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Specialized Awol Elite review

28 Apr 2016
Verdict:

The Specialized Awol promises adventure and, with modern geometry and interesting components, it certainly delivers.

The Specialized AWOL range was launched in 2013, as part of a new series of touring bikes that focus on having adventures off the beaten path, rather than camping trips to the south of France. The AWOL Elite is the mid-range model and it certain looks the part, but can it deliver everyday excitement along with occasional adventure?

Frame

Specialized Awol bottom bracket

The AWOL frame is made from double-butted CrMo steel tubing and is covered with mounts a plenty (mudguard, rack and three sets of water bottles). It’s paired with a steel fork that also has mudguard eyelets plus two sets of rack mounts (low and mid). It’s not a lightweight frame in any sense but it seems plenty tough enough to stand up to the worst you could throw at it. Even when loaded down with heavy rear panniers, the bike tracked well thanks to the enormous chainstays.

Attached to the frame are Specialized’s porteur rack, a rear rack from rack experts Tubus and a pair of metal Specialized mudguards.

Geometry

Specialized Awol elite

The geometry of the frame did seem a little odd to us at first and, going off the stack & reach figures alone, we almost ordered the wrong sized bike. The AWOL has been designed to have a very long top tube and headtube that, when combined with a short stem and wide handlebars, gives a neutral and balanced ride that is perfect for carrying heavy loads over long distances.

Truth be told, we were a little suspicious of this at first but within a few minutes of riding it is quite clear that it works. Without any load on the bike, the front end is actually really quick to turn in but remains stable. Just bombing around town on the bike is actually quite fun and it would make for a fantastic commuting bike. Putting panniers onto it does slow the bike down in general but the handling still remains neutral.

Components

Specialized Awol crankset

The AWOL Elite comes with the newer 10-speed Shimano Tiagra groupset, with a couple of deviations. The crankset is an unbranded ‘forged alloy’ model, which doesn’t perhaps have the kudos of a Shimano unit but did a perfectly good job. TRP Spyres handled the braking duties well. Once upon a time cabled disc brakes were a bit naff, with poor lever feel and generally sub-par braking. The Spyres differ from most units as they replicate a dual piston set up, acting on both pads at once. Not only does this create a better feel at the lever, but it also evens out the pad wear. The braking power was excellent, perhaps flattered by the monumental amount of grip offered by the 42mm tyres.

The stem and seatpost were quite unremarkable, but did their jobs just fine and the saddle was comfortable enough that I did numerous 40-mile rides in unpadded shorts. The handlebars are very shallow and wide (with a 12 degree flare to the drops), which does a great job of helping you wrestle a fully-loaded bike on the descents. They’re also supremely comfortable – you can chug along holding them for hours at a time.

Wheels 

Specialized Awol front disc

The wheels on the AWOL are factory-built double-walled rims built onto a pair of Specialized disc hubs with good old fashioned J-bend spokes. It doesn’t make them the lightest wheels in the world, but they should be pretty tough (they stayed perfectly in true for the duration of the test) and, should the worst happen, any bike shop worth their salt should be able to repair them.

The Specialized Trigger Sport tyres are also chunky beasts (42mm) but they shrugged off various glass patches without any punctures. I also managed some gentle off-roading and the low-profile tread coped admirably.

The ride

What’s the best way to test a touring bike? Take it touring of course. Along with various commutes and weekend rides we took the AWOL on Pannier's ‘Dark Peak Weekender’, which included a fully-loaded hillclimb.

For buzzing around town the Porteur rack is great. Stuff what you want on it, stretch the bungee cords over it and ride off into the smog. You can attach panniers to it but not all of them fit (although Specialized does make its own) and those that do fit are held quite high up – there’s also a 15kg weight limit.

Packed full of stuff it handled well – the extra weight never overcame the brakes for instance, but it did overcome the gears.

The AWOL Elite is fitted with a compact and a 34T cassette, which does give a 1:1 ratio but fully loaded it was difficult to heave up the steep climbs of the Peak district. This wasn’t helped either by it’s 14.2kg stock weight. If you just want to use it in the city, as Specialized suggest, it would be great but you could probably go for a less ‘hardcore’ bike for the same job – the Diverge for example.

The truth is that the whole range is a little confusing. The cheaper AWOL does come with a triple as part of its Sora groupset but no rear rack or mudguards, so on spec along it seems more like a gravel bike. The more expensive AWOL Comp has 29er mountain bike tyres and a SRAM 1x groupset, which makes it more like a rigid mountain bike than anything.

So in their various stock forms, each bike of the bikes have their own flaws and niches. That’s not to say that any of the AWOL range is bad, it’s just that if you’re anything like us you’d end up swapping out parts before you have even left the shop. If it was me, I’d probably go for the standard AWOL and equip it with mudguards and a rear rack or, if time/money were no object, start with a frame because the ride feel and the geometry of the AWOL is virtually without fault. 

Spec

Specialized AWOL Elite
Frame Specialized AWOL Elite, butted Cr-Mo steek
Groupset Shimano Tiagra
Brakes TRP Spyre w/ 160mm rotors
Chainset Specialized, alloy
Cassette Shimano, 11-34
Bars Specialized AWOL, alloy
Stem Specialized alloy
Seatpost Specialized alloy, 27.2mm
Wheels Specialized disc, 36H
Tyres Specialized Trigger Sport, 42c
Saddle Specialized BG Phenom Gel, 143mm
Contact specialized.com
Price: 
£1200

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