Editor’s note: This review originally appeared in Issue #32 of Bicycle Times. To make sure you never miss a bike review, order a subscription and you’ll be ready for the everyday cycling adventure.
The Specialized AWOL Comp ($1,950) is an adventure bike, and a darn good one at that. What’s most surprising about the AWOL is the name on the down tube. While Specialized launched the bike fully ready for duty, it doesn’t fit in any obvious way with the rest of the brand’s race-focused, performance bike lineup. But combine passion with good engineering, and the outcome shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The AWOL doesn’t really break new ground, as it travels the same path that bikes like the Salsa Vaya and Singular Peregrine charted years before. But what it does is introduce bikes like this to the mainstream through the huge Specialized dealer network, and brings the price down to attract more new buyers to enter the fold.
For me, a good adventure bike is comfortable and adept at handling a variety of terrain, while being capable of carrying the supplies needed for multiple days away from civilization.
Comfort comes in the form of an upright riding position, flared drop bars, 40mm wide tires and a Reynolds steel frame. The high drop bar position can take some getting used to, but after adapting to it most riders will find it provides a range of comfortable hand positions, which means more control in rough terrain. Those big tires can be run at pressures in the mid-50s to take the edge off, while still rolling well on hard surfaces.
On first glance I found the undersized steel frame homely and a bit spindly- looking for its intended purpose, but the more I rode it, the better it became. That tall head tube gets the bars up high without ugly high-rise stems, and the slim seatstays provide enough flex for a noticeably smoother ride. Although it doesn’t look it, the frame wasn’t overly flexy while putting the power down.
The rear dropouts pivot to provide chain tension for internally geared hub use, and can separate for use with a belt drive. There are plenty of braze-ons for gear: three bottle mounts, fenders, front and rear racks. The steel tubing is a blend of Reynolds 725 and 520, with a taper-blade fork that does its part to reduce chatter from rough roads.
Drivetrain is courtesy of SRAM’s Apex group, with an X9 rear derailleur and 11-36 10-speed cassette. Coupled with an FSA 48/34-tooth crankset for a full range of gearing and Avid BB7 disc brakes, and you’re armed and ready for anything.
I like this bike; a lot more than I expected, really. But I put it through hell on its first ride, and it was a willing companion. The Hilly Billy Roubaix is a dirt road race in wild and wonderful West Virginia, and other than a spin around the office, this was my first ride on the AWOL. After getting lost, a flat tire and two bad CO2 heads, I ended up spending six and a half hours riding through mud and climbing hills.
From the first pedal stroke the AWOL felt in its element. Whether it was big ringing it down the pavement, or grinding up another steep climb, I wasn’t disappointed.
I expected a flexy frame and the file tread Specialized Trigger tires seemed like a poor choice for mud. But I was wrong on both counts. The tires never let me down, and the frame was pleasantly comfortable, without feeling like I was fighting frame flex while I was fighting the terrain.
Geometry is very interesting, with a long top tube (600mm on my size large), short stem (75mm), lots of fork offset (50mm) and a neutral head angle (72 degrees). Combine all that with a 11.25 inch bottom bracket height, and long 17.9 inch chainstays and the resulting ride was stable but sporty. High-speed dirt roads are spectacular on this bike, even getting a bit drifty wasn’t out of the question. Picking my way ￼through rougher terrain is certainly possible, but this isn’t in any way a mountain bike. The low BB and long rear end combined with the drop bars made me feel clumsy in singletrack.
But on everything short of off road terrain, this bike made me happy. I commuted to work, went on big mixed surface rides, and rode to the park with the kids. While the AWOL will get you way out into the sticks, it also is happy finding your adventures closer to home.
My complaints are few. I really like the bed of the bars, but I never found a brake lever position I was comfortable with. If the hoods are at the right angle, they are too close together, and the brake levers are hard to reach from the drops. I ended up with them a little lower than I really wanted, as reach to the brakes in rough terrain is important to me. With a full rear rack, the frame was flexy, not ideal for a long, heavily loaded tour, but this bike seems much more of a light and fast bikepacking touring bike rather than an old school everything and the kitchen sink pack mule. Including three bottle cages is a nice touch, but they didn’t hold bottles securely enough.
I’m impressed with this bike. Not only is it a solid performer, it’s also the most visually understated specialized model bike in recent memory. The matte frame with tiny gloss logos had everyone guessing what brand. For 2015, the AWOL line has four models, including a partnership with Poler that includes a front rack, Poler panniers, more aggressive tires and orange paint job. It is also available as a frame/fork for $700. The Comp Touring model I tested weighed in at 24.2 pounds.
This isn’t a racing bike, it is a riding bike and I salute Specialized for making it and expanding the line for next year. Riders looking for a willing companion for all kinds of adventures will be very happy on the AWOL. Quite a few personal bikes gathered dust while this bike was around, which has me thinking of ways to keep this bike in my stable.