One-Year Review: Specialized AWOL Comp Bicycle

Adventure often means different things to different people, and Specialized’s family of adventure bikes is as diverse as the word itself. Designed to combine versatility and durability, the company’s AWOL line has become extremely popular since its introduction in 2014. Over the past twelve months, Specialized’s AWOL Comp has seen regular duty as my daily commuter, dirt-road and gravel rig, and primary test bed for numerous components and accessories.

At the heart of the matte black Comp is its TIG-welded frame and fork. The frame is constructed from a blend of Reynolds 725 and 520 steel tubing, and a CroMo unicrown fork completes the package. For maximum versatility, Specialized chose custom rocker-style dropouts, making the AWOL compatible with internally geared hubs, single speed setups, and belt drive systems. There’s no shortage of braze-on fittings, either–the bike has mounts for three bottle cages, front and rear racks, fenders, and all the necessary cable guides and stops for a 1x, 2x, or 3x drivetrain.

Specialized AWOL gravel grinder Tubus Ortlieb SRAM Selle Anatomica

The AWOL Comp outfitted with front and rear Tubus racks and Ortlieb panniers.

While many of my own personal bikes have what’s known as square geometry (seat tube length = top tube length), the Comp has a much longer front end. The medium size that I tested featured a 57.5 cm effective top tube, and a stack and reach of 61.7 cm and 39.2 cm, respectively. For comparison, my 56 cm Salsa Vaya has a stack height of 61.9 cm, a reach of 37.1 cm, and a 56 cm effective top tube. To compensate for the very long top tube, Specialized spec’d the medium AWOL Comp with a shorter-than-average 75 mm stem. Wheelbase on the Comp measured a lengthy 107.2 cm.

On my first shakedown ride, the AWOL immediately felt stable and predictable. Getting used to a new bike usually takes a few rides (and fine tuning), but the Comp’s ride was familiar and reassuring. Transitioning between paved and unpaved surfaces was completely uneventful, and riding no-handed didn’t require extra concentration or gymnastics. The combination of the AWOL’s relaxed steel frame, wide (700×42) tires, and gel handlebar padding yielded a Cadillac-like ride that soaked up road buzz and trail chatter like no other bike I’ve ridden in recent years.

Much of the AWOL’s testing centered around my 12-mile commute. The route includes a mix of paved and unpaved roads and trails, and I routinely carry 8-10 pounds of cargo. Experimenting with front and rear racks from Blackburn, Surly, and Tubus, I found that low-riders and small panniers worked best. Whether it was due to the Comp’s long front-center, or slender seat stays, heavy rear loads produced noticeable sway. The worst offender was a large Carradice saddlebag, but even small panniers attached to sturdy steel (rear) racks affected the bike’s handling.

Because of the AWOL’s weight (30 pounds, stock) and relaxed geometry, it may not the best choice for fast, unloaded riding. I found that, even when outfitted with lightweight carbon wheels, my commute took approximately 10-15% longer aboard the Comp. Speed isn’t everything, though. If enjoying the scenery is more appealing than bagging a Strava KOM, then the AWOL will keep you happily rolling along while you take in the sights and scenery.

Specialized’s component choices for the AWOL definitely favor reliability. The Comp’s parts may not be the lightest or have the highest pedigree, but they’re solid performers with proven track records. The Avid mechanical BB7 disc brakes don’t require bleeding like hydraulic units, and SRAM’s X9 rear derailleur features a roller clutch to help reduce chain-slap. Full-length cable housing and liners keep the controls operating smoothly. Specialized’s house-brand components, however, were a mixed bag. The flared drop bars offered excellent control, and the stem’s eccentric shim enabled additional adjustment compared to standard units. Accessing the front bolt on the seatpost was difficult if you weren’t using a saddle with a cut-out. And speaking of saddles, the stock perch was immediately replaced with one more befitting the bike’s relaxed nature.

Thanks to the frame and fork’s ample clearances, a change of tires is all that’s needed for serious dirt and gravel exploration. The stock 700×42 Trigger Sport tires may be fine for mellow hardpack, but the AWOL can easily accommodate bigger, more aggressive rubber. Throw on a pair of Specialized’s 29×1.9 Ground Control knobbies and you’re ready for anything short of technical, rocky singletrack. I rode that same setup (albeit tubeless) at SRAM’s Road 1x product launch, and the Comp was a blast on the long, unpaved descents near San Luis Obispo.

For 2016, Specialized now offers four complete AWOLs that range in price from $1350 to $2500. For the DIY’ers, there’s also the $700 AWOL Expert frameset. The biggest changes to this year’s Comp are the switch to SRAM Force hydraulic brakes (a welcome upgrade, in my opinion) and the move to a 1×11 drivetrain. If a single-chainring setup isn’t your thing, Specialized offers two models with doubles, and the base AWOL comes equipped with an FSA 50/39/30 triple crankset. Riders looking for the ultimate commuter-slash-adventure rig should check out the $2500 AWOL EVO, which includes a dynamo hub to power its Supernova lights and USB charging port.

Disclosure: Specialized provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.

Under Test: REVER MCX1 Disc Brakes

REVER caliper & rotor

Hydraulic disc brakes may be getting a lot of attention these days, but thanks to REVER, the cable-operated disc brake is anything but dead. The company’s MCX1 is compatible with short-pull road levers, and the dual-piston design is easier to adjust and offers improved power and modulation. In addition to the caliper, rotor, and mounting hardware, REVER includes Kevlar-reinforced housing and slick inner wires for optimum performance.

Stay tuned…

First Impressions: iSSi Clipless Pedals

How does a new company stand out in the sea of off-road clipless pedals? Well, if you’re iSSi, you do it by offering SPD-compatible pedals in a variety of sizes and colors. In addition to their original XC-style pedal, the Minneapolis-based company now offers a mid-sized Trail model. iSSi pedals are available with your choice of sealed bearings and bushings or with three sealed bearings. For maximum pedaling efficiency and comfort, spindles come in standard (52.5 mm), +6, or +12 widths. And for those fashion-conscious riders, iSSi pedals are available in eight colors.

I tested the minimalist iSSi II pedal ($75.00 MAP) in the bright silver colorway. With so many colors available, you’re probably wondering why I chose the plain silver finish. To be honest, I originally requested some of iSSi’s other colors, but due to their popularity, they happened to be sold out. So whoever said that cyclists don’t care about their bikes’ looks was either wrong or lying. At 308 grams for the pair, our sample pedals with 52.5 mm spindles came in under the advertised 312 gram weight. The Shimano SPD-compatible cleats weighed in at 52 grams including mounting hardware.

Right out of the box, clipping into the iSSi pedals proved easy and intuitive. As the cleats and retention claws broke in, entry became smoother and required less effort. Even with the pedals’ adjustable tension set to their easiest, audible and tactile feedback left no doubt that the cleats had engaged properly. Testing the iSSi pedals with mountain bike shoes from Five Ten, Louis Garneau, and Pearl Izumi didn’t reveal any difficulties clipping in or out. Despite running the release tension at the stock (i.e. lightest) setting, I never experienced any unwanted or unplanned exits. Unlike some pedals, the iSSi pedals’ tension builds up gradually as you approach the release angle (which is very easy to detect). This allows for plenty of body English in technical terrain, but doesn’t require that you crank down the tension to keep your feet securely planted (which can make entry more difficult).

With the majority of my testing taking place during late summer and early fall, dry trails were the norm. What little mud I did encounter didn’t affect entry or exit, but look for a follow-up review after the iSSi pedals have been through a typical Colorado winter. Despite a lack of wet weather testing, the pedals’ seals and bearings did survive multiple bouts with my gas-powered pressure washer. Should you need to service your pedals, only a 6 mm hex key and 9 mm socket are required. Like many clipless pedals on the market, the iSSi’s pedals are installed or removed with an 8 mm kex key. While I definitely prefer traditional wrench flats, swapping the pedals between multiple bikes was easy with the aid of a shop-length Allen wrench.

If you find traditional clipless pedals (or cranks, for that matter) to be too narrow, iSSi offers both models with +6 and +12 spindles. These add an extra 6 mm or 12 mm per-side, which can be particularly useful on fat bikes or for riders who have large feet or unique biomechanical requirements.  Best of all, the wider versions cost significantly less than similar pedals from competitors. I tested the stock 52.5 mm spindles with the aforementioned shoes, and found the clearance to be adequate on road, gravel, and mountain bikes (despite my heels-in pedal stroke).

Whether you’re looking for a wider stance or just want to add some color to your bike, iSSi’s line of pedals has a lot to offer. Stay tuned for a follow-up review after I’ve been able to log some winter miles on the iSSi pedals.

Disclosure: iSSi provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.