Featuring their innovative Suspend the Rider (STR) rear Future Shock system, Specialized’s Diverge STR has achieved a new echelon of comfort and efficiency in the gravel world. Spencer Harding dives into the nuance of the system and all that it entails and offers. Is the juice worth the squeeze? He thinks so, even if that fruit is pretty pricey.
Clearing the Air
I feel like I need to clear the air a bit before we dive into this review. Hopefully, this will prevent the onslaught of off-topic comments and senseless comparisons. Let’s prove we can be better than the Pinkbike comment section in this regard. Please.
First off, Specialized’s business decisions haven’t looked so good lately with the company; terminating Machines for Freedom, Laying off employees the same week it buys a massive building, and terminating its ambassador program. We aren’t oblivious to these things happenings.
Please do not comment “Just ride bigger tires”. Go ride a rigid fat bike on some rocky trails and see how poor of a comparison larger tires are to damped suspension.
This is not a full-suspension gravel bike. As the name, STR (suspend the rider), clearly states. So please save your comparisons to full-sus mountain bikes for the Niner MCR, this is something entirely different.
Finally, this bike is expensive, like multiple Honda Civics expensive. I’ll never be able to afford even the frameset, personally. I understand then how silly it may seem to be reviewing something so unobtainable to most, but I will address that later. While the bike pictured here is the highest of the high-end S-Works build at $13,000, Specialized does offer a build at half that price with the Pro level model at $6700. For anyone who would naysay me for even riding this super-bike, I’d pose this question in return: if someone handed you the keys to a Lamborghini would you scoff and say “I could never afford that”, or would you snatch the keys and peel out? I think I can rest my case. This bike rides like a blessing from the sore-ass gods, it’s so good— there’s your TL;DR review.
When Specialized sent me this S-Works Diverge STR, I hadn’t felt truly out of my league with a bike review in a while. I’m, not the kind of athlete that can truly push this bike, or at least that’s what I thought. After a few rides on the Diverge STR, I found myself on rides with mileages I typically wouldn’t dare. As someone who truly abhors suspension seat posts, I was truly skeptical going into this process. How was this new-fangled idea going to ride? In short, I found the ride quality to be amazing. I would end 70+ mile rides with no sit-bone pain at all. The seat post suspension worked flawlessly when set up correctly, and the word “spooky” comes to mind when trying to describe just how seamless the IRL experience was.
Now many people were quick to compare the Diverge STR to the Niner MCR, which was a truly full-suspension gravel bike. The closest analogy would be a coil shock but in this instance, the frame post replaces the coil and the rebound is controlled in both cases by a damper. The STR system uses an array of carbon frame posts and their natural flex to tune the rate of travel which is then damped by a shock in the top tube. The system only focuses on the flex of the floating seat tube, so if you are not sitting on the saddle the system does nothing, differentiating itself from a more traditional suspended frame system found on mountain bikes. The hydraulic damper is really what differentiates this system from what is already on the market. While other seat post-suspension systems rely on similar flexion from elastomers and carbon, their movement is not damped. The materials will rebound at the same rate they are compressed leading to a more jarring feeling as opposed to the STR system in which the movement (compression and rebound) is controlled via the damper in the top tube.
The design of the damper is intended to eliminate the need for servicing and maintenance. The lack of air seals and exposure creates a closed system, protected from the elements, unlike a traditional air shock system. If you need to replace the damper it is fully covered for two years and then covered at a diminishing rate beyond the two-year mark. If you find yourself outside the warranty period entirely a replacement damper is $500.
There are nine different frame posts available to swap in for varying rider weights and suspension levels. Each bike will ship with two frame posts to cover a wide range of expected riders. Each frame post has two settings which can be easily adjusted by rotating the post 90 degrees in the frame. The damper is not adjustable (except for rebound speed) like an air shock; that function is handled by the frame post. I rotated the provided frame post just to see how this might affect the ride feel and quickly realized how crucial a proper setup is. When the wrong setting on the frame post is used, what is usually a gentle barely-noticeable bobbing becomes very pronounced. Some trial and error will probably be needed to find the frame post that is right for you, though the frame post and settings provided based on my weight from Specialized were correct out of the box. For the non-mechanically inclined this will involve some significant time at the shop or bike fitter. The damper has three settings: open, firm, and locked out. I rarely used anything but the open setting unless I was on an extended section of smooth pavement or an extended road climb. Due to the compliance inherent in the carbon parts of the frame/seat post, the frame is never truly as firm as a solid frame.
I’m not going to dig too deep into the Future Shock 2.0 that is built into the cockpit of the Diverge STR. This technology has been around for a few years on the standard Diverge frameset. The shock provides a welcome amount of cushion for rockier sections of riding. The proprietary-parts-hating side of me would rather just have one of the many suspension fork options available as opposed to the cluster of barely proprietary-sized spacers needed to make the Future Shock system come together. Still, I do think the system has merit based on its weight—as compared to any fork with travel on a gravel bike—and because it also avoids the diving feeling of suspension forks over variable terrain that I’ve tried on other gravel bikes. If I had to choose between the rear or front Future Shock systems, I would resoundingly choose the rear even if that meant riding a rigid fork.
As I mentioned earlier, the feeling of the STR system is spooky. When set up properly it quickly dissolves into the ride without making the rider overly aware of all the work it’s doing. You still feel the bumps and jolts of rough terrain, but the bite of such hits is taken out by the damper. This isn’t a magic carpet ride, but it does significantly reduce the impact on your nether regions. I found that not having so much strain on my sit bones translated into more capacity for endurance. So much so I was able to step on the gas 80 miles into a gravel century in a way I would have never expected.
Dialing in My Fit
Getting the proper fit was a bit tricky on the Diverge STR as the motion of the front and rear Futures Shock systems added more variables. Specialized designed the Diverge STR with a steeper seat tube angle to offset the sag of the STR system. So, if you happen to already have a Diverge your fit/components should transfer over with minimal adjustment. I was given a 58cm frame to review, being a bit on the small side for my 6’1” self. The first thing I noticed was the need to nose my saddle down a few degrees to compensate for the suspension sag, so let’s go ahead and add that to the list of things not to comment on, too. While I am mostly torso length, I found the cockpit of this bike to still be too long and had to swap the stem for something 20mm shorter. I typically prefer running a shorter stem and a zero setback seat post for a shorter overall reach, so this is a fit issue, not a design flaw. It seems that the Diverge STR is aiming to please people who are accustomed to an aggressive road bike-esque fit and, in that, I traded my sit bone pain for neck and tricep pain as I spent long hours with a fit that felt aggressive relative to my standard riding posture.
There was a considerable amount of time spent tweaking my riding position to compensate for all the Future Shock parts. My inclination would be to size up if you are in between sizes to allow for a more upright riding position, but that choice also brings with it a longer reach which is hard to compensate for with the rear shock as it extends through its travel. I want to advocate for a more upright riding position to make the most of the amazing rear Future Shock, though my fit preferences seem at odds with the performance-oriented crowd this bike is designed for.
While I’m not one to often ride in full kits, it seemed like the proper attire for such a bike. Thanks to Specialized for sending a full outfit for me to ride in these photos and especially for the gravel century ride.
On the Grav-Grav
I used Sarah Swallow’s Sky Island ride series as a testing ground for this bike. The two long rides I took it on were a loop of the San Rafael Valley that notably descended the dreaded Guadalote Flat road. The final dance I had on this bike was a 104-mile mixed surface century ride in the Chirachua Mountains. While the San Rafael ride tested the bike’s ability to handle chunk and washboard, the Chirachua ride tested its endurance capabilities. The Diverge STR passed the test with resounding success. I ended both rides with minimal fatigue for the distance and was able to keep pace with much stronger riders than usual. Thanks to Sarah for always making amazing routes for us all to hang out on.
Skunk Works Build Spec
With everything on this bike being basically top-of-the-line the bike nevertheless felt understated. I definitely appreciate the subtlety of the branding as well, Specialized could have easily been more ostentatious. For the price tag some might be surprised by the bike’s downplayed visual aesthetic, which, to be clear, I definitely saw as a positive. The Future Stem was a part that stuck out like a sore thumb to me, seemingly cheap feeling and heavy for such a high-priced and featherweight build. The stem is meant to work with the future shock system, which has a 22mm steerer. Nonetheless, the Future Stem nonetheless still requires a shim. You can mount a computer to the faceplate which is slick I guess.
This was my first experience with a “mullet” drivetrain. I hate this term: we have mullet bikes, mullet drivetrains, and a buncha cowards walking around with fake-ass mullets. Probably the best feature of the AXS system is that you never have to think about compatibility and cable pull ratios ever again. The 40-tooth chainring paired with a 10-50 Eagle cassette easily covered a workable range for my cadence and power. As this bike should rarely see single-track, I wouldn’t expect people to need a smaller chainring. While pace-lining on the pavement I never found myself spun out, and climbing gradients into the high teens was within the range of the drivetrain.
With a full Red AXS kit the bike was sleek and svelte as it should be with top-tier components. The power meter was cool for knowing just how little power I was able to put into the pedals. The modulation of Sram’s drop bar levers has improved markedly since I last had a chance to ride them. Once again, I’m going to say that the drops are waaaaay too narrow on this bike; 44mm drops on a 58cm bike in 2023 seems to be an intentional head-in-the-sand decision. I know Im a sucker for wide drops, but the size of the bars on this build was a major detriment to an otherwise amazingly comfy ride.
The in-house Roval Terra CLX II wheels with their 25mm internal width kept the 47mm tires nice and plump. When shipping the bike I asked for the largest possible tires as the desert is usually quite chunky. You can alternatively run 650×2.1″ tires for an extra bit of rubber under you. The 700x47mm Tracer tires will not win any supple contests but I had no mechanical issues with them while testing them in some pretty tough terrain.
I’ve already mentioned that my personal preference would be for a non-setback seat post and less stretched-out fit, but what about a dropper post? I’m very much in the “a dropper for every bike” crowd. The more I thought about the ethos of the STR system and after riding the bike it became clear that the STR system wants to keep the rider in the saddle, so I conceded against my usual opinion on this topic. Interestingly, unlike other frames that rely on the seat post for compliance, the Diverge STR would still retain its compliance and ride quality while using a dropper post. You can run any 27.2 droppers including a cabled dropper with the extra frame port. Though, with this build spec, it seems like an AXS XPLR dropper would make the most sense with the Red groupset.
The S-Works Power saddle with Mirror is a mouthful and comes in at an eye-watering $450 price tag. Specialized described the 3D printing technology used as a “Revolutionary process which creates a complex honeycomb structure that allows us to infinitely tune the material’s density in a way impossible with foam. The result is a patent-pending matrix of 14,000 struts and 7,799 nodes, each of which can be tuned individually”. Holy wow that’s a lot to process, but I will just simply say this saddle is amazing. Between the STR system and this saddle, it’s hard to parse which part did the heaviest lifting while riding but the combined effect is extremely cushy.
There are a few frame details that I wanted to highlight as well. For light touring or just longer endurance rides the fork has a set of 3-pack mounts on each blade and two bolts for mounting a top tube bag. In the down tube, there is also the SWAT storage access under the bottle cage mount where I was able to store a tube and some extra snacks during my rides. Specialized provides “pods” with each bike to fit in the SWAT storage. The pods, unfortunately, missed the boat for my shipment so I just packed snacks and a tube in there tightly. A full-on mountain bike-style chainstay protector keeps things quiet when the gravel gets rough. Finally, the underside of the down tube also includes a spot to mount a third bottle cage to catch all the cow shit and other detritus while you ride.
I feel it’s also worth mentioning the beautiful and subtle paint job on this frame. The color is a gentle shift from a deep blue-green to a dust yellow-brown and back. All of that overlayed with an oil-slick pattern. It was hard to photograph and even harder to notice, but when the light hit it correctly, to say it was beautiful feels like an understatement.
What is The Diverge STR Good For?
The Diverge STR is a bike that prioritizes comfort without sacrificing efficiency and speed. It will keep you amazingly comfortable during long and hard days in the saddle. This would make an obvious choice for any of the plethora of long-distance gravel endurance races that are so en vogue these days. This is a bike for people who can pay any price for the newest technology, which is probably a very limited pool of people.
It may surprise you that I didn’t take the Diverge STR bikepacking. It is probably my first review bike which I haven’t. I could definitely see someone using the bike for light touring with its triple-pack mounts on the fork for storage or water. The comfort and endurance capabilities of the system would definitely make it a ripe candidate. If you choose to run a seat post bag, assuming that it was around five pounds, such a weight wouldn’t severely affect the ride quality of the STR system. You could also choose to size the frame post as a means to tune the ride feel while loaded. Maybe a test for another time…
At the end of this long, wordy journey, I would like to highlight what I think is the most exciting part of the STR system, its future potential. I’m sure many folks checked out a few paragraphs in and sneered, “Spencer isn’t punk anymore, he’s just trying to shove $10k bikes down our throats.” Yeah, this bike is absurdly expensive, even at its lowest price point, but remember this is Specialized’s debut of the rear Future Shock system. The price of production will come down eventually, with additional iterations, and I truly look forward to what this system could do for a hardtail (seems like its already happening), or even an aluminum frame at a much lower price point since the carbon frame post system could, in theory, be fitted onto any frame made to accommodate it.
Specialized has developed an amazing and unique suspension system with the Diverge STR and I am excited for that technology to make its way down to more affordable models and bless all of our sore sit bones.
- Incredibly comfortable
- Suspended ride without sacrificing efficiency
- Many proprietary parts
- The proper fit requires a lot of time and effort, which may be hard for the non-mechanically inclined