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.
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.