20 years/ 20 questions – Kona


If you wanted to pick one of the iconic bike brands it wouldn’t be long before you settled on Kona. Founded by Jake Heilbron and Dan Gerhard in 1988, they started with durable steel hardtails and then ran with it.

After all, who doesn’t know someone who learned to ride on a Cinder Cone? Or was able to race downhill thanks to a bombproof Stinky. Today their bikes maintain their ruggedness but are more refined with the Process range bringing a whole new approach to geometry and the Operator scooping up World Cup podiums.

We spoke to Kona co-owner Jake Heilbron about mountain biking past present and future.

20 questions – kona

What achievement of the company are you most proud of
“We have a standard joke response when people ask how we’re doing – “we’re still in business” – because it doesn’t give anything away, regardless of whether things are healthy or sick in the business.

When you consider how many companies have come and gone since we started in 1988, and how many have been sold and re-sold, it’s reassuring to know that our company has the same type of longevity we build into our bikes”.

What has been your biggest product development?
“Our product story has stayed pretty consistent over the years. The original Kona mountain bikes designed by Joe Murray like the steel Explosif and Cinder Cone hardtails were the first with sloping top tubes focused on long cockpits, low centers of gravity, and short rear triangles.

When we introduced the iconic long travel Stab and Stinky designed by Paddy White and Dr. Dew we kept working on stability, neutral handling and serious durability. In recent times, the Operator and Process returned the sport’s focus on low, long and tight with short chainstays, low centers of gravity, amazing handling and outstanding durability.

The invention of the bicycle over 150 years ago was a revolution. Since then bicycles have invented and re-invented so many design ideas that evolution is the more accurate way of describing any one company’s new introductions”.

What was the brand working on 20 years ago?
“In 1996, Kona wasn’t thinking of itself as a brand, rather we were a company just trying to make great bikes, kind of like we’re doing today. At that time the industry was in transition from craftsmanship leading the way to design and technology becoming the forefront of product development.

We introduced our first cross-country dual suspension bikes in 1995 named SEX (short for Suspension Experience) and got shit for that name. At the same time we were in the process of developing our “Out of Bounds” long travel dual suspension and hardtail range for the original North Shore riders in our backyard who were pushing the boundaries of cross-country into freeride. When we started using violence and filth to name our bikes – like Stab and Stinky – it was much more successful”.

What influence has Dirt had on your company?
“Dirt has always been a benchmark, a “for racers by racers” publication that cut through the industry hype. Dirt’s reviews hold weight, and to be included in their coverage meant we were doing something right”.

What has been the biggest lesson the company has learnt in the industry?
“Pay attention to the grassroots by riding with people who are pushing the boundaries of cycling wherever they are. The best developments in cycling have always come from the ground up rather than lab coat technology trickling down to the unwashed masses”.

What do you dislike about working in the bike industry?
“How talking about bikes takes up a lot more of our time than actually riding them”.

Give us a story from your wildest moment in mountain biking?
“The wildest ones involve drinking and dumpster jumping but in the interest of promoting public safety will go untold. We used to like going up on the North Shore mountains and just get lost trying to find rideable trails. We liked to call them just an average ride with Jake the Snake.

At the top of one early Spring ride we ran into some snow and then decided to bushwack down some steep trails that turned out to be unridable. We were literally throw-hucking our hardtail and fully rigid bikes down the mountain and chasing down after them. Got a little scratched up and surprised quite a few hikers but no major injuries. Have broken a few collarbones over the years but those were all from trying to ride road bikes in the dirt”.

Your favourite or most memorable Dirt Cover?
“Easy. Seeing our Process 153 on the cover of the 2014 Dirt 100.”

What would you like to see from Dirt over the next 20 years?
“Keep the Dirt edge. Keep your finger on the pulse”.

What has Dirt taught you over the years?
“Making a magazine that people like to look at, in terms of graphic design and visual quality, goes a long way to getting people to pick that magazine up and leave it on their coffee table (or toilet)”.

What would be the first question you would ask Dirt?
“When are you coming back to print for good?”

Who have been your favourite riders of the past 20 years?
“Joe Murray, Dave Turner, Bruce Spicer, Max Jones, Cindy Devine, Dave Wiens, Seamus McGrath, Peter Wedge, Roland Green, Kirk Molday, Dario Cioni, Nathalie Fiat, Steve Peat, Antti-Pekka Laiho, Geoff Kabush, Ryder Hesjedal, Tomi and Pau Misser, Stefano Migliorini, Greg Minnaar, Scott Beaumont, Fabien Barel, Tracy Moseley, Kamil Tatarkovič, Robbie Bourdon, John Cowan, Paul Basagoitia, Grant Allen, Grant Fielder, Karim Amour, Barry Wicks, Ryan Trebon, Erik Tonkin, Spencer Paxson, Cory Wallace, Kris Sneddon, Antoine Bizet, Graham Agassiz, Tegan Molloy, Connor Fearon – look them up, they’ve all ridden or raced for Kona over the years. Who did I miss?”

What rider has most pushed the boundaries over the past 20 years?
“To look to a specific point in our history we can look back to the Kona Clump Team. Things like Dave Watson jumping over the Tour de France, Robbie “Air” Bourdon sending it bigger than was thought imaginable, John Cowan hitting moto-sized dirt jumps on a mountain bike, or Paul Basagoitia barging onto the scene at Crankworx ushering in a new era of slopestyle competition. In more recent years we have seen Graham Agassiz and Antoine Bizet continue to push the boundaries of what can be done on a bike, while someone like Cory Wallace is accomplishing the unimaginable racing and winning almost every epic solo endurance mountain bike event around the world”.

What has been your favourite or most memorable race?
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was Fabien Barel winning the World Championships in 2004 and 2005 first in Les Gets and then Livigno. No one worked harder than Fabien at his discipline or had to overcome hardship especially in 2005. And nothing’s better than a championship celebration!”

What does the next 20 years bring for mountain biking?
“Change is the only constant. 20 years ago we couldn’t have seen where materials and technology are right now. To think of 20 more years’ refinement from where we’re at right now is exciting”.

What’s your opinion on E-Bikes?
“It’s inevitable”.

What life lessons has mountain biking taught you?
“Carry emergency supplies. Everyone likes a cold one. The last run should be the one you just did and not the next one you say will be the last one. Don’t vote Republican.”

What’s been the most questionable thing to come out of mountain biking?
“We’ve got boxes of this stuff in the basement, but we’ve learned from all of it and it’s what keeps us pushing forward”.

Who doesn’t get the credit they deserve in the industry?
“Advocacy organizations like IMBA, NEMBA and NSMBA and hundreds of others like them. Cyclists and the bicycle business take the work that’s done for granted and need to get involved in ensuring that there will be always places to ride”.


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