Specialized Tarmac Elite review£1,599.00

Not bad, but it feels outclassed

BikeRadar score2/5

The Elite is the first rung on Specialized’s Tarmac race frame range. While it isn't a bad ride, it feels slightly outclassed and its speed and comfort balance isn’t good enough to compete with the best road bikes at this price.

Ride & handling: Well-balanced overall handling but unyielding feel over small bumps

Specialized produce two distinct endurance and speed flavours of road bike. The Roubaix is compliant and comfortable but a 'sit up and beg' ride if you’re riding alone into the wind. The Tarmac is a racier proposition, but the 70mm head tube still gives a comfortable, high-control position if you leave all the spacers in.

Geometry is well-balanced through slow speed corners or fast sweepers alike, and there’s less flex and wander in the tapered front end than with the sometimes nervous previous generation Specialized carbon bikes.

However, while basic handling balance is good, we felt restricted by the scarily slippery Specialized tyres, which one tester described as “like riding on a piece of old hosepipe”. We’d negotiate with the shop for better rubber when you buy, as the Tarmac felt significantly better all round when we stuck some Continental Grand Prixs on.

All our testers suffered more hand, shoulder and bum ache on the Tarmac after longer rides than on price rivals like the Giant TCR Advanced 4 and Scott CR! Comp CD. There’s the option of the softer riding Roubaix Elite (£1,699) if you’re after comfort, so criticising the Tarmac for its firmer ride would be unfair. But we'd expect some extra poke for putting up with a harsher ride, and unfortunately you won't gain any extra performance from the Tarmac.

Complete bike (19.18lb) and wheel weight (7.39lb) is heavier than many price rivals and you notice this in the form of slower acceleration when chasing attacks or making moves on more competitive training sessions.

Despite the large chainstays, there was a slight ‘slipping clutch’ sensation when trying to leverage extra speed out of the conventional bottom bracket. That meant the big gears always felt big on steeper hills, and compared to other bikes at this price it just felt dull and significantly less responsive overall.

The Specialized Tarmac Elite isn't bad, but it feels outclassed compared with the best other bikes at this price. It gives an unyielding ride on bumpy roads and doesn't repay you with the power and responsiveness to make up for it.

Specialized tarmac elite: specialized tarmac elite
Specialized tarmac elite: specialized tarmac elite

Chassis: Stiff front end and good attention to detail, but not the lightest

As you’d expect from a company who’ve been pushing an “innovate or die” mantra for years, the Tarmac is loaded with the latest developments. The tall headset uses a tapered steerer arrangement to maximise stiffness without extra weight. Naturally, the carbon steerer fork matches too, with curved blades tapering down to alloy dropouts.

There’s even more tapering in the flat curved top tube that arches back from the head tube, and the seat tube swells from a relatively skinny top to a fat, squared base at the bottom bracket. The cosmetic carbon outer wrap layer adds some weight, but impact resistance too, and there’s a metal chain protector plate behind the chainrings.

Twin bottle cages mean you won’t go thirsty, and Specialized include a spare derailleur hanger, which is a nice bit of travel damage insurance. They produce the Tarmac frame in six sizes, each with specific handling geometry. Frame (2.54lb) and fork weight (0.97lb) are nothing special though, so it wouldn’t be our first choice for upgrading.

Equipment: Slippery tyres need changing; otherwise a good mix of kit

Shimano 105 handles most of the transmission work in slick and smooth style. The gear cable barrel adjusters on the frame are harder to use than shifter mounted ones though. Aesthetic opinion was definitely divided over the black flat and fat-armed chainset, and the bigger chainrings are better for stronger riders and flat terrain. We’ve no complaints about the KMC chain though, and the unbranded brakes get cartridge pads, which make them a bit sharper.

The Specialized tyres are very stiff and slippery, and wheel weight is heavy. The four-position shimmed stem adds useful adjustability beyond the scope of swapping the stack of alloy spacers. The thin-hulled own-brand Toupe saddle was well-liked too, although it’s not great for riders who like to roll forward on the saddle.

Despite the skinny race saddle, it’s still the heaviest bike on test overall: despite the skinny race saddle, it’s still the heaviest bike on test overall
Despite the skinny race saddle, it’s still the heaviest bike on test overall: despite the skinny race saddle, it’s still the heaviest bike on test overall

Guy Kesteven

Freelance Writer, UK
Guy started filling his brain with cycle stats and steaming up bike shop windows back in 1980. He worked the other side of those windows from '89 while getting a degree in “describing broken things covered in mud" (archaeology). Dug historical holes in the ground through the early '90s, then became a pro bike tester in '97. Guy has ridden thousands of bikes and even more components the world over since then and can remember them all in vivid, haunting detail. Can't remember where the car keys are, though.
  • Age: 45
  • Height: 180cm / 5' 11"
  • Weight: 68kg / 150lb
  • Waist: 76cm / 30in
  • Chest: 91cm / 36in
  • Discipline: Strict sadomasochist
  • Preferred Terrain: Technical off-piste singletrack and twisted back roads. Up, down, along — so long as it's faster than the last time he did it he's happy.
  • Current Bikes: An ever changing herd of test machines from Tri bikes to fat bikes and everything in between.
  • Dream Bike: His Nicolai Helius AM custom tandem
  • Beer of Choice: Theakston's Old Peculier (not Peculiar)
  • Location: Yorkshire, UK

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