cm, 49cm, 51cm, 54cm, 55cm

Size tested: 54cm

Weight: 19.8 lbs. (as tested, without pedals)

TEST BIKE MEASUREMENTS

Stack: 630mm

Reach: 389mm

Head tube length: 196.5mm

Head tube angle: 71°

Seat tube length: 540mm

Seat tube angle: 72.5°

Top tube: 588mm (effective)

Chainstays: 440mm

Bottom bracket drop: 72mm

Bottom bracket height: 270mm

Fork offset: 50mm

Wheelbase: 1068mm

Standover height: 812mm

Specifications

Frame: Kona Race Light Carbon, internal cable routing, four bottle mounts, rack and fender mounts, top tube mount

Fork: Kona Verso Full Carbon, rack and fender mounts, triple mounts

Handlebar: Easton EC70AX, carbon

Stem: Easton EA90 70mm, 31.8mm clamp

Rear derailer: Shimano GRX810, clutch

Front derailer: Shimano GRX810

Brifters: Shimano GRX810

Brakes: Shimano GRX810 hydraulic disc

Rotors: Shimano RT54 Center Lock, 160mm front and rear

Crankset: Shimano GRX 810, 48/31T

Cassette: Shimano 105 11–34T, 11spd

Bottom bracket: Shimano press-fit

Headset: FSA No.42ACB

Seatpost: RaceFace Next Carbon

Saddle: WTB SL8 Pro

Hubs: Easton EA70 AX, 100 x 12mm front, 142 x 12mm rear, thru-axles

Rims: Easton EA70 AX, 28h, tubeless ready

Tires: WTB Venture, 650b x 47mm, tubeless ready

Gearing range

                 31        48

11        75.8     117.3

13        63.5     99.3

15        55.6     86.0

17        48.8     75.8

19        43.8     68.0

21        39.7     61.5

23        36.2     56.2

25        33.3     51.6

27        30.8     47.8

30        27.6     43.0

34        24.4     37.8

Contact: Kona USA, 2455 Salashan, Ferndale, WA 98248, 360.366.0951, konaworld.com, joe@konaworld.com

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