Testing an all-new, category-shattering rig from Specialized Bicycles
images by Beth Welliver courtesy Specialized
I have a hard time saying no. Let’s just get that out of the way. Even when I recognize I’m in too deep, something in the old melon says, meh, you got it. And on a recent trip to Brevard, NC, that voice was talking often. I had been invited out by Specialized to spend four days on a yet-to-be-announced secret bike. If the new rig was to be anything like the AWOL I knew it would be one not to miss, so of course I said yes. Word was we'd have three days in the saddle, covering a couple hundred miles on tarmac, dirt, gravel, etc in and around DuPont State Forest and Pisgah National Forest. Seemed mellow enough.
On the flight out that confidence became a bit brittle though—there’s just something about air travel that seems to encourage intense introspection and objective thinking. Staring out at the Appalachian Range from 30k feet I began to consider what lay ahead. The rest of the crew would likely be accomplished cyclists with decades of experience off-road. I, on the other hand, have spent most of my two-wheeled life firmly on pavement. And being from Brooklyn, my most aggressive ride of recent record barely broke the quarter century mark. In recent years my track bike has been relegated to a wall hanger in favor of a too-shitty-to-steal single speed with a coaster brake. Still, jousting for lane position with New York City cabs and dodging German tourists on Citi Bikes on the reg certainly counts for something, right? With no one to discount my reasoning I chalked the self-questioning thoughts up to a lack of sleep and recycled air, and focused on imagining wtf North Carolina would look like.
Upon arrival in Asheville, and an hour so later the cycling-haven of Brevard, I was pleasantly surprised to see so much varied terrain. There were also lots of bikes around. This was less of a surprise, but even more exciting. Because these bikes were why the California-based brand had flown two dozen folks to a farm in the middle of Nowheresville, USA. These bikes were the Sequoia, a most exciting and all-new addition to the Specialized Adventure lineup. The Sequoia is a go-anywhere, do-anything, adventure-ready machine designed by Erik Nohlin, an equally adventure-ready SOB from Sweden. Erik likes black metal, black clothes, being vegan, utilitarian design, and riding his bike up and down stuff that other people don't like to ride their bikes up and down. His dislikes extend most noticeably to things that aren’t black. Erik is a beast in the saddle and as such, is the personification of the Sequoia. After introducing AWOL two or so years ago, the Sequoia has been his baby since. And we’re damn thankful for it.
But really, what is the Sequoia? Well, it’s genuinely difficult to describe, seeing as how it exists in a category of its own, and is the brand's first bike in some time to be designed and engineered entirely from the ground up—Erik started with a tire, then created a rim, moved on to a hub, and from there a frame made of proprietary steel tubing made specifically for the project (Premium Cr-Mo), and a beefy fork that’s likely to develop its own fan club.
“This exploring shit is pretty sweet.”
If you’re familiar with Specialized’s other adventure offerings, the Sequoia lands somewhere between the off-road specific AWOL and the road-devouring Diverge. And if you’re not, then consider the Sequoia as a physical embodiment of the feeling ones gets when in the saddle atop a gnarly descent. It’s the feeling any adventurer worth their weight in scars and stories knows well. One that simply translates to, fuck it, I got this.
Morning one brought with it a beautiful sunrise and ample opportunity to scope out the competition as we calmly covered a quick dozen miles on tarmac towards the day’s real route. The gang from Yonder Journal had arrived the previous evening in style—somewhere between 5 and 10 chill ass dudes and even a couple chill ass gals piled out of a van and descended upon the scene with characteristically high spirits and endless inside jokes. These dudes seem to exists solely to tackle the gnarliest unsupported rides on the gnarliest terrain. Yikes. Though the fact that Moi Medina, freelance YJ adventurer and general purveyor of posi vibes, had crammed upwards of 20 beers and ice in his Burra Burra pizza pack on the front of his Sequoia relieved some stress. I mean, the trails couldn’t be that gnarly if this dude planned on carrying—and consuming—that many coldies.
I was right, sorta. Though the group’s interest in packing beers into every spare nook and cranny of our individual Specialized bikepacking setups was less a reflection of the terrain and more of the crew and its collective mentality—twenty something twenty- and thirty-somethings acting like teenagers while mom and dad are away. There were to be no real rules. Fun was priority numbero uno, followed closely by ensuring everyone made it down the hill in one piece. SRAM Rival 1 hydraulic disc brakes certainly aided in this bit, allowing me to get comfortable in the drops on some seriously technical rock face descents. The sturdy FACT carbon fork (stock on the Expert model, which we tested) helped take the sting out a few hand-numbingly bumpy downhill sections too.
Before long we had logged miles on BMX-style rhythm sections, charged single track, and clambered over plenty of rocks and roots. Lunch brought with it a quick swim (where Specialized PR guy slash Tarzan James Nixon almost lost a toe to a snapping turtle) and soon thereafter more trail. Group morale was high, and whether it was the natural stoke, performance enhancing Dale’s Pale Ale, or a combination of both, everyone seemed to agree with the nameless character who declared, “This exploring shit is pretty sweet.”
"This bike lets you see lines you wouldn't otherwise see."
Fast forward a few hours—or a day, who knows anymore—and hardly had a single type of ground not been ridden by our adventure-craving crew. Dirt, gravel, sand? Check. Grass, leaves, Jurassic Park-style roots? Check. A shit-ton of rock? Check. Every type of terrain we threw at the bike, it welcomed. So much so that even while feeling out of my element at times (sure, I'll admit it) I never felt out of control. Knowing each of the crew had either ridden up, down, or over what may have otherwise been a deal breaker, and on the exact same bike at that, was a major confidence booster. That may sound like some lame marketing testimonial, but it actually gets to the very heart of the Sequoia. By design, it's adaptive, with no ideal terrain nor riding style. The very statement “we don’t care how you roll” was even emblazoned on the Sequoia-branded water bottles we carried (of which the Sequoia can haul upwards of 5, if needed).
At one point, after a serious rock and roots climb on day two or three, Sean Estes, Global PR Manager and likely the wildest dude on a bike that week, observed, ”This bike lets you see lines you wouldn't otherwise see.” To which Erik laughed out in response, “Yeah, it’s got a lot of 'fuck you' power.” These weren’t talking points shared during a scheduled powerpoint presentation, but blurted out in excitement mid ride. Even for those who had brought the bike to life over the past few years the experience of ripping trail with such a crew was exhilarating.
“What I’m most proud about is that this is a bike that can do everything,” Erik later told me in a more controlled environment. “I’m never gonna tell a rider that this is the bike for that purpose. It’s a bicycle and we made in a way that we think we can enable you as a rider to ride wherever you want to ride.” Or, if you prefer a less cerebral approach, he also put it this way: ”It’s a fucking bike. It’s the bike of bikes. It’s the Swiss Army Knife and it’s not meant to have a home on any specific kind of surface.”
This freedom is what connects the contemporary adventure-focused arm of Specialized to its origins—the Sequoia of 2017 shares both a name and purpose with the Sequoia of 1981, one of the brand’s first releases. The original boasted a tag line of “1000 decisions, properly made,” and that sentiment seems to still hold true today. Hardly a compromise was made during the design and manufacturing process that spanned well over two years.
"Somehow our brand had been kidnapped by the sport of cycling and we thought we needed to take it back,” Erik explains. A century ago there were no mountain, road, or trials bikes, just bikes. Hell, even forty years ago the pickings were slim. But that didn’t stop people from getting out and going where they wanted. And today? C’mon the number of use-specific options is insane. The Sequoia aims to be an answer to this, whether you live in the city, mountains, or suburbs. “If people could have just one bike, this is the bike,” says Erik confidently.
With the Sequoia, the brand has come full circle. Specialized was founded on the idea of exploration, on touring, and Erik’s all in on the bet that returning to those adventure-infused roots will pay off. And after our time in NC, we'll take that bet too.
The Sequioa starts at $1,300 and works up to $3,500 for Expert, as we rode it, and will hit shops mid-August 2016. Stay tuned for a full Q&A with Sequoia designer and creative leader of the adventure category Erik Nohlin soon