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 GRAVELBIKE.com 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.

11 thoughts on “One-Year Review: Specialized AWOL Comp Bicycle

  1. I’d assume the advantage of a heavier steel bike like the Specialized AWOL EVO would that it could easily handle heavier weight for longer, abroad tours. But you state the more weight but on this bike, the more it becomes unwieldy (which I assume, another bike of its weight would not become harder to handle). I guess I don’t understand this bike’s merits then. (I am trying to decide between a heavier steel touring bike to take heavier loads or something zippier that is aluminum with a carbon for – a gravel grinder – that can only carry 25 LB in the back. Thanks for your input!

    1. The AWOL’s rear triangle is not as stiff as, say, a Surly Long Haul Trucker or SOMA Saga. When you put a heavy load on the rear (e.g. rack and panniers), the AWOL’s handling suffers. If, however, you put the load up front on a good quality rack (e.g. Surly) or low-riders (Tubus), handling is fine.

      My Salsa Vaya also handles better with a front load (low-riders and panniers). I’ve experimented with various racks/carriers, and low-riders seem to have the least impact on steering and wheel-flop.

      Personally, I’m not a fan of rear-loading. I much prefer spreading the load between the main triangle and front-end (using a frame bag and small panniers, respectively).

      1. Do you have an idea when you’ll have a review of the Gestalt 2 on-line? I just finished a 2 week ride in Spain on my LHT and it was too much bike for the riding I did. I’m looking at getting something lighter for cc touring and the Gestalt looks like it would slot into my quiver quite well.

  2. I´ve built up my Awol expert (frameset) with tubus front and rear carriers and loaded it on my first tour wit approx. 20 kilos. No matter if I loaded them in the front or in the rear the handling of the bike was very bad! I´ve travelled for years with an aluminum cyclo cross rig – even with more load – and had (compared to the Awol) almost no torque on the frame. I am very dissapointed about the Awol´s performance and think of selling the frame again.

  3. I built up my AWOL Comp and took it on an 1100 mile loaded ride…long enough to learn to hate this bike. My normal climbing rhythm alternates between in and out of the saddle. The AWOL flexes like a 15 y/o gymnast when you stand up. Everything in back starts to rub, chain on frame, discs in calipers…the works. It just proves that excess frame weight doesn’t buy stiffness. In addition, the frame was designed with a SPECIFIC make of components in mind. If you build it up with something different like I did, (Campy), you’ll find some interesting integration issues. AND, installing a Tubus low rider front rack makes it nearly impossible to remove the front wheel if you use a wheel hub with skewers. The fork drop out design is actually that f-d up. I wanted this bike to replace my car for intermediate range 40-100 mi trips and longer tours. If I have to ride this pig more than 15 miles…I take the Audi.

  4. Thanks for provide you experience! Just curious what model year and size you have. I’m looking for a durable commute/touring bike but I’m 6-4 210lbs and ride flats so I stand and mash a lot. This sounds like it may not work for me then. Any recommendations? Have a soma smoothie es and there is slight flex but can’t load it down, and just sold my carbon Roubaix almost no flex

  5. I’ve had my AWOL for over a year now and have found that front loaded the bike is as stable as any I’ve ridden. Several multi-day tours have been a joy. I weigh a bit over 200lbs. I think the fact that the AWOL is multi-use, road, gravel, singletrack, commuting, touring, club rides, means that it’s not master of all but it certainly has never been an issue for me, even though I’m a little punishing to my steeds 😀

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