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Specialized Aethos Long-Term Review: Perfect for Crushing Miles and Tinkering

My Specialized Aethos started as a goofy 1x road bike project built from spare parts. I've used it for centuries, fast group rides, crit races, and even light gravel. After nearly two years, it's become one of my favorite bikes, and I might keep it for longer than I planned.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Features

Make fun of the 1x drivetrain. Make fun of the slammed cockpit. But that frame… that frame is excellent. 

I have a rule for all of my road bikes — I have to put at least 5,000 miles on one before I consider selling it. There’s a good reason for this. If I didn’t follow this rule, I’d be buying and flipping bikes every month. With the access my job gives me to new and exciting bikes, I simply wouldn’t be able to control myself (bikes are a hell of a drug!). 

In the fall of 2022, I built up a Specialized Aethos frame and it’s been my main road bike ever since. After a year and a half, it hit the 5,000-mile milestone. 

The thought of selling it to buy a new bike has crossed my mind more than once. There are plenty of exciting high-performance road bikes that have been tempting me. But I’m finding it tough to move on. The more I compare the Aethos to other bikes, the more I realize that it might actually be the perfect bike for me.

The TL;DR - the Aethos is simple, lightweight, comfortable, snappy, easy to customize, fast enough to hang with road racing bikes, and it’s good-looking. It has also been an absolute joy to ride and it might have the most refined ride quality of any bike I’ve tried. It’s definitely one of the best bikes that I’ve ever owned.   

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Why I Bought an Aethos

Specialized Aethos review

Really, there’s not much point in reviewing a Specialized Aethos in 2024. It’s been out for a few years, it’s been reviewed to death, and nothing has changed since it was released back in 2020. 

Every review has already covered how Specialized engineers used computers and smarts to refine the carbon layup, removing excess material to create the lightest production disc brake road frame ever. Everyone already knows the designers eschewed aerodynamics to focus more on ride quality, aesthetics, and simplicity. Everyone knows it’s expensive. 

The Aethos is old news. I honestly never bought this bike with the intent to review it. I simply bought it because building bikes is fun, and I felt like building a bike out of the (many) spare parts I had lying around the garage. I figured I’d play around with it, and then flip it for a new Tarmac or Madone. But over the last year and a half, I’ve been surprised by how much I like it. 

[product-block handle="7472891986112-specialized-aethos-frameset-2023-satin-carbon-flake-silver"/]

I decided to buy this particular Specialized Aethos frame because we had it in stock. But there were a few other good reasons I chose an Aethos too:

  • “Conventional” cable routing makes it easy to build up at home
  • I don’t have to buy or use any weird proprietary parts
  • It looks pretty
  • It has aggressive race bike geometry
  • Peter Denk designed it

Plenty of riders likely agree with the first three points. For a progressive brand like Specialized, the Aethos is a return to “classic” frame design. One of the most apt descriptions I heard in another review was that the Aethos is “the best bike of ten years ago.” 

Specialized Aethos frame

The Aethos uses traditional round tubes joined in a diamond shape. There are no dropped seatstays and complete builds come with regular non-integrated and non-proprietary handlebars and stems. Cables are routed internally into the fork and downtube, but otherwise, they hang out in the wind. The Aethos looks classically beautiful, like a race bike from the early 2010s, but it takes advantage of modern carbon layups and disc brakes.    

The fourth point — the race geometry — is a bit more contentious. The Aethos has the same geometry as the Specialized Tarmac SL7 and SL8. This means the stack height is low and the handling is sharp to suit the needs of competitive riders. 

To some critics, this was a silly choice because the Aethos doesn’t use aerodynamic frame shapes like most modern race bikes. With its focus on ride quality, it doesn’t have crit-ready stiffness either. It likely won’t appeal to “serious” racers. So why give it race bike geometry rather than more comfortable and versatile endurance bike geometry

Specialized Aethos geometry

Here, I disagree. I probably would have never bought the Aethos if it were some upright endurance bike. While I’m not a “serious” road racer, I do prefer riding bikes with race geometry. I like how it makes a bike feel fast and agile. The sharpness is something I enjoy, and it’s a key part of the Aethos’ character. What I like the most is that the Aethos feels racey, yet comfortable.  

Then there’s the final point — Peter Denk. If you don’t know him, he’s an industry legend. He has designed world-beating race bikes for Scott and Cannondale, and now he’s at Specialized. He was the lead designer behind the Aethos. This was a selling point for me because Denk designed one of my favorite road bikes of all time — the Cannondale SuperSix EVO. 

Peter Sagan SuperSix Evo

Sagan and the SuperSix EVO in the good ole days.

The first-generation SuperSix EVO is the bike that Peter Sagan rode during his meteoric 2012 rise, where he won three Tour de France stages. During grad school, it was my dream bike, and I saved for years to buy a 2015 model after I graduated. I loved the beautiful, classic shape. I loved the exceptional ride quality and handling. I loved the low weight. I eventually sold it when disc brakes became standard, but I still think about that bike now, over 10 years later.    

When I saw the Aethos for the first time in 2020, I was immediately reminded of my beloved first-gen SuperSix EVO. The fact that it had the same designer made it even more attractive. 

Specialized Aethos handling

My Aethos fits and handles a lot like the original SuperSix EVO (which is good), but it’s more comfortable (which is great). It weighs nearly the same (my bike is 15 lbs 13 oz) but it has a modern drivetrain, brakes, wheels, and tires. It’s the best race bike of 10 years ago, but it's better, and I love that. 


Who Is the Aethos For?

Specialized Aethos seatstaysPencil-thin non-dropped seatstays look classically good. 
  • Classic frame aesthetic lovers: Yes
  • Weight weenies: Yes
  • Obsessive tinkerers: Yes
  • Road racers: Maybe
  • Frugal riders: uhhhh… probably not

Because the Aethos doesn’t use proprietary cockpit components, it plays nice with pretty much any aftermarket setup, and swapping parts around is easy and cheap(er). In the last year and a half, I’ve tried 3 different handlebars, 7 different stems, and 2 different seatposts, and I’ve cut the steerer 3 times. I replaced the brake hoses in less than 30 minutes (my cockpit shenanigans required longer hoses) and the headset in less than one (trainer sweat). 

I’ve really enjoyed shopping for goofy stems and stupidly narrow handlebars. Playing with my cockpit and riding position has probably been the most fun aspect of owning the Aethos. It makes experimenting with a bunch of different parts super simple.

Specialized Aethos cockpit

This photo is from 5 cockpits ago.

Of course, everything I just described isn’t unique to the Aethos. If you’re looking to tinker with your bike as much as me, you can get the exact same experience from a much more budget-friendly frame. The difference is that the Aethos can go toe-to-toe with many high-end carbon race bikes.

The low weight is a clear differentiator. I didn’t spend more on a lighter S-Works frame and I didn’t even approach the build like a weight weenie. However, with a Force AXS XPLR 1x drivetrain and mid-range carbon wheels, my build came in under 16 pounds. Weight isn’t everything, but holy crap it’s nice. The Aethos really comes alive when you hit steep and difficult climbs. It makes me feel more confident and spry when the road goes up, and I appreciate that. 

Specialized Aethos comfort and ride quality

There's some carbon black magic happening here.

Then there’s the ride quality. I think it’s the best riding bike I’ve ever ridden. It’s comfortable without feeling muted on pavement the way endurance road bikes like the Specialized Roubaix and Trek Domane can feel. It absorbs vibration and there’s a subtle springiness to the frame, similar to the feel of a high-quality steel frame. It feels extremely efficient and eats up miles without ever beating you up. It even feels comfortable enough for some tamer gravel races.

Despite this, I think the frame is still suitable for road racing, even if it isn’t marketed as a race bike. I can hold wheels, bridge gaps, and attack just as well as I can on a Tarmac or Allez Sprint. Its cornering manners are excellent, and I find myself cornering with more speed and confidence on fast mountain descents because the extra compliance makes it feel like I’m glued to the road. 

Specialized Aethos for racingThe only times I've wished for a bit more stiffness is when sprinting out of the saddle. The svelte and narrow fork legs add a lot of comfort, but they also flex just enough that I hear the disc rotor rubbing when I’m wrenching on the bars (maybe I need that new RED AXS which has more pad clearance). 

My old Allez Sprint also felt like it reacted a bit more immediately when I stood up and stamped on the pedals. A crit race is probably the one place where I would want a different bike. I think the Aethos will do fine though, and I plan to hop into a few crits this summer. If (when) I do get dropped, it won’t be the bike that held me back (it rarely is). 

Specialized Aethos fork

The front end is one of the comfiest I've ridden. The trade off is some brake rub when you're wrenching on the bars out of the saddle. 

In every other instance, the Aethos is 99% as fast as an aero race bike like a Specialized Tarmac or Allez Sprint. On super steep climbs where speeds drop into the low single digits, it’s probably faster. That said, if peak performance is your priority and you’re chasing that last 1%, the Aethos is probably not the right bike for you. 

For me though, it’s been a great package. It has the simplicity, fit, looks, weight, stiffness, and feel I want from a bike. It gives me all the performance I want while still remaining as easy to work on as a more “basic” bike. Ultimately, I think the Aethos might be perfect for riders who love to tinker but want a high-performance platform. 

Specialized Aethos long term review

So am I going to sell mine now that I’ve hit 5,000 miles? Yes. No. Maybe. I’m not sure.

I want to keep tinkering with it because the Aethos is just so much fun to ride and play with. But I'm hanging it up and stealing some parts off of it for my upcoming Cervelo Soloist build. For now, it's not goodbye, it's see you later. Maybe I'll build it up as the lightweight climber it was destined to be. That would be the perfect fall project. We'll see how I feel in another 5,000 miles!

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