2021 Specialized Diverge gravel bike: first-ride review

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Specialized has overhauled the Diverge for 2021. The third iteration of Specialized’s modern-day gravel bike arrives with a plentiful line-up to prove The Big S continues to be more than all-in on drop-bar bikes designed to go places.

As De La Soul sang, “three is the magic number”, and so the question arises: has this third-generation of the Diverge moved in tune with what seems to be a rapidly changing gravel scene?

Prior to the world going into lockdown, Dave “Shoddy” Everett attended an exclusive launch of the new Diverge to learn what it was all about and how it rides.


What’s new for 2021

Story Highlights

  • What: Specialized’s latest and third-gen gravel bike. Carbon and alloy versions available.
  • Key updates: Overhauled geometry, new Future Shock, internal spares storage, pretty much everything.
  • Tyre clearance 700×47 mm or 650Bx53 mm.
  • Weight: Sub 1,000g for painted 56cm S-Works frame.
  • Price: Starting from US$1,100
  • Highs: Versatile, fast handling, tyre clearance, ride quality.
  • Lows: Dropper post on S-Works impacts seated comfort. Otherwise none found after only two rides.

Specialized has given its Diverge platform a solid shake-up. There’s new geometry, an updated and damped Future Shock headset that has migrated over from Specialized’s 2020 Roubaix, room for wider tyres, a longer wheelbase and that external lunchbox has magically vanished from the base of the main triangle. Oh, and the engineers have had enough time on their hands to put together a version of the bike that some would say is creeping in to ‘jumping the shark’ territory. But let me delve into the finer details first.

Specialized claims the new Diverge takes inspiration from the Epic cross-country mountain bike range. They’ve introduced slacker head tube angles across the board (0.5 degrees slacker). The top tubes are now noticeably longer, with reach figures increasing anywhere from 10 mm to 19 mm depending on frame size, and they’re matched with shorter stems, too. Longer and slacker it may be, but Specialized has balanced that with a long 55 mm fork offset across all frame sizes, meaning the rather quick trail figure (61 mm for a 54 cm) is much the same as before.

The 2021 Diverge S-Works. 

The bottom bracket drop has been raised by 5 mm, going from an arguably-too-low 85 mm to a still-lower-than-most 80 mm. That 80 mm retains Diverge’s claim as one of the lowest in the ‘gravel/adventure’ category, but at least now it won’t be ridiculously low if run with 650B wheels or slimmer road tyres.

As for chainstay length, that’s been lengthened. Across the six sizes available, it’s now a universal 425 mm, an increase of 4 to 6 mm depending on size. With a longer front centre, longer chainstays, slacker head tubes and increased fork rakes, the wheelbase lengths increase from 22 mm for a 49 cm frame up to a whopping extra 40 mm in a 61 cm. Stability added.

Tyre clearance has also been beefed up, now offering room for up to 700 x 47 mm or 650B x 2.1″ (approx 53 mm) rubber. To achieve this, Specialized has forgone the trendy dropped chainstay and has instead opted for a 15 mm section of a solid, flattened carbon beam on the drive side behind the chainrings. It’s a neat and simple idea making for a cleaner and more traditional-looking rear triangle. And more impressively, the same tyre clearance is provided with the more affordable alloy frames, too.

Better yet, the boost in tyre clearance has been achieved while retaining compatibility with front shifting (although most models are set up 1x). And here’s some more sweet music: gone is the PF30 bottom bracket while the prodigy child — a 68 mm BSA threaded bottom bracket — has returned.

Brakes are flat mount with the fork designed around larger 160/180 mm rotors instead of the more commonly found 140/160 mm. Thru-axles are regular 100×12 and 142×12 front and rear respectively.

Gone is the old CBG seatpost (a name we will all miss, I’m sure) — now there’s a new, more normal-looking 27.2 mm carbon seatpost that flows from a road shape to a flattened setup near the saddle. Specialized says it’s a lot more compliant, and it is. The post is available in both a 20 mm offset and zero-degree, and the bike is dropper-post compatible too (such a thing comes standard on the S-Works).

As for its aero credentials, well yes, there are a few subtle aero advantage design tweaks but nothing to really write home about. Indeed Specialized hardly touched upon it in the launch event presentation. Despite the new wider downtube it remains faster than the previous Diverge, but it’s certainly not an aero bike, either.

When it comes to weight, the top dog S-Works model with Specialized’s FACT 11r carbon, in a 56 cm size fully painted, is claimed to sit under 1,000 g. Drop down a level to the Comp, Expert, and Pro models that use FACT 9r carbon and the weight increases by 100 g. For the Base and Sport models that use the FACT 8r carbon, you’re adding another 200 g but also losing the addition of the hidden SWAT box.

Hidden SWAT box you ask?

Hidden storage

Gone is the SWAT box that sat at the base of the main triangle above the bottom bracket. Instead, the extra storage option is now integrated into the downtube beneath the bottle cage – yet another carryover from Specialized’s mountain bike range. It again tidies up the look of the frame and realistically has room for what you’d usually stuff in a small saddle bag: a tube, CO2 canister and a small multi-tool. All of that can be slotted into a slim bag that slides into the opening of the frame.

Access is via a clip-off cover that the bottle cage is attached to. It’s a neat addition, but realistically it’s not a storage area you’d want to be delving into on every ride.

The SWAT box has enough room for a few essential tools or supplies.

The new Diverge has plenty of options for racks and bottle cage mounts. There’s space for up to six cages: two inside the front triangle, one on the underside of the downtube, two on the fork legs and a set of bosses on the top tube. But it was the tidy fender mounts that impressed me more than the number of other mounting options.

Hidden away out back, on the underside of the seatstays, the bosses are practically undetectable. They’re well-executed, clean and I’m guessing they’ll be an appreciated addition. Using fenders, though, does reduce tyre clearance slightly: to a still-generous 700 x 42 or 650B x 47c.

Future Shock 2.0

Just like the new Roubaix revealed last year, the new Diverge has been treated to the updated Future Shock 2.0. This is easily the bike’s main selling point, and is equally likely to be a drawcard or a turn-off for many, depending on how you feel about the need for a bit of ‘bounce’ up front.

Future Shock 2.0 is no different to the Future Shock that is found on the Roubaix, however, the 20 mm of adjustable hydraulically dampened suspension travel seems more at home on a gravel bike than it does on a road bike. With the Roubaix, I always wished it had a complete lockout as opposed to just stiffening it up. On the Diverge the lack of lockout seems far less important.

The only problem I can see with it is it’s something else to go wrong, especially if you’re a rider who takes on marathon adventures that take you to far-flung places over multiple days. I haven’t had an opportunity to use the Future Shock 2.0 for any meaningful length of time to judge its durability and serviceability.

The S-Works, Pro, Expert, and Comp Carbon models all get the updated Future Shock, while the Future Shock 1.5 — an older version without hydraulic damping (or the ability to firm it up while riding) — is found on the Comp E5, Sport, and Base Carbon offerings. The entry-level Diverges — the Base E5 and Elite E5 alloy models — feature boring rigid fork steerers.

The range

The new Diverge range is extensive. There are nine standard models in total and two flat-bar offerings, but more on those later. Perhaps most interesting is that where we’ve previously seen Specialized keep its own handlebars and seatposts across all bikes, the new Diverge sees a few external brands come into the fold.

My test bike for two days, the S-Works eTap.  

Here’s the range:

Diverge S-Works eTap

As usual, the S-Works sits at the top of the pecking order. As mentioned, it’s a full FACT 11r carbon frame with a mix of SRAM Red eTap AXS shifters, a 42T chainset and brakes, mixed with a SRAM XX1 Eagle AXS rear derailleur and XG-1295 Eagle 10-50T 12-speed cassette. Wheels are 32 mm deep Roval Terra CLXs.

The one item that stands out on the S-Works over every other model is that it’s the only one that comes equipped with a dropper post (controversial): the X-Fusion Manic Dropper, with 50 mm of travel. If you just want the frameset, then the S-Works is your only option.

Price: US$10,000 / AU$16,000 / £8,899.
Frameset price: US$4,200 / AU$6,000 / £3,499

The Diverge Pro eTap Force

Diverge Pro eTap

Below the S-Works eTap sits the Pro model, with a FACT 9r carbon frame. It’s built with SRAM Force eTAP ASX matched to a SRAM X01 Eagle rear derailleur and SRAM XG-1295 Eagle 12-speed 10-50T cassette. Again wheels are from Roval: this time the Roval Terra CL in 32 mm wrapped in Specialized’s 38 mm Pathfinder Pro in a very fetching transparent/tan sidewall. Like the S-Works, the Pro gets Easton EC70 AX Carbon 16-degree flare bars.

Price: US$6,700 / AU$10,500 / £5,999

Diverge Expert Carbon

The Diverge Expert Carbon.

The Expert model gets a gorgeous paint job in a fetching Gloss Raspberry/Redwood/Black/Chrome/Wild Ferns design, which is well worth checking out. The build is mostly Shimano’s Di2 GRX RX815, but with a Shimano XT 11-42T cassette matched with a 40T 1x chainset. Wheels are DT Swiss G540. Handlebars are Specialized’s Adventure Gear Hover with a pleasing 12-degree flare.

Price: US$4,800 / AU$7,000 / £4,499

Diverge Comp Carbon

The Comp Carbon has all the same finishing kit as the Expert but forgoes the Di2 GRX groupset for the mechanical offering in the form of Shimano’s GRX 810. It’s also the first in the range to have a sub-compact double chainset with an 11-34T cassette.

Price: US$3,800/ AU$5,800 / £3,399

Diverge Sport Carbon

Once you get to the Sport model you’ll drop down to the FACT 8r carbon frame and lose that SWAT box. You also lose the new carbon seatpost in exchange for a pretty standard-looking single-bolt carbon post. Wheels are again DT Swiss G540s like the two models above and this time they get wrapped in 38 mm Pathfinder Sport tyres. Both the Sport and Base models come in eight sizes and downgrade to the previous Future Shock 1.5.

Price: US$2,900/ AU$N/A / £N/A

Base Carbon

The final carbon offering is the Base, kitted out with SRAM’s 1x 11-speed Apex groupset. A 40T chainset spins along with a SunRace 11-42T cassette. The Base Carbon is fitted out with some pretty basic Axis tubeless-ready Elite Disc rims, and Specialized sealed bearing thru-axle hubs.

Price: US$2,500 / AU$3,700 / £2,199

E5

The last three models of the ‘drop bar’ flavour are built from Specialized’s E5 alloy. The Comp E5 comes with Shimano’s GRX 810 mechanical groupset, and would seem to be a great little option for those entering the world of gravel bikes for the first time. The Comp E5 still gets a Future Shock headset where the lower two models — the Elite E5 and the Base E5 — don’t.

The Elite ships with a GR400 groupset where the Base is decked out with a Shimano Claris groupset. That’s something we’ve not tested here at CyclingTips but from talking to a few bike shop mechanics it sounds like it’s a pretty handy groupset out on the road. How it holds up for gravel remains to be seen.

Comp E5 price: US$2,100 / AU$3,000 / £1,999
Elite E5 price: US$1,600 / AU$N/A / £1,599
Base E5 price: US$1,100 / AU$N/A / £949

Diverge Evo: It’s not an old school mountain bike, Honest!

Then there are two additional models which bear the name “Diverge EVO”. According to Specialized, this is a bike for “pushing boundaries”.

The EVO differs from the rest of the range in several ways. Firstly the blindingly obvious: it comes with flat bars. Both EVO models also come with an X-Fusion Manic Dropper seatpost with 50 mm of travel.

The frame also differs — it’s made with Specialized E5 alloy, but the top tube is 30 mm longer than the standard Diverge geometry (size medium). The head angle is also one-degree slacker (70 degrees) than the rest of the drop-bar range. The EVO’s also been designed to be 1x specific, where the rest of the range can be chopped-and-changed depending on your preference.

Future Shock 1.5 comes as standard on both the EVO Comp and EVO Expert. The only real difference between the two is in the components: the Comp gets an SRAM NX 11 / Tektro HD-R290 / Praxis build, and the Expert earns a nicer Shimano XT / Magura MT4 / Praxis build.

The EVO models also come with a different tyre: the new Specialized Rhombus, in a 700 x 42. These offer, in Specialized’s words, “aggressive tread for aggressive riding on aggressive trails”, and that matches the suggested ethos of the EVO nicely.

The question is: who’s this for and is there a market? It’s all about pushing where you can go and what you can do with a gravel bike. That’s clearly something that the market will dictate, but it certainly looks like something else you can already buy from a different category …

The EVO range will only be available in three sizes: small, medium and large.

E5 Expert EVO price: US$2,600 / £2,399 / AU$4,100
E5 Comp EVO price: US$1,600 / £1,599 / AU$2,500

The Ride

Let me lay out a few facts before I delve into my first impressions, as they may have had affected my impressions of the bike. Firstly, the gravel riding around Girona (where the launch was held) is mesmerising: get a trip booked if you can (once all this craziness is over, obviously). Secondly, the two days of riding I did at the Diverge launch turned out to be the last real-world riding I’d do (and have done) in over two months now.

Fond memories, a pleasant experience, a top-tier bike? Check, check and check. Why do I bring this up? Because I thoroughly enjoyed the bike. I enjoyed it even more once I got rid of a certain component …

The bike feels well planted under you.

The good folk at Specialized had me aboard an S-Works Diverge, decked out with all the lust-worthy components you’d expect. Over the two days of riding, we used two different sets of tyres. On day one we used the all-round 50/50 road/gravel rubber of the 38 mm Pathfinder Pro. On day two we tackled more challenging terrain with the 47 mm Tracer, a bigger volume, knobblier and more off-road orientated tyre. These two tyres obviously changed the characteristics of the bike. But it turned out to be the X-Fusion Manic dropper post that really swayed my opinion of the bike.

The first day we took on a pretty sedate 75 km-ish gravel ride. Nothing too crazy: a mix of mainly loose gravel over a dusty, hardpacked surface, and a nice amount of tarmac to get a feel for the bike out on the road.

The 38 mm Pathfinder Pro tyres are a great all-round option if you’re mixing a ton of road with a ton of gravel.

Starting with its road capabilities, the bike felt as road-orientated as a gravel bike can with 38 mm tyres. When I put down what power I have, the bike picked up speed with ease. Once at speed, it held it without a problem. In fact, I was surprised to see what speeds we actually hit out on the roads when I was back at the hotel and checking out my ride data.

It’s more than stiff enough, and it’s predictable, nimble and positive when cornering. Swapping to the Tracer tyres changed the bike’s road feel considerably. Yep, it wasn’t as nippy, and yes cornering became slower, and there was also that lean-in that larger tyres throw up when cornering sharply. But all of these are to be expected and once you get a few corners under your belt it’s relatively predictable.

But it was that dropper post that had me wondering about the new Diverge’s gravel capabilities. With the dropper installed on the first day, the rear end felt almost harsh, or at least not as smooth as I’d expected. I was disappointed as I know Specialized can nail a plush and comfortable rear end — the new Roubaix I tested last year proved this.

Sticking with comfort, the Future Shock 2.0 really is ideally suited to gravel. It takes a shed load of the sting out of the front, and when climbing, especially seated, you don’t feel the ‘bob’ that you’d expect from a device you can’t fully lock out. Sure it can sometimes be slightly noticeable out on the road — when sprinting, for example — but stiffening up the compression makes a world of difference, and it’s a vast improvement over the original Future Shock.

On the first day’s gravel forays, the new Diverge took what was laid in front of us in its stride, feeling poised, well-balanced and sure-footed. It’s definitely got a race-orientated edge to it, and keeps you on your toes in trickier sections. This changed on the second day with wider tyres.

Uphill the lightweight build came into its own. Matched with a rear triangle that feels tidily tucked underneath, it makes you want to attack the climbs.

The Tracer tyres are superb on rougher terrain — they sure helped get me to some places I wouldn’t have bothered on slightly narrower tyres.

Come the second day I was lucky enough to have the staff on hand swap out the dropper post for the new carbon post. From the first gravel section we hit it instantly had me changing my view on the bike. Sure the tyres had been swapped out for the fatter Tracers, but the fore and aft of the post was massively noticeable. The fact we were riding far more technical and challenging gravel sectors than the day before safely balanced things out. Indeed, I’d claim we were venturing close to MTB territory in several parts of the ride.

I was pleased to see that the new post works with the rest of the bike, in that it never dulls the sharpness of the rear end but just quietens down the road noise that’s transferred to you.

I know there’s plenty of people out there who may want a dropper post, but personally, I just don’t get it. I can’t see how the extra tech it offers is worth sacrificing an otherwise well-performing and comfortable ride. After all, Specialized has designed the carbon post in conjunction with the new frame for a reason.

Gearing is obviously a personal preference, but I’ve never really been sold on 1x groupsets. I’ve slowly come to realise though that a lot of that is down to where I live and the riding on offer. The first day I probably used fewer than half the gears available and wished I had one or two other options slotted in the middle on a few occasions. But come the second day, the gearing came into its own. The top-of-the-line mish-mash of SRAM’s top MTB and road groupsets worked faultlessly for me. I personally like SRAM’s eTap and the way it works.

It’s hard to argue with the range of SRAM’s “Mullet” group, but on the road I was still hunting for smaller steps between each shift.  

It’s a similar story for Easton EC70 AX bars. On the first day I almost felt like 16 degrees of flare was too much and too wide for the road and tame gravel. On the second day, though, just like with the gearing, the bars came into their own and that extra width was appreciated.

Conclusion

I suspect this new bike may very well take sales away from the Roubaix. Or more precisely, the pairing of this and the Tarmac which has become versatile in its own right by allowing up to 30 mm tyres.

The Diverge felt very at home as an endurance bike. It’s not as nippy as a Roubaix, but I could see people putting some light wheels and 30/32 mm road tyres on and being perfectly happy doing big road rides with it.

Swap those road tyres out for whatever takes your fancy for off-road duties, and you’ve got a bike that can take on an amazing variety of different surfaces. I’d also put a lot of this down to the Future Shock 2.0 off-road. Sure the new geometry adds a bunch of stability, but the Future Shock just adds an undeniable amount of confidence that you otherwise don’t get from gravel bikes with similar modern geometry. It allows you to hit things faster than you think you actually can.

The new Diverge offers a sufficient number of mounts while also keeping things clean for shorter rides. 

One thing I appreciated is that Specialized hasn’t skimped on all the necessary mounts. I’m often irritated when brands omit fender or rack mounts, especially as it’s an easy part to get right. However, for a bike that I feel sits more at the faster, race-orientated end of the gravel spectrum — as opposed to the more endurance-based, multi-day-exploring end — these additions have me wanting to know how it really performs when loaded up and out in the wilds for days on end.

I’ve been on the lookout for a gravel bike since some scumbag decided that my previous one was to their liking. The new Diverge has certainly jumped high up the list as a possible replacement. It ticks plenty of the boxes I’m looking for in a well-rounded gravel bike. It straddles the road/gravel divide by being racy on the road while offering more than a dollop of stability and confidence on the gravel.

I see the new Diverge as a bike perfectly aimed at those who want a bike that can do it all without thinking about the route too much. A bike that you can go out and have a blast on, be it knocking out some big fast miles such as we did on day one, or possibly a shorter, tricky and technical ride like we did on day two. At the end of the day, it’s just a damn fun bike to ride.

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