Ridden & Reviewed: Kona's Private Jake

Ridden & Reviewed: Kona's Private Jake

This is Ellie. She's pretty nifty.

So, people tend to have three very different reactions to my three somewhat different bikes. Valentine the Inschwinneratior: "You still riding that old Schwinn? When are you going to get a real bike that actually fits you?" Marianne Kate Bianchi: "Whoa, that's a really pretty bike. So much celeste." Ellie: "Hey, nice Private Ja...okay, what is up with that bike? Mind if I, uh, take a spin real quick?"

I swear, at least a dozen people have tried out my bike since September. The reaction's always the same: "Dude. That is a fun @#$% ride."

So what is up with this bike? And why is the ride so unmentionably fun?

Yes, but what does it mean?

Short rant: I hate this whole "let's invent a whole new category!" thing the bike industry is doing these days. Yes, I get it, sales are down nationwide for reasons that belong in a whole different (and much longer) rant, so we're trying to create new categories so that people are convinced they have to buy a whole new bike in order to do a different kind of riding.

Um, okay, sure, but I'd like someone to explain why you can't grab, oh, a Salsa Warbird—the quintessential gravel bike—and race 'cross, or barnstorm fire roads on a Bianchi Zolder, or why I can't race criteria on my so-called endurance bike, or why I see people at centuries on full-on race bikes, or, heck, how in the world people back in the day were riding their road bikes on single track? I mean, is there even such a thing as a "mountain bike" anymore, outside of Dirt Rag's attempts to find the mythical One Bike? Who sent around the memo that strictly defines all these new categories that are, for reasons I can't quite understand, somehow completely different from one another?

I suspect that Kona's copy of that memo got used for rolling papers at whatever design session produced the Private Jake.

Crossing over between states...and hokeybogus madeup categories

I think Andy described it as a full rigid mountain bike that's in denial. Or something like that—I was a $3 Hennepin away from recovering from Tacchino at that point—but still, the point stands. I've heard people describe the Jake series as "very mounainbikey," and the Private has still more in common with modern cross-country design trends—ultrashort chainstays, long front center, short stem, slack headtube, butt planted over the back tire and tire planted on the ground, handling that "pops" around corners when you put even a bit of power behind it—that sort of very fun thing.

So it's really a mountain bike, then? Well, it does play well on single track, true, and there is that whole "does not play well with front derailleurs" thing due to the short chainstays like you'd see on a Surly Krampus—but when was the last time you saw a mountain bike, even a dirtdropbikepackingrig, with a flattened top tube, internally routed cables with full housing, and short & snappy wheelbase? No, this is a 'cross ripper, no doubt about it.

And yes, beer, mud, and cowbells do seem to suit the bike well, but that bottom bracket seems just a bit...low...for a pure 'cross bike. I'm also looking at these fender mounts, especially the mid-fork ones up front, and wondering why anyone would go to the trouble of putting them there rather than the fork ends...unless, perhaps, it's for putting a mount at just the right place for your light to illuminate the long road in front of you without hiding the pothole in the shadows. You know, the kind of thing you do in gravel races? And what's with all the people with frame bags using the #privatejake Instagram tag?

No doubt about it, the beast made short work of the GAP this fall, and was a joy to take on long, fast dirtdrags low in the drops—but I'm still remembering how she snaps around sharp off-camber turns on single track...

Don't box her in, don't pin her down. She really does like doing it all.

Forget the zombie apocalypse, this bike outruns sandworms!

The moment I realized how much thought went into kitting out this bike—not just in an "oh, of course I read the spec sheet" way, but truly knew some nut who loved riding bikes had picked the parts—was when I opened the small parts box during assembly and found a pair of tubeless valve cores along with the touch-up paint. Okay, someone doesn't want your bike not living up to its potential.

One of the mechanics walks by, gives her a lookover. "Man, they even machined the sidewalls on those rims. I mean, they don't have to, not a braking surface, you got discs, but it's a classy touch, adds strength and stiffness. Nice."

That kinda sums it all up right there: whatever your favorite bike geek would put on her bike, that's what's on this bike. Tires & wheels? Tubeless ready (just add latex!), strong enough for big dumb klutzes like me, and WTB's 700x35 Cross Boss is a pretty decent all-around tire for most anything but "there are no good options!" slopfests—it's good for that oft-nebulous category of "dirt"—and, even on pavement, even when under 20 PSI, steadfastly refuses to squirm. Yes, I tried, and yes, I know how dumb that was. Oh, and I realize that tires larger than 32's are technically not legal in UCI elite races, but who the eff actually cares? Designing and specing a bike around something that, oh, maybe not even close to one percent of people with 'cross bikes will ever do is Just Plain Dumb. The extra cush and grip makes sense. No arguing. Don't even. Yes, I'm thinking of mounting 40's, because I can.

Brakes? Look, I really wanted to swap out the stock brakes for Paul's Klamper, which came out about the same time I got Ellie (because Paul makes awesome shtuff, that's why!). Really, really wanted to (it'd be so cool, yo!). Nope. Can't justify it. None of the "BANG!" ohgodimgoingtolockup feeling I get from BB7's, none of the pain in the ass bleeding of hydro brakes—yeah, I think these stay.

Drivetrain? Dude, love the Rival CX 1. No complaints, at all. 'Cross race the day after a hurricane soaked everything? Perfect from warmup lap to "half the course is plastered against my bottom bracket!" finish. Hard shift while trying to drop the hammer on someone? No problem for me, big problem for the guy behind me who jammed his front mech—that did not sound pretty! Steep up? Got gears to spare (really). Wipeout overcooking a turn chasing a taco prime? Chain stays on, even if the rider doesn't. Heck, the controls feel good and respond well, even in lobster gloves, or covered in mud, or grimed up after a spill in a sand pit, or clogged in freezing slush and snow, or...

Other cool things? Well, those funky sliding dropouts...yeah, gonna have to get me a DiscWORD hub (see, getting some Paul stuff on this bike after all!) and embrace the single life. No more zipties, you gotta actually run this SS. Lucky for us, Kona went the sane route and used basic 12x142 mountain bike spacing for the rear dropouts, rather than whatever new through-axle "standard" got invented last week so you have half a prayer of finding a hub that'll fit. A voice for sanity in a world where we really don't need yet another through-axle or bottom bracket.

On point at the trail's end

Okay, so quibbles. There's no other way to say it, but the stock saddle stinks to high heaven. No redeeming qualities whatsoever, save that it beats a bare seatpost. Much as I admittedly like the Spyres, they do need frequent tweaking—or at least more frequent than I really like—to keep their articulation crisp and not squeal loudly enough to wake half the neighborhood when wet. I did have some problem with the fork fender/light mounting points when I tried to add a Paul Gino light mount and stripped the thread on one. Now, I completely understand the design philosophy behind making the eyelets in the fork more fragile than the fork—something about "better to rip out the mount if you hit something than crack the fork"—but Still. While I haven't had any problems with it, I'm not a fan of pressfit bottom brackets; I've already heard the "call me when it starts creaking" jokes, and, while the instal job seems to have been done correctly, I still cling to the old threaded ways. While I've yet to run out of gears on steep climbs, I've spun out my high end on a couple paved descents where my road bikes would still have a couplefew gears left. The rear shift cable housing's kinda long and ungainly, if kink-free. The seat clamp doesn't really accommodate my Ass Savers. Black's not my favorite color. I'd like free coffee for life.

Like I said, quibbles.

Not even Snowzilla stops Ellie

So what's the five-wings-with-mumbo takeaway from all this rambling? Well, a story, perhaps. Or maybe it's a plot. See, I've got these friends who have crazy ideas that somehow just don't get planned into reality—which is a problem, because they often act on these crazy ideas, and sometimes I find myself involved. I suspect we all have friends like this. They're talking about a one-day Cumberland-to-DC C&O run this spring. Of course I'm joining in—and, for an insane, crazy, ill-advised adventure like this, I know which bike I want with me.