2021 Kona Libre EL gravel bike review

The Kona Libre EL is an electrically assisted gravel bike with a Shimano Steps E7000 drive motor. It delivers a relaxed but capable ride with all the power you might wish for. There are plenty of mount options, should you wish to explore further with a smaller 650b wheel size that allows for a wider tyre. However, the choice of tyres may be the biggest performance limiter.

Kona is a brand that continues to push into more adventurous areas with a following that loves exploration. As motors and batteries continue to improve in range and capability, bikepacking becomes a realistic option. The Libre EL features a 504Wh battery, which gives one of the largest battery capacities in the current market.

The Kona Libre EL build

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The mounts are also good for an electric bike as the motor and battery placement can make this more challenging. The fork features anything mounts for racks, and on the back, pannier rack mounts are also provided, allowing for more bags to be carried.

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The frame is constructed from 6061 aluminium and equipped Shimano GRX 810 shifters, GRX rear mech with Shimano Deore 11-42 cassette, Shimano E8000 chainset with 42 tooth chainring and 105 completing the drivetrain. Braking power is provided by Shimano GRX callipers matched with 160mm rotors front and rear. Performance from both shifting and braking is excellent, as you might expect from a high-level Shimano drivetrain.

How it rides

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The geometry and position give you all the indication you need for the style of riding the bike is aimed towards. The position is relaxed, with a short, upright stem with plenty of stackers to give the option of a higher front end matched to a reasonably steep 45.5-degree seat tube angle on our 52cm test bike. Even the biggest 58cm frame still has a 73-degree seat tube angle, which is more relaxed than most average gravel bikes, electric or unassisted.

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One feature that may divide opinions would be the dropper seat post. For some who ride gravel bikes, it may not be a requirement. Still, I feel it is a worthwhile addition for an assisted gravel bike as one of the only downsides would usually be the increased weight. In this case, that simply isn’t an issue. The seat post allows you to lower the saddle when riding more technical, steeper descents. Lowering the saddle allows you to move your body further back, preventing the saddle from bucking you off, something I am sure many riders will have experienced at some point. The TranzX +RAD post has internal cable routing. It connects the left-hand GRX dropper-compatible lever to allow the seat post to be dropped/raised in the same motion as a gear shift. It is effective and easy to use, although occasionally, I found it a little sticky with the motion not as smooth as a higher-end mountain bike dropper seat post, such as a RockShox Reverb.

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One slight annoyance while riding was a little rattle that I could hear from the battery/frame connection where the battery can be removed. It wasn’t as bad as the Fazua system on the Kinesis Range Adventure e-bike review, but loud enough and common enough that I would be looking at trying to reduce or stop the noise somehow if it were my bike.

The wheels on the Libre EL are WTB HTZ i25 rims with Formula hubs. The smaller 650mm rims are used throughout all bike sizes and not size-specific as some brands have done, such as Canyon with the Grail:ON tested recently. The frame is compatible with 700mm wheels, with a claimed tyre clearance of 45mm. The tyres fitted are WTB Venture 650x47c, and clearance is still very generous, leaving plenty of extra space for mud clearance or potentially larger wheels should you wish.

The tyres are fine on surfaced roads or firm gravel or forest tracks. Still, anything looser or slippery, they suffer from simply lacking traction or cornering grip. I have ridden and tested these tyres on an unassisted bike, and they are far less of an issue. The tyre loses traction easily, and it can make starting or attempting to increase power very difficult; and in many situations, I was only able to use Eco power mode to limit the power and prevent traction issues. Still, with the motor’s benefits, the extra power means traction (in particular, under acceleration when going up hills) is severely affected on some surfaces. The tyre rolls quickly, but given this is an e-bike, rolling resistance is far less of a concern, and I would prefer to see a more capable tyre fitted that would improve all-around performance.

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The E7000 motor has 3 standard modes: Eco, Trail and Boost. Eco or Trail are sufficient for general riding, and I only found Boost was used for the very steepest, hardest hills and where there is a surfaced road. In Eco mode, the power response is still good with enough power and torque to climb technical climbs. However, the way in which the motor responds is something that you learn to adjust to with smooth pedalling, giving the best response as any jerky pedalling can result in sudden increases in power, throwing the balance off. This increases as the modes go on, with Boost being very responsive, in many situations too responsive. The E7000 system has the option to tweak the modes using a smartphone app, which is simple to do and worthwhile. I found Eco worked well but reducing the Trail setting to Low allowed a more gradual pickup as assistance is provided and should also increase battery life.

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The E7000 system is originally designed for mountain bikes, featuring flat handlebars which are of different diameters. To accommodate this, Kona provides an adapter for the control. It is a reasonably easy position to adjust while riding. The display unit for the motor system is placed next to the stem and is very easy to read with a simple layout giving clear information on the battery remaining, assistance mode, speed and distance covered and the information can also be adjusted using the app and information downloaded to give full information from your rides.

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Battery life from the 504Wh capacity battery is excellent. Riding normally and sticking within Eco or Trail modes, I was able to get over 100km from the battery. I would suspect with more consideration, close or even beyond 200km could be possible. However, this would depend on the route, and the individual riding as a more powerful rider will use less assistance. As with the majority of motors, the limiter at 25kph feels like a wall and is difficult to go above, with the exception of downhills. You soon learn to live with it and not attempt to push beyond it, as efforts are almost futile. This means that using as more of a pure road bike might be less ideal unless you are happy with the maximum assistance speed.

The reasonably wide tyres help increase comfort, although the handlebar and, in particular, the handlebar tape is not great. The wide 46cm Kona Road handlebar is slim in diameter, and the bar tape is also slim and feels very basic. Having such basic, uncomfortable tape fitted is a real shame for an off-road bike, especially one at this price point. I would recommend having it swapped right away, which will instantly improve comfort.

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The overall handling makes for a good all-round bike, and while it might not be too downhill focused with geometry that makes it better for general gravel use, rather than technical or steep downhills, the ability to drop the seat post out of the way does make a big difference if you do head onto more challenging terrain.

Value and verdict

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The Libre EL costs £4,000, which is mid-range. However, there are currently quite limited options for e-gravel bikes, especially versions with a larger battery and motor. The Canyon Grail:ON 8.0 is more expensive at £5,300, although this has a full carbon frame, which is something I questioned if it was needed given the assistance provided. The Libre EL offers more mount options than the Canyon, which was very limited. The Kona is also a more relaxed, more capable ride should you wish to head off on more technical terrain. The one proviso is the tyres, which limit traction uphill. The Kinesis Range Adventure is a little cheaper at £3,500. However, the Fazua motor and battery supplied has far less range to offer, and the components are lower in the range. Cairn produces the E-Adventure at £2,890, which also uses the Fazua system and the BRAVe 1.0 that we are currently testing, featuring a Shimano Steps E7000 motor at a reasonable £2,550.

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While the Kona Libre EL is capable and mostly well specced, a few changes would improve things further, and these are thankfully some of the cheaper parts, such as the tyres and bar tape. A more aggressive, more capable tyre would improve the ability off-road, and with the assistance on offer, the downsides would be very limited. A wider tyre could also be an option, and doing so could improve comfort further, which is one area that would be simple to improve with better bar tape, although this really should have been fitted as standard.

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