Thanks to the gravel movement, road bikes keep getting more versatile
After six months riding the Niner RLT9, I concluded—just last week—that the new range of “gravel bikes” or “adventure roadies” that are hitting the market this year are probably more appropriate for most riders than the average road race bike. They are comfortable, versatile, and generally easier to ride. As if to underscore the point, the Specialized Diverge showed up on my doorstep this week.
Judging by the resources and development Specialized has put behind the Diverge, it’s clear that they, too, feel these bikes will have broad appeal. Whereas many of the adventure road bikes hitting the market at the moment are one-off models, often in the budget range, Specialized is debuting the Diverge as a full line of bicycles, including three carbon and four aluminum models. Prices go from $1,100 up to $8,500.
I received the top-spec Diverge Carbon Di2, which is built from top-shelf carbon fiber and equipped with premium parts, including carbon rims and Shimano Ultegra Di2 components. It is a premium bicycle, and it shows what's possible in this segment. It has some in-line technologies, such as a version of Specialized’s Zertz elastomer inserts in the fork and seat stays for damping vibration, as well as new developments like the short-travel, internally routed dropper Command seat post. (More on that in a bit.)
Perhaps the coolest thing on this bike is the disc brake-equipped Control SLSCS wheel set, which weighs a paltry 1370 grams but has a deep, wide profile for mixed terrain use. The wheels come hung with Roubaix Pro 30/32c tires, which are big and meaty and robust, and provide super cushion on rough roads.
The trend is already toward wider rims and bigger tires, but of course that often means wheels that are as heavy as boat anchors. So it’s nice to see development at the top end, which will inevitably trickle down to lower price points. I was a bit disappointed that the new tires aren’t tubeless-ready, but given Specialized’s other excellent tubeless range, such as the Roubaix and the Trigger, I have to imagine that it’s only a matter of time.
About that dropper post: Traditionalists will probably dismiss the new short-travel Command post as unnecessary and extra weight, but they are missing the point. It goes down only 35mm (1.37 inches), so it’s just enough to get it out of the way for especially rough pedaling sections, obstacles, or descents. These days, I don’t like mountain biking without a dropper, and I see the utility on the road as well. And remember: Vincenzo Nibali rode a prototype dropper on the cobbled stage five of the Tour de France last year, reportedly dropping the post for the roughest sections. Like disc brakes and suspension on mountain bikes, this is a technology that we will look back on five or ten years from now and say, “What took so long?”
This Diverge comes decked out with all of Specialized’s bells and whistles, including its SWAT cages and box, which houses everything you need in case of a flat, as well as front and rear rechargeable lights. Specialized has done some safety studies on lights on the road and concluded they are a good thing, so you’re likely to see more of this. With all that gear, the bike isn’t excessively light at 19.7 pounds for my size 54 tester. However, with the lights and other sundries stripped, it weighs almost two pounds less.
But the point of this bike is not necessarily to be a lightweight. It is plush as a bike can be, with tons of stand-over height, and yet it still feels quick and snappy like a proper road machine. The big tires gobble up dirt roads, and now that I have the capability, I find myself wanting to ride on gravel and fire roads more than pavement. It would be the perfect off-season training bike for any racer given its versatility. And for guys like me, who no longer race on the road, it could well replace that old, stiff road bike. With a spare set of lightweight wheels (or frequent tire changes), you would have a machine that is equipped for everything from mountain adventures (even light singletrack) all the way down to fast group rides and fondos.
This bike is destined to be my de facto winter training bike. Stay tuned for a full review.