We've always liked the lower priced Specialized Tarmacs, which have long been a solid first serious upgrade from a starter bike. That said, earlier Sport models never had quite the same epic feeling as the pro-level Tarmacs. But for 2014, the Big S has addressed this by using the same design for the whole Tarmac range.
- BUY IF… You want an eminently upgradable frame that rides with the character of its pro-level sibling
The SL4 name is important. This design uses the familiar flattened and arched top tube, but it's now substantially bigger. The seatstays have an almost triangular cross-section while still retaining the hourglass shape. The frame is Di2-ready with full internal cable routing. The SL4 design also features size-specific carbon lay-up throughout the range, so it will have the same feel, rigidity and ride whether you're riding a 49 or 61cm frame.
And it's the ride that is this bike's biggest asset. We previously tested the £8,500 flagship S-Works SL4, and this doesn't feel like it costs nearly £7,000 less. It retains the punchy acceleration, albeit if it is tempered by the entry-level wheels and tyres. Its handling through technical sections is just as intoxicating, and the short, shallow aluminium bar superb.
You could criticise the use of all own-brand parts, but when they are as good as the bar, adjustable Comp-set stem, Toupe saddle and the newly slimmed-down carbon post, why not? Even the Axis 1.0 brakes performed well. They are close in performance to Shimano 105s, even having reasonably soft compound cartridge pads.
The drivetrain features a 52/36 FSA Gossamer chainset and a wide ratio 12-28 Tiagra cassette, which offers a high enough top gear for sprinting while still being friendly on your knees when you reach big ascents. The front mech is Tiagra too, another cost-saving measure, but we'd still rather go with a chain, cassette and front mech from a more modest groupset, rather than lower-spec big ticket items like the STI shifters and rear mech. Thankfully they all work seamlessly together.
The new SL4 design rides more aggressively than the old model. It's sharp and snappy, yet feels compliant over coarse surfaces. The firm yet smooth character of the S-Works has remained intact despite the change in frame material and lower level components.
With all of the positives of the SL4's platform present for a fraction of the S-Works' price, the new Tarmac Sport would make one hell of a great buy. With a frameset this good it's one to hold on to and upgrade, too – in time you might even end up with a build to challenge its rarefied S-Works sibling.