Specialized AethoS Comp Rival eTap AXS / $5,000

When the Specialized Aethos Comp Rival launched, I said, “I think we have an early favorite in the race for 2021’s road bike of the year.” In this case, my prediction was accurate. But before I tell you why this bike won, some backstory on the Aethos is necessary.

The Aethos made a splash when it launched because it’s a fantastic riding bike, but also because it’s a shocking bike for a company as invested in racing and aerodynamics as Specialized. It’s a bike designed with all the tools and experience they use to make their highly successful race models, but the Aethos was not, specifically, made for racing. Its clean non-aero design, simple graphics, freakishly low frame weight (585 grams, claimed), and common standards—round 27.2mm seatpost! Threaded BB! Standard handlebar and stem!—made it stand out among the ever more integrated road bikes with proprietary parts. In some ways, it’s what people love about the bikes from boutique and bespoke builders: Just a road bike, pure and simple. But unlike a bespoke bike, the Aethos is—Covid-related supply-chain issues aside—available in large numbers, relatively easy to buy, and backed by a lifetime frame warranty.

specialized aethos comp sram rival etap axs

But you know how these things go. When a brand launches its latest and greatest, they highlight the flashiest top-of-the-line version and send those bikes out for review. So, yeah, the $13,000 S-Works Aethos with Shimano Dura Ace Di2 is an amazing bike. That’s like saying water is wet: It’s not surprising, and it’s barely interesting.

What’s interesting is the least expensive Aethos: the $5,000 Aethos Comp Rival eTap AXS. It’s about 62 percent cheaper than the top-of-the-line Aethos, rides and handles just as well, and is even superior in some ways. Cheap? No—not even a little bit. But it’s far from top-of-the-line money, and it’s a lot of bike for the cash.

True, this Comp-level frame uses some different grades of carbon and isn’t as light as the S-Works frame. So instead of a 585-gram frame, it has a 699-gram frame. Yes, that’s heavier, but still far from heavy. In fact, 699 grams is one of the lightest production disc-brake frames in the world. And it still has 32mm tire clearance, common standards, and comes built with the same carbon seatpost and flyweight thru axles. Plus, the Comp frame has one feature the S-Works frame does not: compatibility with mechanical-shifting drivetrains.

specialized aethos comp rival etap axs
Trevor Raab

And just like the top-of-the-line Aethos, this model has electronic shifting and hydraulic disc brakes, courtesy of SRAM’s excellent Rival eTap AXS group. Continuing a theme here, this group has the edge over SRAM’s more expensive Red and Force AXS groups: It shifts faster and runs smoother.

Coming in at 17.2 pounds (size 54, our scale), this Aethos is light enough to be crisp, lively, and quick. The low-profile tubes and shallow-depth wheels are almost immune to cross winds. It climbs fabulously and descends like it craves that postride beer more than you do. The steering is light but the bike is stable, and well settled over rough roads. It looks good too: The Gloss Clay color is different, unexpected, and fabulous (it’s also available in—yawn—basic black). The logos are virtually invisible, which could be the most stunning thing Specialized did with this bike. A Specialized—a SPECIALIZED!—without a million huge logos; what a time to be alive.

specialized aethos comp rival etap axs
Trevor Raab

We love our race bikes, and we love it when brands push the limits and reach new heights of speed, performance, and technology. But this Aethos is our bike of the year because it has top-of-the-line engineering and features and is half the price of the S-Works variants. It takes a step back from the extremes of price and bleeding-edge race tech and focuses instead on just being a great bike with useful and ride-enhancing features.


Headshot of Matt Phillips
Matt Phillips
Senior Test Editor, Bicycling

A gear editor for his entire career, Matt’s journey to becoming a leading cycling tech journalist started in 1995, and he’s been at it ever since; likely riding more cycling equipment than anyone on the planet along the way. Previous to his time with Bicycling, Matt worked in bike shops as a service manager, mechanic, and sales person. Based in Durango, Colorado, he enjoys riding and testing any and all kinds of bikes, so you’re just as likely to see him on a road bike dressed in Lycra at a Tuesday night worlds ride as you are to find him dressed in a full face helmet and pads riding a bike park on an enduro bike. He doesn’t race often, but he’s game for anything; having entered road races, criteriums, trials competitions, dual slalom, downhill races, enduros, stage races, short track, time trials, and gran fondos. Next up on his to-do list: a multi day bikepacking trip, and an e-bike race.