Specialized AWOL Review: 5,000 Mile Test Ride

Specialized’s do-all dropbar adventure bike pitted against a 3-month, 5,000 mile dirt road route across the USA. A test ride doesn’t get much bigger than this. Sarah Swallow reports on how it fared…

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A year ago, I was given the opportunity to become an adventure ambassador for Specialized Bicycles, through their Seek and Enjoy program. One of the perks of this program was getting to ride a few bikes in their growing adventure line-up, which seemed to suit my riding habits perfectly. I was especially pleased to learn that one of those bikes would be the Specialized AWOL. I first saw an AWOL when Erik Nohlin and John Watson both rode the bike on the Oregon Outback. I was riding a Surly Straggler at the time, and remember considering the AWOL as one in a handful of drop bar adventure rigs available at the time (now every company makes one!).

Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

When I finally got my hands on one, I put it straight to the test. I received the bike in February and took it on a series of long distance gravel rides before taking it on the Buckeye Trail Tour, a 7-day on and off pavement route across Ohio, over 635 miles in distance. Two months later, I would take the bike on a 3-month tour covering over 5,000 miles across the United States, along a dirt road dual sport motorcycle route (The TAT). With a variation of terrain ranging from pavement, to smooth gravel roads, unmaintained gravel roads, forest roads, rocky atv trails, sand and mud, steep hills, rolling hills, 100-mile straight-aways, and technical descents, the AWOL was put through its paces.

  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

In a market of endless options and constant change, knowing what works for the riding I do is just a matter of trying different ideas, and getting out into the dirt to see what matters when. Prior to bikepacking and gravel road adventures, I spent a lot of time riding long distances while on paved randonneuring-like rides, dabbling in the occasional endurance mountain bike race, and participating in the local cyclocross race series.

Participating is the key word here, as my idea of training was riding with my friends for 8-hours in the country. When I was first introduced to gravel riding, I instantly fell in love. I enjoyed the technical aspects it offered as an alternative to normal paved road rides; I found myself traveling every weekend to the next best gravel road zone with my cyclocross bike. My passion for this style of riding slowly morphed into a desire to extend rides into multi-day camping trips, which is my husband and I started bikepacking. As the riding changed, our equipment and focus evolved as well.

  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

My first “monster cross” bike, a Surly Straggler, changed things for me. I had previously been riding a Ritchey Swiss Cross cyclocross bike. The added benefit of running a wider tire and having disc brakes allowed me to be more comfortable over long distances, plus it gave me much more confidence on technical terrain and descents. I am 5’ 5” and was riding a 50cm 700c Straggler. As with many bikes in this size range, toe overlap was an issue. However, the shorter wheelbase allowed for a quick and maneuverable, mountain bike ride quality in a drop bar package. It was fun on single track and technical terrain, but after a few loaded rides over long distances, I found myself putting in a considerable amount of effort keeping the bike from wandering. I loved this bike and all of its quirks, but what finally drove me to look for the next best thing was the difficulty of removing and installing the rear wheel, due to the Straggler’s forward exiting horizontal adjustable dropouts.

  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

The characteristics of the AWOL’s geometry and frame design added huge benefits to my touring experience. First of all, on my size small frame, I had no toe overlap issues. Secondly, the added height of the headtube length created much more versatility in handlebar positioning. On just one frame size of the AWOL I could switch from a shorter taller position for touring, to a low and long position for faster shorter gravel rides. The headtube length, coupled with the longer than average top tube length, also allows plenty of room to build the bike with alternative handlebar styles, like those offered by Jones. Any shallow concern I had about the look of a sloping top tube was immediately outweighed by the benefit of the design; the extra clearance allowed for easy mounting and dismounting, and saved my skin during a number of occasional unplanned dismounts.

Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

I remember my first impression of the AWOL being that it was somewhat less reactive than the Straggler. It is understandable given the difference in the wheelbase dimensions. I was on a size 50cm Straggler, and a Small AWOL, and the difference in wheelbase between the two bikes was more than 2 inches. This was really noticeable on tight single-track sections, like sudden switchbacks. While tight single track may not be the AWOL’s forte, the bike’s predictable stability gave me confidence while navigating sections of sharp rocks on steep, technical mountain pass descents on our cross-country trip. Hands in the drops, I would look where I wanted to go, put my weight back, and the bike just went, without putting up a fight.

  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

When I think of the AWOL, I think easy to ride. This is a great quality for a bikepacking or touring bike, where every amount of effort adds up along the way. Energy you waste fighting your bike one day is less energy you have for the next day. Over the long distances that I rode the bike, its predictability of steering, stable handling while loaded, and overall ease of piloting, became something I appreciated as I watched Tom struggle with the bike he had made with a higher bottom bracket, and shorter chainstays. This was noted by many of the motorcycle riders who followed our tire tracks, who commented on the difference between my linear track and Tom’s squiggly one.

Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

The frame has many more features than I utilized, making it much more than just a plain old touring bike. The AWOL frameset is built with Specialized’s proprietary SWINGER dropout system, which splits at the right dropout for belt drives. It’s also directly compatible with Rohloff’s OEM II axle plate, and allows for adjustable chain stay length. This means the bike can be easily converted to single-speed mode in the event of a derailleur explosion, or just for a change of pace. We set up my bike with the dropout position that yielded the shortest chainstay length, or overall wheelbase, after trying a few different placements.

Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

Wheel install and removal is easy because the dropouts are a standard, in-and-out, vertical slot. The frame features a full set of rack and fender mounts and even a two-bolt bottle cage mount on the underside of the downtube, a feature typically hard to find in a smaller frame. It’s fitted with cable guides specific to full-length cable housing, which allows for Rohloff cable runs, hydraulic brake hoses, or simply a full-length housing for protection in dirty conditions. Another benefit of fully enclosed cables is that strapping of tent poles, or frame bags, is a non-issue, as you can strap right over the cable runs. A final cool detail is the hole in the drive-side fork leg allowing a generator power wire to be run inside the leg, protected and tidy, to a stem cap USB charger or directly to a headlight. Apparently, the new AWOL Expert Frameset comes with a revised cable guide that eliminates the use of zip-ties and incorporates provisions for an internally run wire for a taillight.

  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

My AWOL was set up tubeless with a pair of 43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘N’ Road tires on a 22mm internal width set of Roval Control SL 29 wheels. I know many people ride the AWOL with wider 29er tires and the 2016 AWOL Comp comes stock with 29 x 1.9” tires, but we opted for the 43mm to allow ample clearance for mud in the most extreme conditions. As it turns out, the amount of clearance with a 43mm tire still wasn’t enough for the muddiest conditions. Where the mud clearance on Tom’s bike (a homemade frame) allowed him to keep rolling, the AWOL sometimes clogged up and forced me to a standstill. I would consider these extreme conditions, but I believe the distance between the tire and the underside of the fork crown on the AWOL leaves room to be desired.

Pros

  • Wheelbase – a longer wheelbase makes the bike easy to ride and predictable whether it’s loaded or not, on dirt, technical and steep descents, or smooth pavement. Also, no issues with toe overlap on smaller frame size!
  • Comfortable geometry – with its tall head tube and a long top tube, this bike can be built up to fit a wide range of positions and handlebar styles.
  • Sloping top tube – ample clearance in case of an unplanned dismount. Easy to hop on and off the bike.
  • Techy versatility – thanks to rack mounts, fender mounts, Swinger dropouts, cable stops to allow for full length housing, and a fork with internal dynamo light wire routing, this bike is useful for many different purposes, rides, and riders.

Cons

  • Tire clearance – Particularly in the front fork, falls a little short.
  • No provisions for fork mounted waterbottles, or the likes of Anything Cages.

Build Kit

Since some models have changed over the past year, I’d like to be clear that I’m writing about what is available today as the AWOL Expert frameset, with a custom build kit that we selected specifically for our trip across the country. Built without bags this bike weighs in at a lightweight 22.5 lbs. Loaded with everything but food, the bike tips the scales at just shy of 50 lbs. Not too shabby for a cross-country touring rig.

After riding across the US on this set up, I am convinced that a 1 x 11 build with a 38T chainring and a 10 x 42T cassette, now available on the AWOL Comp, is the way to go. This would allow for lower gear ratios, in a simpler format. I loved the weight, strength, and smooth feel of the carbon Roval Control SL wheels, but at $1800, they are a real luxury, as the total bike price reflects. As a whole, the bike held up impeccably with no mechanicals or flats, other than a few broken spokes as a result of the damage caused by a rock lodging itself into the rear wheel. The bike itself has some paint wear (patina) from the soft bags we carried, but has a long life and many more adventures left in its sturdy steel frame.

  • FRAME 725 Reynolds Steel Tubing
  • FORK Cromoly Steel, post disc mount
  • STEM Thomson X4, 70mm x 10 degree
  • HEADSET FSA, Campy style, integrated cartridge bearings, 15mm spacer
  • HANDLEBAR Ritchey WCS EvoCurve 40cm
  • HANDLEBAR TAPE 3-year old Brooks Leather Bar Tape
  • BRAKES Avid BB7s with centerline 160mm
  • SHIFTERS SRAM Red Ergodynamic 10 speed
  • FRONT DERAILLEUR SRAM Red Yaw
  • REAR DERAILLEUR SRAM XO Type 2.1 Medium Cage
  • CRANKS & CHAINRINGS SRAM Force 22 GXP 170mm 46/34T
  • CASSETTE SRAM PG1070 11/36T
  • CHAIN SRAM PC1051
  • WHEELSET Specialized Roval Control SL 29
  • TIRES Bruce Gordon Rock N Road, 43mm (Run Tubeless)
  • SEATPOST Thomson Elite Setback
  • SADDLE WTB Deva
  • WATER BOTTLE MOUNTS 2 inside frame, one under downtube
  • RACK AND FENDER MOUNTS Rack mounts and fender mounts front and rear
  • EXTRAS Fork features internal light cable routing, frame includes kickstand plate

Gravel or mountain bike?

I chose to ride a drop-bar bike for its multiple hand positions, and believed it would be ideal for what we understood the route to be like – mostly gravel roads with some paved roads. Given the diversity of terrain on a long distance ride like this, it’s personal preference to an extent. However, I wouldn’t recommend anything less than a 43mm tire, especially given the sand and rocky sections we encountered. The terrain was predominantly gravel bike friendly, but at certain slower speeds through technical sections I’m sure we could have been more comfortable on a mountain bike. We also noticed some opportunities to take single track which we would have done, had we been riding a mountain bike. We’ll be posting the TAT route, which will cover more details like terrain and ideal setups.

Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

  • Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags
  • Surly Wednesday Review

Wrap Up

Think of a traditional touring bike and mix it with the qualities of a monster cross or gravel grinder, then add a whole bunch of techy touring features and you’ve got a Specialized AWOL. Over the 5,000 predominantly dirt road miles I spent riding it on the TAT, averaging over 60 miles a day, I am pleased to report that the AWOL held up to the abuse. It did its job in helping me cross the country as comfortably as one could be on a non-suspended drop bar adventure rig, surpassing my expectations with its predictable steering, stable handling while loaded, and overall ease of piloting. I’m looking forward to many more dirt road adventures with this bike.

One the subject of price, bear in mind that my build included an $1800 carbon wheelset. The Rovals fared very well during the course of our ride (rock incident aside), and they helped trim down the overall bike weight considerably. But you could build up a much more affordable AWOL given its $700 frameset.

Indeed, an a market of endless options and constant change, the AWOL provides a platform to build the touring bike that you want, with the versatility to adapt to other uses down the line, no matter the condition of the rider, or the ride.

  • Size Tested Small
  • Sizes Available XS-XL
  • Weight (as tested) 22.5lbs/10.2kg
  • Price as tested $4,092 ($700 frame and fork)
  • Contact Specialized
  • Recommended Uses Touring, bikepacking, and commuting on paved or gravel roads. Gravel grinding.

Rider’s Background

My background in cycling includes everything from commuting to triathlons, randonneuring, endurance mountain biking, cyclocross, and all-day gravel adventures. Over the last couple years I have been focusing on multi-day bikepacking trips along dirt roads.

Height: 5’5”
Weight: 125 lbs
Inseam: 30”

Disclosure

I was given the AWOL through Specialized’s 2015 Seek and Enjoy program.

Specialized AWOL Review, Bikepacking, Porcelain Rocket bags

Learn more about the Trans America Trail

You can read about Tom and Sarah Swallow’s ride in this post; including a full breakdown of the gear they carried. Catch up on the updates they posted throughout their remarkable journey here.

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