Racing 200 miles of gravel on the new Specialized Diverge

Suspension up front and plenty of bottles for the Dirty Kanza

There are gravel races that are longer than the Dirty Kanza 200, but few combine massive fields, scorching speeds, rough terrain and capricious weather.

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It was my seventh time toeing the start line at this legendary race. After many years of tinkering with gravel race strategies, I came away from last year’s event pleased with my set-up. But, being a tech editor, I know that there’s always room for improvement.

Early this spring, I caught wind that Specialized was developing a purpose-built gravel race bike. Riding 200-miles of lonely flint roads in the heart of Kansas seemed like the perfect way to put it to the test.

Diverging

The latest Specialized Diverge was my weapon of choice for the 2017 Dirty Kanza 200
Josh Patterson / Immediate Media

Specialized’s Diverge was a bit of an odd model when it was introduced in 2014. It was a bit more capable than brand’s endurance road bike, the Roubaix, but only by a matter of degrees.

Rear clearance was limited to around 35mm-wide tires without much mud clearance, so it wasn’t an ideal candidate for gravel riding. Despite its introduction, the company’s cyclocross bike was still the preferred weapon of privateer gravel racers. In fact, it was my DK200 bike of choice last year.

The gravel category has rapidly evolved from niche to mainstream. Specialized was quick to take note, shift gears and redesign the Diverge accordingly. The new Diverge has a clear purpose: to be the fastest gravel race bike the company can produce.

Comfort is speed

Enough to take the edge off: Specialized’s Future Shock provides 20mm of suspension
Josh Patterson / Immediate Media

If you’re an aspiring gravel racer, the first lesson to commit to memory is that whatever makes you more comfortable will also make you faster. The high-frequency vibration and chatter generated from rocky gravel and pitted dirt roads take its toll on man and machine.

Mitigating discomfort will allow you to ride stronger for longer — this is critical for races that range from 100 to 350 miles in length.

Specialized seems acutely aware of this. At the front of the Diverge is gravel-tuned version of the company’s Future Shock. Unlike the Future Shock introduce with the latest Roubaix, this steerer-tube mounted spring is wound with a progressive coil to decrease harsh bottom outs.

The rear of the Diverge is designed to improve comfort through compliance. The top tube is aggressively sloped, and the seatstays meet the seat tube below the top tube to allow for more seatpost flex.

Kanza customizations

The Diverge Comp complete with many Kanza modifications
Josh Patterson / Immediate Media

Specialized sent a Diverge Comp for me to put through the ringer at this year’s event. It features a Shimano 105-level build that won’t break the bank. Still, there’s always room for improvement, right?

I made a few changes to cut weight and improve comfort

I swapped the alloy wheels for a Roval CLX 32 Disc wheelset. I kept the stock Specialized 700x38mm Trigger Pro tires. These tires served me well last year; they’re fast rolling and durable. I used Orange Seal sealant to ward off the sharp flint found on these roads. 

Specialized’s 700x38mm Trigger Pro tires are fast and sturdy
Josh Patterson / Immediate Media

The drivetrain was next on my list. I traded the 11-32t 105 cassette for an Ultegra model. I happened to also have a Praxis Zyante crankset on hand. The hollow-arms of the Zyante shave a bit of weight from the stock Praxis Alba crankset. The 48/32t “gravel compact” gearing has enough high-end range with plenty of bail-out gearing to rely on in the event of punishing headwinds or treacherous mud, which, thankfully, were not issues this year.