Specialized Tarmac Expert review£3,500.00

All-new frameset for the long-standing Tarmac name

BikeRadar score4/5

Following the lessons learned on the Venge Vias and Roubaix, the new Tarmac replaces the curvy SL5 with a more angular design, slimmer tube profiles and dropped seatstays. The frame has lost some serious weight too, with the S-Works version now 733g, more than 200g lighter than the SL5 S-Works. My test model is the next rung down from the S-Works FACT 10r carbon frame, weighing a still-light 950g. The previous Tarmac in the same level weighed over a kilo.

  • The Specialized Tarmac Expert is one of our Bike of the Year bikes for 2018. To read reviews of the other contenders and the categories tested across road, mountain and women's bikes, visit our Bike of the Year hub.

An all-new, super-light (sub 300g) fork is designed to be size specific, so the steerer tube profile changes across the range to ensure consistent handling whether you're 6ft 5in or 5ft 6in. Specialized has done a similar job with the Tarmac frame too, if you look at the down-tube dimensions between smallest and largest sized you’ll see a significant difference.

Specialized hasn’t made the previous generation Tarmac obsolete, below this price-point the previous shape remains. So, to get the new radical-design Tarmac you need to splash some serious cash.

For your £3500 you get the aforementioned frame, kitted out with a complete Shimano Ultegra groupset running a 52/36 and 11-28 combination, which is a great gear choice for what is aiming to be a racing all-rounder.

The Shimano Ultegra groupset runs a 52/36 and 11-28 combination
The Shimano Ultegra groupset runs a 52/36 and 11-28 combination

Specialized provides the finishing kit too, starting with the new SLX24 rim brake rims which, like their disc cousins found on the Roubaix, have a new, wider profile, adding extra girth to the classy S-Works Turbo Gripton tyres in an already generous 26mm.

The rims are mounted onto DT Swiss 350 hubs using DT spokes, it adds up to a taught, responsive wheelset and one that’s light at 1460g a pair. They are tubeless compatible, as are the tyres, but it comes set up with traditional tubes.

The Tarmac comes with its own semi-aero D-shape carbon seatpost, topped with its own-brand Body Geometry Toupé Expert saddle. The slender SL stem holds a well-shaped (with nicely ovalised tops) shallow drop bar wrapped in thick, comfortable tape. Specialized seems to have got the contact points right, which all add up to the luxury feel of the Expert.

The Shimano Ultegra rim brakes provide excellent stopping power
The Shimano Ultegra rim brakes provide excellent stopping power

The new Tarmac feels great. The previous generations SL5 was one of the best-handling race bikes around, and this one feels every bit the same. That’s not a surprise given the geometry between the two hasn’t changed, aside from the addition of a few (three) millimetres to the bottom-bracket drop to counter the trend towards bigger tyres.

The numbers suggest an aggressive riding position, which is true, but the new frameset is one of the most comfortable race bikes I’ve tested. The rear end is a revelation with the D-shaped seatpost offering plenty of comforting flex, the low-slung frame shape leaving plenty of the post exposed for increased freedom to flex and the new fork reduces vibrations effectively. This all adds up to a smooth-riding race bike, which is unexpected for the genre.

The slender SL stem holds a well-shaped shallow drop bar
The slender SL stem holds a well-shaped shallow drop bar

The relatively low overall weight and low weight in the wheels make the Tarmac a joyful companion on climbs. Once you’ve crested a peak and started to head back down again, the new direct-mount Ultegra brakes offer a solid, vibration-free feel wrapped in levels of control that are the best you’ll get from traditional rims brakes. They are close to disc-brake levels of performance, and about as good as rim brakes are likely to get.

I am massively impressed with the new Tarmac. The sharpness in its responses is glorious, and the smoothness of the ride is exceptional, but the price of entry is high. For example, for the similarly priced Cannondale (£200 more) you get Shimano Dura-Ace and carbon wheels, and with the Trek you’d be paying £650 less and getting Bontrager carbon wheels.

While I’d never be disappointed owning a bike in the same class as the brand-new Tarmac, I do think there are bikes that offer better value even if they can’t quite match the Tarmac’s stunning cocktail of smoothness, speed and sharpness.

BikeRadar would like to thank Life Cycle AdventuresSanremo Bike ResortMET HelmetsLe Col, Mercedes Benz and Brittany Ferries for their help and support during our Bike of the Year test.

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

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