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Specialized Diverge Comp – review

FutureShock takes centre stage in this impressively adaptable gravel bike

When we first announced the news of the new Specialized Diverge gravel bike, and let you know that one had arrived in the office and was primed for a test, we (well, I) had mixed feelings. Here was a bike that claimed to be a “no-compromise” answer to those who wanted equally good performance on the road, and off it.

“Here we go again,” I thought to myself, “here’s another (highly-respected) bike brand making grandiose claims about the prowess of a new bike designed for a market segment that’s only just finding its feet.” It seemed to me to be all bold claims in search of headlines, shouting “look at us”. The Americans had even gone to the trouble of pressing Saint Peter of Sagan into some media action – with the help of a muscle car.

The Specialized Diverge promises plenty… and delivers both on the road and off it

And yet, having now spent a good solid month with the Diverge, using it for purposes as divergent as road, gravel and urban riding, there can be only one conclusion: this is a stunning all-rounder. It simultaneously proves super strong, stable and compliant on the loose stuff, while demonstrating the raw potential for a competent – and dare I say, exciting – ride on the road too.

But how have Specialized managed such a feat? Well, it all starts with the frameset, plus a little compliance-boosting trickery.

The frame – ‘Open Road’ geometry, FutureShock smoothness

While gravel riding requires buckets of compliance in order to manage the rough stuff effectively without pounding the rider into submission, Specialized started designing the Diverge with the geometry of the frame at the top of the priority list.

In order to create a gravel bike that could be described as a true all-rounder, it needed to keep keen roadies happy. After all, if your ride to the off-road trails isn’t fun, it’s probably going to ruin the whole experience.

  • Specification

  • Price: £2,600
  • Weight: 10.93kg (56cm)
  • Sizes: 48, 52, 54, 56, 58. 61, 64cm
  • Website: Specialized

It calls it ‘Open Road’ geometry, where it’s taken characteristics of road bike frame dimensions in order to amp-up blacktop performance. A low-centre of gravity via a low-slung bottom bracket position is guaranteed (5mm lower than with the previous Diverge), while the wheelbase is road-bike short at a paltry 1,011mm in a large-sized (56cm) frame. That’s been made possible by shortened chainstays measuring 421mm (419mm if you ride a 48 or 52cm frame, and 423mm if you need a 64cm leviathan), and a 58mm trail (which naturally increases or decreases with frame size too).

Up front, the stack height is compact at 613mm in our large test machine, complete with a 72.5-degree head angle. The rear contact point position is determined by a slightly steep 73.5-degree angle, which helps to keep the reach endurance bike-like short.

Second comes FutureShock suspension, which features a progressive-tension spring that allows 20mm of travel in between the headtube and stem. Three are supplied with the bike – essentially high, medium and low resistance – which allow you to customise the compliance-stiffness ratio depending on your needs.

Elsewhere, in order to balance the FutureShock unit, the frame features a displaced seatstay-seattube junction that helps to boost compliance while effectively flattening the rear triangle to help the bike achieve its lofty road-going goals.

FutureShock suspension is the eye-catching focal feature of the Diverge

The shortened chainstays are also boxy in profile with the intention of improving lateral stiffness when the power goes down, while the natural flaring to house disc brakes widens the frame profile – that should lead to a stable handling platform too, as well as plenty of tyre clearance (up to 42c in this Fact9 carbon frame, or even 47c if you choose to opt for 650b hoops).

The frame also features a number of versatile features that are worth mentioning as well. It supports the 12mm thru-axle standard along with flat-mount calipers, while there are three bottle cage screws each from the seattube and downtube. The bottom two can work in tandem to house the SWAT storage system, while the top pairings are in the standard spot for bottle cages.

On top of this, there are ‘Plug + Play’ mudguard mounts for front and rear fenders, and there’s internal cable routing that keeps things tidy and clean from the outside. However, despite these additions that make the Diverge ready for a weekend gravel adventure, the bike is visually imposing in the way an aggressive road bike is. It should be fun, then.

Specialized Diverge review, 2018, road plus bike, (Pic: Ashley Quinlan/Factory Media)
Specialized Diverge review, 2018, road plus bike, (Pic: Ashley Quinlan/Factory Media)

The ride – Road-ready stiffness married to spades of compliance

From the first moment you clip in on the Diverge, if you discount the knobbly 38mm tyres in your line of sight, you get the sense that could very easily be riding an endurance road bike. There’s nothing unfamiliar to long distance roadies here – everything is somehow where you’d expect it to be.

That results in a ride that’s ultimately very familiar, so there’s little acclimatisation time needed to really ride the Diverge hard. The low-slung bottom bracket, suitably oversized, is stiff, while the shortened chainstays mean that the rear end handles tidily – very tidily for a bike that weighs in at nearly 11 kilos.

Close your eyes (figuratively, of course), and it responds to inputs of power with all the verve of a stiff road-specific bike. When the pace hots up things get a little more difficult in terms of rolling resistance and aero performance of course, thanks to the natural resistance provided by the tyres, but nevertheless the handling is excellent.

The front darts impressively sharply when you tip the bike into bends, thanks to the compact stack height, while even though the FutureShock suspension unit is working hard to mete out road buzz and shocks, you never get any sense of disconnection with the front wheels. Ideally, it’s also able to convey a real sense of the road surface beneath you. If you could have a ‘sporty magic carpet ride’, then this would be it – informative, yet tame.

The overall feel of the ride is balanced too. The frame features enough compliance in the displaced and flattened seatstays to smooth out road buzz (helped, no doubt, by the wide tyres), while it’s direct and poised enough on all fronts to give a ride that can only be described as rewarding.

Sure, you never hit the usual high speeds you might on a dedicated road machine, but if you stuck 28c rubber and compatible wheels on it, as well as a compact chainset (transforming the bike entirely), the frame would be able to lap that up too.

Road buzz is dampened, but not to the extent that it dulls the ride

Off-road (or on some particularly rutted tarmac), it’s equally impressive, with the compliance of the setup providing a very predictable ride. Where on even an endurance road bike you’d certainly swerve to avoid potholes, the Diverge just ploughs straight on through, the FutureShock unit dampening the impact brilliantly.

Loose gravel is also easily dealt with as you’d expect, the excellent tyres digging in nicely while the stature of the frame gives a real sense of being planted on the ground.

Sagan himself makes himself busy with jumps and high-speed ‘radness’ in the promo video (the one where he actually rides the bike), and while I confess that I’m not quite that skilled, I can report the bike is sharp enough on loose surface bends and over crests to exhilarate, while its road-like short wheelbase means handling is light and easy. It’s tempered with overtures of predictability, which makes riding the Diverge so accessible.

A special mention must also go to the down-sweeping Comp ‘Hover Bars’ too, which raise up from the centrepoint to give a forgiving position when riding on the tops, while also allowing a more aggressive road-like position while holding the hoods.

Additionally, the bar is tapered on the tops to help give a sizeable area to rest your palms too. Get jogged off by a particularly deep rut, and there’s enough surface area that your grip is easily maintained – which would have obvious benefits if you took the Diverge out onto the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Now, there’s a thought…

Zertz inserts in the seatpost complement the FutureShock

The build – All-road thinking

Naturally, there are some compromises in the entire build, even if it’s hard to spot them on the frameset. The Diverge Comp comes ready for gravel action, rather than winter road bike-spec, so that means it’s got a 48-32t chainset married to a 32t cassette, and those chainrings aren’t 105-spec as with the rest of the drivetrain, but are Praxis Albas instead.

While some may see that as Specialized trying to cost-cut, the truth is I never found them wanting in terms of stiffness, while chain engagement is excellent and well up to the standards of Shimano’s 105 shift system.

It’s full-spec 105 derailleurs here, and the brakes are the solid if unspectacular flat mount RS505 hydraulic brakeset. A couple of years ago we’d be singing the praises of the 505s, but given the advances Shimano has made with Dura-Ace and (more recently and relevantly) with Ultegra disc brakesets, we suspect that there’s plenty more to come from the Japanese giants with an expected 105 refresh sometime in 2018.

With that in mind, it may be worth hanging on for the new spec brakeset to appear on this or next year’s model year bikes if you’re pitching in at this level.

It’s unfortunate timing on that front if your set on buying in the 2018 model year, but if you’re desperate for a Diverge Comp now or simply aren’t bothered if your bike is at the cutting edge of product refreshes then ultimate power and modulation does remain good all round. However, the less said about the enormous hoods, the better.

Specialized Diverge review, 2018, road plus bike, (Pic: Ashley Quinlan/Factory Media)
Specialized Diverge review, 2018, road plus bike, (Pic: Ashley Quinlan/Factory Media)
Specialized Diverge review, 2018, road plus bike, (Pic: Ashley Quinlan/Factory Media)

We’ve already mentioned the FutureShock suspension unit at the front end – and the two alternative springs it’s supplied with that allows you customise the response to your preference – but the seatpost is also a vibration-dampening piece of work too, in the form of a Specialized CG-R carbon model.

It features a Zertz (remember that stuff?) dampener that’s claimed to give 18mm of compliant range when tested over rough stuff. In tandem with the natural benefits of a FACT carbon seatpost, it’s a great piece of kit well-suited to the unique demands of the Diverge rider.

It’s a lot stiffer than any of the FutureShock suspension units at the front end, but given most of your weight is likely to be over the seatpost (even more so when searching for traction on loose surfaces), it does a great job of balancing ride comfort without deadening the experience. It’s a standard 27.2mm in diameter, and features a single bolt mechanism that make it easy to adjust the Body Geometry Phenom Comp saddle that sits atop it.

Normally I’m not personally a fan of saddles featuring a perineum-saving cut-out – even on endurance-based machines – but here I can make an exception. It’s well-sculpted and shaped to allow both an on-the-nose position or a more laid back stance thanks to relatively compact wings, and while saddle choice will always be hugely subjective, the Phenom stands a good chance of meeting most demands in most users.

Importantly, the rolling stock is reasonable too – a solid and dependable Axis Elite Disc wheelset married to 38c Trigger Pro tyres. Unsurprisingly, as is Specialized’s way in many cases, things have been kept in house to keep costs competitive, but it must be said that while I’m not bowled over by the smoothness of the Axis hoops, they certainly seem reliable and not outwardly slow.

The tyres, though, are excellent and give high levels of predictable grip, the variable tread (they’re slightly less knobbled in the middle) giving great purchase when cambered on the loose, while the rolling resistance is less than you might expect in the centre. No knicks or cuts to report either, which is a bonus.

Conclusion

When Specialized announced that it had created a no-compromise all roader, I had my doubts. I put it down to marketing spiel – how could a bike be as sharp as a road machine while also hitting the emerging gravel and adventure target market?

But from my time spent with it, the Diverge has proven itself a hugely capable and versatile machine that, if not an absolutely perfect non-compromise between the two genres, comes mightily close to achieving it.

A good spec will be even better if you can wait for the expected Shimano 105 upgrade next year… but if not, you’re still getting a bike that more than justifies its pricetag

It’s smooth and predictable when you need it to be, sharp-handling and responsive when you ride hard, and manages to give a smooth ride without losing the essence of the prevailing surface you happen to have chosen to ride on on a given day.

Moreover, the presence of integrated mudguard mounts means that it’s also an ideal winter road bike solution too (as long as you stick a compact chainset and 28c rubber on it, in my opinion), and that makes the £2,600 asking price for the Comp all the more enticing. It’s a tour de force of versatility, and has forced me to have a rethink about my own needs when it comes to a winter and poor weather-ready bike.

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