Meet the Bicycle That Pushes Back the Horizon


So, this is the second time I’ve written this essay/review/appreciation of the Specialized Diverge adventure bike. The first time, I was so sensitive to not drinking the adventure bike Kool-Aid, I looked to criticize wherever I could. It came across as cynical, when in fact my feelings about the Diverge are the opposite of cynical: After never really loving road bikes, after avoiding pavement in favor of dirt, after trying countless cyclocross bikes and not falling in love, I threw a leg over the Diverge in October 2017 and my life changed for the better from the very first ride. I rediscovered what I’d felt when I got my first mountain bike in 1982, even the feeling I got when I was given my first two-wheeler as a kid: that sense of liberation and wide-open horizons.

Since getting the Diverge, I have put 3,427 miles on it, according to Strava, more than I’ve ridden my mountain bike in the last three years combined, and it’s made me see the world as one endless place to ride: Pavement, dirt, cobbles, fire road, paved trail, singletrack, to the Diverge it’s all the same.

The Diverge and its cousins are like rally cars or dual sport motorcycles….multi-tools that open up the old ways to new kinds of fun.

Now, you could make that argument about almost any bike. But the Diverge is the first bike I’ve ridden that is comfortable on both pavement and in the dirt. For sure, riding a dropbar bike on a rugged singletrack will never compare to flowing on a dual-banger, but you can do it and do it smiling. What the Diverge enables is faster miles, which equals more miles, which equals a happier me. No longer is the ride from house to trailhead a slog; no longer is the climb a balance-shifting dance to find the most efficient sweet spot in the suspension. You can blaze on pavement, you can blaze in the dirt.

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It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I’d grown bored with mountain biking, but I’d definitely gotten in a rut, riding the same old trails every day, mostly because of time constraints. My local trails are epic, but when you’ve done the same climb a hundred times in a year because it’s the closest to your house, even Stokey McStokester would be up for something new.

So, yeah, I was ready for a different style of bike, for something to mix up the experience, and that definitely provides the context for how I viewed the Diverge. But bike companies are onto something with the adventure bike and gravel grinder.

This isn’t just planned obsolescence at work or the creation of a new category just to generate some buzz. Smaller brands have been building and proving the worth of dropbar adventure bikes for a long time and bigger companies like Specialized are now devoting considerable resources to them. The reason is that they are legitimately different—way, way faster on the road than a mountain bike, way more comfortable on trails than a cross bike. It’s not just hype—the Diverge and its cousins are like rally cars or dual sport motorcycles….multi-tools that open up the old ways to new kinds of fun.

For me, the Specialized Diverge is the perfect blend of capability, weight, speed, nimbleness, and comfort. This has to do in part with its shock absorption and larger tires, but also to its geometry.

When the Diverge first came out, a lot of brands were just using cross bikes and branding them gravel bikes. The reason is that it’s really expensive for a bike company to invest in a new model and they were hedging to see where this category went, playing it safe by repurposing an existing model before going all in. And while a CX bike can be used as a gravel bike, it’s far from optimal. Cross bike geometries are designed for super tight, super fast CX race courses. The steering is steeper and the wheelbase is shorter. With the Diverge, Specialized slackened the front end, lengthened the wheelbase, and dropped the bottom bracket 10mm. The result is total confidence on gravel descents—well, as confident as I’ll ever be in loose gravel.

Also important is the Future Shock in the headset, which provides 20mm (.78 inch) of shock absorption and bump compliance. 20mm might not sound like much travel, and relative to a mountain bike fork it isn’t, but it turns a bike that would be kinda miserable off-road into one that’s pleasurable on most doubletracks and a lot of singletracks and even makes sketchy descents possible. When I first built it up and showed it to some of my bike shop friends, we were all skeptical that the Future Shock could make any difference at all, but it turns out to be night and day. I don’t know if you know Southern California trails at all, but I’ve taken the Diverge down Silverado Motorway, the Luge, and Holy Jim and actually had fun—on a hardtail, dropbar road bike. That’s nothing less than a miracle.

Wider tires also important. While a cross bike might have tires that are 33mm or 35mm wide, I first set the Diverge up with 700x42mm wheels. That was fun, especially compared to cross. But the fun factor went way, way up when I switched to wider 650bx47mm hoops. The bike became marginally slower on pavement but a thousand times better in the dirt. I just wish you could go wider on the Specialized—a lot of other gravel grinders will fit 50mm. (Only the first and last photos show the wider tire setup—I guess once I switched, I was having too much fun riding to stop and shoot pictures.)

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I’m riding the Diverge Sport, which cost $2,100 and feels like the bargain of the century. That’s a lot of money by most measures except bikes, where it would be considered on the low end. There were seven (!!) Diverges priced higher than mine when I got it, all the way up to $10,000. Today the Diverge Sport costs $3,000 and the entry-level E5 Elite is $1,400. The closest analog to mine is the plain Diverge at $2,500, with a carbon frame and hydraulic discs (mine are mechanical).

I haven’t ridden my full-suspension Yeti in two years. I’m either on the Diverge or my 27.5+ hardtail running 3.0 tires. I acknowledge that part of that stems from my need for novelty. But I wouldn’t have put 3,400 miles on this bike if I didn’t love it. My stoke for riding the Diverge prompted me to challenge myself to ride every trail and every significant street or road in the southern half of my county, which took a year and half and led me down nearly 5,000 miles and a half-million feet of climb. The bike offers 90 percent of the benefits of a road bike with 80 percent of the benefits of a mountain bike. You cover a lot more ground than you normally would. Sketchy sections are survivable or, because the bike is so light (20 pounds, give or take), easily walked through or around.

On paper, or to a non-discerning eye, it might not seem all that different than a road bike, or really even all that different from those road bikes being retooled as gravel grinders. But it is. I was expecting the Diverge to be another “okay bike,” another dropbar machine that I didn’t quite get, but it took just one ride to blow away those expectations and change how, where, and how much I ride.

I’m not suggesting you buy the Diverge. It’s not my place to do that, and you may have been there, done that, and moved on. Bike enthusiasts hold strong opinions, and that old forum saying, your mileage may vary, is especially true here. But if you’re looking to jumpstart your riding, if you’re ready for something new, if you want to see the world of riding in a new way, go demo the Diverge or something like it. I think you’ll be happy you did.

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Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.

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