Initially I was really happy with the Marzocchi 55-ATA that’s standard on both bikes. It’s torsionally stiff, easy to adjust and ultra plush. It steers incredibly well both over blistering fast rock gardens and slower technical descents and let’s you predictably thread the needle through the steepest and roughest terrain. The fork corners consistently well in both smooth or rough conditions and makes a cake walk out of rocky DH trails. The 20mm front thru axle is a breeze to work with and holds the front wheel extremely secure. I was also quite pleased that the fork had travel adjustability down from 160mm to 120mm – a huge plus for all mountain riding. It’s by no means perfect, however, and there are a few things I’d change if I could;
1st – The travel adjustment knob is the antithesis of ergonomic. It’s sharp edges and unforgiving contours are murder on the fingers – especially if you’re hands are cold. Combine that with a requirement to first lift the knob up, and in both of my cases – off – it’s usually a guarantee for sore fingertips.
2nd – The lockout lever seems to have been designed backwards and it nearly defies the laws of physics with it’s almost complete lack of friction. It also locks out with a clockwise turn of roughly 60º which means two things: The lever can rattle into a locked position if the terrain is rough enough and you’re carrying enough speed. It happened to me once, it did not make me happy. It also means that a stray branch or bit of brush can effortlessly lock your fork out and instantly ruin your day. That happened to me too. Once. Two zip-ties later and I was good to go.
3rd – The forks also seemed to have slightly limited travel. I consistently got only ~5 of the 6 inches promised by the length of the stanchions. I haven’t diagnosed the reason for this behavior, but a possibility is too much oil in the fork. This could be a bit of a pain in the neck for many people. Sending the fork back to the factory for a rebuild, or having your LBS do it all takes time away from you and the trails. It’s not catastrophic , as the forks still work quite well, it’s just something to be aware of if it seems like your fork is acting peculiar.
If fork replacement is potentially in your future, one thing to note is that the Minxy’s 1.5” headtube presents more options for a bigger, huskier fork upgrade. The freedom to choose between 1.125” and 1.5” steer-tubes may be of significant value for women looking for more generous travel on the front end.
Both bikes are outfitted with identical Fox DHX Air 3.0s and they work great with the fork. They’re fairly adjustable and easy to dial in for a smooth and buttery ride. The Minxy’s rear suspension design provided easier access to the shock adjustment ports while the Vixa’s were a bit more hidden within the rear yoke. Once the shocks were adjusted properly, they performed consistently regardless of the hit frequency and/or amplitude. They did not skitter over the fast stuff nor did they bottom out on drops. The well controlled rebound damping kept the bikes from bucking after large inputs, regardless if it was an obstacle or a drop. Essentially, the rear wheels stayed on the ground when they were supposed to and were ready to pop-up when they weren’t.
There’s nothing to write home about here. These are definitely a weaker part of the component build and definitely one of the first things I’d address on both bikes. The Avids on the Norco held out better than the Hayes Strokers did on the Kona, but both brakes were prone to serious fade during longer (~1/2 hour) descents and neither were ever as strong as they should be. Their lack of strength meant for tired hands and less brake control over tenuous terrain than I’ve experienced on some of the higher end brakes. However, if you don’t plan on taking these bikes to the top of big hills for long DH/FR runs, and instead want to ride at jump or terrain parks then the stock models are probably more than adequate. If you fancy a lengthier descent I highly recommend upgrading part or all of the systems. Switching pads on the Avids from organics to semi-metallics could significantly help increase braking strength. The Hayes already come with semi-metallics, so a pad upgrade may not be enough to get you the strength you need. You might want to also consider increasing the rotor size on both bikes.
Brake lever feel and reach adjustment has to go to the Hayes Strokers. The levers were easier to actuate and adjust in towards the bars. They were significantly more ergonomic than the Avids as well. Keep in mind my hands aren’t tiny. I wear a women’s large cycling glove. But I know a lot of women whose hands are much smaller than mine. I strongly recommend trying out different brake levers to make sure they will accommodate your hand size. Levers that won’t adjust close enough to the bars will result in very tired hands and forearms too early in the day.
As far as the bikes are concerned, I didn’t notice anything particularly bad while braking. The Kona’s back end got a little loose but nothing too alarming. Certainly nothing to cause problems or distress. An option eliminating that effect would be looking into the D.O.P.E. system, Kona’s answer to the “single-pivot lock-out-under-braking” question. I didn’t experience anything obvious with the Norco. The four bar linkage design seemed to work fine. It didn’t feel like it jacked up or dove while I applied the brakes. It seemed quite balanced and predictable.
Wheels & Tires
Both bikes came with hefty rims laced with stout spokes. The Kona has Alex DM24 hoops and the Norco has SunRingle MTXs. The wheels are strong and stiff and have held up well on the abusive trails around town. Initially the Formula hubs on the Norco spun quite slow, though. There was significant friction and it was obvious The first few rides felt like the brakes were rubbing all the time. Eventually, however, this problem went away and the hubs now spin as well as the Shimanos. The Norco has a 12mm Maxle on the back which is nice for wheel security and added stiffness. The Kona has a standard rear QR that’s slightly faster to actuate than the Maxle when time is of a necessity, but it doesn’t add the bonus of extra rear end stiffness. I didn’t notice the Kona flexing, but if someone’s going big it might make a difference.
I was half expecting DH tubes in the tires after I got my first flats, but I was surprised to find standard mtn. bike tubes holding in the air. Switching to beefier tubes might be something to consider if you plan on incorporating mountain riding into your rides. The Minions on the Kona pinch flatted all the time. And I’m not particularly heavy. Nor am I a hack when it comes to lines. I don’t expect my tubes and tires to make up for a lack of control or brute force descending. It’s more of a pleasant surprise than an expectation when I hit my rim and I don’t pop a tire. So I started getting irritated with the 2.35 Minions on the Kona when I got flats on every ride. The traction was awesome on both dirt and big steep rocks and they cornered great, but the thin casing on the OEM tires just wasn’t substantial enough for rocky descents. As a sidenote, I typically run ~ 35psi in my tires to prevent this very situation. At 40 psi the flats tended to stop but the traction started going to hell, so I’d suggest a huskier sidewall. The Minion’s are a great tire, I would just suggest a tougher version.
The 2.35 Kenda Nevegals on the Norco were less prone to flatting than the Minions. They had good traction both in cornering and descending and held their own on steep smooth rocks. The Minions felt like they rolled/pedaled faster than the Nevegals, but I had a hard time divorcing differences in seating position, bike geometry and tire style when determining pedal efficiency. I would suggest here as well, invest in a thicker sidewall if descents are in your future. Though they flatted less often than the Minions, the Nevegals still flatted more than I preferred.
Both bikes employ WTB women specific saddles. The Minxy has a more all-mountain feel to it than the Vixa, and the differences are obvious on longer rides. The Speed She Comp on the Kona is slightly narrower and less squishy than the Speed She on the Norco. If you’re getting the Vixa for an all mountain fun adventure type bike, I’d consider a more supportive saddle model. My personal fave is a Fizik Aliante with steel or ti rails for mountain applications. I was impressed to find that the Minxy’s was comfortable on longer (3-4 hour) rides. Usually I’m pretty picky about seats, but the Speed She Comp was nice. Both were great for descending. The Norco’s Speed She was a little softer and made for happier landings if it happened to get in the way a little bit.
Fortunately both manufacturers provide bash guards with their cranks – an obvious necessity for bikes intended for abuse. The double ring is a lifesaver too. I like to pedal to the top of my climbs, so having the appropriate gears is a necessity. I’ll say that my granny gears are probably more worn than the 32T rings. The Kona comes with a competent all Shimano Deore drivetrain and a 11-34 9spd cassette. The Norco is spec’d with a mix of Shimano and Sram components and sports a PG-950 11-32 9spd cassette. Both bikes shifted great in the beginning. They were repeatable and fairly crisp, but they have recently started to develop some shifting problems. I really just need to take a few minutes and adjust the rear deraileurs to take up the cable stretch.
All of that being said, adding a chain guide would make life more idyllic as the chains tend to hop off during quick big hits. This is more of a nuisance on a recreational ride, but if racing or competition is something you’re thinking about, throw down the ducats for a chain guide. The Vixa has an ISCG adapter which is awesome, because there are so many options from which to choose. The Minxy would require a BB mounted design, which is fine, it’s just be a bit more work to set up.