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.

One-Year Review: Ortlieb Front-Roller Plus Panniers

If you ride long or far enough you’ll eventually want–or need–to carry more than will fit in your jersey pockets or under-seat pack. For commuting and extended exploring, panniers offer convenience, security, and the capacity to carry your essentials and much more. Since 1983, Ortlieb has produced what many consider to be some of the best panniers available. The company offers a staggering array of bags, and I spent the past twelve months testing Ortlieb’s Front-Roller Plus panniers.

Constructed from abrasion-resistant Cordura fabric utilizing high-frequency welding, the Front-Roller Plus panniers ($180 MSRP) feature a 25 litre capacity (per-pair) and weigh a respectable 640 grams (each). The QL2.1 mounting system is compatible with racks up to 16 mm in diameter, and can be adjusted without tools. Niceties include padded (removable) shoulder straps, integrated interior pockets, and 3M™ Scotchlite™ reflectors. Like Ortlieb’s other panniers, the Front-Roller Plus comes with a five-year warranty.

Designed to be used as front or rear panniers, I tested the Ortliebs with low-rider and conventional racks from Blackburn, Surly, and Tubus. Thanks to the QL2.1 mounting system’s removable inserts, swapping the panniers between different-sized racks was quick and easy. The anti-scratch mounting hooks lived up to their name, but I found that some strategically placed electrical tape was necessary to reduce rattling/noise on extremely bumpy trails.

During the year-long test period I experimented with front- and rear-mounting positions on my Salsa Vaya and Specialized AWOL Comp bicycles. Neither bike exhibited heel strike with the Front-Roller panniers mounted on rear racks, but I did notice that very heavy loads affected both bikes’ handling. Mounting the Ortliebs on front racks or lowriders resulted in noticeably better handling, especially on unpaved roads and trails. Whether you opt for a front or rear rack, be sure to choose one that’s stiff enough and rated for your intended cargo.

If you ride in inclement weather, you can take comfort in the fact that the Front-Rollers’ waterproofness isn’t some hollow claim–the Ortliebs have an IP rating of 64. What’s an IP rating, you ask? The IP Code–or International Protection Rating–consists of by two digits and an optional letter. It classifies the degrees of protection provided against the intrusion of solids and liquids. In the case of the Front-Roller Plus panniers, the 64 translates to 6 being dustproof, and 4 protecting against splash water coming from all directions. While my testing was hardly scientific, I did my fair share of riding in crappy weather, and I never once detected any moisture inside the Front-Roller Plus panniers.

After a year of steady use the Ortlieb bags show virtually no wear. The stitching remains tight and intact, and all closures and latches function smoothly. Keeping the bags clean has never required more than mild soap and water, and the reflectors are still bright and free of cracking or peeling. Based on my previous experience with Ortlieb’s products, I expected nothing less with the Front-Roller Plus panniers. While not cheap, the Front-Roller Plus panniers provide exceptional performance and durability making them an outstanding value.

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

Updates & Follow-Ups

Campagnolo Drivetrain Conversion
The Campagnolo Centaur Ergopower shifters have broken in nicely. Shifting is even smoother, but the reassuring tactile feedback definitely remains. Maintenance has consisted of occasionally lubing the cables and (derailleur) pivots, and rotating in another KMC X10.93 chain to minimize overall drivetrain wear. I did replace the 46t Real outer chainring with a 48t Specialites T.A. Zephyr ‘ring. The latter shifts quicker, and is a better match for the 13-29t Veloce cassette.

Pacenti SL23 Rims
These wheels are still as true as the day I received them. The White Industries T11 hubs haven’t required any adjustment or lubrication, and the freehub has quieted down slightly (but it’s still louder than, say, a Shimano unit). Brake track wear appears minimal despite testing half-a-dozen different brake pad compounds. I’ve read reports that some people have difficulty mounting tires on the SL23 rims, but switching to thinner rim strip (e.g. Stan’s yellow tape) usually eases installation.

Carradice SQR Saddlebags
Since posting my original review, I’ve put another 600 miles on the SQR Slim saddlebag. With its spacious capacity and easy on/off mounting system, it’s become my favorite bag in the Carradice family. Traversing dirt roads and trails on over-inflated 28mm tires hasn’t loosened the mounting hardware, and the waxed cotton fabric has done a great job of fending off late-afternoon thundershowers. I continue to notice the bag brushing the backs of my thighs, but it’s usually restricted to when I remain in the saddle when stopped.