Astana’s Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3

Specialized vies for the top of the podium

Specialized versus Trek: America’s two biggest high-performance bike manufacturers are as competitive as the racers they sponsor.

So an obvious subplot to this year’s Tour de France will be the compelling Specialized-versus-Trek story that ran the podium in 2009. The notable change, of course, is Alberto Contador’s switch from the Trek Madone 6.5 he rode to victory alongside Lance Armstrong to the Specialized Tarmac SL3 that saw Andy Schleck to 2nd place last July.

Specialized announced in December that it would be sponsoring Contador’s Astana team while continuing with Schleck’s Saxo Bank squad and ending its three-year relationship with Quick Step. As such, the entire Astana team has been aboard new SRAM Red-equipped S-Works Tarmac SL3’s at their training camp in Calpe, Spain, this week.

Specialized staff on hand in Calpe received feedback from Contador and his personal mechanic, Faustino Munoz, and have hinted that their suggestions, along with feedback from Saxo Bank, will be incorporated into a new bike that will likely be introduced at the Tour. Given the relative newness and still-limited availability of the Shiv TT bike, this likely means a new iteration of the Tarmac.

“It’s great to be working with guys who have been on different bikes,” said Chris D’Aluisio, director of advanced research and development at Specialized. “It’s a different set of eyes, different feedback. We’ve been extremely impressed so far, and we hope this is the start of a long-term relationship.”

Contador and his Astana teammates are training and racing aboard SL3’s painted in the distinctive aqua and yellow Astana colors, with Kazakh-inspired interlacing silver patterns adorning the downtube, seat tube, and stays. The bikes are equipped with Zipp wheels, Look Keo 2 Max pedals, and a mix of SRAM, Specialized, and FSA components. The entire team had bikes within 10 days of the Specialized sponsorship being finalized. Eventually they’ll receive close to 200 road and TT frames.

The frames and forks are stock, with the SL3’s oversized bottom bracket and tapered head tubes with 1.5” lower headset bearings. SRAM’s Red group handles all shifting and braking, save for the 2010 Specialized S-Works SL cranksets. The second-generation hollow-carbon crank arms are bolted to standard S-Works aluminum chainrings and hub-mounted SRM power meters, with Specialized OSBB ceramic bearings.

Astana's bikes are fitted with S-Works SL crankarms and SRM's wireless powermeter

With the famously tech-obsessed Bjarne Riis putting his Saxo Bank riders on the same cranks, Specialized’s bold move into drivetrain componentry seems to be gaining traction. “A couple of years ago, we had to push them [to ride the S-Works cranks],” Specialized chief brand officer Ben Capron says. “But with experience, they’re seeing that the setup is stiffer and lighter, even with SRM. They love it.”

In the hilly training grounds around Calpe, Contador and his teammates have been riding 404 wheel sets from SRAM-owned Zipp. The 58mm carbon rims are dressed with a tubular version of Specialized’s 25mm S-Works Roubaix tires. Selle Italia Flite Team Edition saddles sit atop FSA K-Force carbon posts, while Specialized Pro-Fit stems hold K-Force bars. The builds could be easily—though expensively—replicated in any high-end bike shop, but the spotless SRAM PC1091R chain and Gore Ride-On derailleur and brake cables trimmed as close as humanly possible require daily access to a mechanic like Munoz, who’s been a pro-team mechanic for more than 30 years.

“You always look for improvements,” Contador said. “There’s not much room to do that in my training. But with equipment there are always a lot of things you can change. With a little difference, you win or lose.”

We couldn’t get Contador’s bike on a scale, but Specialized offers a version of the SL3 equipped with SRAM Red and Zipp 202’s that weighs 6 kg (13.2 lbs) out of the box, so Contador probably won’t spend much of his season on the heavy side of the UCI’s 6.8 kg weight limit. Between his mechanic and the attention of a bike manufacturer starving for its first Tour de France victory, he’ll have his equipment needs covered as he shoots for his third yellow jersey.

Astana starts the year on the Specialized S-Works Roubaix tyre

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