Riding ‘off road’ on a road bike is nothing new. I have seen lots of days-gone-by pics of Tour de France riders with a tubular slung around their shoulders riding dirt roads.
This was before my own entry into road riding which was in the middle of the 19c tire at 120 psi phase. And certainly I spent a fair amount of time riding on whatever surface was in front of me on my Apollo 10 speed in 1986. However, the bike industry is regaling in a whole new class of bike and style of riding – gravel. Gravel bikes are likely the confluence of multiple factors including the hipster renaissance of cyclocross, the desire of roadies to get away coal-rolling rednecks and zoomers with less interest in hucking A-line on a mountain bike. Well, the above reasons are largely true for myself anyways.
Early versions of gravel bikes were either CX bikes with a different label or some bastardization of a road bike with wider tires. Bike companies really didn’t spend much time thinking about specific frame geometry, bikepacking mounts, wide or even 650b tire clearance or gearing ratios.
So along comes the 2021 Specialized Diverge. As the second generation of Diverge, the Big S has now had ample time to apply their engineering prowess and marketing forces to a gravel bike. I was interested in buying a Diverge for two primary reasons – I loved my SWAT box on my Enduro and I was very keen to see if the Future Shock 2.0 would take the edge off the harsh Forest Service Roads we see here in British Columbia. So how does it stack up?
The Diverge Expert Carbon landed on my doorstep a couple of months ago. Let’s run through the hits and misses.
With the first version of Future Shock, I was worried that it would be some ridiculous pogo stick front end to my bike and that if I ever wanted to use the bike for true road riding that it would severely subtract from performance. Along comes the Future Shock 2.0, with lock out. Let’s first clear up the adjustability of the Future Shock 2.0. It’s not. It’s on or off. The 6 clicks in the middle do nothing – and I think I’ve read as much somewhere in a more in-depth review. But that’s OK. On or off is really all I want. Under my hands, I didn’t really feel the shock working at all. Was that 20mm of travel really working? On an early ride one of my riding partners confirmed absolutely it was working all the time, even on more subdued gravel roads. And then the subtle squeaking starting after about 5 rides. Now I know it’s working, for better or worse. The squeak is not so bad, just audible. 100% though, my hands and body are getting the benefit of some small bump absorption. I’ve taken the Diverge now on some pretty rough terrain and am pleasantly surprised how well it works. I will be keen to see if my overall fatigue levels are lower on long all day trips and multi-day bikepacking trips. It’ll also be interesting to see if it continues to perform when I load the bars with a large bar bag with camping gear and 2L platypus of water. But so far, I give the Future Shock 2.0 an A.
Oh how do I love my SWAT box when I had an Enduro. These days, it’s just not cool to carry a spare or gear on body, and I despise the tube strapped to frame enduro look. So the SWAT box was a great addition for MTB. I was equally as excited about having it on my Diverge. For those not familiar, the SWAT box is under the downtube bottle cage mounts. It opens a phone-sized door into the downtube which you can then stuff with pretty much anything that will fit in. What a fantastic concept! The SWAT box allows me to ditch the rear seat bag by putting my tube, CO2, tire lever and multi-tool all into the frame. They even provide a waterproof zippered bag with a looped end to make it easier to pull out of the SWAT box when tucked away in the downtube. Too bad the Specialized Tube Spool, with a larger gravel tube and 25 gram CO2 does not fit into the provided bag, let alone including a small multi-tool. This is a big miss for Specialized on integration and aftermarket sale of accessories in my mind. This should all be a tight package. The new Stumpy includes a 625mL SWAT water bag, which would be a welcome addition on the Diverge as well. Overall, I love my SWAT, but it will take some additional customization to make truly useful on the Diverge. For this, I give it a B.
Let’s talk gearing and tires. I will go ahead and put it out there – the Diverge might as well be designed in Waterloo, Wisconsin where the roads are flat and smooth. I’ll give Specialized a bit of a break here, as I think many bike manufacturers are spec’ing their gravel bikes this way. But when road bikes now have 11-34 with compact chainrings and 32c tires, I personally think there should be a more significant separation of spec with gravel bikes. My Diverge was beautifully appointed with the new GRX Di-2 1x drivetrain. This is my first shift-by-wire bike and it is truly wonderful. But GRX chainrings are 40t minimum. And the GRX derailleur is spec’d to 40t max cog size. 1 to 1 gearing ratio is not adequate for gravel riding in British Columbia, not even accounting for added gear for bikepacking. With regular grades of 16+% on rocky and loose terrain, I have literally fallen over from lack of momentum while trying to ‘paperboy’ up a hill with 1-to-1 gearing. I immediately opted to install an 11-46t XT cassette after some internet reviews assured my Shimano was very conservative with max cassette ratios. It works fine without any shenanigans for the B screw or Wolftooth links, etc. Out of the box, Shimano needs to sort out there GRX and officially make 11-46t compatible. Now tires. My Diverge was spec’d with some nice tan sidewalled Specialized tires at 38c, which were promptly swapped out for WTB Raddlers in 44c. Again, around these parts a 38c tire is just not enough volume for the inherent roughness of the roads (and the fact that I really enjoy riding my Diverge on Green and easy Blue MTB trails). The frame and fork are designed around max 47c in 700c and even 2.1’s on 650b wheels. They have accomplished this while keeping the rear wheel tucked in tight by virtue of a solid slab of carbon on the driveside chainstay akin to the ‘yokel’ on my Chromag steel hardtail MTB. So why under spec the tires? And why not offer at least 1 model, even the flat bar EVO, with 650b from factory? Sum up these shortcomings, and I give gearing and wheels/tires a C. Lots of potential, but didn’t deliver the goods.
Overall, how am I liking my Diverge? I love it. Yes, there are some shortcoming but these were also pretty easy to fix with the help of the team at Corsa Cycles in Squamish. My riding has been mostly in the Sea to Sky, ripping a mix of Fire Service Roads and moderate singletrack. Honestly, the Diverge is low and slack – sporting a headtube angle almost identical to my 1st 29’r MTB 10 years ago. I feel very comfortable on the bike, even though they’ve shortened the stem while increasing overall reach with a longer top tube. I was all hyped up about the Future Shock, but was also thinking I’d miss the IsoSpeed from my last Trek gravel bike. When I bought the Diverge I wondered why it wasn’t spec’d with the unique CR-G ‘Zertz’ seatpost. I almost tried to buy one for retrofit on my Diverge but during my internet sleuthing I actually found out the Diverge was fitted with a Roval Terra Carbon post. This seatpost is designed for up to 18mm of compliance through the weave and layup. So without even knowing, my Diverge is sporting ~20mm of both front and rear suspension. Interesting, with competition from the likes of Trek and others with frame-based rear compliance/suspension, Specialized does not do a great job of advertising this seatpost as an overall feature of the bike. Designing compliance into a seatpost is far easier and less costly than various systems that decouple the seat tube from the rest of the frame. I still plan to take the Diverge on some overnight bikepacking trips, so it will remain to see how well it takes to being loaded down with my Ortleib bar, frame and seat bags. For now, I am out ripping just about anything in front of me with the Diverge. It’s definitely put the fun back into ‘road’ biking.
Dale Tiessen is a local rider based in Whistler, British Columbia. He completed a Masters degree in cycling biomechanics years ago, and continues to geek out on bikes today. He rides and races just about every type of bike and is an ambassador to Corsa Cycles in Squamish.