Specialized S-Works Tarmac Dura-Ace review£5,500.00

A pro-grade superbike from the Big Red S

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It’s easy to find reasons to dislike Specialized. It’s the Ford of the bicycle world with its utter ubiquity, and the company has an appetite for litigation that borders on the pathological.

Nonetheless, it has a history of producing mouthwatering fare for serious riders and, alongside the aero Venge, the top-line S-Works Tarmac is a bike few roadies would turn their noses up at.

Eye-catching paint job on a WorldTour thoroughbred

In a pro-worthy Dura-Ace and carbon clincher spec, with a stunning red, white and black paint job, this is one eye-catching bike. It also has legitimate racing pedigree, as three WorldTour teams have the Tarmac in their arsenal, and it’s the bike of choice for Spanish climber, multiple Grand Tour-winner and noted steak enthusiast Alberto Contador.

The Tarmac’s frame is a wonderful blend of glorious excess and some stylish, organic design, with lines that bulge and blend beautifully. The down tube is gigantic, and its muscularity extends through a bottom bracket area that deserves the clichéd description of being ‘beefy’ (ideal for Contador then..).

The Specialized S-Works crankset adds a certain carbon swoopiness
The Specialized S-Works crankset adds a certain carbon swoopiness

The sense of super-sizing doesn’t end there. While it’s a given that a bike like this will have a tapered fork, the Tarmac goes bigger than most with a steerer that requires a huge 1 3/8in lower bearing, all in aid of front-end stiffness, while the aero carbon bar’s massively wide tops are a bit of an acquired taste.

There are some lovely details, too – a hidden seat clamp means ultra-clean lines where the post enters the frame. Yet as it’s accessed from the side, it’s no less convenient than a standard one.

Surgically precise handling

Shimano Dura-Ace continues to impress with its light yet precise shifting. Shimano’s lower groupsets are very nearly as good, but Dura-Ace has an expensive, metallic edge to its shift action that sets it apart. You get a full groupset, apart from the cranks which are in-house FACT carbon items. We’re still not convinced the shifting they offer is quite up to the groupset-matching option, but they’re fine looking, and seemingly rock-solid things.

The Tarmac is one of those bikes that upsets your sense of how cycling should feel. Despite its immense tube profiles, it has a dainty, flickable feel that’s addictive, with the physical volume of bicycle beneath you seeming at odds with its character on the road. There’s a surgical precision to the handling, partly thanks to phenomenal chassis stiffness, but also because it’s just so light.

Handling is super precise, partly thanks to phenomenal chassis stiffness
Handling is super precise, partly thanks to phenomenal chassis stiffness

Climbing is a delight as the stout rear triangle is rock solid during out-of-the-saddle efforts. We did wonder if the exceptionally stiff frame was overwhelming the averagely-stiff (but lovely) Roval wheels, as a little rear brake rub was evident when throwing the bike from side to side, but despite this, there was a sense of total power transfer.

It helps that the wheels are very light, their low moment of inertia offering a lively feel. They’re a useful middle-of-the-road depth too, and braking is very good for carbon, something we put to the test with some spirited wet descending and one chamois-soiling encounter with a delinquent sheep. They come fitted with Specialized’s own Turbo Cotton clinchers, which do a fair job of imitating tubs in both look and feel.

The S-Works isn’t an endurance machine, but is a smooth and refined racer that deserves the ‘superbike’ label, thanks to a chassis that’s truly world class. With a delectable component spec, there’s very little not to love.

Specialized S-Works Tarmac test ride

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Matthew Allen

Technical Writer, UK
Former bike mechanic, builder of wheels, hub fetishist and lover of shiny things. Also a really, really terrible racer who's been dropped more times than you've shaved your legs.
  • Age: 26
  • Height: 174cm / 5'8"
  • Weight: 55kg / 121lb
  • Waist: 71cm / 28in
  • Chest: 84cm / 33in
  • Discipline: Road, with occasional MTB dalliances
  • Preferred Terrain: Long mountain climbs followed by high-speed descents (that he doesn't get to do nearly often enough), plus scaring himself off-road when he outruns his skill set.
  • Current Bikes: Scott Addict R3 2014, Focus Cayo Disc 2015, Niner RLT 9
  • Dream Bike: Something hideously expensive and custom with external cables and a threaded bottom bracket because screw you bike industry.
  • Beer of Choice: Cider, please. Thistly Cross from Scotland
  • Location: Bristol, UK

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