Venturing into the unknown. Gravel Bikes.

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I’m a mountain biker. Always have been, and at the point of writing this, think I (might) always will be. There’s some doubt in there for sure and I can tell you why. Gravel Bikes. “What?” you may ask? Well in my own words imagine a chunkier road bike that’s designed to ride off road. “Ah that’s a Cyclocross bike Archie?”. Well sort of, but the Cyclocross bikes are UCI homologated. Think of them as race honed bikes, rather than bikes you’d ride for leisure. Hence, Gravel Bikes.

So to test out the theory, and confirm if this is just another marketing ploy by the bike brands to sell yet another niche bike, I picked up the 2018 Specialized Diverge Sport Carbon in August and have been running it for a couple of months now. And to make things interesting, rather just give my opinion on things, I’ve also lent it to my Dad who’s been eager to swing a leg over one ever since the genre came out a few years back. So this article will be coming at the Diverge from two angles.

  1. The Gravity enthused Mountain Biker (Me)

  2. The long distance trail rider (Dad)

So without further intro let’s get cracking!

The bike - Specialized Diverge Sport 2018 Carbon.  £2000, now £1529.

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And I quote “The Diverge gives you the ability to go where you want and enjoy yourself while you do it, whether it be popping down to the shops, joining a local group ride or tackling a tough dirt climb.” Let see then…

It can fit tires up to 42mm while still having room for mud, along with a frame design that has been constructed out of lightweight FACT 9r Carbon Fibre, one of the lightest in its class and an absolute feather compared to the Stumpy. The Diverge features an all new version of the Future Shock system (think of it as a fork shock in the headset) giving you 20mm of travel, allowing the bike to soak up those bumps with ease, on gentle or so rides. It also comes with a Shimano Tiagra 2x10 Speed groupset to tackle whatever may come your way on and off road, as well as Tektro mechanical disc brakes, which work well, though take a bit of getting used to; after riding with hydraulic disc brakes on MTB’s, I’m used to massively more power and sensitivity. Still though, this is hardly a DH rig so I won’t judge.

A Gravity Riders POV

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It feels weird. Probably an obvious thing to say and yes after 5 minutes or so, I started to get used to the feeling of sitting on top of the front wheel compared to the lazy, reclined feel of the Specialised StumpJumper. The second immediate thing you notice riding it is the efficiency in which your pedal strokes initiate movement. It’s not a playful bike, well not compared to what I’m used to, but neither did it feel like it was begging me to stop. So one of the best rides I’ve had on it so far was the red-graded mountain bike trail at Thetford. Generally, a trail which requires momentum to get those smiles going and momentum is what the Diverge delivered. Focusing less on getting the most out of the corners my riding instead focused on not losing momentum in the corners and hammering down those straights. The opposite to a MTB ride, but boy was it fun. With my brother and mate behind me running 150mm trail bikes, the difference in my ability to cover ground effortlessly was quickly highlighted. Yes, they could keep up, but they were really trying. Their ride had turned into a damage limitation exercise as egos were now on the line.

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My luck was about to turn however, as 2/3rds around the trail we hit a very rooty/bermed section that really underlines how far forward your centre of mass is on the Diverge compared to the Stumpy. Now they were right on my tail and nibbling away at my tyres. I’ve been caught and if I’m not careful, about to be over taken. It’s at this point you realise you’re at the limit of the Diverge’s ability off road. With its limited tyre width (38mm or 1/5 inches) compared to an MTB and near enough vertical head angle you can’t really attack the rough stuff, you just get through it. Though as you’re doing this, yes you’re not fast, but boy is it good fun hustling the Diverge over terrain other day riders are struggling on with their rentals. It may look fragile, but it can play hard too!

So, it’s different the Diverge. It’s opened my mind to genuinely travelling with my bike, rather than looping the same downhill section.  As a bike 80% of the time it feels more than capable off road and when you take it that 20% extra, well it’s like thrashing a small hatchback. Your ability to have fun comes down to how well you can get the car, or bike in this case working. I’ll be sad to see the Diverge go and would compel anyone who’s not sure on the idea to give one a go. Anyway, it’s time for me to shut up and hand over to Dad. Dad, whatcha reckon?

A Long distance Trail riders POV

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Adventure biking.  To some it's about long trips with everything bar the kitchen sink packed into saddle bags, but for others (like me) it's about sticking a pin in the map and finding a way to ride there irrespective of the condition or availability of the roads. 

Up until now my weapon of choice has been a Trek Cobia ' hard-tail' mountain bike, but during the past few weeks I've had Specialized's Diverge Sport gravel bike at my disposal, thanks to Rutland Cycling.  So, will the Diverge out-perform my Trek on the fire roads?  And can it keep up when the going gets really rough?

With its FACT 9r carbon frame, the Diverge weighs around 4kg less than the Trek (at 9.5kg) and you feel this every time you step on the pedals  - gearing is similar (with its 10-speed 11/34 cassette and 48/32 chainrings) but it's the way it picks up speed, due to its lower weight, and keeps on accelerating (thanks to better aerodynamics) that sets it apart.  But make sure you keep the tyre pressures pumped up, it needs at least 50psi in its 700 x38c tyres, otherwise it can feel sluggish and much harder work.

Specialized sells another multi-surface sports bike, the CruX, developed for the weekend warriors competing in cyclocross, and compared to the Diverge this has hydraulic disc brakes (rather than the cable operated Tektro Spyres) and a 20mm taller bottom bracket for climbing over obstacles and navigating tight turns.  Otherwise both weigh the same with the CruX sporting shorter gearing (an 11-speed 11/28 cassette with 46/36 chainrings) and a slightly less relaxed geometry.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the 'Future Shock' progressive suspension (developed with McLaren Applied Technologies) fitted above the head tube, with its 20mm of travel (and 3 interchangeable spring units) it smoothes out the ride, reducing fatigue and making a rocky trail more than tolerable.  Ok, it's no match for the 100mm travel on my Trek hardtail, but it genuinely makes the Diverge an all-terrain bike with the only limitation being the rider's bravery or talent.

So, back to my earlier question;  has the Diverge been a worthy replacement for my Trek hardtail? Well, yes and no. 

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During the past few weeks I've ridden 130 miles,  73 of them on tarmac and the rest on a mixture of gravel roads, forest trails and grassy fields.  The smoother the surface the bigger the advantage in favour of the Diverge, with it being some 10-15% faster than my hardtail, and considerably quicker when tackling the steeper gradients in Fineshades Wood.  But it's less clever at speeding through the berms - a combination of its higher seating position and narrower handlebars making it feel more nervous than a mountain bike and less forgiving if the surface changes in the middle of a turn. 

But not once have I felt unable to tackle the terrain we encountered.  Diverge is more than just a road bike with chunky tyres, it's an all-terrain performance bike designed to go as fast as you can peddle.  Its carbon frame makes it a breeze to lift over gates and the front forks can handle up to 42mm tyres making even the muddiest trails a cinch.    You might even describe it as the most widely talented bike you can buy. 

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Take one for an extended test ride (away from the tarmac) and see what I mean.  Gravel bikes are far more than a marketing gimmick and will open up a whole new world of riding adventures.  Whether you're a roadie or mountain goat, there's room for another bike in your life and its name is Diverge.