Specialized’s super light Tarmac S-Works has dominated the climbing stages of the Tour de France since it appeared. The SL3 uses the same shape in a slightly downgraded material, but proves it’s got morale-boosting moral fibre when the roads get mountainous.
Specialized’s second-tier Tarmac isn’t as light or power responsive as true top-end, sub 7kg superbikes, with flexy wheels and bars undermining flat-out race focus on technical roads. Where it shines is by combining a racy ride position with a smooth and energy-conserving ride that will make a lot of comfort-oriented ‘sportive’ bikes very jealous, and a lot of longer distance cyclists very happy.
Ride & handling: Smooth and energy-conserving
The first impression was a very friendly welcome. All the contact points were where more competitive riders would expect them to be, reach was just right and while not everyone was a fan of the Specialized bar shape, we all felt at home on the Tarmac. Press on the carbon-armed FACT Pro cranks smoothly and it squeezes forwards with minimum effort and a springy sense of buoyancy. There’s a thoroughbred glide between pedal strokes or into and out of corners that helps you purr along feeling properly luxurious. The positive plush effect of the Body Geometry Romin saddle and Zertz seatpost is also clear in the firmer ride out of the saddle. Even after a headline hilly hundred-miler dales session, our Tarmac rider was fresher and less road weary than those on other bikes.
The handling is well measured thanks to the ride position, which places body weight through tyres without being overly belligerent. The softer ride seems to squeeze more traction out of the tyres through corners and on super-steep climbs with less wheel slip, despite rubber that’s average rather than outstanding. This cosseting comfort does come at a price. In pin-sharp feedback and strong-arm steering response, the Tarmac is far softer than we'd like, with twist and flex from Specialized's own-brand bars and Roval wheels when you start pushing hard.
Most of the time it’s just a case of choosing a broader, more approximate line or trusting rather than feeling the tyres, but a couple of times it did twang out of shape and threaten to high-side us coming through twisty descents. The higher wheel weight makes it feel sluggish, and while power delivery and drive stiffness is OK, it’s not up to the rock solid standard of other superbikes.
Frame & forks: Get down to serious race business
With the Roubaix family taking care of sit-up-and-beg comfort bike duties the Tarmac can get down to serious race business. A relatively short stack height on the tapered 1.125-1.5in headset naturally encourages an attacking position, and there’s plenty of stretch in the curved, rectangular top tube. The down tube swells subtly towards the deep full-width bottom bracket section, which swallows oversized press fit crank bearings ahead of deep but tapering chainstays.
While the SL3 uses a different carbon-fibre grade to the top dollar S-Works, you still get the same internally ribbed head tube and bottom bracket, plus hollow dropouts and headset cups as the team bikes. The seat tube tapers from a wide base up to a skinny 27.2mm seatpost complete with a ‘Zertz’ shock damping jelly insert and the seatstays are skinny pencil-style tubes with a slight curve adding to their intentional spring effect on the ride. Still, the frame is over the kilo weight mark, and the fork isn’t that light either.
It’s hard to fault Specialized in terms of their selling experience though and the specially trained Body Geometry Fit advisors working in most Specialized dealers can properly fine-tune your ergonomics.
Equipment: Specialized’s own brand kit
Another bit of unique Specialized syncing is the colour coordinated carbon-armed FACT Pro crank – an impressively light piece of kit that also feels pretty stiff underfoot, even when the gradient overwhelms your gears. Full-size chainrings mean you are going to man up on some of the UK’s steeper Tarmac slopes though, even with a big 28-tooth bottom cog at the back. Gears and shifters are top-end Shimano Dura-Ace, although there’s a downgrade to Ultegra on the brakes, chain and cassette to sneak it under £4,000.
The wheels are Specialized’s Roval own brand and despite low flange, carbon centre front hubs, they’re relatively heavy in terms of this test. Specialized bars are very flexy and the ‘classic’ rounded shape didn’t agree with everyone. The rest of the Specialized kit is nicely shaped, with an angle adjustable shim inside the stem, making fine tuning without shifting spacers easy. The minimalist flat-topped Romin saddle got a lot of positive comfort comments from our test team too, particularly on longer rides where the skinny shock-damped Zertz post also comes into play.
This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine.