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First Ride: 2016 Specialized AWOL Comp

It wasn’t all that long ago when bicycle travel was relegated to niche status, pursued by only an adventurous few. Not only has bikepacking exploded in popularity over the last few years, some have suggested it will inevitably eclipse backpacking as an outdoor pursuit. I would have dismissed that dubious claim just a couple of years ago, but now––not so much.

Feeding the recent adventure cycling craze is an ever expanding range of bikes suitable for self-supported, multi-day rides. The AWOL Comp from Specialized is such a platform, one designed to blur the lines between road and off-road performance. Released two years ago, the 2016 model received a handful of noteworthy improvements, and being lucky as we are, one found its way into our stable.
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Built around a chromoly steel frame and wrapped in matte black from tip to tail, the AWOL smacks of no-nonsense utility. Even the Specialized logo is faintly visible with its black on black motif. At first blush, there isn’t anything terribly exotic about the frame itself. With the exception of the beefy chain stays, the custom butted steel tubes don’t possess any of the curvaceous shapes we’ve come to expect of the modern steed. The seat stays in particular caught my eye as they appear just slightly larger in diameter than a number 2 pencil. It makes for an almost odd collection of tubes, but once put to the road or trail, they make sense.

 

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The black on black graphics are as subtle as anything ever to come out of the Specialized design studio.

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The wispy looking seat stays provide superb vertical compliance, especially when paired to a larger volume tire. To that end, the frame and fork can accommodate a tire up to a 2.2 width, although it gets a little snug once beyond the 2.0 mark. For the sake of rolling efficiency the bike is delivered with standard 29×1.9 tubeless-ready Ground Controls. Further adding to the long-range comfort, the head tube has been elongated to elevate the bars. This not only places the rider in a more upright position for grinding away big miles, when pushed into technical terrain it offers maximum stability by not placing the rider’s nose precariously over the front wheel.

Despite its resemblance to last year’s model, the updates to the 2016 AWOL Comp are significant. The most obvious changes have been made to the parts spec. Gone are the Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes, swapped for SRAM’s Rival 1 hydraulic stoppers. I have logged thousands of miles on BB7s, and while I have few complaints about their performance, the new brakes simply work better. They have more modulation, greater power, and require a fraction of the force needed to get the most out of the mechanical brakes.

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SRAM’s hydraulic brakes are a massive improvement over their mechanical discs. The DoubleTap shifting is tack sharp.

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The simplified 1×11 drivetrain is precise and easy to maintain. The gearing range is ample for most applications, even under full load.

 

The drivetrain for the new model drops a chainring but picks up a gear. The 1×11 format has a number of advantages, simplicity chief among them. I was pleased to see the AWOL Comp follow this trend, one that may or may not please all riders. I find that within rolling terrain, constant ring changes become tedious, so one ring works well for me.

A subtle modification was made to the AWOL’s frame design with a more simplified rear dropout. The previous model had rocker dropouts designed to accommodate non-traditional drivetrains like an internally geared hub or belt drive. Despite early declarations that belts would eventually supplant chains, the chain reigns supreme. Reducing the complexity of the rear dropout was a sound decision.

 

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Initial Ride Impressions

For the sake of disclosure, I adore this type of bicycle. A recovering road racer of 25 years, I feel at home with my hands on drop bars. I also live in a part of the world with hundreds of miles of flowing singletrack all connected with even more miles of gravel forest roads. The AWOL Comp makes those transitions feel perfectly matched to the bike.

On the pavement, the AWOL is swift and efficient, just what I would want of a bike designed to knock down long miles. When pushed onto gravel, it feels even better. The low slung bottom bracket, slightly long chain stays, and comfortable ergonomics with the flared drop bars lend the bike a degree of stability that inspires confidence, and subsequently––speed.

 

For a bike built to perform pack mule duties, it likes to be ridden like a race horse when the terrain suits it.

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Singletrack is perhaps not the ideal realm of the AWOL Comp, but on mild sections of trail, it does better than many would expect. When climbing technical terrain, the brake hoods offer the most control, but once pointed downward the drops provide the best command of the brake levers. The overall wheelbase, length of the stays, and lower bottom bracket are the limiters on switchbacks and in rocky terrain where pedal strike is an issue. The stock rubber is skinny and vulnerable in the rough stuff, demanding careful line selection. If you’re getting bored with your local trails, attacking them with the AWOL will refresh the experience, and in my opinion, make you a better rider.

I have to admit, I am genuinely impressed with the overall ride quality of the AWOL, and perhaps under estimated its potential for performance. Within the road to off-road spectrum, it is decidedly more road biased and feels like a brawny cyclocross bike. That said, I continue to push it into the dirt where it always surprises me with how fast and capable it is, at least on flowing hardpack singletrack.

 

In the weeks to come, I will continue to evaluate the AWOL Comp where it is intended to be deployed––in the backcountry loaded with a full compliment of gear. So far, as a daily rider, commuter, and gravel grinder, it has been a blast to ride.

 

If you don’t hear from me in a while, it’s likely because I have gone––AWOL.

 

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Ups:

  • Excellent ride quality
  • Nice parts spec tuned to the task of adventure riding
  • Great gravel and rough road performance
  • A good value for a load-and-go travel platform

Downs:

  • I wish the bars had a bit more flare for better off road leverage

 

 

 To learn more about the AWOL COMP, click on the image below:
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Christophe Noel is Expedition Portal's Editor and the Senior Editor for Overland Journal. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.