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Special K.
By Tom Demerly.
Read This About Our Reviews First

2006 Kuota K-Factor

I usually only review bikes I like. I loved reviewing the Kuota K-Factor. It is an absolute feast of a bike.

Kuota is the little Italian company that can. They compete against some of the largest bike manufacturers in the industry. As a relatively small boutique bike company they face an enormous task. The little Italian bike company has to take on the rest of the bike world, and they have to do it on the merits of their bikes alone. There is no Tour de France team on Kuota bicycles; the brand has very little recognition in the U.S. compared to the top three makers like Trek, Specialized and Giant. Kuota will not spend seven figures on marketing and promotion this year. The fact that many of Kuota’s designs eclipse these big manufacturers is one of the reasons why finding Kuota is like discovering a delightful out-of-the-way Tuscan café on a sunny afternoon in Italy. Kuota is simply a pleasant surprise. The reason why people buy Kuota bikes is because they are nice bicycles. It certainly isn’t because of a well planned marketing campaign. Quite the contrary, this year Kuota’s marketing plans took a real tumble- more on that in a moment.

Kuota is popular with Euro-triathletes but just emerging in the U.S.

Kuota is a hit in Europe, where the bicycle buying public is more about function and less about fashion and brand identity. The little Italian Kuota has won the hearts and minds of euro-triathletes with its incredible durability, nice ride quality and most of all (as we’ll see) their ingenious and diligent nuts and bolts designs. Kuota, and the K-Factor in particular, is about the details.

Kuota’s K-Factor is a follow on to their multi-Ironman winning Kalibur. The Kalibur is Kuota’s low to go high performance triathlon machine ridden to Ironman victory by the sensational German Normann Stadler. The Kalibur is another home run from Kuota but it is a bike for a different customer. The Kalibur is an angry bike with its low head tube and heavily reinforced lower headset race and bottom bracket. The Kalibur was designed to go fast. While it is among the most comfortable of the carbon superbikes its primary design criteria is putting the rider into an aerodynamic posture and keeping them their. The Kalibur preceded other carbon superbikes in the industry by at least a year and continues to be among the most widely available from a supply standpoint. There may not be too many Kuota dealers, but the ones there are seem to be able to get bikes more readily than any of the other aero carbon fiber bike brands.

The reason I like the K-Factor is its function. It is a real bike, neither pretentious nor banal. There is a lot to be excited about and little to be disappointed in. Every feature of the bike makes sense to me, from the front dropout literally to its novel and industry leading rear dropout. I do understand why these bikes don’t fill the transition areas at local races though: U.S. bike buyers generally don’t dig deep enough into a bikes design to appreciate the little things. A big part of the K-Factor’s appeal is the little things. There is simply nothing wrong with the bike and a lot that is very right. Having said that, I doubt you’ll ever find a group of U.S. triathletes at the local triathlon discussing the merits of rear dropout frame design. For that reason Kuota is likely to remain the brand of the truly informed and initiated rather than the brand conscious masses.

The K-Factor begins at about $2600 for a complete, all carbon fiber triathlon bike.

The K-Factor is designed for the entry to step up triathlon bike buyer. It may be your first bike if you want to buy right the first time or it may be your “step up” bike replacing a basic entry level model like a Felt S32 or Fuji Aloha. It is also the bike you buy once you’ve figured out aerobars on a road bike simply doesn’t cut it. And it should be a bike on your short list especially if you are thinking of going long. The K-Factor is among the very strongest candidates for Ironman 70.3 distance races (half Ironman) and above. For every course on the Ironman North America circuit, if the K-Factor fits your body dimensions, it is a bike without equal. It seems designed for Ironman North America events.

Part of the K-Factor’s appeal is its price. Complete K-Factors with their bumper to bumper molded carbon fiber frame construction and a nice component group start around $2600. while that is a lot compared to an entry level triathlon bike between $1400 and $1800 the K-Factor more directly compares to carbon bikes from other manufacturers than start at hundreds if not thousands more. The K-Factor is the least expensive of the really nice carbon bikes. Price dialed out of the equation, it may also be the very best of them.

When I first looked at the Kuota K-Factor I went front to back on the frame for a tour of its features and benefits. Please join me on this pleasant and surprising inspection:

Straight bladed fork with a lightweight carbon fiber steer tube.

The front of the bike starts with one of the nicest all carbon forks in the industry. Using a lightweight, strong carbon fiber steer tube the fork will be around 350 grams depending on where you cut the steer tube, lighter if you run the front end of the bike low. Front wheel dropouts are aluminum so when you remove your front wheel and set the fork blades on the pavement you won’t damage your bike. This is the first of the details I noticed.

The steering on the K-Factor is stable and quiet owing to the 72-degree head angle. There is good responsiveness since the fork is laterally sturdy and has a rake of 45. If you want to stay on your aerobars and reach behind your saddle for a bottle you can do it on the K-Factor, the bike is whisper stable. The fact that you may never have to worry about reaching all the way back for a bottle on the K-Factor is another reason why the frame is so nice- but I’m getting ahead of myself…

The head tube height on the K-Factor is moderate and a little more realistic than other bikes with low front ends. Realistically, how low do you want your handlebars for 56 or 112 miles? Most people will run the K-Factor’s front end with less than 3 centimeters of headset spacers. That is refreshing to me. What is the point of ultra-low head tubes if you stack 5 centimeters of spacers over it? In addition to risking damage to your fork that is compromise design. When the K-Factor was built Kuota’s designers looked at where athletes like you and I really ride their handlebars and built the bike for that posture. It’s a great design. If you build your K-Factor with no spacers on the steer tube then you will have a nice, low front end perfect for sprint and Olympic distance. With a turn of the allen wrench and the movement of one or two spacers you can tune your position from Ironman comfort to sprint distance aerodynamics with no spacers under your stem. Again, someone at Kuota was thinking in the real world when they designed the front end of the K-Factor.

A relaxed head angle and higher head tube make the bike a good choice for most athletes.

As we move back the bike we come to one of my favorite features of the K-Factor: Cable routing. I have a cable routing fixation. If you had to route internal cables on a dozen aero bikes a week you would too. Since you don’t, let me tell you why Kuota’s simple, external cable routing is the choice of top professional racing teams and Tour de France Mechanics: You can work on it. External cable routing may not reduce your drag in the wind tunnel by 18 grams (about the same as extending your pinky at 25 M.P.H.) but it may save your race on race day. Some currently in-vogue internal cable routing systems are ingeniously designed but tedious to work on. Picture putting your bike in a flight case or the back of your car, driving to the big event and discovering your rear brake cable feels sticky the night before the race. Will the bike-savvy guy in the hotel room next to you be able to install a new rear brake cable in ten minutes with basic tools? On the Kuota K-Factor he will. Cable routing is basic, easy to work on and simple. It takes only minutes to change every cable on the bike with no mysterious fishing around through strange little orifices while peering hopefully into other holes at the opposite end of the bike hoping for the cable to pop out. Again, simplicity and elegance proven over years of refinement: Kuota did their cable design perfectly on the K-Factor.

The external cable routing on the K-Factor is practical and easy to service.

The main triangle of the all-carbon frame presents a curvaceous collection of beautifully melded, seam free angles. The top tube has a rib on either side to add lateral stiffness as it blends into the head tube. Whether this ribbing is the reason or not, the front end of the bike agrees with the back end when climbing hard out of the saddle. This bike will do very well at Ironman Wisconsin, Canada and Lake Placid. The main triangle is perfect for climbing seated and out of the saddle when things get serious. Kuota accomplishes this without absurdly massive frame molding also, making the K-Factor light in weight and elegant in appearance. The K-Factor frame is lighter or much lighter than some other aero carbon frames. On the big races throughout North America that may make more of a difference to you and I on a long slog up Richter Pass on the endless succession of hills at Wisconsin and Lake Placid at 12 M.P.H. than few less grams of drag for the couple minutes we spend above 28 m.p.h. On most Ironman and Half Ironman course we spend more time going slow and moderate speeds than going over 28 M.P.H. at speeds where low drag coefficient becomes so critical. The K-Factor pays respect to aero design with bladed tube shapes, but isn’t so preoccupied with having low drag numbers that it sacrifices weight. Again, it is a realistic design for riders like you and I.

Two bottle mounts on the main frame mean no more saddle bottle cage holders.

Speaking of realistic, the K-Factor has two bottle mounts on the frame. For God’s sake, why is this so hard to do? On a K-Factor you are liberated from having a behind-the-saddle bottle rack and the attendant hassles like dropped bottles and transition area gymnastics while to try to clear the thing with your leg as you dismount. This also means you don’t have to hang another half pound of junk on your bike to carry a couple water bottles. If you haven’t already done a long distance race then you may not understand the significance of that. Two bottle cages where they belong: no hassles. It’s the little things that make this bike such a triumph.

Frame details: The bottom bracket is clean, stiff and precise.
Front derailleur hanger is a bolt-on replaceable unit.

Speaking of the little things have you ever had problems with a front derailleur hanger on a nice frame? This is a point of vulnerability on many high end bikes. The little tongue of metal that protrudes fro the right side of the frame is one of several Achilles’ heels on high end bikes. For want a of a $10 part your entire frame could be rendered useless if your front derailleur hanger becomes bent in transit or in a transition area bike drop. The front derailleur hanger on the Kuota K-Factor bolts on. That means it is easy easily replaceable and repairable in only minutes. Details equal perfection and a good ownership experience.

If a problem develops with the front derailleur hanger it can easily be replaced.

The bottom bracket on the frame is unremarkable and that is nice. There is a lot of carbon around the bottom bracket and it is certainly stiff enough for my taste under big gear efforts. The one place where any cable goes inside the K-Factor’s frame is after its trip under the bottom bracket and up toward the front derailleur. There is no mystery here: You just poke the cable through about three inches and it comes out the other end on the first try. No secret techniques needed.

The seatpost binder collar is a standard part and can be replaced if stripped or damaged.
The seatpost is the standard 27.2 mm diameter- any road 27.2 seatpost will fit.

Moving up the bike the seatpost binder collar is free from menacing warnings about too much torque. The seatpost tightens with an utterly standard binder collar available anywhere for well under $20. If you strip your binder bolt the night before the big race getting another one is easy; nothing exotic, weird or proprietary here. We found the binder bolt gripped fine at 4 NM of torque using a 4 mm allen wrench.

The Kuota post is micro-adjustable for angle and has a zero setback design.

The seatpost itself is part function and also part fashion. There is a wing shaped treatment to the post. Some wind tunnel tests suggest that blade-shaped seatposts may be less aero than round. Whatever the case, consumers seem to like the look of the bladed ones and this is about the only area of the entire bike where Kuota played lip service to fashion. The rest of the post continues the theme of solid, well thought out design. The carbon fiber seatpost has a micro adjust head that require two tools (the only mechanical annoyance on the entire bike) a 5 mm allen key and an 8 mm open end wrench. This is the adjustment to vary the saddle angle. The head of the seatpost is truly zero setback- real tri geometry. If for some reason you wanted a different effective seat angle induced by a different seat post you can install any 27.2 mm seatpost in the frame. You aren’t married to a proprietary seatpost design. Again, that is good mechanical design.

The rear triangle and wishbone design is beefy, aero, comfortable and stiff.

At the back of the bike the seat stays emanate from a pretty triangular wishbone design and get down to business with an exciting pair of bladed, aero carbon seat stays like the twin tails of a fighter jet. More than fashion they provide reasonable stiffness but great ride quality.

The chain stays on this bike are special: Big, square and curved. They are big struts that hold the rear wheel in rigid alignment with the rest of the frame. Shifting is crisp and precise since the back end doesn’t wiggle with these big chain stays. The seat stays are designed for comfort- the chain stays for strength, stiffness and good drivetrain performance. It is a nice mix.

Bladed seat stays and chunky, stiff, chain stays complete the rear end.

And then there are the rear dropouts.

Kuota: Thank you. I will argue without concession that these are the best rear-facing dropouts on any bike from any manufacturer. They are sturdy, adjust easily over and over, have good threads and most importantly, a replaceable rear derailleur hanger. The importance of all this won’t be apparent until you have a problem. Customers simply don’t look at rear dropouts on a bike until it is too late. Many new carbon superbike designs use rear dropouts that have an integrated, non-replaceable rear derailleur hanger. If you bend your rear derailleur hanger in the transition area, your flight case or on your car rack you may be able to straighten it- once- but you also may not be able to. In any case, it amounts to crossing your fingers and bending it gently back into place while praying you don’t hear the “snap” that means you just became a new frame customer. Bent rear derailleur hangers are not a warranty situation. O the K-Factor the rear derailleur hanger is modular. If you ever bent or damaged one you just bolt a new one on. Including the derailleur adjustment, this takes a mechanic about ten minutes.

The seat stays use the "Coke bottle" design and end at the well designed rear dropouts.

The little rear dropout screws that most customers never see adjust your rear wheel alignment in the dropout. The Kuota K-Factor’s have good, sharp threads and the dropout screws turn easily. If you are going to plunk down a few thousand bucks for a really nice bike do yourself a favor: Have your mechanic pull the rear wheel out of the frame and show you how well (or poorly, depending on the bike) the rear wheel dropout alignment screws work. This will be an eye-opener for you. One manufacturer (not Kuota) actually recommended to us over the phone that we glue their bolts in place permanently and just leave them, removing the ability to use different tire sizes or align the wheel. They told us this when we phoned them because the threads in their dropouts were crooked and poorly tapped. We eventually winded up tapping them out to a larger thread size, possibly weakening the dropout- obviously, that wasn’t a bike we could sell to a customer. One of our guys rides it- nervously.

The best rear-facing horizontal dropout from any bike manufacturer with
replaceable derailleur hanger. This is missing from almost every other carbon bike.

Fit on the Kuota is another nice surprise. There are four only four sizes so not everyone can own a K-Factor. If you are below about 5’6” at most then you are probably shut out of the geometry chart: They don’t have a frame small enough for you. I find the geometry realistic and functional and the fit good for most average to longish torso riders- the majority of people and the easiest to design a bike around. The K-Factor I rode was set to an effective seat tube angle of 80 degrees with the stock Kuota seatpost and a Profile Tri-Stryke saddle. This is measuring the effective seat angle with a straight edge through the bottom bracket and up across the center of the saddle, then placing an angle finder on the straight edge.

This is the seat angle you actually sit at on the center of the saddle. In the real world you move a degree or two fore and aft as your change position on the bike with effort and terrain. You can also induce a more relaxed orientation back to around 75 degrees if for some reason you’d want to. At 80 degrees the nose of the Tri Stryke saddle (29cm long, 2 cm longer than a standard racing saddle) was 1.4 centimeters in front of the bottom bracket. The shallow head angle meant the bike’s weight distribution was just fine at 80 degrees. The 45 fork rake meant it steered well also. Overall, the Kuota K-Factor has very nice geometry for the average male body type from about 5’8” up to about 6’2” across the size range of four sizes. Again, the head tube dimension on this bike makes sense and is well thought out.

I didn’t ride the K-Factor much before this review. I wish I had more time to do so. Usually I like to ride a bike at least two months before I review it, a year is better. My decision to review the bike early was motivated by how impressed I am with the bike’s overall design. The K-Factor is an important bike, and needed to be looked at against the backdrop of other expensive carbon tri bikes- most not as nice. Realistically, ride quality is not largely determined by the frame anyway, but by the fit and position, the tire and wheel choice and other factors before the frame. I did ride it enough to know it has good to excellent ride quality with my favorite wheels (I tried the bike with Easton Vista training clinchers and the Flashpoint aero wheels you see in the photos- we pulled the stickers off the Flashpoint wheels because they were unattractive) and Continental Gran Prix 4000 tires. I’m looking forward to putting more miles on the bike since it is so nice.

Normann Stadler had a frustrating race in Kona in 2005
but remains an important ambassador for the Kuota brand.

Kuota took a superficial hit in the image department at Kona in 2005 when their star athlete, German sensation Normann Stadler, returned to Kona to defend his title at the Ironman World Championship. Stadler won the Hawaii Ironman on a Kuota in 2004 with a superb bike performance that left the field chasing in shambles. I rode with Stadler the year before in Thailand on a training ride with Ironman champion Scott Molina. Stadler was unbelievably strong, dragging Molina and I through a training ride at over 28 M.P.H. into a headwind. It was an incredible display of power and fitness on Stadler’s part. At Kona in 2005 Stadler was the favorite, and carried the burden of the championship expectations with quiet, dignified grace. During the race he had a bizarre string of terrible luck: A flat tire, a bee sting… nothing went right. He rode a beautiful custom panted Kuota Kalibur that was conspicuous with its one-of-a-kind floral motif.

Stadler was understandably frustrated as he arrived in Kona with menacing fitness. Not to in any way discredit Faris Al Sultan’s excellent win, but one has wonder how the race would have gone if Stadler had not flatted. When I asked North American National Sales Manager for Kuota, Paul Thomas, about the flat tire Thomas had a fair perspective, “The Kuota story isn’t about one ride, one race, one performance. Normann is an incredible athlete and continues to be. He was on a good day but had bad luck. The Kuota story is about more than that, it is about great bikes at great prices with great supply. That is what matters to our customers.”

It's hard to imagine a more nicely made bike than the K-Factor regardless of price.

I agree with Paul Thomas and will go one step further than diplomatic salesmanship: If you go from front to back on the Kuota K-Factor and compare carefully and thoroughly to other carbon fiber, aluminum and titanium triathlon bikes you will see the K-Factor’s well conceived design and careful mechanicl features make it a true stand out. When you feature in the value oriented price it shines even brighter. The K-Factor is a fine bike with a story worth telling.




© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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