FEATURE

Kona: The Smallest Biggest Bike Company in the World

Words Pete Roggeman
Photos Kaz Yamamura
Video Matt Dennison
Date Oct 29, 2015

Rider-owned. What mountain bike company isn’t owned by riders? Who else but a rider would have the fiscal patience and insensitivity to risk required to own a mountain bike company? Yet there are brands so strongly defined by their founders that it usually turns out they sacrificed nearly every other thing in their lives for bikes. They’re the type who possess a devotion to riding that is so deeply ingrained that founding a brand seems pre-ordained.

So what the hell does ‘the smallest biggest bike company in the world’ mean anyway?


Kona is a quintessential North Shore bike brand, yet their head office has almost always been over the border in Bellingham, Washington, a logging and mining town that is becoming increasingly well-known for its riding. We were long overdue to pay them a visit, so we drove an hour South and found ourselves in the town of 80,000. Partly to ride their trails, of course, but we also wanted to learn more about Kona and how they have managed success without losing the unique flavour that has always defined them.

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Offices with dogs are better. They just are.

The good owners also have a knack for hiring talented bike freaks who aren’t just in it for a discount, they actually get off on busting their asses and living with grease under their fingernails. Those employees add layers and polish to the culture the owners molded from frame jigs and late nights and cheap whiskey. And so it is with Kona.

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Kona co-owner Jake Heilbron submits to Matt Dennison’s lens.

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We could have listened to Jake’s stories for hours.

Jake Heilbron and Dan Gerhard founded Kona in 1988. They met while working at West Point Cycles, the same shop that gave rise to Rocky Mountain. And Race Face. So the story reads almost like a creation myth, except it’s true. It is a good story – a really good one. It’s also a long one, so we’ll save the telling of it for another time.

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There are cool and quirky bikes are all over the Kona warehouse.

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That standing desk may not be seismically-approved.

Newer brands claim rider-owned like it is a badge of honour, but they might as well just inject words like ‘passion’ and ‘game-changing’ into their mission statements so we can sniff ’em out and sell ’em for parts to the cliché factory. For older brands like Kona, being rider-owned was just assumed. Financial success was not. But they did succeed, with a unique and irreverent approach that was reflected in the way they did everything.

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Kona’s ‘cool stuff just lying around’ dial goes to 11.

Mitchell Scott’s haiku game needs a little work, but he is the perfect guy to be handling communications for Kona. You have probably seen his wordsmithing in the pages of Bike and Powder magazines, not to mention Kootenay and Coast Mountain Culture which are his literal paper babies.

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Old steel works for bikes as well as coffee.

Take the names of their bikes: Hei Hei, Stinky, Jake the Snake, Nanu Nanu, Humuhumu-Nukunuku-Apu’A. Ok, one of those is actually a 70s sitcom reference, but the rest are honest to goodness Kona models. And because these dudes really loved bikes and made good ones, they were taken seriously, even if they preferred not to act that way. Like all companies, they weathered their share of challenges along the way. But the heart beats strongly at the heart of the brand, and in the last few years the rosy colour has returned to Kona’s cheeks.

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Ian Schmitt is a product manager at Kona. Look at his face. Just look at it. Dude loves his job and life in Bellingham.

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Ian knows his way around two wheels.

Of the many remarkable things about Kona, they are notable in their ability to parlay that playfulness into a personality that also feels thoughtful, like they know exactly what they’re doing. They didn’t just try on being silly for a few years and discard it – they were the original mountain bike company that had more fun than everyone else. And in these days of industry summits to discuss point of sale merchandising and suspension systems designed by people who could be working at NASA (but prefer to be able to smoke pot every now and then), Kona is still the cheeky brand that borrows the best things from each side of the Canada/US border. And like they straddle that border, they also split the line between being small and cheeky, and being big and successful.

Kona is the Smallest Biggest bike company in the world. And they’re still having more fun than everyone else.

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Ask anyone at Kona and they will tell you their warehouse is half full.

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Caption this.

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If you try to read this while riding, you’ll be a big, strong rider with a busted collarbone.

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Walls to the ball. Kona team rider Spencer Paxson.

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Hey Kona dudes, wear bright shit for future photo shoots!

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Spencer Paxson is one of those annoying guys who can whip anyone in an XC race but also knows how to point it down in a hurry.

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Kona’s Process line of bikes have ushered in a new era of optimism for the brand.


What’s your history with Kona? Tell us about it. Give us your best Kona Haiku (a real five seven five haiku, not the Mitchell Scott version) and we’ll get them to send you some swag. Maybe even some of their famous rolling papers.

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Comments

kieran-rons
Kieran Rons
6 years, 9 months ago
0

First bike a Koa
Second was a full sus stab
Gimme a job please

Reply

jeff-shields
Jeff Shields
7 years, 1 month ago
0

my first real bike
ninety six Fire Mountain
steel dirt shredder

I bought the bike new in 1996, and maybe it wasn't the top ride, but it was the best I'd ever had; it still is. While my bones are starting to crave a Hei Hei, that Fire Mountain frame is still in action. There isn't anything left of the original components besides the wheels (how they've survived, I have no idea), and it got a 70mm suspension fork back in 2000, but it's still got the same soul.

Reply

shmarv
shmarv
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Caldera it was
Return to the bike
Rejuvenation

Kona History: I was teaching overseas in Singapore, and felt a tug back towards mountain biking. Picked up a Caldera, and rode it whenever I had the chance. Had my tough times over there, but heading around Bukit Timah also grounded me. The trails may have been limited, but it lit a fire in me and I carried that back home after my contract ended -- along with the bike. It served me well here, along with scaring more seasoned riding friends I tagged along with (at the top of CBC: "you're riding that? Ok, let's take things easy…). I made it down that ride relatively unscathed, and the Caldera's since been put in storage, but it's always going to be important to me.

Reply

kaylin-bradley
Kaylin Bradley
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Process is perfect
Shonky sails big sketchy stuff
Honzo feels like home

Bought a Process 134 in 2014, and loved it. Bike club started building aa skills park, so I went out and bought a 2013 Shonky on clearance. Recently added the 2016 Honzo AL/DL to the quiver. Constantly shuffling bikes around the living room now. I came into the bike game later in life, but it's completely changed it.

Reply

kain0m
kain0m
7 years, 1 month ago
0

never rode kona
always afraid of breaking
maybe me too lame

Reply

stw
STW
7 years, 1 month ago
0

If only I'd landed that design engineer job with them a few months ago, I too could be livin' the dream!

Reply

peterk
peterk
7 years, 1 month ago
0

My first mountain bike
Ticket to the local trails
Kona Lana'i

Reply

reini-wagner
Reini Wagner
7 years, 1 month ago
0

eight is the count now
stinky made me fly first and far
honzo is the mighty beast

i love these bikes, each and every one of them is fun to ride and reliable. with the honzo they really ticked all the right boxes…such an incredible shredder. what i love most about the brand is that they cater to niches (think unit or TI hardtails) and to the masses alike.
keep up the great vibe, i wanna push the count to ten!

Reply

marc-day
Marc Day
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Went to Bellingham
Back to California
Will trade sun for fun

Reply

Late-Bloomer
Andy Voight
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Bass hits the sweet jumps
Entourage slays the gnar-core
Process does the rest

Reply

tungsten
Drinky Crow
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Wow. Jacob has aged!
That Process, if they'd only put the pivot on the c/s and thread the bb……..sigh.

Reply

chris-barrett
Chris Barrett
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Rolling blind gate crash
Warped tire bent frame broke knee
New day cargo bike

Reply

phixx
Duncan Blair
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Picked up a Process
Added an Operator
Can now shred any trail

Reply

awesterner
awesterner
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Process carving through
cedar and salal and loam
Freedom nothing more

Reply

benjamin-kazakoff
Benjamin Kazakoff
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Dik Cox is a boss
Warranty Dan is the man
Jake is quite the snake

Reply

chris-barrett
Chris Barrett
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Yes yes indeed.

Reply

hbelly13
Raymond Epstein
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Demoed a Stinky
In the fall of ninety-nine
XC crap over

Reply

reformed-roadie
reformed roadie
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Haiku > pun

Reply

johnny-smoke
Johnny Smoke
7 years, 1 month ago
0

It ain't got no eyes
Or fins, but it sure can swim
It was a brown fish

Reply

mamadirt
mamadirt
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Where do you guys hide?
Tried to find you once or twice
5000 mile trip!

Reply

will-gaertner
Will Gaertner
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Hahanna I had
Lasted many longish years
still my bike of dreams

Reply

jamie-hamilton
Jamie Hamilton
7 years, 1 month ago
0

F%$# yeh! Without sounding like a wrinkled up old fan boy, I've had many of my happiest bike moments aboard one or another Kona bike. Over 25yrs of riding I've owned 4-5 Kona's all gave me happy times & big smiles! And my Process 134 has cemented my long term relationship. No bull, just outright fun!

Reply

andy-eunson
Andy Eunson
7 years, 1 month ago
0

I lived with Jacob

When he had Rocky Mountain
Crazy bunch of guys

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
Pete Roggeman
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Loving them so far
As usual it's all dudes
Any haiku girls?

Reply

kevin-wood
Kevin Wood
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Sex One Explosif
Sex Two Stab Hei Hei Kaboom
Sex Three Stinky Hot

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
Cam McRae
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Bellingham rules it
Especially with new laws
And Mitch Scott as guide

Reply

mikekoot
mike kootnikoff
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Mitch is the man!

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
Pete Roggeman
7 years, 1 month ago
0

New laws are the man, too 😉

Reply

brock-fisher
Brock Fisher
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Honzo sings a sweet song
Dirt ripped like Velco strip
Traction symphony

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
Pete Roggeman
7 years, 1 month ago
0

First line one over
Second is one under mate
Third is perfection

Reply

brock-fisher
Brock Fisher
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Fixed! Haha

Reply

kevin-wood
Kevin Wood
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Explosif rides up
Stinky hours pound mountain sides
The Process repeats

Lusted after a Kona Explosif in '92 but couldn't afford it. When my old hard tail got stolen I bought a '98 King Kikapu from the Cove. Finally I was a Kona owner. Now riding a Process 134 with a back up hard tail '96 Kona Hot. Also still have the Kikapu, the King lives on! Happy days.

Reply

gerry-lucatero
Gerry Lucatero
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Carbon. Process. For F's sake!

Reply

craig-oswald
Craig Oswald
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Don't see many Kona's Enduro or Downhill racing, kinda a XC/CX brand where I live.

Reply

Captain-Snappy
Merwinn
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Look a bit harder, they're out there.

Reply

craig-oswald
Craig Oswald
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Local Enduro (CDC, subdued excitement) . . . . NW cup. . . . ? Still lookin. . . .

Reply

jordan-katterheinrich
Jordan Katterheinrich
7 years, 1 month ago
0

It started with one
But I needed a few more
Must find room to store

I treated myself to a Kona Paddywagon as my first "real" bike once I had a big-boy job. As Roland said below, I was caught by the Kona tractor beam. 4 years and around 6,000 miles later, she is still going strong. I've lost 30-40 lbs, made new friends, and am a happier person overall. Now I've got a cheap hard tail that has me lusting for a Process and I truly understand the equation n+1.

Reply

anthony-blain
Anthony Blain
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Kona to commute
Should I really work today?
Parhaps trails prevail

Reply

qduffy
qduffy
7 years, 1 month ago
0

A carbon Process
Now, is that too much to ask?
Can’t wait. Bought Mojo.

I really liked the way the Process rode, but I'll admit it, I prefer carbon. It's been teased, but with the rising exchange rates I had to act! Had to!

Cool video. Need to get down to Bellingham more often.

Reply

awesterner
awesterner
7 years, 1 month ago
0

I was kind of waiting for the same thing. But I went for it anyway. I've demoed them a few times over the last year and a half and loved them. I moved over my xtr build from the xl nomad (fox 36), to a large Process and honestly .5 -.75lb heavier. That's it. What's the point. Shorter rear centre, same reach, slightly steeper HA! Bit shorter wheelbase…it's a lot more fun to ride. I've been on carbon for a while, and honestly I don't miss it:)

Reply

qduffy
qduffy
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Turns out I like the Mojo better anyway. 🙂 Great all-rounder.

Reply

mikekoot
mike kootnikoff
7 years, 1 month ago
0

roast added to fire.
stinky made me fly
kula with me until the end.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
Cam McRae
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Swap the second and third lines (5-7-5 not 5-5-7) and you've nailed it. Just ask Mitch.

Reply

mikekoot
mike kootnikoff
7 years, 1 month ago
0

Thank you Cam!

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
Cam McRae
7 years, 1 month ago
0

I made a mistake
kula with me 'til the end
That makes it seven

Reply

h000k
h000k
7 years, 1 month ago
0

They stole my Stinky.
Insurance bought another.
Need a damn Process.

Reply

chris-barrett
Chris Barrett
7 years, 1 month ago
0

I need insurance. Renters?

Reply

bryant-mccallson
Bryant McCallson
7 years, 1 month ago
0

I ride a Kona
Shread Shread Shread I love to Shread
This bike rocks! Nuff said

Reply

roland-lovell
Roland Lovell
7 years, 1 month ago
0

1st MTB 1995 Marin Bobcat Trail , little did I know then that I would be drawn in by the Kona tractor beam ! 2 years later Caldera steel loveliness but what I REALLY wanted was a Hei or King Kahuna . Then Kona wandered in the wilderness for a few years , my Ti H/T lust was satisfied by other Canucks in the form of a Cove Hummer . In that time I acquired a Kona Aha from '97 Stars n Bars . Then 3 years ago that tractor beam sought me out again ! Press release Kona are making a Ti H/T again , problem is they are only making 250 worldwide , oh well never mind . Phone call from Kona dealer there are 2 Raijins left in European warehouse an 18 and a 20 , do you want one ! Danggit ! Then last year a 134DL Process came on the radar . Damn you Jake and Dan !

Reply

dennis-mcdonald
Dennis McDonald
7 years, 1 month ago
0

In the 90's. Not honoring any warranty whatsoever on a friend's bike that broke first run. No exaggeration.

Reply

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