A little more than ten years ago, I gleefully acquired my first full carbon race bike. It was a 2007 Specialized Tarmac Pro, just one rung down from the then cutting edge S-Works model. Fast forward to 2017 and that now-aged steed still sits in my garage awaiting the next outing. So just how far have we come in road bike design and componentry in that time?
To find out I spent a few weeks on the 2017 Specialized Tarmac and indulged in a little Tarmac nostalgia along the way.
The Tarmac Platform
The latest iteration of the Tarmac was first introduced in 2015 following on from the highly acclaimed SL4. With the introduction of the new Tarmac though, the brand moved away from the “SL” syntax in favour of simplicity. Beyond the naming, the bigger change was in a new approach to the design process which they dub “Rider-First Engineered”. Using a combination of first-hand rider feedback and onboard data they’ve focussed on fine-tuning the ride performance around the rider.
What this boils down to is an approach to bike design which emphasises a uniform experience for any rider on any frame size. Instead of simply scaling the dimensions up or down from the default 56cm size, Specialized's engineers paid close attention to rider experience at either extreme of the size curve. By altering the shape of the tubing, carbon layup and fork-headtube interface for each size to achieve their targets. On a small frame, this meant using less material and producing a less stiff, but more compliant ride in-line with the benchmark 56cm. Conversely, a large frame required more stiffness and more material.
While it’s not an entirely new process with various other manufacturers claiming to take similar size specific approaches, for me, it signals a certain maturity within road bike design. In the case of the Tarmac, Specialized have found a formula which works and now it is a case of subtle refinements and optimisation up and down the size curve.
The most notable visual change on the latest Tarmac platform is the integrated seat binder. A removable binder wedge situated in the top tube-seat tube junction neatly tucks the mechanism away providing a clean look. The lower clamp point also provides just that little bit more compliance in the seat post.
This particular S-Works Tarmac variant is tailored for electronic routing offering only small ports to cater for electric cables as opposed to mechanical cable housing. Our wireless eTap-clad model meant no ports were required, brake cables aside. The frame offers clearance for up to 30mm tyres and is available in a disc brake version.
Drivetrain: It is all electric, all wireless on this model with SRAM eTap. The wireless electronic shifting front and rear does take some getting used to. With eTap, SRAM has changed shifting with an intuitive twist. To shift on the rear simply tap left to move the rear derailleur up (to the left) or tap right to move down (to the right). To shift the chainring just tap both left and right simultaneously to change either up or down. The new shifting technique did require a ride or two to bed in the habit, but it soon felt normal.
The shift performance on eTap felt similar to other electronic groupsets in terms of response time. It is fast, precise, and pretty hassle free for your hands, requiring just a small click to shift in either direction. Being wireless each derailleur does require it’s own power source and each has a battery attached. These are good for 1000 kilometres of ride time and are interchangeable. Both will warn you when the charge is low via a red and then flashing red LED.
Brakes: Matching the rest of the groupset, a SRAM Red brakeset keeps things in check. Rim brakes on a carbon braking surface can take some getting used to, but the combination of SRAM Red, SwissStop Black Prince pads, and the Roval CLX 40 made for consistent and reliable braking performance.
Wheels: The wheelset is the house brand Roval CLX 40. As the name suggests, these are 40mm deep full carbon clincher rims laced to a carbon front hub and DT Swiss 240 rear hub, both kept super smooth by CeramicSpeed bearings. At 1,375g for the set, the CLX 40’s are light by deeper section wheel standards. The inherent stiffness in the wheelset ensures these qualities carry through from the frame and minimal efficiency is lost to unwanted flex.
For Cape-based riding, I found the 40mm depth to be a happy middle ground when facing the wind. There’s no getting away from some buffeting in the wind, particularly on the super light front end but, for me, the moderate depth strikes a good balance between rolling performance, wind compatibility, and acceleration.
Tyres: Specialized’s Turbo Cotton 700x24mm tyres kept contact with the road. These are built for performance rather than longevity, providing excellent grip, low rolling resistance, and light weight. These features do come at the expense of durability and puncture resistance which we encountered during a rain-soaked morning ride. The supple contact surface of the tyre is a bit more susceptible to road debris like glass “stones” which many tyres shrug off. The grip and feel of these are unbeatable though, and for racing, I’d gladly take the risk.
Cockpit: On the top end model it is no surprise that it’s all S-Works componentry up front. The S-Works SL carbon Shallow Drop handlebar is secured by an S-Works SL alloy stem with some titanium bolts to keep the weight weenies in check.
Saddle & seatpost: An S-Works Toupé 143mm carbon railed saddle is mounted atop the S-Works FACT carbon 27.2mm seatpost. The Toupé saddle fits my sit bones just right and offers a comfortable ride, but of course this item will be quite unique to each rider.
- FrameS-Works FACT 11r carbon, OSBB, full internal, electronic-specific routing, internally integrated seat clamp, 130mm rear spacing
- ForkS-Works FACT carbon, full monocoque, size-specific taper
- Front WheelRoval CLX 40, carbon 40mm depth rim, carbon hub shell, CeramicSpeed bearings, 18h
- Rear WheelRoval CLX 40, carbon 40mm depth rim, DT Swiss 240 internals, CeramicSpeed bearings, 24h
- Inner Tubes700X18/25mm, 60mm Presta valve
- Front TireTurbo Cotton, 700x24mm
- Rear TireTurbo Cotton, 700x24mm
- CranksetSRAM Red 22
- Bottom BracketSRAM BB30, 83mm
- Shift LeversSRAM eTap
- Front DerailleurSRAM eTap, braze-on
- Rear DerailleurSRAM eTap, 11-speed
- CassetteSRAM Red 22, 11-speed, 11-28t
- ChainSRAM Red 22, 11-speed
- Front BrakeSRAM Red 22
- Rear BrakeSRAM Red 22
- HandlebarsS-Works SL carbon Shallow Drop, 125mm drop, 75mm reach
- TapeS-Wrap Roubaix w/stickygel
- StemS-Works SL, alloy, titanium bolts, 6-degree rise
- SaddleBody Geometry S-Works Toupé, carbon rails, 143mm
- Seat BinderIntegrated wedge for Tarmac
- Retail PriceR146000.00
Being a top drawer racer featuring some of the latest bike technology, I had high expectations for the S-Works Tarmac eTap. At the price point and considering the rave reviews of the Tarmac SL4 iteration, I didn’t expect to find many negatives if any at all.
My first foray on the bike was at the Specialized media day in late 2016. At the time, I already knew we had the Tarmac lined up for review but that first ride had me excited. Aside from some time settling into the new eTap shifting I felt very at home on the bike. When it came time for our longer term test I found myself on significantly more road rides than usual. Perhaps it was just the shiny new bike to test out or the feeling it gave, but something about it just made me want to ride more often.
The Tarmac has always been marketed as a super stiff, super light racing bike. It should be no surprise then when it delivers on that. Yet, in a world flooded by marketing claims we’re naturally skeptical, if not a bit cynical at times. Here though, the Tarmac delivers on the hype, and impressively so. Power transfer is near immediate and direct.
At a feathery 6.56kg without pedals, my expectations were set high for the bike’s climbing prowess. And again it did not disappoint. The Tarmac just thrives when the gradient kicks up. The low weight and super stiff frame provide an incredibly responsive and efficient feel. On our regular morning rides, I encountered what I later endearingly referred to as the “S-Works Effect” which had me leading the charge up climbs, happily eeking out a few extra watts from already screaming legs. The core package of the Tarmac frame, CLX 40 wheels, and Turbo Cotton tyres just work so well together to give an unmatched ride experience which had me beaming.
To my surprise, it was on the descents that this bike impressed most. As I became more comfortable with the platform I pushed the bike harder into turns, leaning further, turning sharper. The combination of the dialled in geometry along with the flex-free frame and wheels generate a very stable, precise and predictable ride. On turns where I’d typically suffer awkward oversteer I was diving in and out with ease.
As a race oriented bike, the Tarmac is not exactly built for comfort, but it has been designed with a degree of vertical compliance to smooth out bumps in the road. Over the test period, we encountered a variety of road surfaces (even some corrugated gravel at the earlier media day). Overall it delivers a comfortable ride with just enough smoothing of jarring bumps and rough surface buzz.
The Specialized S-Works Tarmac eTap is the complete package. If you are shopping for a refined all round race bike, and have the bucks to boot, this bike will be hard to beat.
Although the Tarmac was launched in 2004 with the somewhat gawky looking E5 inspired design, to my mind it wasn’t until 2006 (when the SL variant was first introduced) that the Tarmac truly arrived on the WorldTour stage. The Tarmac SL (“super light”) was a radical departure from that early Tarmac and the birth of what was to become a prolific SL series.
In 2007 the SL platform began a slow trickle down into the Tarmac Pro lineup. In the same year, Specialized tied the knot with the team Quickstep and the resulting input from the likes of Tom Boonen and Paulo Bettini pushed the development of the platform. The arrival of the SL2 in 2008 then saw the entire Tarmac lineup adopt the SL chassis. The SL2 brought with it a focus on stiffness, thanks to a bulked up down tube, bottom bracket and chainstays. In addition, the newly curved top tube was said to offer a little more compliance compared to the SL.
Another two-year cycle saw the arrival of the SL3 iteration in 2010, again focussed on stiffness through an overhauled oversized downtube, bottom bracket and chainstays while still shedding some 150g. A year before the SL3 hit shelves Specialized added the Saxo Bank team to their roster and it’s no surprise with powerhouses like Fabian Cancellara on board the demands for rigidity increased.
Following the trend, the fourth iteration SL4 launched in 2012 with a claimed 19% more torsional stiffness compared to the SL3 and again shaving some 50 grams off the weight. A notable change came in the hourglass shaped headtube allowing for a broader downtube and more stiffness as a result.
It was then only three years on the that the "SL5" was launched in 2015, then referred to simply as "the new Tarmac". It's the same platform upon which this 2017 S-Works Tarmac is based.
At the outset, I posed the question of just how far road bike design has come. Well, in looking at the current Tarmac I’m not sure just how much further it can go...