Bike Test: Kona Libre CR

Drop bars done their way

The Kona Libre is built for some outback fun

When it comes to drop-bar bikes, Kona has never been at the top of the road racer’s list, but when things get dirty, they are a familiar competitor. With a long and winning history of competing in both cyclocross and mountain biking, it’s no surprise that the majority of their drop-bar offerings come with wide, dual-purpose tires targeting the CX, adventure and gravel crowds.

So, when a Kona box arrived and their carbon Libre CR with 700c wheels was inside, we were excited for the adventure to come. Kona offers the Libre with either a 1x or 2x drivetrain, and the CR is supplied with 1x, while the DL is the 2x version that rolls on 650b wheels. 

THE FRAME

The Libre is constructed with what Kona calls “Race Light” carbon to deliver a light but robust frame. This is paired with their full-carbon fork, and both use the current flat-mount brake standard. Cable and hoses are run internally through the frame, while the fork uses a grooved channel for the external routing. Between the frame and fork there are 22 mounting eyelets, so in short, this bike is ready to be loaded up. 

When we noticed the box said it was a size 51cm, we were a bit worried, as we normally find ourselves on a size 54–56cm frame for most brands. After having the bike assembled and a quick study of the geometry chart, we were confident that this would be a good fit for the RBA crew that on average is 5-foot-10. Their sizing is the actual measurement of the seat tube instead of the more common rounding up to achieve “traditional” geometry numbers on a compact frame.

SRAM’s 1x drivetrain offers a wide range of gears ideal for our local Southern California fire roads. The Kona conquers the steep pitches with ease thanks to the low gearing.

Our size-51 Libre has a fairly long reach of 38.6cm and a tall stack of 61cm. The combination of a long 41cm fork connected to the 17.5cm head tube brings the front up for a relaxed fit. The head tube is at 71 degrees, so no “slack,” but instead designed for a controllable ride when the front end is loaded with gear. The frameset is equipped with the current 12mm thru-axle standard, and they are spaced out at a long 105.8cm wheelbase. The 44cm-long chainstays connect to the large bottom bracket shell that uses a BB86 Press-Fit bearing. 

THE PARTS

Our Libre CR features a SRAM Rival 1 mechanical drivetrain with the exception of the S350 alloy crank. This is paired with a 40t X-Sync chainring and 11-speed 11-42 cassette. The flat-mount Rival calipers are paired with SRAM Centerline 160mm rotors. Keeping things rolling are a pair of tubeless-ready, 700c, alloy WTB KOM Light Team i25 wheels. A large set of WTB Riddler 45mm tires fit with room to spare. The tires measure true to size on the wide rims with a 25mm internal width. 

For the rest of the build, Kona has opted for self-branded alloy bits. There is a 70mm stem to offset the long frame reach. A flared 44cm bar that reaches 54cm at the end of the drops keeps things on trend. The 31.6mm alloy post is topped with a WTB SL8 Pro saddle with steel rails. Thanks to the short seat tube and 31.6mm post diameter, a short dropper post is an easy upgrade for those looking to get a bit rowdier. 

Drilled and ready for gear mounting needs, the Libre can carry the essentials.

THE RIDE

Aside from the initial confusion on the sizing, our 51 fits pretty well. We might even say it’s big; tall might be more accurate. The frame is designed for a short stem, and with such a tall front end, we found ourselves on the lower end of the steerer. The bike feels very balanced no matter if it was steep going up or going down. 

Descending was a joy with that slightly higher position and long wheelbase, and the bike is confidence-inspiring. Loose and fast turns are a bit more predictable, but the low-profile knob on the WTB Riddler didn’t bite deep. The Riddlers are fast and normally measure a bit small due to their robust sidewall and build, but on the 25mm rims they measure true to size.

Designed for more than aesthetics, the shapely rear triangle dampens road bumps.

Weighing in at 21 pounds, the Kona wasn’t a climbing sensation, but it was never uncomfortable. The tall front end did leave it a bit loose when things were very steep and slow, but the 40t chainring and 42t easy gear left us with a better than 1:1 ratio at .95—bravo. On the flip side of the cassette, Kona has gone with the Shimano/SRAM cassette body and an 11-tooth smallest cog. This left us a bit short-handed on our long descents. 

The bike was comfortable in the saddle, and the long top tube matched with a short stem made for a good fit. The short stem was also nicely paired with the 71-degree head tube angle when running a bar bag or loading the front with gear. The weight doesn’t feel like it takes over, and it’s easy to manage at low or high speeds.

THE VERDICT

The Libre is a solid bike that seems to be built to mountain bike standards, so it’s pretty much bulletproof. Kona definitely doesn’t use the traditional road sizing when labeling their bikes, so make sure you pick the correct size. It will likely be much smaller than you’re accustomed to. With that said, Kona does have a fairly good sizing chart on their site, but we thought even their recommendation put us on a bike one size too big with its recommendation for their 54. That would have been equivalent to a large, or 57–58cm from most other brands.

At $3000, the price is right for those looking to add some adventure and gravel riding to their pedaling repertoire. The geometry pairs well when the bike is loaded with gear, but is lively enough to make it a fun option for local shenanigans. The front is tall, so if you’re a slam-it racer type, you will likely feel like your hands are in the clouds. For the rest of us, it allows an all-day comfort position to not look so extended. 

“At 21 pounds, the bike feels light on the roads and trails. Much of the weight is hidden in the wheels and the durable WTB tires.”

The SRAM Rival 1x worked well and makes for less expensive replacement. The WTB KOM wheels might have “light in the name, but they are on the heavy side. They are a great adventure wheel and will likely hold up to loads of abuse, but a lighter-weight option would be a great upgrade. 

If you do opt for a wheel upgrade, get something with an XDR driver and pair it with a 10-42t cassette. This will add the needed top-end gear for big descents without compromising the low-end climbing gear. At 21 pounds, the bike feels light on the roads and trails. Much of the weight is hidden in the wheels and the durable WTB tires. Out of the box the bike is truly ready to ride, no matter where you decide to explore.

The DL version comes in at $4000 with Shimano GRX 810 2x and 650b. This to us might be worth the added expense, because the Easton wheels are also a bit nicer. The Shimano 2x will also offer a much wider gear range with easier climbing gears, as well as much larger gears for more road-oriented riding. This all means with the DL, there is no need to upgrade down the line, unless you want a personalized ride. Both bikes can be run with 650b or 700c wheels, so a set of both could be the ultimate upgrade.

PUNCH LINES

Not everything needs to be race geometry

Funky size chart

Ready for fun out of the box

STATS

Price: $3000

Weight: 21.18 pounds

Sizes: 46cm, 49cm, 51cm (tested), 54cm, 55cm

www.konaworld.com  

THE GEAR

Helmet: POC Octal Raceday 

Jersey: Le Col Pro Air Nexus 

Bib: Le Col Pro Blackout 

Shoes: Sidi Wire     

Socks: Swiftwick Pursuit Ultralight

Glasses: Oakley Racing Jacket  

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