Specialized Diverge Expert X1 review

Paved, dirt, touring or even light singletrack duty – the choice is yours

BikeRadar score3.5/5

Let’s first agree on one thing: there is no such thing as a bike that can do it all well. Sure, you can pedal a downhill mountain bike up a paved mountain road, and you can ride a road bike down singletrack. But we all prefer a specialized bike for the task at hand, right?

This Specialized bike is clearly most at home on rough roads, be they dirt, stone or your local back route that has fallen into disrepair. On smooth asphalt, this adventure machine feels more sluggish than a normal road bike, but it is certainly game for long blacktop miles if that's where you take it.

On the other end of its spectrum, the Diverge can be rallied on low-key singletrack, provided the trails are dry as the slick tyres don’t offer any bite. (Swapping in file-tread cyclocross numbers can do wonders, but clearance is limited.)

Within these bookends, the Diverge represents the new breed of adventure road bikes.

Low-slung and stable

A very low bottom bracket (76mm drop) and a high-and-short cockpit combine with a very slack front end (51mm rake) for a noticeably stable ride. This characteristic shines on dirt descents where washboards or loose rock would make handling challenging on a standard road bike. Spinning on the raked-out fork, the big front tyre just mows steadily along, like an icebreaker through thin ice.

To continue the boat analogy, the big 32mm tyres at low pressure let you float serenely over choppy surfaces, with the CG-R post soaking up the bigger hits and the fat handlebar perch dispersing the load under your palms. For the more adventurous, the Diverge can handle some of the kinds of trails you’d enjoy on a hardtail mountain bike.

The handling that feels so confident in the choppy stuff, however, feels, what do you know, a bit like a boat on the smooth asphalt. When pedaling out of the saddle and pulling on the bars, the front wheel flops heavily out in front of you instead of dancing lightly beneath you, as you may be accustomed to with a race-style road bike.

Are these characteristics good things? That of course depends on what type of riding you like to do. In Colorado, I like to ride primarily on quiet roads, be they paved or dirt. I think true gravel roads are terrible: a jeep is what you need for a road surfaced entirely with sharp, loose rock.

Many of our loops around Boulder incorporate dirt roads or even short sections of mellow trail. For some group rides, half the riders will be on race-style bikes and the others will be on cyclocross bikes. For me, the Diverge is a little too much for most dirt road riding — but when we get into chunky, loose descents or dive into swooping singletack, I’ve been glad to sit astride the big horse.

The diverge is happiest when taken off the beaten, er, paved path: the diverge is happiest when taken off the beaten, er, paved path
The diverge is happiest when taken off the beaten, er, paved path: the diverge is happiest when taken off the beaten, er, paved path

The Diverge is happiest off the asphalt

A divergent set of builds

As with many bike brands, where you live determines which models are available with the Diverge. The full line ranges from the marquee £4,500 / AU$6,600 Shimano Dura-Ace carbon bike down to the £800 / AU$1,400 A1 Sub Compact with an alloy frame and Shimano Claris components.

This Diverge Expert X1 with SRAM Force 1 sports a 1x drivetrain with a huge-range 10-42 cassette, hydraulic Force brakes and a full complement of Specialized components, from the alloy Expert bars to the CG-R post to the thru-axle, tubeless-ready AXIS 4.0 Disc SCS X1 wheels to the Body Geometry Phenom Comp saddle to the 32mm Roubaix Pro tyres.

The 1x drivetrain is trendy and looks great with the army-tank paint scheme, but for my money I’d rather have 22 gears. While the total range is comparable to a standard 2x setup, the jumps between gears are noticeable, especially on the low end.

The frame comes with a derailleur hanger as a plan b, but plan a is a 46t single ring: the frame comes with a derailleur hanger as a plan b, but plan a is a 46t single ring
The frame comes with a derailleur hanger as a plan b, but plan a is a 46t single ring: the frame comes with a derailleur hanger as a plan b, but plan a is a 46t single ring

The X1 looks cool and the clutch derailleur keeps the chain on, but the jumps in gears are large

The Expert X1 cockpit feels great, with the wide-perch Force hoods smoothly transitioning into the substantial handlebar tops. The tops of the hydro levers protrude skywards, but they can offer another hand position when climbing: grab those things like the horns of a bull.

I found the Force hydraulic brakes to feel excellent all the time except when on dirt roads in the rain. There, wet grit makes its way into the calipers and causes an annoying grinding as the rotor spins through it. In the rain on roads or on any surface in the dry, the power and modulation compared to a rim brake is laughable.

Going back and forth between this bike and road bikes with rim brakes, I have laughed on more than one occasion. Bombing down steep roads in the rain and braking with one finger is easy; try that on your carbon rims. Actually, please don’t.

Related: SRAM vs Shimano brake pads in wet grit - video

A tale of the tread

In a few months of testing, myself and another tester never flatted. The Roubaix Pro tyres weigh 350g, which is about 130g more than a 25mm clincher. Combined with the stout wheels, you can certainly feel the weight when accelerating.

I rode a few hundred miles with Clement’s Strada LLG 32mm slicks, which weigh 320g. Though a bit more supple, it wasn’t enough of a weight savings to make a substantial difference in terms of acceleration.

With cyclocross file treads, the bike comes more into its own, gaining a bit of bite on trails. The wide rims add a few centimeters to the marked width of any tyre, which is a great thing for this bike. More girth means more suspension.

The bike is generally fine in lousy conditions — although adding specialized's plug and play fenders would certainly help: the bike is generally fine in lousy conditions — although adding specialized's plug and play fenders would certainly help
The bike is generally fine in lousy conditions — although adding specialized's plug and play fenders would certainly help: the bike is generally fine in lousy conditions — although adding specialized's plug and play fenders would certainly help

Getting gritty is no problem for the frame, but tyres with a bite help over the stock slicks

Tyre selection is hemmed in by frame clearance. While 33mm tyres fit, you can’t go much wider. A full-on gravel setup accounting for mud wouldn’t work, for instance.

Specialized’s Plug and Play mudguards fit cleanly and reduce spray, but also limit tyre options further.

Bottom line: a good steed for rowdy riding

While Specialized folks will tell you the bike is designed roughly for 80% tarmac and 20% dirt, I feel it’s the opposite. I most enjoyed the bike on rough dirt and trails, like a long-distance cyclocross bike. Which does beg the question — just how different is this than a ’cross bike?

It’s similar in feel and, for most people, similar in application as a general heavy-duty bike. Frame aesthetics and top-tube design aside, the tyre clearance and the super-low bottom bracket wouldn’t work well for a ’cross race bike.

Going the other direction, the addition of 'guard mounts and water/tool/storage mounts on the frame give the Diverge broader utility, and the geometry lends itself to more stability than a ’cross bike.

Within the new adventure category, the Diverge family offers plenty of price options. This particular model held up well to all the abuse we could throw at it. It looks and largely rides like a smooth tank — rough roads and mild trails don’t faze it. I’d prefer 22 gears to the 11, and I wish the Force calipers could better handle wet grit in the pouring rain on dirt roads. But all in all, the Diverge Expert X1 is a whole lot of fun to rally on backroads and even trails.

Colorado dirt roads in the rain irritate the sram hydraulic brakes, with wet grit getting down into the calipers, making noise and wearing down the pads : colorado dirt roads in the rain irritate the sram hydraulic brakes, with wet grit getting down into the calipers, making noise and wearing down the pads
Colorado dirt roads in the rain irritate the sram hydraulic brakes, with wet grit getting down into the calipers, making noise and wearing down the pads : colorado dirt roads in the rain irritate the sram hydraulic brakes, with wet grit getting down into the calipers, making noise and wearing down the pads

Take this bike and get lost

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