Where do you feel most at ease when out riding? Smooth ribbons of tarmac, graded gravel, or on a forest or fire trail? That’s the question asked by Scott Mattern, as he test rides the latest Diverge from Specialized.
All roads are not created equal, thankfully, and nor are gravel bikes. These ever-evolving machines span the gap between road bikes and mountain bikes. There are many shades of grey emerging in design, and many options to help a rider feel most comfortable with his or her choice of steed. The gravel market is evolving and the 2021 Specialized Diverge firmly, boldly and confidently shows what this evolution looks like.
In redesigning the Diverge, Specialized have refreshed their definition of how they perceive gravel riding. This release was a bit more than the standard extension of fresh coat of paint and a tweak to the tyre clearance. This Diverge is a whole new animal to the bike it replaces, yet retains some of the sensibilities that developed the model’s reputation. As a Specialized ambassador this is now my third Diverge – previously having used and ridden the 2019 Comp and Expert X1.
This review focuses on the Specialized Diverge Expert 2021. The particular build is one of nine models bought to market, the Diverge Expert sitting towards the top of the range behind the Pro and S-Works models. So what has changed and how does it perform?
It could be said that a common perception of the gravel market is that its development has stemmed from the need to extend the definition of road riding. Another way to consider the gravel market is this – it’s the middle ground where road biking ends and mountain biking begins. With this in mind the redesigned Diverge – to me at least – helps extend the definition of trail riding as much as it extends the limits of road cycling.
There are nods to mountain bike design here that go far beyond the introduction of the swat box, although I will come back to this. The reach of all the Diverge sizing has increased with a lengthening of the top tube along with a slight slackening the head tube angle, from 72.5 on the previous model to 71.75 for the 56cm frame.
This, in association with the new offset of the forks and lengthening of the rear triangle, has led to an increase in the wheel base of around 30mm. Taking notes from modern mountain bike design, this means more speed and stability. The bike is designed to be pointed down a rowdy piece of gravel road at great speed and with a good deal of confidence, but retain some of the handling sensibilities required for a civilised bunch ride.
The redesign has not just lengthened this bike but also allowed for more width. The forks and the rear stay of the new Diverge are built ready for genuine girth with the build now accommodating tyre clearance of 700 x 47mm and 53mm when using 650b’s.
A Diverse Diverge
With these revised capabilities there is the expectation that you may ride further and maybe even get lost more regularly on the new Diverge. To accommodate this there are more mounting points that ever. There are now four mount locations on the main frame and, more importantly, two on the forks. This for me was the most immediate point to note on the new bike at first glance. It easily allows for a neat and clean conversion of the gravel whip into a capable bike packing machine.
Other factors of the redesign include the broadening of what is considered road balanced with the extension of gravel. To me the bike starts to blur the lines between road & MTB. The oversized down tube of the new Diverge has the option to be fitted with a bottom bracket guard and of course the swat box has finally made the transition from the Specialized mountain bike range to this platform. For those who have used the swat box system, you’ll be perfectly familiar with just how brilliant the concept is.
For those new to the swat box, welcome. The fully sealed downtube recess will take a spare inner tube, small pump, a few spares and you may still have room to stash that lightweight spray or wind jacket, gels or a jar of festival glitter (hey whatever you want to carry is up to you)
The Future Shock absorption system has seen a significant redesign. Future Shock 2.0, first released with the latest Roubaix, seems to have found its second home on the Diverge and is standard on the Comp, Expert, Pro and S Works models. The first version of the Future Shock was driven by an inner spring that had limited adjustment and could not be fully locked out. This second iteration is driven by a hydraulically dampened suspension system.
…Future shock 2.0, first released with the latest Roubaix, is perfectly at home on the 2021 Diverge…
This can be easily adjusted on the move to firm up the ride to the point of near lock out. Travel has not changed between the modes and is still 20mm. This my second experience using Future Shock and the improvement has taken ride and comfort to the next level.
Changes to the rear of the new Diverge may not be as noticeable at first glance. The redesign has done away the S-Works CG-R seat post (the ‘Coble Gobler’), which provided some level of suspension. Instead the geometry of the top tube allows far more seat post exposure. This simple solution makes for a nicer, smoother and cleaner way of soaking up the rigors of the road. More importantly, this more easily allows for a seat pack to be fitted which is much better for bike packing.
The Fit Out
The engine room of this new Diverge Expert is the electronic version of Shimano GRX. As the name suggests the GRX range has been specifically designed for gravel, and on this bike the GRX Di2 comes in the form of a 1 x 11 group set and 11-42T rear cassette. Operation is butter smooth, as you would expect, I will come back to the range provided by the 11-42T when we get to the subject of the ride.
Brakes are also GRX, the Hydraulic RX815 assemblies clamp down on 160mm rotors with provision to increase the front rotor to 180mm if required. In the hoops department you are looking at DT Swiss G540 700 and they tyres are Pathfinder Pro in 700×38.
Touch points for this bike are Specialized Adventure Gear Hover bars with a 12 degree flare. The saddle is a body geometry power expert.
So where does this bike feel most at home? On sealed roads in a fresh-paced pack ride the bike will hold its own, to a point. This would be helped by fitting 32mm x 700 tyres in smoother rubber or getting your hands on carbon rims such as the Roval Terras found on the Pro model. That said, in a surge or a sprint with the flat track bullies there are simply not enough gears on the bike with the 1 x 11 and 11 – 42T gearing arrangement. You may be able to get around this by upscaling your front ring from the 40T and then changing your rear cassette to extend range. For this style of riding you may be comfortable depending on the pace, but not quite home.
A group grind along smooth gravel country roads, well now you’re beginning to get closer. The 700 x 38mm Pathfinders as speced with the bike do seem to perfectly suited this style of riding, and the geometry and fit out comply perfectly as well.
For me the bike is begging to be fitted with slightly bigger tyres such as 700 x 47mm – or even 650 x 53mm. This is where the Diverge may truly be at home … out on those back country forestry fire trails, and in the company of log trucks and lonely roads. Better still, strap some bags on, fill them with essentials and spend a night under the stars, now that would make for an epic adventure.
The Diverge Expert model looks fantastic, is a quality build and exactly what you would expect for a bike pitched at this portion of the market. A top-shelf carbon frame, GRX Di2 1 x11 drivetrain and DT swiss hoops.
A solid handling ride across a range of surfaces. A new pair of boots – depending on your choice – 47mm if you prefer girth for the gravel, or 32mm if you like it skinny and fast. These options will tune the bike to your personal preference.
The redesign of Diverge has drawn a line in the dirt. It defines how Specialized currently see gravel riding, where the sealed roads end and the trails begin. This definition is refreshing, if not potentially polarizing.
FRAME: Specialized Diverge FACT 9r carbon, SWAT™ Door integration, Future Shock suspension, threaded BB, internal routing, 12x142mm thru-axle, flat-mount disc
FORK: Future Shock 2.0 w/ Damper, Smooth Boot, FACT carbon, 12×100 mm thru-axle,
HANDLEBARS: Specialized Adventure Gear Hover, 103mm drop x 70mm reach x 12º flare
TAPE: Roubaix S-Wrap
SADDLE: Body Geometry Power Expert
SEAT BINDER: Alloy, 30.8mm
SEATPOST: Roval Terra Carbon Seat Post, 20mm Offset
SHIFT LEVERS: Shimano GRX RX815 hydraulic brake levers, 11 speed electronic shifting
REAR DERAILLEUR: Shimano GRX RX817 Di2, 11-speed
RRP: The AUS pricing is $7,500. Please note we previously listed the bike’s US pricing. This has now been rectified.