A very capable frameset that is sadly held back by its spec
Mar 1 2018
WTB Horizon make for a fun, grippy, comfortable ride
Very nicely designed and finished frame
Neutral and stable handling
Mechanical brakes just don't provide enough power
Not the best spec for the price
You're after a gravel grinder in the traditional sense. Wide, open, fast (non-technical) gravel roads and paths.
We first had the chance to ride the Kona Rove NRB at Kona’s drop bar bike launch in Spain just before Christmas. Initial impressions were very positive. Since then, our tester Benedict has had a chance to ride the bike in his native Edinburgh in slightly soggier conditions. How has the bike handled the change?
Let me start by saying that this is a very capable bike. The Rove NRB (insert whatever acronym you want – Kona have left it intentionally vague) builds on the success of the original Rove with an all new alloy frame specifically designed around 650b 'Road Plus' wheels and tyres.
Whilst perfectly happy on tarmac, it’s a bike that is capable of more. More rough roads, more gravel, more exploring. In Spain that really bore out, with the large tyres providing ample cushioning and a speedy ride on the fire roads we were riding.
And really, it’s the tyres (and 650b wheelset) that are the unique thing here. Road Plus is the designation given by WTB to high volume, 650b tyres. The WTB Horizon fitted has a 47c diameter. Whilst you have a huge amount of rubber and volume, the outer diameter stays very close to that of a traditional 28c 700c road tyre – theoretically meaning that the handling remains similar.
Whilst the bike comes fitted with tubes, it’s really worth running these tyres tubeless. That shouldn’t be too difficult as the wheels and tyres are tubeless ready, so it should just be a matter of some sealant and valves to get everything set up.
The Horizon tyres are excellent, generating astounding amounts of grip on tarmac and off-road as well. I’ve ridden them through mud, slush, snow and ice; and whilst a slick tyre is always going to meet its limits in those kinds of conditions the large contact patch gives surprising amounts of grip in all conditions.
There’s enough rave reviews about these tyres elsewhere – suffice to say I’m fully on board. All that really needs to be said is that they give this bike a buttery smooth ride and can be used on an astoundingly wide range of terrain. They are hugely versatile and capable.
The wheel and tyre combo are also not as sluggish as might be expected, with the smaller size resulting in less overall rotational weight. Whilst these tyres have a broad range where they’ll roll along happily, I do find that at a certain speed the increased (aero) drag is noticeable. But then that’s not really surprising – these tyres are huge and designed for off-road riding too!
The wheels themselves are a solid affair with WTB Asym i23 rims laced to 12mm thru-axle Formula hubs. Not the lightest setup, but they have remained true through all the abuse I have given them.
The forged bottom bracket shell (more on that later), provides very good stiffness for out of the saddle sprints but I have been pleasantly surprised with the overall comfort of the ride. Coupled with the 44cm wide, flared (I am partial to a flared bar for off-road riding) drop bar and decent WTB Volt saddle the bike puts you in a comfortable position. It is curious to see a 31.6 mm seat post though – I can’t help but feel a smaller diameter would just give a bit more compliance and comfort.
What I find strange is that, as I’ve been riding this bike in Scotland, my feelings about the bike have started to change. It feels like the Rove has had a bit of an identity crisis and doesn’t quite know who it is in the UK. A bit too heavy and sluggish to ride quickly on the roads, not quite tough enough to take the abuse of “hardcore” gravelling.
I’ll admit that that’s a bit of a harsh statement – the Rove does perfectly well whatever you point it at – but perhaps that is exactly its problem. Being a jack of all trades and master of none does come with a risk of being a little underwhelming whatever you do. For the niche of riding I do, and probably UK gravel in general which is possibly a bit more rutted, a bit more rooted and just a bit more rambunctious, the Rove can sometimes feel a bit out of its depth.
What particularly contributes to that feeling is the lack of braking power. At this price, I would have expected to see hydraulic brakes. The TRP Spyres are by far the best of a bad bunch of mechanical disc brakes, but they simply can’t match the performance of hydraulics. For aggressive off-road riding, especially in wetter conditions (i.e. the UK) these just lack power and more than once I’ve ended up with a death grip trying to slow myself whilst hurtling down a steep trail. That definitely doesn’t help with staying loose and relaxed whilst riding!
At this point, I have to note that the overall spec of the bike is rather disappointing for the £1600 spend. The bike is lumbered with 10-speed Tiagra and non-groupset FSA Omega Adventure cranks. The shifters do not provide very good tactile feedback, especially with gloves on. However, it is nice to see the wide 32/48 tooth chainring spacing which should give enough range to get up the steepest of inclines.
I had initially thought that this bike added up to more than the sum of its parts and so could forgive it the high price. Unfortunately, having spent some time on it the lack of higher end components is quite noticeable, with poor braking and slightly squirrelly shifting at times.
I wonder if exchange rates are playing some funny tricks here. It is also entirely possible that a significant portion of that cost has been allocated to the “unusual” wheels and tyres.
The frame itself is a very nice piece of engineering though. As it was intended to be built up around 650b tyres the chain stay bottom bracket junction had to be carefully designed. In order to achieve the required clearances, Kona has used a two-part forged BB shell. It’s a neat solution that undoubtedly also adds cost but avoids the what some might call unsightly dropped chainstays found on many other bikes trying to improve clearances.
The welding is nicely smoothed out and it’s nice to see a robust external bottom bracket. In addition, this frame now features flat mount brakes. Three bottle mounts make this bike adventure ready too. I particularly like the offset mudguard and rack mounts that make it painless to mount both without interference. Incidentally, it’s possible to fit mudguards front and rear even with the huge 47c tyres fitted.
It’s a pity that the braking is so bad because the overall handling of the bike is actually very good. It provides a tame and stable ride, though at the cost of some handling agility. Personally, I would fit a shorter stem for a slightly more upright position and to speed up the steering a little bit.
The problem I have found that with its neutral handling this bike just doesn’t ever feel like it’s getting into the swing of the riding I’ve been doing. It’s not super inspiring on the road – in the sense that I’m happy to ride it on the roads but with the purpose of using them to get somewhere interesting and “gravelly”. However, it then starts to feel a little out of its depth when I do take it off-road.
I’ll happily admit that I haven’t been riding an abundance of smooth trails or well-manicured gravel. I’d argue that’s harder to find (in the UK) than the bumpy, rocky, rooty and slidy stuff I tend to do. And perhaps that’s the crux of it – this bike has a sweet spot on fast, regular, “nice” gravel and does very well there, but I can’t help but feel that I’ve had gravel bikes that bridge the gap from road to rough off-road much more competently, without having to stay in the middle between the two.
Looking back at my notes from when I rode the bike in Spain I’m slightly perplexed by my difference in opinion now. Perhaps it’s simply a bike that isn’t at home in the UK. We’ve all seen the vast expanses of gravel roads available in the US, and perhaps that’s what the Rove is really for. At the moment, here, it feels a bit lost.
It’s not a bad bike by any measure, but it just doesn’t float my boat for the riding I’m (and likely a lot of UK gravellers) are doing. It does provide a very comfortable and relaxed ride, but the more I’ve ridden it on my usual loop, the less impressed I’ve become. For me, it's not an engaging ride on the road, yet not quite confidence inspiring enough on challenging off-road trails..It’s a sad fact that I feel the bike is most held back by its spec.
In part, the harshness of the verdict is because I just feel this bike doesn’t represent great value for money. Infuriatingly, the poor braking holds back what could otherwise be a very capable bike. Not a problem when you’re on fast running, wide open gravel tracks – but when you need to modulate your speed in questionable conditions on questionable terrain it really becomes an issue.
I find the Rove N.R.B a bit polarising and I think that’s more because of its spec rather than any actual flaws. Were it cheaper, I could forgive it its shortcomings, but at the price, I feel it should be capable of so much more. Obviously, it has its niche where it rides very well, but unfortunately, it doesn’t bridge that gap fantastically to other kinds of riding. That’s just a pity for what is clearly a very capable frame and tyre combination underneath.
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own :
"A road bike capable of more?" A bike most suited to quick rolling and smooth, non-technical gravel riding. The tyres are capable on a wide range of terrain but unfortunately the lack of braking power holds the bike back.
State the frame material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.:
6061 butted aluminium frame with a forged bottom bracket plate to give clearances for 650b tyres. TRP Spyre mechanical discs take care of stopping duties and a combination of Tiagra derailleurs, shifter and FSA crankset make up the drive train. The bike is shod in very capable WTB Horizon 47c rubber.
Frame & Fork
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.:
On the whole the ride quality of the bike is excellent, no doubt helped by the high volume tyres. The headtube/downtube junction is quite stiff though and this is sometimes noticeable with feedback though the bars.
Overall rating for frame
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame:
Very nicely finished frame with a neat solution using a forged bottom bracket to provide the necessary clearances for the high volume tyres.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame:
Fairly standard geometry in "gravel terms" with a slackened out 71-degree head angle. The 1043mm (Size 54) wheelbase is slightly longer than other bikes I have ridden recently increasing stability.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame:
Aluminium frame and full carbon fork
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?:
The forged bottom bracket shell is very well designed. It provides excellent stiffness (for this kind of bike) for out of the saddle sprints. However, inevitably, these high volume tyres are not the quickest out there.
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive?:
Neutral (on the slow side) steering
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?:
I would probably put a shorter stem on the bike to quicken up the steering and give myself a slightly more upright position for off-road adventures. Interestingly the fork has a 5mm shorter rake than other bikes I have ridden recently. This results in a larger trail measurement which may account for some of the perceived slower steering.
Rate the bike for sprinting:
Any comments on sprinting?:
Not really what this bike is for
Rate the bike for high speed descending
Any comments on high speed descending?:
If it's wide open, no problems - but the lack of braking power is concerning.
Rate the bike for technical descending:
Any comments on technical descending?:
It's about the brakes again. Better braking power would increase confidence tremendously.
Rate the bike for flat cornering:
Any comments on flat cornering?:
The tyres have huge amounts of grip on tarmac and smooth, dry surfaces.
Rate the bike for technical climbing:
Any comments on technical climbing?:
Inevitably the slick tread gets overwhelmed sometimes.
Rate the bike for climbing efficiency:
Any comments on climbing efficiency?:
Wide range on crankset means you can grind up any incline.
Rate the bike for agility:
Rate the drivetrain for performance:
Wheels & tyres
Rate the tyres for performance:
Rate the tyres for durability:
Did you enjoy riding the bike?:
A very fun bike to ride in the right conditions - just held back by the brakes.
Would you consider buying the bike?:
A very capable frameset/wheel combo, but the rest of the spec doesn't seem particularly good value for money.
Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike\'s performance? would you recommend any changes?:
Unfortunately, the lack of power with the mechanical disc brakes really holds this bike back on technical terrain or in wet conditions.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend?:
Questionable - a bike begging for upgrades from the outset means there may be better options available.