Alasdair’s Retro Builds: Part 3 – 1997 Kona Caldera

The story surrounding the 1997 Kona Caldera provides insight into the mountain bike design changes and riding trends at that time. The concept was simple. Over the years riders had fed-back that they wanted a hand-built, affordable steel framed hardtail. Working with Altitude Cycles, Kona created the Caldera, a made to order custom US built bike costing around $1,000. But when it was launched no-one bought it.

Alasdair McAlley
Alasdair McAlley

In less than 12 months high-end steel XC hardtails dropped out of fashion, replaced with full-suspension aluminium bikes and the birth of freeride of which Kona would be at the forefront. It meant Caldera production lasted just 6 months with no more than 150 built and far fewer sold.

Excluding the catalogue, until 3 years ago there wasn’t a single picture on the internet of a 1997 Caldera. But after an early production model was unearthed on retrobike.co.uk I found a genuine Caldera on a local US eBay listing.

Alasdair McAlley

This example was made in September 1996, number 46 of the first batch of 50 and is the only 20” version in known existence. The frame is unique to Kona with Mountain Goat drop-outs (Altitude Cycles was a new company set up by Mountain Goat founder Jeff Lyndsay) and is made from a mysterious tube-set known as “Altitude Chromoly”. Opinions range from plain gauge 4130 chromoly (unlikely) to Reynolds 853 (it isn’t) to whatever was in the workshop (it’s probably Tange, Prestige or Ultralight).

Alasdair McAlley
Alasdair McAlley

Finished in “Popsy Blue” unlike any Kona ever made, it’s powder coated to allow the owner to change the decals easily.

Alasdair McAlley

Slightly heavier than the high-end steel Kona models, the build creates an assured, reliable and dependable ride thanks to the Shimano XT M739 drivetrain, super-smooth Marzocchi Z2s, Panaracer Smoke and Dart tires and the classic Selle Italia Flite (Kevlar version).

Alasdair McAlley
Alasdair McAlley

Not an ounce of power is lost when you put your foot down thanks to the short stays and like all Kona’s, the sloping top tube enables you to shift the bike around with confidence.

Alasdair McAlley

To date, six 1997 Calderas have been identified including one in the optional color “Molotov Red”. After 1997 the Caldera continued in a mass-produced version but the original Caldera will remain a classic Kona unicorn.

Alasdair McAlley