First Impression: Kona Hei Hei Race DL

KONA HeiHei-1

Since this is a “first impression” write up, I will give you my unvarnished first impression of Kona’s new carbon Hei Hei Race DL: “Woo hoo!”

The Hei Hei Race DL marks Kona’s return to using carbon fiber frames on its (non-DH) mountain bikes, after a few years spent refining the process and finding the right production partner. The geometry is carried over from this bike’s aluminum sibling, including the 69 degree head tube angle and 16.9 inch/430 mm chainstay length.

KONA HeiHei-5

The frame features Kona’s Fuse Independent Suspension, which eliminates a pivot at the chainstay-seatstay junction for a lighter, stiffer ride feel. After initial setup, I could push hard down on the saddle and see zero reaction from the rear shock. Out on the trail this design, paired with a RockShox Monarch RL, comes alive and has so far impressed me with how it handles moderately bumpy trails. Even when I found myself carrying too much speed into an unseen rock garden, the bike soaked up just enough to keep me in control, rather than throwing me like a hardtail might.

KONA HeiHei-9

At first, I was a little surprised that this race bike didn’t show up decked out in bling. But, come to think of it, is there really enough of a market for yet another $8,000 bike intended to be ridden full gas while wearing white Spandex? (We don’t yet know the final price for this bike, but it sure as hell won’t be eight grand.) Besides, SRAM’s Guide brakes and GX 1×11 gearing work perfectly well. Non-carbon Kona components? Just fine. Aluminum WTB KOM i25 rims? So far, so great. Mid-level RockShox Reba? Feeling supple and soaking up small bumps with aplomb. And, anyway, none of that really matters when you start riding this bike.

I felt at home immediately on the Hei Hei Race DL, particularly thanks to its short stem and wide handlebars paired to a longer, slacker front (for an XC bike) and compact rear triangle. I applaud those things because I believe that bikes should be as fun to ride downhill and on twisty trails as they are “easy” to point and shoot uphill. Those geometry and component choices show that Kona probably thinks so, too.

KONA HeiHei-2

Having not ridden a full-squish 29er in about three years, I was skeptical. My last dance with a bouncy bigwheel was short-lived thanks to awkward geometry. And because this bike has “race” in its name, which is something I do not do, I had myself a hearty chuckle upon hearing I would be sent this bike.

But after only two Colorado rides, I have developed a school-girl crush. The Hei Hei Race DL won’t soak up every bit of rough trail. Still, it dares you to charge through those rough spots, whip yourself up on berms, glide up tight switchback climbs, loft over every rock in your path and lean way over into turns, even when you’re going much too fast and the Maxis Maxxlite Speed tires are about to give up on their minimal grip. Simply put, don’t let the 29 x 2.0 low-tread tires, 100 mm of suspension and 34-tooth chainring fool you too much. This may be a race bike with a popped collar, but that collar is attached to a plaid flannel shirt.

KONA HeiHei-3

A few other initial thoughts: If I can’t have a dropper, I’d at least like a quick-release seat collar so I don’t have to bust out a multi tool prior to long descents. On my size small, I am maxing out the seatpost height and am only 5’4″ with a long torso and short-ish legs. The saddle won’t lower all the way, either, but I can drop it enough to feel comfortable. Not being completely stretched out on this bike means I can get myself behind the saddle with it still raised high. Finally, I think the 34-tooth front chainring is going to feel steep for half- to full-day rides that require a lot of seated, grinding climbs, but that would be a simple aftermarket swap if your power outputs are as low as mine.

KONA HeiHei-11

Is this a race bike or a trail bike? Does it matter? I am going to suck it up and race it later this month for the sake of a thorough review. Is it easier to wipe puke off carbon than aluminum or steel? We shall see. So far, this bike makes a lot of sense for people who race but also consider themselves aficionados of trail nuances and want to have some fun while they’re training.

Meanwhile, if racing isn’t your number-one gig, keep an eye out for the new Hei Hei Trail with 120 mm of front suspension, wider tires and a dropper stuck to this carbon frame. Yes, please.

Look for a full review in the next issue of Dirt Rag, and for this bike to become available starting in July.