We tested the SL4 Sport last year as one of our potential stars of 2014. That model could also have been included into the Cycling Plus Bike of the Year test as it meets the criteria completely. We believe, however, that stepping up to the Elite ranks is worth the extra expense – so much so that the Tarmac Elite SL4 was the winner of the Bike of the Year 2014 Best Aero award.
While equipment, gearing and wheels are important, we think the biggest emphasis should always be on the frameset. Most drivetrain components eventually wear and need replacing, and other parts rely heavily on personal preference. Thankfully with the latest SL4 frame Specialized has got things very, very right. The all important SL4 designation means it shares the same frame design and geometry (and we’d guess at the same moulds) as the pro-level S-Works.
The design uses the Spesh signature flattened profile but arch shaped top-tube, though now it looks bigger than ever before. The seatstays retain their familiar hourglass shape, but the cross section is almost triangular now. While the Fact 9r carbon level of this frame can’t match the S-Works on weight, it's laid into the moulds in the same way – and that means it's size-specifically optimised. So a tiny 49cm bike will ride with the same positive character as a gargantuan 61cm. Feel, rigidity and comfort will all be equal.
Character is something that the Elite is full of. The capability for a rapid turn of speed is part of its nature, and it accelerates with all the enthusiasm of a greyhound that’s spotted the hare. When the road starts to twist and turn the Tarmac is again a truly willing companion. It’s a bike that moves in unison with you; a great compact cockpit helps here.
On the climbs the Tarmac doesn’t feel anything close to weighty, and at 8.44kg for a 58cm its pretty good. Not the lightest around, but no porker either. Some of that’s down to the Fulcrum wheelset (a massive improvement over the basic Rovals on the Sport model).
Specialized has retained plenty of the S-Works' racing DNA in the wonderful way in which the Elite rides, and the fact that the firm has used a drivetrain that combines a pro-compact 52/36 up front (it’s the slightly lighter Pro version of the great performing FSA Gossamer on the Sport) combined with a 12-28 cassette at the back only serves to reinforce things. It's just one of the things we really appreciate about the new SL4: it's most certainly a bike that any committed sportive rider would enjoy, but if you fancied trying your hand at the occasional real race then the Elite would make a fine platform to spring from.
If we’d criticise anything – and believe us it’s minor niggles only – then we’d prefer the 25c variant of the Turbo Elite tyre for additional comfort, though the 23s are more than decent for the money. We’d also like to see Specialized go the whole hog and specify a 105 cassette to match the rest of the group (though the Tiagra unit performs very well and you’d be hard pushed to notice the difference).
To recap, then, the Elite's steeper price buys you a much-improved set of wheels, better brakes (in the form of Shimano 105s), a lighter cockpit and a saddle that’s a rung or two further up the ladder.
In all, we think these upgrades are worth it. But whatever the equipment spec, the SL4 Tarmac is a seriously good chassis to build your dream bike on.